Barney Loughlin, who died in early 2017 at 91 years of age, was a true American original.
He grew up on Meadow Croft Estate, right in the middle of Sans Souci Lake Nature Preserve in Sayville. His property of 20 acres, including his 7-acre vineyard, was acquired from the Roosevelts after the war.
After he left the army Barney first worked as a linotype operator for a small Sayville paper and then opened a print shop in town. However, he hated the work and was seeking an alternative.
Having served in Europe he had learned about wine and liked it. So Barney became interested in what was going on in the North Fork with the vineyards and wineries proliferating there. When he was told that wine grapes couldn’t be successfully grown near the South Shore of Long Island, he assumed the challenge (“it drove me nuts.”) and bought 1,800 vines which he, his wife Christine, and their three daughters planted by hand in 1984.
To get to the tasting room one takes a long drive down a dirt lane that runs past the magnificent home of John E. Roosevelt–a nephew of Theodore–Meadow Croft Estate. Shortly after that there are a couple of very decrepit structures, which include a storage shed and the winery.
Much further on (about a quarter of a mile, stands a shed that contains the tasting room. It’s a rough clapboard structure that announces itself with a neon OPEN sign.
On the particular day that we visited (in March 2016) there was a nip in the air and the wood stove inside was roaring. Barney was seated with his back to the heat and in front a portable radio blared Country & Western. When we asked him questions we had to shout to be heard, for he didn’t turn the volume down. His eyes were weak, his hearing worse, and the day before he’d fallen off his tractor and walking was painful for him.
The interview, such as it was, drew from Barney some profane reminiscences of his time as an U.S. Army infantryman in Italy, France, and Germany during World War II. He saw combat at Monte Cassino, which he described as “hell.” It turned out that Barney had myriad press clippings and photographs in an album that he’d had printed as a book. It covers the period from World War II to the present. His granddaughter, Brittany, pulled it out for our perusal, as can be seen in the photo above.
One of the biggest problems facing Barney’s vineyards is the fact that it is surrounded by forest. Deer, bugs, and birds have ravenous appetites sated by eating his grapes. The crop loss can be significant. Hence, his output each year can vary considerably, not only because of the weather.
Originally his wines were made at Peconic Bay Winery by Ray Blum. After the Lowerres purchased Peconic Bay they hired Greg Gove as winemaker, who then took over winemaking for Loughlin. As it turned out, Greg raised the quality level of Loughlin wines so much that Barney would accept whatever advice Greg gave him. In fact, Greg urged Barney to start a winery operation of his own, so with Greg’s guidance and advice he purchased grape-handling equipment, a bottling line, tanks and barrels, and by 2008 Greg was making the wines at his property (mis en boteilles au château).
Since Barney’s death his daughters, Mary Ellen Loughlin, Beth Cutrone, and Patricia Jones, have decided to keep the business going. Patricia works in the vineyards, Greg now is a consultant, while Beth is the winemaker. Mary Ellen keeps the books. Brittany, who lives in the city, comes out every weekend to run the tasting room. But Barney’s irrepressible personality shall be deeply missed.
Recommended wines: Chardonnay (dry, rather bright, lemony aroma and flavor, well balanced)
Also, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot; South Bay Breeze Blush (a blend of the Merlot and Cabernet grapes with no skin contact and has residual sugar.)
They are also coming out with a rosé, called Pinky Rosé, as a homage to their old donkey (depicted on the label).
Year Established: 1984, winery 2008 Vineyard: 7 acres
Annual production (varies by vintage): about 1,000 cases
From the east or west of Long Island, go south on Lakeland Ave off Sunrise Highway, towards Sayville. Lakeland Ave will eventually turn into Railroad Ave.
Take that further south toward Main Street and the center of town. Turn left at the light and stay to your immediate right and proceed east down South Main Street. Pass one light and continue on east. You will pass St. Ann’s Church on your left, and before you go over a small bridge there will be a white sign on your left and winetasting sign on your right.
Turn left and proceed down the dirt road bearing to the right of Meadow Croft Estate.
Brooklyn Oenology Winery (pron. ‘EN-ology’, or simply ‘BOE’), started as a locally-focused winery based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, founded in 2006 by winemaker Alie Shaper. BOE’s intention is to bridge the creative culinary, agricultural, and art worlds by crafting regional wines from New York State grapes, primarily from the Finger Lakes and Long Island, and by displaying the work of New York City artists on the bottle labels.
Alie’s own trajectory into the wine world was rather inadvertent. An engineering student at Cornell University, in her Senior year she enrolled in a course on beverages at the famous Hotel Management School. She thought that this would be an easy, relaxing course, but it led to her becoming hooked on wine. A second course at the School about the wines of New York State was another revelation for her. Nevertheless, she earned an engineering degree and went to work in Silicon Valley. It wasn’t long before she decided this wasn’t the life she wanted to lead so she quit and took some time figuring out what she wanted to do. She answered a help-wanted ad for the tasting room at Rivendell Winery, in New Paltz, NY. While there she developed a database for tracking their wines. When the owners, Robert Ransom and Susan Wine, opened a New York State-only wine store in Manhattan called Vintage NY, she went to work there. It would be the model for BOE.
In 2000 Alie went to live in Long Island and walked into a newly-opened wine bar-cum-restaurant run by Tom Schaudel and offered her services as a wine steward. Well, they hadn’t thought about that and hired her immediately. She became responsible for the wine lists of all three Long Island restaurants. Next she joined Southern Wines and Spirits, the largest wholesaler/distributor in the country. In 2005 she moved to Brooklyn, where “lightning struck” and she realized what she really wanted to do.
However, there was a “small problem.” She had wide experience and a solid education but had never done production work in a winery. In 2006 she sent résumés to wineries out West, but only applied for a position at a single producer in the East: Premium Wine Group. She had long admired Russell Hearn’s winemaking and, fortunately for her, with degrees in science and engineering, she was hired as a technical lab assistant, working with Robin Epperson McCarthy, then the lab head. She took samples of every batch of wine, bring them to the lab, and smell, taste, and analyze all of them. This and work in the cellar gave her the experience she needed.
After two seasons at PWG, she purchased two batches of wine for sale, blended them, and bottled them with the BOE label. Now she had 500 cases of two wines, a Chardonnay and a Merlot, and she decided, given her shoestring budget, to start wholesale, given that she still couldn’t afford a space. This was what she calls “phase one.”
Setting up her new business proved to be more challenging than she expected, particularly because the State Liquor Authority (SLA) suffered from a serious case of the “slows.” She was issued three temporary licenses in a row before she finally got a full permit. As she couldn’t sell wine without an active license, it hampered her work significantly and affected her cash flow.
She got on her feet and moved on to “phase two.” She found a space in a commercial building, opening for business in 2010 as the BOE Tasting Room and Gallery. It featured regular shows of label artists’ works, wine-pairing events, classes, private parties, and more.
Unfortunately, the Brooklyn tasting room was closed at the end of November 2016 due to rising rents. BOE will continue to make wine at PWG from purchased fruit and the line of wines will remain intact, but a new tasting room has now been opened in Peconic. The wines continue to be offered to wine club members as well as on line at the BOE Website. They are also sold in over 150 stores and restaurants around NYC, Washington DC, Virginia, and beyond.
“Phase three,” the last of her long-term plan, was to build her own winemaking facility on whatever new premises she finds. That would require a large capital investment that, for now, is a long way off. Meanwhile, she also serves as consulting winemaker for Croteaux Vineyard and phase three has been put off for the time being. Instead, Alie has entered into a partnership with a long-time friend and former PWG colleague, Robin Epperson-McCarthy, of Saltbird Cellars, to open a shared tasting room, Peconic Bay Cellar Door. All of which is to say that BOE is no longer in Brooklyn, but it had a mighty good run there.
The February 2016 issue of Wine Enthusiast listed BOE as one of the top urban wineries in the country. In the March 2016 issue of WA, BOE’s 2014 As If ‘Serendipity’—a Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc blend—was awarded 90 points, with the comment that it was “beautifully focused.” She worked on this blend until she got it “just right.” The Viognier, a variety she loves, is only 30% of the blend, but it stands out. Wine Enthusiast loved the 2013 Broken Land White (Finger Lakes) made with extended skin contact and awarded 90 points.
There are 13 wines under the BOE label, four wines under the Shindig brand (a collaborative effort with Andrew Stover, who’s in the DC area), as well her new ‘As If’ label, which was launched in June 2016. This is her small-batch, high-end, signature series, a celebration of the success that BOE has enjoyed so far.
From the Website: “We are committed (in the lunatic sense) to making very calculated wines in the rebel way. This label represents the culmination of years of trans-equatorial wine wanderings. We apply learned methods from this and other cool climate regions to make unique wines that honor the distinctive maritime terroir in which they are grown– here in this place, at this time”
It all started in 2003 when Robin Epperson-McCarthy was studying for a future in medicine and the rent was due. So, through word of mouth among the Peconic Bay Sailing circuit she heard of a job that could utilize her science training, was interesting, and paid lots of overtime. That turned into working 6 days a week and 10-hour days in the PWG wine lab in the course of a harvest. That one vintage turned into 12 years of global wine trotting; she never completed her medical studies
In 2007, which was one of Long Island’s standout vintages, there was an abundance of quality fruit and Robin decided to try making just one ton of Chardonnay into wine using skills recently acquired in New Zealand and Tasmania. This stainless-steel Chardonnay was the start of something. Most was sold to a close friend for a superior Chardonnay blend, but before the blend was made a few bottles made their way to the tables of family and friends.
2014 proved to be another outstanding vintage and again Robin decided this would be the year to make just one label sourcing Sauvignon Blanc from some of the best vineyard masters. In the hunt for fruit she found not one but two blocks of vines that encompassed all that North Fork of Long Island Sauvignon Blanc could be. Then she found Chardonnay planted in a unique clay deposit that could not be left without a destiny. Then came a block of inky black Merlot and a block of sensual Cabernet Sauvignon. One original variety has now been accompanied by four others, so it now offers a barrel-fermented Sauv Blanc (Migratus), a rosé (Cabernet Frank/Syrah) and a red blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon called Harbinger.
As the Website says, “Saltbird Cellars collection of wines are bred purely from passion and the freedom to follow your (in)sane ideas.”
As of August 2017 Saltbird and Brooklyn Oenology have teamed up to share a tasting room:
Peconic Cellar Door
Opened in August 2017, this is a joint venture by Alie Shaper of BOE and What If wines, and Robin Epperson-McCarthy of Saltbird Cellars. Both are small producers who purchase their fruit from local vineyards and make their wines at PWG, but each has her own distinctive style, or better put, styles of wine. They joined forces to open a shared tasting room, with both a bar and a table for six.
Cellar Door is the Australian term for tasting room (Alie’s boyfriend is from Australia), and the 600 sq. ft. space is an old storefront with a minimalist décor but inviting ambience.
By 2017 Barbara Shinn and her husband, David Page, had worked very hard for twenty years to create a natural ecosystem in their vineyard. In order to achieve this they committed themselves to growing grapes that they hoped would be organically certified by the USDA, as well as being fully certified by Demeter as a Biodynamic vineyard. It didn’t work out, at least not exactly. More about that below.
They did, however, become leaders in the sustainable farming movement in Long Island, so what happened in April 2017 was a complete surprise to the wine community. Interestingly, it was a surprise to Barbara and David as well. They received an unanticipated, solid offer to purchase Shinn Estate, including the winery, vineyard, inn, and windmill, that they could not refuse. The property was sold to Barbara and Randy Frankel, who live in the Hamptons.
When Barbara and David bought their property on the North Fork in 1998, they knew nothing about grape-growing or wine-making. At the time, they already owned a successful restaurant, Home, in New York City, but they were drawn to the North Fork by its excellent produce and seafood, as well as the rural charm and unspoiled villages. Already committed to the idea of using local produce served with local wines, a philosophy that was embedded in the cuisine and wine offerings of their restaurant, the wineries of the area also beckoned, and they finally bought a 22 -acre plot of what was once a wheat field. It has since been expanded to 28 acres of planted vines. They became friends with many vintners, including Joe Macari, Jr., who showed them how to develop a vineyard according to sustainable practices.
At first they only grew grapes for sale to other wineries, but by 2006 had one of their own. In 2007 David and Barbara opened their converted farmhouse into a B&B so that they could continue to pursue their devotion to the locavore movement along with their own wines. They moved from conventional farming to an increasingly organic and then Biodynamic approach slowly and carefully beginning in 2002, then started the transition to organic viticulture in 2005, and to Biodynamic practices by 2008. Unfortunately, they never got there.
The greatest problem facing Rose Hill–as well as all vineyards in Long Island (and for that matter, all of the East Coast)—is the hot and humid climate, which helps promote all manner of diseases of the vine, including powdery and downy mildew, black rot, and phomopsis viticola, or dead-arm. To control these pests, conventional farmers use a host of industrial pesticides with great success—it is this that has made vinifera grape-growing possible in regions where it would otherwise wither and die. However, there are new weapons for the organic and Biodynamic growers, such as Regalia (according to the manufacturer, “a patented formulation of an extract from the giant knotweed plant (Reynoutria sachalinensis). Its unique mode of action switches on the plant’s natural defense mechanisms to inhibit the development of bacterial spot, bacterial speck, target spot, powdery mildew, [etc].”). Shinn also uses Serenade (which according to its producer, “consistently helps growers win the battle against fungal and bacterial diseases, as it contains a unique, patented strain of Bacillus subtilis . . . to destroy diseases such as Fire Blight, Botrytis, Sour Rot, Rust, Sclerotinia, Powdery Mildew, [etc].”).
Nevertheless, as Barbara Shinn admits, the Achilles Heel for any organic or Biodynamic viticulturalist is downy mildew. By far the most effective control of this blight is copper sulfate, which is an industrial product that is almost unique in being accepted for both USDA Organic as well as Biodynamic farming. While there are usually few limits as to how much copper sulfate can be applied in the course of a growing season, anyone using it is aware that the copper content is inimical to healthy soil. While it may destroy downy mildew, it is also highly toxic to organisms in the soil, and in sufficient quantities it will drive out beneficial ones such as earthworms. Worse, it is a strong irritant to workers and also has long persistence in the soil, to which it bonds strongly, so it accumulates over time. However, Biodynamic farming does allow up to three pounds of copper sulfate per acre to be added in the course of a year. For many farmers, this would not be enough, and double that application would not be unusual, especially in this region. Still, Shinn tried to abide by this strict limit.
Like all Long Island viticulturalists, the Vineyard uses Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) for training their vines. The vines are planted to a 7’×4’ European-type density, which helps to lower yields and leads to more intense wine. Then, shortly after budbreak they select the shoots that each vine will grow to provide canopy, removing the rest. Once the vines bear fruit, they go through each one again, removing about two-thirds of the berries so that the remainder will benefit better from the resultant increased nourishment they receive from the vine. This means that the wines made from this fruit will have more intense flavor and aroma without having to resort to very much intervention in the winery.
One approaches the winery from a narrow country road distinguished only by the sign for the estate and the attractive farmhouse by the entrance. A tall windmill, installed to generate electricity for the winery spins its blades in the wind and stands as a testament to the commitment to self-sufficiency and sustainability. Carefully-tended rows of vines have been planted nearly to the edge of the road. Barbara and David were in the parking area with Anthony Nappa, their winemaker back in 2010, when I arrived. (Anthony is now winemaker at Raphael and Patrick Caserta has taken his place.) Shortly, we went to the warehouse where they age their wines in oak barrels.
Tasting from the barrels is always an interesting challenge, as one is tasting a wine in the process of maturation rather than when it is ready to drink, but quality is evident in each sample of the red wine that we taste . . . much of which is destined for eventual blending. Shinn produces a large variety of wines, red, white, rosé, and even a sparkling wine. Their best wines are made exclusively from estate-grown grapes (the other wines are from grapes bought from local growers). These are the wines that are meant to benefit from the organic and Biodynamic procedures that they follow. We then proceeded to taste their many, distinctive wines in the tasting room. (A full discussion of the wines will come in a separate posting.)
The vineyard tour brought us first to the irrigation system, which is an electrically-controlled mechanism that Shinn uses primarily for its Biodynamic compost tea inoculation, which is administered once a month. The tea is made by taking the Biodynamic preparation that has been aged in cow horns buried in the ground, then mixed with water into a 50-gallon batch that is fed into the twenty-two acre vineyard over a period of an hour. This is but one of several means by which Shinn provides the necessary, natural nutrients to keep the soil healthy. Other organic soil amendments include limestone, potassium, humic acid, kelp, and fish hydrolizate (liquefied fish, which is rich in nitrogen).
Furthermore, the Shinn vineyard uses a full cover crop, which is to say, the crop is not only between the vine rows, but grows right into them. They do not even till the soil. As the Shinn Website explains it:
As a vineyard is a monoculture crop, vegetal diversity is attained by planting various kinds of cover crops between the rows of vines. Thus there are different kinds of grass, clover, and perennials and annuals that grow throughout the vineyard. This cover crop provides habitat for all manner of insect life, enhances the organic mix of the soil, and is a healthy environment for the microorganisms of the soil.
In addition to its diversity, the cover crop also helps reduce the vigor of the vines by forcing them to compete for water with other vegetation when it’s rainy (a good thing when one is growing wine grapes) and at the same time helps the soil retain moisture better when it’s dry.
Like any vineyard that is farmed according to sustainable practices, Rose Hill employs Integrated Pest Management to deal with insect pests (which means using natural predators to help control them). They also have sought to encourage insectivore bats to live in special habitats built for them in the vineyard—so far, however, the bat houses have no takers.
They planted different clones of each grape variety, with six selections of Merlot, for example, and three each of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. There are also two selections of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon that account for the white varieties. Each block of grapes is hand-harvested separately, with the east and west sides of each row of vines being picked separately as well. In addition, they also lease a small, five-acre plot, Schreiber Vineyards, which is planted with 30-year-old vines of Chardonnay and Riesling, which adds more variety to their portfolio of wines. It lies just a mile up Oregon Road and is farmed identically to the Shinn vineyards.
Given all of this care and attention in the vineyard, the fact remains that weather will inevitably have an impact, and in a region like Long Island—unlike California—weather variability is a given. It is, of course, a major reason for vintage differences. Last year, for example, there were very heavy rains that affected some vineyards much more than others. Where some vineyards only a few miles away lost up to 30 or 40% of their fruit, Shinn only lost about 10 to 15%. The reason was their particular mesoclimate—the heavy rains left their crop thoroughly soaked, and the vines looked as though they were on the verge of collapse, but just after the rain was over, a strong, persistent wind came up that dried the vines quickly, so that even the wild yeasts on which they depend in the winery were restored after only a few day. The berries lost all the water they’d absorbed very quickly too, so the damage was minimal. (Of course, the weather of another summer could produce the reverse of this outcome; there is never a guarantee.)
By 2012 Shinn Estate was one of the founding Vineyards to join the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers certification program (for more about it see the post, LISW). That was the easy part, as it were, since they were already following all the practices set forth in the LISW workbook. The hard part, organic certification, still eluded them in 2017 as downy mildew, in this humid climate, still cannot be tamed by strict adherence to organic grower’s guidelines.
And now they have sold Shinn Estate to a New Jersey financier and his wife, Barbara and Randy Frankel: Shinn Estate Announcement of Sale. Newsday wrote that the sale had “not been part of the plan,” but an unexpected offer changed that. “It came as a surprise to us someone would walk through the door and make us an offer,” he said. He declined to discuss terms of the sale or the new owners.
Randy Frankel is a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, whose various business interests include a minority stake in the Tampa Bay Rays baseball franchise and part-ownership of Windham Mountain Ski Resort in Windham, N.Y., according to an online biography. The Frankels wanted to take a new path in business, and as residents of the Hamptons were well familiar with the wineries of the East End of the Island. They hired Robert Rudko as an advisor. Rudko, who has been in the wine trade for many years, helped find the property, which fit their hopes and expectations exactly.
Rudko is now running the property as both CEO and General Manager; he is working with the new owners, assessing the vineyard, the winery and tasting room, and the B&B. Already, according to him, an expanded tasting room with a real “Wow” design is in the works. The winery is due for some significant equipment upgrades and the B&B is being refurbished. He said that once all the work is completed, it will leave visitors “slack-jawed” by the transformation.
Patrick Certa, who has worked with the Shinns as winemaker for several years now, has continued in that role since 2017. The vineyard and the sustainable practices used to work it continue as well. However, the new owners are hoping to acquire new vineyard parcels to add to the current acreage in order to expand production.
Barbara and David were apparently mentally ready for this break, as they already had a commitment to running a hydroponic farm that they own in Maine. Nevertheless, they said they will remain connected to the business as consultants for the “foreseeable future.”
The sale represents the closing of a distinguished and dramatic chapter in the story of the wineries of Long Island and the opening of a new one. Shinn Estate is no more; as of 2021 it is now called Rose Hill Vineyards. They still run the Farmhouse as an inn.
Rose Hill Vineyards
2000 Oregon Road
Mattituck, NY 11952
Interview with Mario Malafosse & Sergio Carrido of Bodega y Viñedo Baron d’Alba
The province of Castellón (Castelló in Valencian), is part of the Autonomous Community of Valencia. Castellón was granted VdlT (Vinos de la Tierra) status in 2001 and as an IGP (Indicación Geografica Protegida) in 2004. At present it is awaiting its designation as a DO, which indicates a higher standard than IGP. It consists of three comarcas or districts: Palancia–Alto Mijares, Sant Mateu, and Les Useres–Vilafamés, the last of which is comprised by the villages of Benlloch, Cabanes, Les Useres, Serra d’Engarceran, Vall d’ Alba, Vilafamés y Vilanova d’ Alcolea. Barón d’Alba and its vineyard, Clos d’Esgarracordes, is located in the Les Useres district.
It is surrounded by mountains to the West, while to the East it borders the Mediterranean Sea. The plateau is marked by altitudes of 200 meters or more. Consequently, summer temperaturas can range up to 35 to 40° Celsius, while in the winter temperatures can drop to as low as -10° C. Typical seasonal rainfall—mostly in the autumn—is about 450 mm. The summer tends to be dry to arid. In other words, it’s a region of extremes, even for Spain.
Today, winemakers of the region have been endeavouring to bring back the halcyon days before 1982, when local producers were forced by law to uproot their hybrid vines, ‘Señorito’ and ‘Macameu.’ This seriously damaged the agrarian sector of villages such as Cabanes, Vilafamés, Vall d´ Alba, Benlloch, and Les Useres.
According to a 2014 article in the English-language online newspaper, Valencia International, “There are various local legends as to why the authorities took this decision; local producers claim that they were told that their grapes were toxic and could cause cancer, although many believe that their prosperous economy was sacrificed in order to favour the emerging La Rioja region.
The article points out that apparently, “the decision in fact was part of a series of sacrifices made by Spanish farmers in order to clear away the impediments to joining the Common Market, or EU as it is now affectionately known, which probably means that it was pressure from the French government that was the main cause, before they learned the complex technology of burning Spanish lorries.”
Red varieties allowed in Castellón include Bobal, Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta, Garnacha Tintorera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. White varieties include the native Tardana (Planta Nova) and Macabeo varieties, as well as Merseguera, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Parellada, Verdejo, and Moscatel (Muscat Blanc à pètits grains).
In the 2000 edition of José Peñín’s Atlas de los Vinos de España Castellón wasn’t even mentioned, but the atlas was focused almost entirely on the DOs of Spain. John Radford’s The New Spain, 2nd edition (2004), devotes little more to the region but does touch on the movement towards making quality wines. The Peñín Guide to Spanish Wine 2010 devotes only a few lines to wines of the region, again due to the focus on DO wines. Even online there is comparatively little information.
In October, 2016, we visited two wineries in the región at the invitation of Mario Malafosse, consulting winemaker to Barón d’Alba and Bodega de Moya, and interviewed him at both places, along with the owners.
Bodegas y Viñedos Barón d’Alba is located in L’Alcalaten which is the lowest part of the Les Useres district and lies at an altitude of about 200 meters, where it enjoys a suitable mesoclimate for the production of high quality-wines. The vineyard is planted in rows on trellis with a double Royat cordon. They use a planting density of 2600 vines per hectare and with a per plant production limited to a maximum of 1.5 to 1.75 kg per vine, depending on variety, making a closely monitoring of the growth cycle of the vine in order to obtain a high quality fruit.
The enterprise began with the planting of the varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewürztraminer, Garnacha, Macabeo, Merlot, Monastrell, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Monastrell, with the intention that they would focus on obtaining fruit of high quality as opposed to harvesting great quantity. Bearing in mind the exceptional quality that can be obtained from grapes grown in the region of Les Useres, the owners decided to build the winery right in the vineyard, Clos d’Esgarracordes, which offers a beautiful panoramic view of the region. The wines fall under the regulations of the Castellón IGP, even though they could use those of the Utiel-Requena, but choose not to. The IGP status gives them more latitude to make wine as they see fit.
The name of the winery, Baron d’Alba is actually derived from the names of two nearby, neighboring towns in Utiel Requena: La Barona and Vall d’Alba. There is no baron. The property has been in the Carrido family for generations, growing a variety of crops including wine grapes. However, in the 1970s, when Spain joined the EU, the vineyard was pulled out and an olive grove was planted in its place. No wine was produced until 2001, when Sergio, then 20, and his father chose this particular plot of 15 hectares to plant a new vineyard. It has since grown to 20 hectares (50 acres) and produces about 70,000 bottles or nearly 6,000 cases, more or less, in any given year.
Sergio is driven by his passion for growing and making wine. It is a way of life that he chose and cannot imagine any other. He lives there with his family, who all get involved in some way or other from time to time. Sergio never thinks of going to work exactly because for him it is almost a diversion, almost like play, because he enjoys it so much. But he’s very serious about it as well.
There is, after all, another part to the equation of producing quality wines which goes beyond the choice of a vineyard site and the selection of varieties to plant, which is the growing level of professionalism of the vineyardists, winemakers, management, and so on. These people now often have university degrees in their chosen professions. For example, Mario Malafosse, his consulting winemaker.
Mario had studied oenology in Bordeaux was especially influenced by the great French oenologist, Denis Duboudieu. Mario has been working in Util-Requena since 2006 as a consulting winemaker for several wineries in the region. He also spends the Winter and Spring in the Southern Hemisphere (where it’s Summer and Autumn) working with Michel Rolland in Argentina and New Zealand. Furthermore, he also teaches viticulture and enology for the Master Vintage International credential at the Polytechnic University in Valencia.
Their approach to the terroir is interesting, especially given that they focus not just on the traditional notion of the soil as layers of dirt, or the structure of the layers, or the depth, but also on the microorganisms in the soil. These they see as also significant. In fact, they work to stimulate this soil life because, as this is such an arid zone, it’s necessary to take advantage of any factor that can enhance the growth and survival of the vines.
Furthermore, they do something unusual to protect the topsoil from getting fried by the intense sun of the region: they take the ends of live tree branches with their leaves and chop them up, then distribute the pieces on the ground around the vines, producing a kind of topsoil shade. This, of course, also slows down the evaporation rate of soil moisture. As organic matter, this also supports the surface biota, such as fungi that grow on the wood bits, providing nutrition for yet others, such as the insects that feed on fungi. Decomposition proceeds naturally and the compost becomes part of the soil. This has been done for the last two years and they are cooperating with the university in Valencia to study the process and its results. In fact, the idea for this came from Canada, where it is used in large-scale agriculture—not viticulture. Only the ends of branches are used in the fall season, when nutrients get concentrated in the branch tips and leaves. When used for ground cover, the nutrients then pass into the soil, yet another benefit of using the wood and leaves.
The thing is that when the wood is being decomposed by the fungi, a good deal of nitrogen is used up, with the risk that there may be insufficient nitrogen for the vines. To compensate, they also plant beans to restore the nitrogen balance in the rows.
Other advantages of the use of the tree matter is that it helps control weed growth and also reduces the need to work the vineyard mechanically, such as plowing. Although this treatment is certainly biological, they do not claim to be organic growers. Indeed, there are times, in this extreme climate, when they must resort to chemical means to protect the vines and fruit. Thus, organic certification is out of the question.
They have been experimenting with ground cover crops in a small plot, but the problem with that is that, given the aridity of the zone, cover crops may be in competition with the vines for what little rainfall there is. On the other hand, as can be seen in the photo above, they have to run irrigation lines for those times that the rainfall is too low for the vines’ needs. That was the case in the summer of 2016. The vines need a minimum of 400 litres of water per hectare, and the rain only delivered 100 litres. Irrigation made up for the shortfall. The other issue regarding rain is that very dry ground is not very absorbent so that there is significant run-off on the surface. The wood cover helps reduce the run-off; cover crops could also help with this.
The soil is reddish in color, suggesting the presence of high levels of iron which, fortunately, is balanced by the presence of limestone, which offsets the potentially toxic effects of too much iron by reducing the uptake of the mineral by the vines, but not so much that it would lead to chlorosis, a disease created by lack of iron, which is needed for chlorophyll production. There is a good deal of sand mixed in as well, thanks to the deposits that occurs when the rivers nearby overflow.
It’s in the deeper layers of soil that water actually can reside for a long time, allowing the deeply-rooted vines to have access to the moisture that they need in order to thrive. The deeper soil has a great amount of conglomerated rocks, much of which is composed of bits of limestone in a highly porous matrix that holds water like a sponge.
Viticulture in Utiel Requena used to focus on maximizing yields so that the wine could then be exported in bulk to countries like France. The wine, mostly Bobal, would then be blended with local varietals to make an inexpensive table wine. However, this came to an end in the 1980s, as standards of quality improved through Western Europe and monovarietals became all the rage thanks to the influence of American tastes. By the 1990s the wine industry nearly dried up as a result and it was obvious that a new approach had to be developed to recover in the market.
New varieties were then introduced and planted, including foreigners such as Cabernet Sauvignon. The trend of producing monovarietals and quality blends moved quickly, and Bodegas d’Alba became a part of it, focusing on varieties, some of them French, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, in addition to the Spanish varieties Garnacha, Macabeo, Monastrell, and Tempranillo.
At harvest all the grapes are picked by hand, but the fruit of each parcel is kept apart from the others until it’s decided to blend them. But first they are taken to an air-conditioned cold storage area in the winery. The winery building is actually an attractive, modern stone structure.
The exterior is a fine stone building that has personality. Its interior walls are decorated by murals depicting the vintage season, the winemaking, and so on. The artist, Pancho Mirán, is Colombian, and his work reminds of that by his great compatriot artist, Fernando Botero.
The attractive interior also has stucco walls throughout. It is equipped with fermentation vats with up to 10,000 litres capacity each, or about 8,200 kilograms of grapes. All the tanks are equipped with modern cooling jackets to control the fermentation temperatures, allowing for the heating or cooling of the warehouse in a much shorter time and to exercise optimum control over the fermentation.
The warehouse holds one 15,000-liter tank and 3 stainless-steel, temperature-controlled storage tanks of 10,000 litres capacity each capable of holding the production of a single parcel. There are as well three 5,000-liter fermenters, four of 3,000 litres capacity, and one oak cask of 6,000 litres. In addition, there are devatting and peak tanks with a capacity of 72,000 litres.
Fermentation takes place at a controlled temperature with long macerations using cutting-edge winemaking technology. Malolactic fermentation takes place in oak tubs, prior to the wines being transferred and aged in French and American oak barrels. Only 20% of the barrels are American, and they tend to be used for Tempranillo, which has a real affinity for them. Most of the French barrels, by the way, are oak but the ends, both top and bottom, are made of acacia, which adds complexity to the range of flavors and aromas of the wines made in them.
The barrel room had been excavated below ground and it is equipped with an air-conditioning system that not only ventilates the warehouse, but also allows controlling the temperature and moisture at desired levels. The arches that support the barrel room together with careful lighting create a unique atmosphere for the French and American oak barrels used aging the wine for not less than 14 months.
The bottle-aging room is equipped with the same air-conditioning as the barrel room, and has a capacity of 70 crates of bottles. Here the wine completes its aging for a minimum of eight months before being released.
Nearly everything is done by hand. There is a manual sorting table at the entrance to the winery and, apart from the use of forklifts and the use of an autmated bottling line, all else is done without the benefit of mechanical intervention, including lees stirring, racking, and so on. The entire focus is on producing wine of the highest quality possible. That can best be accomplished by careful manual attention. A major factor here is the recognition that for the wines of Castellón to gain the level of reputation that other DOs enjoy, such as Rioja, Rueda, and Ribera del Duero, they must be of outstanding quality. That is the mission of Barón d’Alba.
One way to achieve that is to make wines of great typicity, such that a consumer would know that a Monastrell tastes like itself and not something else. It should also reveal the terroir of the fruit. Indeed, not enough emphasis can be put on the importance of terroir in that regard. They have been identifying the specific microclimates of vines and parcels in order to make the wine in a manner appropriate to the innate terroir expression of the fruit. For example, there is a small parcel that allows Botritis to develop under the right conditions for making a dessert wine. Thus Clos d’Esgarracordes Dolç de Glòria, made from Macabeo grapes and aged in wood for 20 months. This was all made possible because Mario, who studied with Professor Debourdieu, who was also the manager at Château d’Yquem. One could say that Botrytis runs in Mario’s veins when conditions are right.
Both Mario and Sergio are committed to the notion that “wine begins in the vineyard.” They endeavor, together, to grow fruit that is characteristic of each parcel, and each parcel has recognizable features. Sergio is the vineyard manager, but given Mario’s own long experience in both the winery and the field, he depends on him for advise. They even work together in the vineyard at times.
Not every variety is successful in this region of extremes. The Tempranillo of Rioja is challenged here and survives thanks to the high altitude of the vineyards, but Merlot seems to have adapted better to the terroir. In fact, Merlot makes better wine here than does the native Monastrell.
Many of the wines are left on the lees after fermentation for about two months, with frequent lees stirring (battonage). This tends to give the wine more body and enhances the flavors and aromas.
The Clos d’Esgarracordes Blanco 2015 is dominated by a varietal not known for high quality: Macabeo. Nevertheless, Mario was determined to extract as much varietal character as possible from this grape, and blended with a touch of Moscatel and Viognier, yields a very agreeable wine with good mouthfeel and ample body. This was a result of time on the lees with battonage. Aromas of apricot, peach, and mango can be detected, thanks to the Viognier and Moscatel in the blend. It earned 85 points and four stars in the Guía Peñín 2012. 10,000 bottles were produced.
The Clos d’Esgarracordes Tinto Barrica 2013 is a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Monastrell, and some Merlot, and is aged for 12 months in mostly used French oak barrels. The result is a wine that is dominated by aromas and flavors of fruit, rather than oak, with its typical characteristics of coffee, chocolate, caramel, or cedar. In consequence, it has a certain purity and freshness, which is remarkable for a blend. It won a gold medal from Gilbert & Gaillard, a leading French wine magazine. It costs but €7.50 which is very cheap given the quality, but that’s because the region still hasn’t developed the necessary reputation.
The Clos d’Esgarracordes Tinto Crianza 2011 is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Monastrell, Tempranillo, and Syrah, having spent 17 months in both French and American oak, with a higher proportion of new oak barrels than the Tinto Barrica. It’s a big, powerful wine that needs time to open up once poured. Given its blend, it is also very complex, offering aromas of coffee, chocolate, and tobacco, and is mouthfilling, with a strong mid-palate and flavors of black stone fruit ending with a quite long finish. Very impressive. At five years it still suggests youthfulness and certainly has a potentially long life. It won a silver medal at the Concours Mondial Bruxelle 2011, and in 2012 earned 90 points and five stars in the Guía Peñín 2012.
Another wine that they are very proud of is the monovarietal Clos d’Esgarracordes Colección Pelegrí Cabernet Sauvignon, which is also their most expensive wine. It won a bronze medal at the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards competition.
In all they make nine wines, with a line of inexpensive ones, a red and a white selling for €5. Most are red and white blends plus a rosé that is itself a blend of three varieties, but the Dolç de Glòria, the Cabernet, and the Gewürz are the only monovarietals.
Many of the labels are decorated with details taken from Pancho Mirán’s murals in the winery.
Obviously, in order to achieve such a reputation, they must produce wines of a very high quality for years, and consistently, so as to attract notice. Publicity is also needed if that is to happen.
To attract visitors to their rather remote site they offer full lunches or dinners at table, give tours, and can even celebrate weddings in their on-site chapel.
The Website is attractively designed and offers a great deal of technical information about their approach to winegrowing and winemakings, as well as detailed descriptions of their wines in Spanish. We can only hope that Barón d’Alba wines will eventually find their way into the American marketplace.
Address: Partida Vilar la Call, 10, 12118, Castellón, Spain
I first learned of Arrowhead Spring Vineyards a few years ago when I was shopping for wine at Empire State Cellars, a wine shop in the Tanger Mall in Riverhead, Long Island (since closed). Asking if I was interested in trying something new and unusual, I of course said yes and was immediately directed to a section of the shelves that displayed a Pinot Noir from the Niagara Escarpment in Northern New York State. It was only $17 so I thought, “What the hell can I lose by trying this?”, for though I trusted the recommendation I couldn’t help but be skeptical. After all, I’d never heard of the Niagara Escarpment. It certainly didn’t sound promising.
The Pinot Noir, a 2009, utterly took me by surprise, with its aroma and flavors of red fruit (especially wild cherries), tobacco notes, already integrated tannins, balanced acidity and the promise of depth that should evolve over the next three to four years; a sapid, well-made wine with real typicity, as good a Pinot as any I’d had from a New York winery. It was also very good value. As a result, I began following this winery for a couple of years. Then, this past June my wife and I went to a dinner held at The Riverhead Project, a Long Island restaurant, at which the owners of Arrowhead Spring were being honored with a dinner sponsored by Empire State Cellars. As it happens, Vals and I were seated with Robin and Duncan Ross, the owners, and regaled with an excellent dinner by Lia Fallon Stanco accompanied by their wines.
I interviewed Robin at her vineyard in the Niagara Escarpment AVA on a warm August day in 2013 after spending a day in Ontario Wine Country on the other side of the Canadian border, which is to say, the Niagara Peninsula VQA, which includes part of the Niagara Escarpment that runs through there (and terminates some 500 miles to the West). Indeed, the Escarpment is a geological feature so vast and significant that it is worth some background before I proceed with the interview with Robin.
The Niagara Escarpment
Stretching nearly 700 miles in the shape of a sickle that extends from Wisconsin in the West across Ontario to New York State in the East, and encompassing over 480,000 acres, the Niagara Escarpment—in Canada—is a UNESCO-designated World Biosphere site. Essentially, it is the remnant shore of an ancient sea. Its name is derived from its most well-known feature, the Niagara Falls. An escarpment is a type of cuesta—a geological feature defined by an erosion-resistant caprock of dolomitic limestone overlaying fragile shale and other soils that was laid down nearly 450 million years ago. The result is that differential erosion undercuts the more vulnerable layers under the caprock so that the land slumps more on one side than the other, with steep slopes in some places and more shallow ones elsewhere, depending on the makeup of the layers of the underlying soil. In the vicinity of the Niagara River the collapse of the undersoil has resulted in the spectacular cliffs over which the Niagara falls. Because the Escarpment here runs along the south shore of Lake Ontario, there is a pronounced “lake effect” in which the cold air of winter blows off the caprock down to the water and warmer air from the lake rises to the upper layers of the Escarpment, depending on how the winds blow. The end result is that the Escarpment is warmer, overall, that any other wine-growing region of New York State, except for Long Island.
The North slope of the Escarpment as seen running through the Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
The escarpment is home to two AVAs at either end of the feature—Wisconsin Ridge AVA (2013?) that runs along the Western edge of Lake Michigan and the Niagara Escarpment AVA (2005), which comes to an end near Rochester, NY. In between them are the Ontario VQAs—Niagara Peninsula’s Niagara Escarpment Region (which also includes the Short Hills Bench, Twenty-Mile Bench, and Beamsville Bench VQAs with a total of 22 wineries). New York’s Escarpment AVA (at 18,000 acres the third-smallest of the State’s nine AVAs) has been home to wineries since the mid-1800s. Since the 1990s six resident wineries have been establish in the Escarpment, including Arrowhead Spring, which was founded and opened in 2005 by the Rosses, the same year that AVA status was granted to the region.
The 2005 AVA application for the Escarpment stated that it possessed “‘well drained soils, a steady but moderate water supply’ in combination with the mineral content found in the soils, ‘result in superior pigment and flavor compounds in the resultant wine.’” (see Appellation America, Niagara Escarpment, description)
Duncan, in a 2007 interview, describes the Escarpment in his area thus:
“The Niagara Escarpment is an uplift of bedrock that runs parallel to Lake Ontario in Niagara County. It’s about a 200-foot drop in elevation facing north, with slopes of one half to several miles long. The underlying rock is dolomitic limestone and – in our vineyard – we have springs where the hydrostatic pressure from the escarpment releases water. This results in a great mineral quality being imparted to the fruit, and wine.
“The Niagara Escarpment also offers natural frost protection. Lake Ontario is a large heat sink and this powers wind towards the lake when the lake water is warmer than the air and away from the lake when it is cooler.
“It’s a maritime climate because the lake is so large. Moderate rainfall and more sunshine than any other major U.S. city in the northeast US contribute to the uniqueness of the escarpment for growing wine. We are the second warmest growing region in New York State.”
Robin and Duncan had been in the software business, but after Duncan was laid off in a work-force “reduction” they decided to look at another lifestyle and, given their love for and fascination with wine, they decided to buy land in an area they knew and loved to grow wine grapes. At first they bought their fruit from vineyards in Canada and would have from the North Fork of Long Island, as they’d only planted their own vineyard in 2006. In fact, Robin recounted, she’d bought–and paid for–several tons of grapes in 2005 in advance of the harvest from Mudd Vineyards. It turned out to be bad vintage due to the weather around harvest time, and they got a check in the mail from Steve Mudd, who explained that the crop was lousy and he couldn’t keep their money in consequence. “You have to really admire and respect someone like that,” said she.
Indeed, it was the Canadian winegrowers in the Niagara Peninsula, which includes the continuation of the Escarpment, who helped them with variety selection and advise about growing vines in a cool climate (albeit the second-warmest in New York State). Robin mentioned, in particular, Kevin Watson, of Watson’s Vineyard, in Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario.
When they began looking for a vineyard site they based their search on soil maps that laid out the soil composition of the area. Having come from a farming family, she knew what she was looking for and understood how to read the maps. Duncan and she were looking for land that didn’t have too much clay in the topsoil, and they knew that the dolomitic limestone that underlay the topsoil would be especially good for winegrowing.
Since planting the vineyard in 2006 Robin has developed growing experience and knowledge that grows by the year. She still asks questions of Kevin Watson occasionally. Another person from whom she’s drawn inspiration is Barbara Shinn, of Shinn Estate in Long Island, whom she has found unstinting in helping her with advise and insights into issues of organic and Biodynamic viniculture.
Syrah is one of the varieties that have been planted, and Robin remarked that the only problem that she has with it is the uneven berry size, but that has not had any effect on the quality of the wine made from it. The Syrah is on a Scott Henry trellis, which allows for two lines of fruit, one over the other, but they’ve been having some trouble with it this year, given that the season started very wet. The thing is, Scott Henry allows for two wires for fruit, one above the other. The lower line of fruit, however, can be covered over by very heavy foliage, which increases the disease pressure, especially from mildew. Despite regular leaf pulling, the foliage “grows gangbusters,” as Robin says, due to the varieties high vigor.
When I asked her why they had decided that the particular mesoclimate of the vineyard, as well as soil and aspect (the terroir) was suitable for growing Syrah, she explained that while they are the first on the U.S. side of the region to plant Syrah, on the other side of the border there has been some success with the variety. One thing that is important to understand about Syrah is that once it reaches ripeness it must be picked or the berries will begin to desiccate. “If you have the grapes at 23º Brix and you hope to let them ripen to 25º Brix, forget about it, the grapes will start desiccating,” Robin warned.
Given the vigor of the vines on the vineyard, before they can run a tractor through the rows for a Spring spray, for example, they first have to go into the vines and spread apart the tendrils that have intertwined, lest they get caught in the tractor.
For ground cover the Rosses first planted clover for its nitrogen-fixing qualities, along with a broad-leafed orchard grass. They need to plant cover that would not be torn up by the tractor, given that soil erosion can be a problem in the vineyard, since parts of it are very steep, what with the amount of rain that they get there. They also planted rye, as it is so fast-growing, and one other fescue. Robin is especially pleased that so wild plants have germinated in the cover as well, such as dandelions, which have deep-tapping roots that bring nutrients up to the surface. One of the issues with farming a monocrop is that there isn’t much bio-diversity, which is something that one wouldn’t find in nature, so the diversity of the cover crop is important—for instance, in some of the alleys wild sweet-pea is growing, which attracts beneficial insects such that the pests are not a big problem in the vineyard.
With respect to disease pressure, for example with spores, it seems that the cover holds the spores close to the ground and they do not reach into the fruit zones. In the space within the vine rows they actually weed with a hoe rather than use herbicides. Essentially, it is apparent that this is very much an organic approach, though they are not certified nor are they seeking to become so. Given that on the Canadian side there are two vineyards that are certified Biodynamic (Tawse, in the Niagara Escarpment VQA, and Southbrook, in the Niagara-on-the Lake VQA), they had looked into pursuing certification for either organic or Biodynamic farming, but they couldn’t find useful guidelines for going about it in their area on our side of the border. Indeed, it was while doing research into the certification guidelines that she learned that copper, sulfur, and lime are all acceptable inputs that she thought, “Oh, good. I can use Bordeaux mix on my vines.” Then she realized that the sulfur she was using wasn’t approved for organic use, even though it was produced organically. She found these kinds of things frustrating to deal with. So they just go ahead and they follow the standard, but they remain. For Robin it’s enough to be “clean and green.”
Thus, for instance, they have a windmill generator for electricity and they are trying not to have too much of an adverse impact on nature. So, the fact of the matter is that they would like to be certified from a commercial point of view. When people come to taste the wines one question that they often ask is, “Are your wines organic?”
The thing is, when people drive up to the tasting room they pass the vineyard and they can see how the Rosses farm. It’s pretty obvious. Also evident are their chickens, which they keep “as a last line of defense” against insect pests. The chickens are kept in a fenced area because they would otherwise be lost to predation. In a bug-heavy year they do let them loose in the vineyards where they are especially effective against Japanese beetles. As Robin explains, “I rise at sunup and go shake the vines, and as the beetles don’t yet fly in the morning they fall on the ground and the chickens would eat them.” This way they can have a few vines done one day and another few the next day and so on. To do this, they invested in a mobile chicken house that can be towed behind the tractor—not a unique idea, farms with other crops may use one, but new to NY vineyards, I suspect—so that they can get the chickens to range where they want them to. The only problem is that though the chickens are very effective at eating bug pests, if the coop is moved too far to the next place they often go to the last location they remember coop had been set, so they need to be directed to where the coop has been moved. Sometimes at night she can be chasing the chickens around the vines—some of them will roost in the vines— which can take some time, so it can be very frustrating sometimes.
For mammalian pests like rodents and raccoons they have hawks and owls that nest and roost around the vineyard.
The vine rows not only run along the Escarpment North-South, which means that the northern rows catch the sun at an advantageous angle but also towards the West, as the Escarpment has a shape not unlike an aircraft wing, with a sharp slope forward from the apex, and a shallow slope from there back to the trailing edge. Here the trailing edge slopes to the West and catches the afternoon sun. It makes for interesting driving on the tractor.
In describing the dominant aspect of the vineyard, Robin says, “Most of the land tilts—the hills run South to North and the vineyard actually slopes slightly to the West—you can notice this particularly when you’re driving a tractor, because you can be tilted in two directions [driving back and forth], which is interesting—but what it means is that we get a lot of Western sun in the afternoon.” She goes on to explain, “I guess that it’s because that’s the way that the water drains. My grandfather had it drilled into my head at a young age—my grandparents were fruit farmers—when he said, ‘You always plant north to south; that’s the way water flows.’ So that was in my head when we put the vineyard in.”
I asked Robin about what they do as the grapes get to veraison, given that birds will then be attracted to the fruit as it begins to develop sugar. She explained that rather than use bird netting, they go out as the fruit changes color and attach glittery ribbon to the vine posts and pretty soon the entire vineyard looks like it’s festooned with these ribbons, which serve to dissuade the birds for a few weeks. Later on they set up speakers in the vineyard that are attached to solar cells. At sunup they turn on, at sundown they turn off, so during the day they play bird distress calls. So that works pretty well for them, and they also put up balloons that look like owl eyes. When all else fails, they put out propane cannon that make a loud boom and run on a variegated pattern. They go off roughly every twenty to thirty minutes and go off from sunup to sundown. But as Robin says, “That’s a last resort. Obviously no one likes hearing cannon going off on the hillside, but sometimes it’s necessary, not to lose a crop.”
When I pointed out that in Long Island bird netting is used predominantly, she responded that one of the advantages of their site is that there aren’t a lot of power lines on which birds can roost. In fact, towards the tree line behind the vineyard there are many birds of prey and the hawks also helping discourage birds from going into the vineyard. I also mentioned how Carol Sullivan, owner of Gramercy Vineyard, has a dog that takes care of the raccoons that can decimate a vineyard; Robin told me that they once had a dachshund that had the same effect of driving raccoons away. They now have a border collie, Ian, that does the same thing. “In fact,” she said, “just the other day I saw him chasing a skunk. He’s learned his lesson because last year he got sprayed by getting too close, but now he keeps about twenty feet away, but he continues to go after the skunk until it disappears into the tree line. . . . As far as rats, mice, moles, we have an army of three cats, so from the bodies I find I can tell that they’re quite successful.” Indeed, Robin hasn’t seen any raccoons in the vineyard since the dachshund first went to work.
The varieties that they grow on their property include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot , Malbec, and Syrah. They make a Meritage wine from a blend of their red Bordeaux varieties. All the varieties’ vines are spaced at 8’×4’6″. The grapes for the Pinot Noir that I mentioned that I like so much they buy from a vineyard five miles to the West on the Escarpment.
While most of the vines are on Scott-Henry trellis, some, like the Merlot, are clearly not doing well on it, so Robin is converting the Merlot over to VSP, because the variety isn’t not particularly vigorous, and Scott Henry is meant for vigorous growth. The Cabernet Sauvignon is already on VSP trellises.
Cab Franc grapes at the beginning of veraison.
Last year the Cabernet Sauvignon hit 26° Brix and was picked in October, the day that the first frost came to the vineyard. Typically they harvest the Cab Sauv and Cab Franc around November 4th. That they can pick so late is due to Lake Ontario, which, given its enormous size, is a heat sink that provides a long autumn for the vineyard, which lies about eight miles away. The lake is, in fact, a body of water even larger than Long Island Sound, and it also provides an early spring, thus prolonging the growing season.
Robin has one full-time employee, Tim, who helps her with leaf thinning and green harvesting by hand, as well as doing the spraying and driving the tractor, and Ryan, who now works full-time assisting Duncan in the cellar, can also give a hand when needed. At harvest time, when they need more hands, they can call in professional apple-pickers who come in to help out, as well as customers who like to pitch in. Harvesting can be a tense time for Robin, but it’s always worked out. Furthermore, given the range of varieties, they tend not to all ripen at the same time, and with only seven acres of vine, it isn’t as though they have to race to pick all the fruit in a day. The first thing that comes in is the Chardonnay, then the Merlot, followed by Syrah. Then comes the Malbec, but there are so few vines that Robin could pick them by herself in less than an hour. Unfortunately, the Malbec doesn’t do that well, and she’s essentially told it, “If you can’t do better than that, you’re gone!”
The issues with the Malbec have led to discussions about what to do about it. Part of the problem is that it has been planted on an edge of the vineyard where it catches a lot of wind, which it apparently doesn’t like—it’s too rough. Even the Cab Franc doesn’t care much for a lot of wind, but it’s terrible for the Malbec. If Robin were able to do it over again, she’d plant the Malbec in a more sheltered location and move the Syrah to less vigorous soil and replant the less vigorous Cab Sauv to where the Syrah is planted now. Grafting is an alternative to planting new vines, but she’s leery of grafting because it is prone to go badly if people don’t know what they’re doing—even grafting houses have graft failures.
Up until mid-August the 2013 season has been very difficult, thanks to too much rain along with high humidity and elevated temperatures—conditions that are mildew’s delight. When I suggested that the spray schedule on the Escarpment must be less than it would be on Long Island, Robin pointed out that they’ve had to spray every week to ten days so far this year. In fact, Robin keeps meticulous records after each spray, and when she reviewed them she found that it rained every single day after the vines were sprayed—“pretty awful.”
As we were walking the vineyard we came upon a patch of stunted vines where, it turned out, in 2007 a neighbor had been applying herbicide in his field in preparation for planting corn. Apparently the spray boom hit a rock and lifted, pouring spray into the vineyard, wiping out a number of their vines. The vines have still not recovered, with many killed and the rest have not recovered, as she’d hoped, even to this day. When I asked her about whether or not Arrowhead had received compensation, she said that she turned the offer down—she’d rather have good-neighbor compensation: were she to need help, they’d be more likely to lend a hand. When they next buy new vines for the vineyard, they’ll replant this patch.
As it happens, after such a bad beginning to the season, the harvest on the Escarpment, including for Arrowhead Spring, was very good indeed. By October 28 they had harvested seven tons of Cab Franc from a two-acre parcel—that’s 3.5 tons per acre on Scott Henry, which makes possible from 3 to 4.5 tons per acre; a lot of grapes. In fact, it was good on both sides of the Niagara River. We can look forward to some excellent wines from that part of New York and Ontario for 2013.
As for the Arrowhead Sprint Vineyard wines, I tried several in the tasting room, and ended up buying a number of them to take home: Syrah, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Vidal Blanc Icewine, and Chardonnay. No wonder: the list of prizes that the wines have won is impressive, and not just from local tasting contests:
2008 Estate Syrah 87 points from Wine Spectator Magazine. Highest scoring Syrah from New York State in the history of the magazine.
2008 Vidal Blanc Icewine 89 points from Wine Spectator Magazine.
2007 Vidal Blanc Icewine 92 points from Wine Spectator Magazine (highest in New York).
2006 Chardonnay 86 points from Wine Spectator Magazine.
2005 Vidal Blanc Icewine 90 points from Wine Spectator Magazine.
In fact, Duncan first won a prize for his 2002 Pinot Noir, made years before he and Robin had purchased the vineyard or built the winery. An inspired amateur then, who has since become a dedicated professional, along with Robin–his partner in wine–she runs the vineyard with considerable skill and aplomb, learning as she deals with each season, with some help from a dog, an army of cats, an occasional owl or hawk, and a very small but hard-working staff.
2005 Gold – WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition. American Wine Society Quality Award.
Quite a track record for such a new and very small winery in so seemingly improbable a location as the Niagara Escarpment. (Psst! In Ontario they’ve been doing it for years.)
Since the 2013 interview, a May 2016 article in the May 2016 issue of BizJournal.com reported that Arrowhead Springs is expanding its operations significantly, a clear indication that it has enjoyed significant success:
“BeauVine Vineyards LLC in Lockport is spending $1.3 million to add a 14,000-square-foot grape processing/retail facility, new harvesting equipment and purchase nearby land for more farming.
“Plans call for expanding juice production not only for its own use, but also for other wineries on the Niagara Wine Trail and in other parts of the state.
“’As we plant more vineyards, that will allow us to have more grapes for our winery, but also to have more to sell to expand our presence as a wine-growing region,’” she said. “’Then with the equipment purchase portion, we’re hoping to get harvest equipment and other equipment we can use as a vineyard services company.’”
“In addition to crushing grapes for its own wines, the production equipment will be available by contract for other growers who need their grapes crushed on a custom basis, or those who want to buy bulk juice to finish at their own facility. The vineyard is also buying new harvesting equipment with help from a $370,000 grant from Empire State Development through the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.
“The project supports growth of the wine sector in Niagara County, where more than 20 wineries make up the Niagara Wine Trail. The ESD grant will pay for harvesting equipment, which will also be available for lease to other vineyards in the region.
“Prior to last year, the company had 8,000 vines planted on seven acres. That’s now up to 20 acres, with more than 20,000 vines planted, including nine varieties of grapes. A land purchase now pending will allow the company to add more acreage nearby and grow even more. Meanwhile, the company broke ground this week on the building that will replace the existing 2,000-square-foot production/retail facility built into the hillside on the property.”
Further to that, a June 2016 article in the Buffalo News reports that:
“Arrowhead Spring Vineyards . . . has acquired 23 acres of additional land just a half-mile west of its property on the Niagara Escarpment, doubling its size as part of a larger $1.6 million expansion that includes vineyards and a new facility. . . . It bought the land at 5126 Lower Mountain Road in Cambria from the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Lockport. Cornell had received it from George Kappelt of Flavor Farm, a produce grower for restaurants in the Buffalo area. The purchase price was $80,500.
“Duncan Ross, who co-owns the vineyard with his wife, Robin, said they plan to “prepare the land for planting in 2017, and then begin planting in 2018,” reflecting a typical two-year advance period for vineyards.
“’There is a lot of work to do in clearing some brushy areas and amending the soil with compost,’” he said. “’We will install many miles of drain tile under the surface to drain excess water, which improves quality and longevity for vines on the Niagara Escarpment.’”
“The purchase comes just after Arrowhead finished planting its current 23 acres with a mixture of Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo grapes.
“The winery also hired Molly Crandles as assistant winemaker and Molly Baillargeon as assistant vineyard manager.”
Castello Borghese started as Hargrave Vineyard in 1973, the very first vineyard and winery in Eastern Long Island. By 1999 the Hargraves, Louisa and Alex had established not only that vinifera grapevines could be grown in Long Island, they had also proven that fine wine could be made from the fruit of those vines. It was a remarkable achievement and it gave rise to an industry that as of this writing includes over 60 vineyards, 24 wineries, one crush facility, and 53 tasting rooms serving a total of over 70 brands of wine. But time and the stress of raising a family and running a winery and vineyard had taken its toll on the Hargraves and in 1999 the property was put up for sale. (A few years later Louisa would write a book, The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery, based on the experience.)
The winery and its land in Cutchogue were put up for sale. That was when Marco Borghese and his wife Ann Marie were visiting friends in the Hamptons who suggested that they pay a visit to the North Fork and taste some wines. (At the time they were living in New York City and had a wine shop which carried fine wine from around the world. It was there, as Marco said, “that the palate was born” for fine wines.) They twice visited Hargrave Vineyard, tasted the wines, were impressed by everything there. Jane Starwood, in her book, Long Island Wine Country, provides this anecdote about the purchase of the winery:
“[Marco] was impressed by the quality of the wine and the beauty of the North Fork, so when he heard that Hargrave Vineyard was up for sale, being between business opportunities, Marco was intrigued. One thing led to another and, as Ann Marie likes to tell it, ‘He said he’d bought it. I thought he meant the bottle; he meant the vineyard!’
“Marco laughs when his wife offers her abbreviated version. ‘Believe it or not,’ he asserts, ‘I did discuss it with my darling wife.'”
For a while after the purchase the property was designated the Hargrave/Borghese Vineyard and Louisa Hargrave was a consultant, but once they parted ways the name was changed to what it is today, with the designation, “The Founding Vineyard.” It is readily identifiable from County Road 48 (aka the North Road) not only by the sign but also the old truck with weathered barrels displaying the name of one of the varieties that is grown in the vineyard.
Marco Borghese, of the great noble family that began its prominence in Siena in the 14th Century, and included a 17th-Century Pope, Paul V, and a Cardinal, Scipione Borghese, who established the great art collection with works by Bernini, Caravaggio, Raphael, and others now held in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, was himself entitled to refer to himself as Prince, but sensibly did not, though royalty-besotted Americans insisted on the title for both him and his American wife, Ann Marie. Marco was in fact an unpretentious man of aristocratic mien, according to all accounts, and worked as a businessman living in Philadelphia, he in the leather business and Ann Marie in jewelry. They were also raising two young children, Giovanni and Allegra. Marco had a son, Fernando, by an earlier marriage, who lives and works in Philadelphia.
Marco soon found himself working in the vineyard and in the cellar, and Ann Marie was an events manager at their new property who also hosted weekend vineyard walks. Again, Anne Marie’s wit led to this remark, “Marco thought he was going to be a gentleman farmer. Instead he became a gentleman farming.” Like many other small wineries, they held parties, events, and weddings. They were determined to create a unique place on the North Fork: Old World charm and New World accomplishment.
I contacted Marco months in advance of an appointment to interview him and he was warm and full of good cheer when I spoke to him. When I next spoke to him in June 2014 his demeanor over the phone was very different: somber and distracted. I arrived for the appointment on June 18 only to learn that he had left abruptly on a “family matter.” Two days later Ann Marie, who had been fighting cancer for months, died at a hospital in New Mexico where she was being treated. She was only 56. A week later Marco was killed in an automobile accident in Long Island. He was 71. The entire wine community in Long Island was devastated by the double tragedy, not to speak of the family, and the question of the continuation or even the survival of Castello Borghese hung over the region for a while.
But there are the children: Fernando, Marco’s son by a previous marriage, and Giovanni and Allegra. Each of them had careers or planned on careers that had nothing to do with the winery. Each of them had careers or planned on careers that had nothing to do with the winery. All three decided that Castello Borghese had to survive and prosper, at the very least to honor their parents, but also because they felt a responsibility to the community and the people who had loyally worked at the winery for years. This was especially true for Allegra and Giovanni, who chose to set their careers aside in order to honor their parents by keeping the winery in business.
When I first went to Castello Borghese to interview the two offspring of Marco and Ann Marie, both Giovanni and Allegra greeted me very courteously. It was November 2014 and barely five months had passed since the death of both their parents. Neither had expected nor planned to be running their parents’ winery and vineyard and they were proceeding very cautiously to take over the running of the enterprise. They had the support of their older brother, Fernando, but he was already committed to his own career and could not attend to the day-to-day operations of the winery.
At least Giovanni and Allegra had had the good fortune to grow up in Cutchogue, as they were 14 and 12 respectively when their family moved there from Philadelphia after purchasing the winery. Both had gone to high school there as well. The two now lived in the house that had been their parents’. Fortunately they had the support of the community, which is pretty tightly knit. They also have the commitment and dedication to carry on from the employees, especially Bernard Ramis, the vineyard manager, Erik Bilka, the winemaker who is on contract though he also has a full-time position at Premium Wine Group, and the tasting-room manager, Evie Kahn.
As Giovanni explained, “I feel like we owe it to our parents to really give it a shot. Could we sell? Sure, maybe, like if the time and the number is right, like we’re not destined to be vineyard owners and aren’t really attached to running this kind of business and lifestyle. But I think that in the year here that there is so much still, [of] their energy, it feels like part of the process to really just be here and see this little baby of theirs survive and do okay. Just because it’s not necessarily what our plan was doesn’t mean we’re going to jump ship and say, peace. I didn’t have plans for that.”
Then there was this exchange:
Giovanni: “There are employees here who . . .”
Allegra: “Are like our family.”
Giovanni: “Depend on this job . . .”
Allegra: “And love it here. So I think we owe them leadership.”
Clearly, they speak with one voice.
Allegra went on to explain: “It was in our background. It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and you don’t know how to talk yet and you’re hearing language and then you’re going to need to learn to use it to talk. It’s like that. All the nuts and bolts were there but actually putting it into the practical application of it is new. And you make mistakes or it’s not perfect right at the initial stage. But I feel like we are slowly learning to speak this language and do this role in a more sustainable and professional and natural way.”
In fact, employees have volunteered that they’ve found Marco and Anne Marie’s offspring to be just as thoughtful, kind, and considerate as were the parents. They have a strong commitment to Castello Borghese and the loyalty is clearly strong in both directions.
On a second visit to Castello Borghese some months later both Allegra and Giovanni had clearly gotten past the wariness and somewhat tentative attitude about keeping and running the winery. For one thing, they had taken it off the market and it is no longer for sale. They are definitely in it for the long haul.
In fact, though they want to follow in their parents’ way and they listen to the advice of the long-time winery team, they are also open to innovation. Consequently, they are offering local beer by Greenport Harbor in the tasting room because they recognize that some visitors come along with their wine-loving friends but don’t necessarily like wine themselves. Indeed, were there no local beer they probably wouldn’t offer it, because they really are most interested in supporting local businesses.
On the other hand, Allegra, who recently earned her graduate degree in counseling and art therapy from Southwestern College in Santa Fe, is continuing a project that was very dear to Ann Marie: art exhibitions at the winery, but with an important difference. In March 2015 there was a display of paintings by persons with Down’s Syndrome. The competence and beauty of the works was impressive indeed. Here is a happy marriage of Allegra’s special interest in art therapy with her involvement in the winery.
For example, the works illustrated at right were all painted by Lupita Cano: (top) “Me Being Happy” 2007; (middle) “Los Magos” 2010; (bottom) “Upbeat Series #1” 2007. Various works by other artists were included in the exhibition as well.
Allegra herself seems to be on her way to becoming a label designer for Borghese’s wines. The love of art runs deep in the family.
In speaking to Bernard Ramis, the vineyard manager, it was immediately apparent that this was a man with deep roots in the French countryside who spoke with real passion of working the land and growing vines. Actually, his parents were from Spain though he was born in southern France in 1962 after they settled there. He likes to point out that he was born in the kitchen so he likes to cook. He began working in vineyards after he quit school when he was 14. By the time he was in his late 20s he had become a vineyard manager, unusual in France where one usually reaches that position at a much later age. Then he met an American woman who’d come to study winemaking and eventually they married. He came to this country in 1995 to join his wife, who’d returned to get a job in New York. He worked at a couple of prominent vineyards in Long Island before he joined Borghese Vineyards in 2004, and now has nearly 40 years of experience.
When Bernard arrived there had been no full-time vineyard manager and Mark Terry, then the winemaker, was doing double-duty in running the vineyard as well. Terry quit after about a year and an interim winemaker was hired who didn’t work out. So Marco and Bernard discussed his becoming the winemaker as well. Bernard had already worked in wine cellars and knew something about making wine, but he suggested that Borghese take on a consultant winemaker to work with them part-time, and as of 2010 that person has been Erik Bilka, a full-time production winemaker at Premium Wine Group. Bernard likes working with Erik because he finds him open-minded and ready to try new ideas. It is also, thanks to Erik’s gifts as a winemaker, that with Marco and Bernard they have the quality Borghese wines of today. Indeed, their 2013 Estate Chardonnay won a blue ribbon at the 2015 Eastern International Wine Competition.
With respect to the winemaking, Marco and Ann Marie both knew that they wanted their wine to be of a very high order of quality. Marco was very involved in the process but left the technique and skill to his oenologists, beginning with Mark Terry and then with Erik. Working with him, Marco sought to have quality over quantity, meaning low yields in the vineyards and prices fitting to the quality of the wines. As Allegra said of her father, “He had a lot of integrity.”
Indeed, Marco had deep discussions with both Erik and Bernard Ramis, his vineyard manager, to be sure that they had a clear idea of what he expected. Today, it’s Allegra and Giovanni who are having those conversations, and they deeply rely on the knowledge and experience of both men, particularly given that they well understood the standards that had been inculcated by Marco over the years. Though they’re trying to retain that approach they both know, in Allegra’s words, “that everything is an evolution when things change hands.”
For Bernard it is important that Erik trusts him to make decisions in the vineyard such as when the fruit is ready to be picked. They work well together which is important as the relationship between the vineyard manager and the winemaker is vital to the quality of the wines and the success of the winery. Bernard regards the two of them as accomplices together. For Erik the relationship is interesting in part because it involves a role reversal for him. As a production winemaker at Premium, his clients explain what they want their wines to be, usually with very precise directions about how they want them made. As a consulting winemaker, it is he who provides the instructions for how the wines at Borghese are to be made, and it is Bernard who then carries them out. All this is done with the active involvement of Giovanni and Allegra.
In the vineyard, Bernard is working with the very oldest grapevines on the Island, three acres of Sauvignon Blanc planted in 1973 and still thriving. Indeed, wine made from these vines is labelled “Founder’s Field.” 42-year-old vines tend to be shy bearers but the fruit is richer in flavor as a result. They have lived this long thanks to the quality of the soil, which despite a tendency to acidity is very amenable to the plant, and the care taken of the vineyard. As long as old vines bear enough they should, generally speaking, be kept and not pulled.
On the other hand, there is no Cabernet Sauvignon, for although the Hargraves planted it along with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the Cabernet vines died, though at the time of our interview Bernard was not sure of the cause. He had heard a story that a soil virus had attacked the vines and killed them. Bernard didn’t give much credence to that theory.
Louisa Hargrave provided this explanation in an e-mail:
“We did plant Cabernet Sauvignon the first year we came to the North Fork, in 1973:”
“The plant material we had access to was originally from Paul Masson vineyard in California but grafted at Bully Hill Vineyard in the Finger Lakes using the French-American hybrid Baco Noir as a rootstock. These plants thrived but were so vigorous that it was difficult to ripen the crop with such a massive forest of leaves. At some point, I think in the early 90s, we decided to pull out our original plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir because they were so vigorous and also because by then we were leasing Manor Hill Vineyard and so had another source of these varieties. We did not pull out the Sauvignon Blanc because it was planted on its own roots and therefore not vigorous.
“There was no soil virus. I think that idea may have come from the fact that the certified virus-free plants we bought from California in 1974 did have viruses, and were also pulled out eventually. I wrote about that particular debacle in my book [The Vineyard].”
Such were the travails of the pioneers of the Long Island wine industry.
Nevertheless, apart from the original plantings of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and new plantings of Riesling, all the rest of the vines were pulled by Marco in 2000. Pinot Noir was then replanted that year as well as Cabernet Franc. Bernard would like to try Chenin Blanc in the vineyard as he thinks it would do well. For now, however, it is a proposal and not yet a plan.
When Bernard arrived there had been no full-time vineyard manager and Mark Terry, then the winemaker, was doing double-duty in running the vineyard as well. Terry quit after about a year and an interim winemaker was hired but he didn’t work out. So Marco and Bernard discussed his becoming the winemaker as well. Bernard had already worked in wine cellars and knew something about making wine, but he suggested that Borghese take on a consultant winemaker to work with them part-time, and as of 2010 that person has been Erik Bilka, a full-time production winemaker at Premium Wine Group. Bernard likes working with Erik because he finds him open-minded and ready to try new ideas. It is also, thanks to Erik’s gifts as a winemaker, that with Marco and Bernard they have the quality Borghese wines of today. Indeed, their 2013 Estate Chardonnay won a blue ribbon at the 2015 Eastern International Wine Competition.
With respect to the winemaking, Marco and Ann Marie both knew that they wanted their wine to be of a very high order of quality. Marco was very involved in the process but left the technique and skill to his oenologists, beginning with Mark Terry and then with Erik. Working with him, Marco sought to have quality over quantity, meaning low yields in the vineyards and prices fitting to the quality of the wines. As Allegra said of her father, “He had a lot of integrity.”
Indeed, Marco had deep discussions with both Erik and Bernard to be sure that they had a clear idea of what he expected. Today, it’s Allegra and Giovanni who are having those conversations, and they deeply rely on the knowledge and experience of both men, particularly given that they well understood the standards that had been inculcated by Marco over the years. Though they’re trying to retain that approach they both know, in Allegra’s words, “that everything is an evolution when things change hands.”
For Bernard it is important that Erik trusts him to make decisions in the vineyard such as when the fruit is ready to be picked. They work well together which is important as the relationship between the vineyard manager and the winemaker is vital to the quality of the wines and the success of the winery. Bernard regards the two of them as accomplices together. For Erik the relationship is interesting in part because it involves a role reversal for him. As a production winemaker at Premium, his clients explain what they want their wines to be, usually with very precise directions about how they want them made. As a consulting winemaker, it is he who provides the instructions for how the wines at Borghese are to be made, and it is Bernard who then carries them out. All this is done with the active involvement of Giovanni and Allegra.
From Giovanni’s point of view, while he and Allegra participate in the tasting of the batches of wine and the blends made from them, he feels that he still has much to learn but he trusts both men’s judgment and defers to them on many decisions. Largely, though, he feels that what they do decide to do is based on sound judgment and is happy to go along. After all, the most important thing is that the wines turn out well.
The basic line is the Estate wines, which include Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Reserve wines are Founder’s Field Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Reserve wines are made only from grapes of the highest quality, but that doesn’t happen every year. Borghese also has a Select category for wines that don’t quite make it to the Reserve level. The line of inexpensive wines is of exceptionally good value, including a red Petite Château and a white Chardonette, at $14 and $12 respectively. They also offer two Rosés: an off-dry one called Fleurette and a dry version, Rosé of Merlot.
Castello di Borghese’s signature wines are the Barrel Fermented Pinot Noir and the Founder’s Field Sauvignon Blanc, and they have a string of award winners including Cabernet Franc, Meritage, Riesling, the Chardonnay mentioned above, and Bianco di Pinot Noir.
That Chardonnay earned its blue ribbon for its excellent balance of acidity, alcohol, and flavor. Cold-fermented in stainless-steel tanks, it underwent no malolactic fermentation so it has a purity of fruit that makes it stand out in the crowd. A delicious, refreshing wine with medium body and an agreeable mouthfeel that cries out for partnership with seafood. All this for only $18. The Founder’s Field Sauvignon is another wine that cries out for seafood; say, Peconic Bay scallops. It is grassy but lacks that intense aroma of some New Zealand versions that has been compared to “cat’s pee.” On the palate grapefruit flavors are prominent, and a bracing acidity and good balance make it a very good wine for summer drinking, even as an aperitif on its own. The tasting room staff compared it to a Sancerre, which is an apt comparison.
High-quality Italian olive oil from the family estate in Calabria can also be purchased in the tasting room.
Giovanni and Allegra have developed a natural division of labor at the winery, each doing what is most comfortable for one or the other. So Allegra has committed herself, for example, to working in the back office, designing the labels for the new wines, and so on, while Giovanni likes working up front helping to sell the wine, interacting with customers, dealing with the farm markets and things of that nature. Aware that each may have individual conversations with other persons, they make a point of bringing one another up to date so that neither is left unaware of what has been going on with the other. Together they share in all the major decisions about the direction the winery is taking.
Changes are already apparent on the Website, which has improved and offers more coverage of the winery’s events and offerings. The wines on offer are, happily, in the same style and of the same quality as before, given, of course, vintage variations. Some labels are new and some remain the same. The newest wine in the portfolio is an interesting white blend, New Moon, which is dominated by white Pinot Noir, in addition to 30% Riesling, and 20% Chardonnay. It is a distinctive blend with an unusual finish, for a white wine, of tart cherry. That, of course, comes from the Pinot Noir, which typically has a cherry nose and flavor when it is made as a red wine. The cherry, in other words, comes from the fruit and not the skins which impart red color to the red version and are not used in the making of the white: a distinctive wine with a distinctive label designed by Allegra.
So, the latest accolade for the Borghese Winery: 2015 Platinum Winner for Best Winery on Long Island from Dan’s Papers Best of the Best awards, which are based on readers’ votes.
Christian Wölffer, a real estate entrepreneur, bought the 14 acres of potato fields known as Sagpond Farms in 1978. Enchanted by the idea of a vineyard of his own after tasting a Chardonnay planted by a Sagaponack neighbor, in 1988 he asked David Mudd to plant fifteen acres of vines. It has since grown to 55 acres, with ten parcels of vines with sub-parcels. The vine rows were planted running North to South and East to West, depending on the best orientation to the sun based on the terrain. By 1996 he had assembled 168 acres, which he devoted mostly to grazing land for his horses. His first release, a Chardonnay, was in 1991.
Roman Roth and Richard Pisacano are the team that together produces some of the finest wine made in Long Island. Roman, of course, is the winemaker (and now partner) at Wölffer, and Richie—as he’s known to his friends and colleagues—is the winegrower. One is, as it were, the right hand and the other the left. So close are they that Richie’s own wine brand, Roanoke Vineyards, is made by Roman. Roman himself has his own label, Grapes of Roth, which, since he became partner this year, will be sold in Wölffer’s tasting room.
Roman has been with Wölffer Estate as winemaker since 1992, Richie came to the Estate in 1997. Both of them had years of experience in the wine trade before coming to Wölffer’s.
Roman & full-time vineyard crew at lunch
Roman comes from southern Germany and learned about vineyards, varieties, and vinification there, as his was a winemaking family. He travelled and worked at wineries in California and Australia before returning home. In 1992 Roman received his Master Winemaker and Cellar Master degrees from the College for Oenology and Viticulture in Weinsberg. Soon after, he accepted the position of winemaker at Sagpond Vineyards, a new winery in the Hamptons. This was a winemaker’s dream—to be part of a new and growing wine region with the chance to create something new, to leave a footprint at the foundational level.
Over the next several years, Roth managed the expansion of Sagpond Vineyards into “Wölffer Estate,” now a 55-acre vineyard with a state-of-the-art winery producing a wide range of award-winning wines, all nestled in a 175-acre property with horses, paddocks, stables, and riding trails. Under Roth’s meticulous direction, Wölffer has become a Hampton’s destination, producing wines of excellent caliber and reputation.
In April 2003, Roman received the award of “Winemaker of the Year” presented by the East End Food & Wine Awards (judged by the American Sommelier Society). This reflected the excellence of the wines he produced as winemaker and as a consultant, and was recognition of his contribution to quality winemaking on Long Island as a whole. After Christian Wölffer’s untimely death in a swimming accident, the Estate was in the hands of his children, Joey and Marc. At that time Roman was made a partner in the firm and basically runs it. In December 2015 he was elected as President of the Long Island Wine Council to serve for two years.
Rich started his career with greenhouse plant propagation, then worked for Mudd Vineyards (the first Vineyard Consulting Management firm in Long Island) in 1977, while still in high school. He went on the design and maintain vineyards for Cutchogue Vineyards (now Macari South), Pindar, Palmer, Island (now Pellegrini), Jamesport, and others before he came to Wölffer. He was invited by Roman to come to Wölffer to help “rescue” the vineyard, to help bring the Estate to the next level and further improve the quality and reputation. When he arrived he brought along with him the ideas of sustainable viticulture and in fact followed the precepts of Cornell’s VineBalance program for the last ten years.
The first fifteen acres of Wölffer vines were planted by David Mudd in 1988, and it has since grown to 50 acres, with ten parcels of vines with sub-parcels. The vine rows were planted running North to South and East to West.
Wölffer’s terroir, given its location on a hill, varies considerably, much more so than the vineyards on the North Fork. The Estate has two types of soil, Bridgehampton loam and Haven.The Bridgehampton soils are mostly the flatter ground and the hillside soils, which are lighter, are mostly Haven. [i] Where the two converge one overlaps the other with interesting effects on the micro-terroir of individual vines. Both soils offer good drainage and the way that the vineyard slopes allows the cold air to flow out of the vineyard across to the Montauk Highway. With its undulating topography and overlapping soils, it makes for an especially interesting terroir, particularly so for Long Island. Rich refers to it as a “unique setting.”
Both Richie and Roman agree that “The vineyard comes first,” and “we focus on what we can do in the vineyard, then we can make wine from that.”
The California model is not a good one to follow in LI; Wölffer has healthy low vigor/well balanced vineyards. With respect to viticulture, Rich’s is a balanced approach, with individual attention to the vines. Indeed, given his 30-years of experience, they call him “the grape-whisperer.” As Rich pointed out, in his straightforward but modest way, “given time, one develops an intuition.”
For Rich, rule number one for a vineyard manager is to throw out the personal calendar and appointment book—the vineyard has precedence over all matters personal. The Manager is like a doctor on call, always ready to respond to an emergency. Or, as Rich puts it, “Sometimes I’m not a vineyard manager as much as I am vineyard-managed.”
For example, in 2011, despite the terrible weather, including Hurricane Irene’s contribution, Wölffer had no crop loss whatsoever thanks to the adequate manpower that was available to manage the problems engendered by the weather. Wölffer managed to harvest 2.79 tons per acre, which was right at the 20-year average for their harvests. The biggest challenge of the season was the sudden changes in the weather, and that requires a very nimble and highly attentive manager.
The symbiotic relationship between vineyard manager and vintner was demonstrated in the 2005 vintage, which had been a very good season until 20 inches of rain were dumped on LI in the space of a week just at harvest time, with the result that grapes were so swollen with water that the sugar levels were diluted to as low as 16 degrees Brix. Some growers went ahead and picked the swollen grapes immediately after the rain, others abandoned entire parcels of fruit. Roman, however, saw the potential for patience rewarded and had Rich leave the grapes alone for a few days. Three days of dry weather led to the grapes shrinking back to normal size and reaching 23 Brix, and by the fifth day the sugar level had reached 25 Brix, which was unheard of in terms of sugar levels that increased so dramatically in so brief a time. At that point some of the crop began to shrivel and raisin, so a 35-person crew was sent out to pick what were now very ripe grapes. Some other vineyards had been watching what was going on at Wölffer Estate and held off as well, but none had the resources that the Estate enjoyed, so as soon as the grapes were brought in the crew was sent out to help harvest the grapes at the other vineyards as well. As a result, some very good wine was made that year, although at much smaller yields than usual. This is part of what Rich calls Roman’s “wine-rescue program.”
The fact of the matter is that Richie and Roman “get energy from one another.”
Wölffer now has seven varieties planted, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Trebbiano and Vignoles—of which there is a half-acre. Chardonnay needs to be picked at full ripeness. In the mid-1990s the significance of proper clonal selection became better appreciated, so that optimal results can be obtained in the vineyard. Presently there are three Chardonnay clones planted: Davis 3+4 Dijon 76, and Clone 96. Dijon, which is a Burgundy clone, tends to offer comparatively low acidity by comparison with Davis 3+4, which was developed for the warmer climate of California. Merlot clones include 181 (from France), 3 (from U. of C. at Davis), and 6 (from Argentina).
Wölffer planted Trebbiano Toscano [aka Ugni Blanc] in 2010, the only Long Island vineyard to do so. The vines were productive by the 2nd year, yielding 3.5 tons / acre and by the 3rd year, 8 tons of good fruit. Given the large and experienced vineyard crew that the Estate can call on at harvest time, it was possible to harvest by hand 6 to 8 tons per hour, or about 40 tons at the end of a 7-hour day. In fact, many of the crew are people with other jobs but who have helped harvest the crop by hand for as long as ten years or more. They know what they are doing and are very efficient. According to Rich, the best of all the pickers are invariably women, who are more careful and attentive than are most of the men.
Vines’ vigor affects wine character. For that reason, there are rows of Cabernet Franc and Merlot that are reserved for making rosé that run down a slope, with Bridgehampton Loam eight feet thick at the top that is overlaid with Bridgehampton Loam as one goes down the slope, until the Haven is only eight inches thick. The Bridgehampton soils are mostly the flatter ground and the hillside soils, which are lighter, are mostly Haven. This represents ever-changing terror, which is to say that each vine in a row has a micro-terroir of its own. Indeed, thanks to drainage and soil changes along the rows, the vigor of the vines changes along the length of the slope. Consequently, in order to “harmonize” that vineyard parcel, Rich has leaf-pulling and green harvesting done along the rows at graduated intervals, with the vines furthest downslope getting the most attention, and those at the top less. Thus, the vines mature and are ready for harvest at nearly the same time. This is the work of a ‘grape-whisperer.’
Roman & crew at soccer. Goal!
Wölffer always has an adequate vineyard crew—for one thing, the Estate make harvesting fun and treats the harvest as a celebration. They feed the workers very well, with much coffee and snacks available throughout the workday. Because of so much attention in the vineyard throughout the season, there is mostly clean fruit at harvest time, which makes it easier and faster to hand-pick. In fact, a good crew can pick [clean fruit] by hand faster than a mechanical harvester is able to do. Naturally, by harvest time there are an abundance of workers available due to the fact that the tourist season has come to an end and many of the workers had been in the hospitality industry for the summer season.
Wölffer has already joined the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers program, which leads to certification in sustainable farming. They had, as mentioned above, been growing their vines responsibly since the mid-90s, so the transition to the LISW program was actually very easy, as they’d been following the VineBalance guidelines that are the basis for the LISW ones, but modified to better fit the conditions of Long Island, rather than for the whole state of New York. For example, they do not use pre-emergent herbicides or added nitrogen to the soil—the use of nitrogen-fixing cover crops takes care of that. Periodically, given the high acidity of the Long Island soil, about 1½ tons of lime per acre is added to raise the pH level of the soil to make it more amenable for the vines. By May of 2013, the vineyard had succeeded in meeting all 200 requirements of the LISW and obtained its certification for sustainable winegrowing.
The winery is large and sophisticated, enjoying excess capacity such that not only does Wölffer buy grapes from five other vineyards, including Mudd’s vineyard, Dick Pfeiffer’s, and Surry Lane’s to make Long-Island appellation wines under the Wölffer label. Roman gets to use the winery facilities to make his own Grapes of Roth and Richie’s own Roanoke Vineyards wines. He also uses the facilities to make wine for clients Scarola Vineyards and Gramercy Vineyards as well. Indeed, in 2009 an extremely selective picking of botrytised Riesling grapes took place in Jamesport Vineyards, allowing Roman to make a TBA under his Grapes of Roth label. Not too many TBAs are made anywhere in the US of A; the very first one was a feat of the late, great Konstantin Frank, in 1965, of Finger Lakes fruit, of course, not LI. That one made headlines—in 2015 Roman’s two latest efforts with botrytised wines have earned him the highest scores ever awarded for Long Island wines.
In fact, given that Roman makes three rosés, eight whites, thirteen different reds, three award-wining dessert wines, two sparkling wines, and two apple ciders (a total of 29 different wines alone for Wölffer’s, not to speak of the wines he makes for Roanoke Vineyards), the question arises. How does he do it? Well, as he explained, working at the Karlschüle in South Germany he dealt with a wide variety of reds and whites. There he learned that close attention to detail mattered: every tank had to be topped up, every bung properly place, etc. He also gave credit to the excellent wine-growing climate of Long Island, which shares the same latitude and Madrid and Naples and gets the most sun of all of New York State. So, in early August they begin picking the grapes for sparkling wine, when they’re not fully ripe, then grapes for the rosés, which also don’t need full ripeness, and on to the whites, then the reds, which need more ripeness, and at the end of October, the late-harvest grapes. It means he has time to deal with the winemaking over a period of as much as three months. He gives as much attention to a basic white as he does to a Christian Cuvée red, because he can, all because of the enabling climate and soil.
For Roman, to make good wine demands a very scrupulous attention to detail. Not only are the grapes all hand-picked at the proper time, but when the fruit arrives at the winery they have as many as 56 hands at work at the sorting table, so no bad fruit goes into the must. Few wineries have the resources to bring more than a dozen hands to that task. When the must is fermenting in the tanks they do pumpovers three times a day, where most wineries do it only twice or even once. Of course, it helps to be able to afford a cellar team that can give this kind of time to such matters. It also helps to have had one fabulous vintage after another since 2010—2011 being the exception—and it may be true for 2015 as well.
To Roman, the great untold story about Long Island wines is their longevity: a 20-year-old Chardonnay still drinking well, for instance, and red wines that can mature and hold up for 25 to 30 years. The word has not yet gotten out to collectors that the wines of the region can be laid down and over time they will increase in value—not yet like great Bordeaux, perhaps, but as rarity and demand increase, even that is a possibility.
Roman introduced a dry rosé to the Long Island wine repertoire in 1992, within a year of his arrival at the winery—he was quite bullish in his pursuit to make Wölffer rosé a respected and fashionable wine. The 2011 is made with 54% Merlot and 21% Chardonnay, 9% Pinot Noir, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8%Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2012 consists of 69% Merlot, 16.5% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Noir, 4.5% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. The blend, as one can see, varies considerably from year to year, depending on the results of the harvest. Whatever the blend, Wölffer calls it “Summer in a Bottle.”
Along with its wide range of varietal wines, including Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Trebbiano, and so on, Roman also makes a non-alcoholic verjus that is a low-acid alternative to vinegar (used in a salad make the salad much more wine-friendly), but it is also an eminently quaffable beverage that is its own “Summer in a glass.” Perfect for those friends who can’t or don’t drink wine, yet almost as enjoyable.
And I cannot omit mention of the time that I stopped by at Wölffer’s tasting room to try a glass of the 2000 Merlot, which at a $100 a bottle had caused a sensation. The glass of wine cost only $25, and I sipped it slowly for over an hour, observing how it evolved with time and exposure to air. Slightly closed at first, it wasn’t long before it was offering notes of plum and black berries, and then hints of cedar and clove, becoming brighter and deeper in bouquet and flavor, and lingering long on the palate. An extraordinary wine. I knew then that Long Island wine had arrived on the world stage. I had become hooked.
More recently, an article on the North Forker website of July 6, 2015, “Long Island wines receive record-breaking reviews in The Wine Advocate” stated that the critic, Mark Squires, of the Advocate had awarded two Wölffer Estate Vineyard wines — the Descencia Botrytis Chardonnay and Diosa Late Harvest — the highest scores ever received in the region, each earning 94 points.
“If I had to name a ‘short list’ of top wineries in the region, this would have to be on it, without requiring any thought,” Squires wrote in his review. “Under winemaker/partner Roman Roth and Vineyard Manager Rich Pisacano (who also owns Roanoke, at which Roth is also the winemaker), this winery excels in making age-worthy, structured wines.”
Further to that, in the Nov. 16 issue of Wine Spectator Wölffer’s Grapes of Roth 2010 Merlot one of the top 100 wines of the year 2015. No other Long Island winery has ever achieved that accolade. Tom Matthews wrote: “A polished texture carries balanced flavors of tart cherry, pomegranate, toasted hazelnut and espresso in this expressive red. Features firm, well-integrated tannins and lively acidity. Elegant. Drink now through 2022. 2,592 cases made.”
139 Sagg Road, PO Box 900. Sagaponack, NY 11962. Phone 631-537-5106
[i] According to the LISW Climate & Soil Web page, “Bridgehampton-Haven Association: These soils are deep and excessively drained and have a medium texture. It is its depth, good drainage and moderate to high available water-holding capacity that make this soil well-suited to farming.”
Richard Figiel established the Silver Thread Vineyard in 1982, planting 10 acres near Lodi, NY to vinifera varieties and growing them organically to make natural wines. He sold the property in 2011 and currently writes a column on NY wines for Wines & Spirits Magazine. He had previously published Culture in a Glass: Reflections on the Rich Heritage of Finger Lakes Wine in 1995.
Happily for the reader he writes well and where appropriate turns to literary allusion or leavens the text with touches of dry wit. Most important of all, he reveals the history of wine in New York State by means of a sensibly-organized account that starts with the movements of the glaciers of the last Ice Age on through to the diaspora of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Centuries, when wineries, vineyards, and winemaking had spread throughout the state after a small and inconspicuous beginning in the Seventeenth.
In the Preface, Figiel mentions that after he purchased an abandoned Catawba vineyard he began “pulling out the past to plant the future . . . . One day as I was lining up end-posts for the rows of my new vineyard (it was a matter of pride to get them perfectly aligned, row to row) my eye wandered beyond the last post into scrubby woods . . . and there among the junipers and brambles was a fitful row of weather-beaten posts, ghosts of a vineyard on that hillside that predated the vineyard I’d pulled out . . . . I was looking back into the nineteenth century, and my posts happened to line up arrow-straight with that bleached, overgrown line of ghosts.”
Which leads to this book and the far from arrow-straight history of New York wine, which instead ambles along from one wandering post to another in time and geography.
Chapter 1 covers prehistory, from the time of the last advance and final retreat of the mile-thick ice sheet that covered the Northeast and nearly all of New York until about 10,000 years ago. It traces the movement of soil and terrain carried by the massive bulldozer of ice that left chunks of granite from the Berkshires in the bluffs of the north coast of Long Island, among other shifts across the region. This is all depicted in the sole map to be found in the book:
Chapter 2, “Beginnings in the Hudson Valley,” recounts the earliest attempts at growing wine grapes in the region, including the many failures planting vinifera varieties. Determined growers then set about planting native varieties like Isabella and Catawba while some began experimenting with hybrids—that is to say, interspecies crossings, resulting in some of the most successful hybrids for commercial vineyards, starting with the Iona. The history is complex but Figiel successfully manages to thread all the different paths that winegrowing took in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries into a coherent whole.
The following chapter, “Settling in the Finger Lakes,” is an exploration of the very complicated story of wine in what is today the premier region for Riesling in the country. When first explored in the early 17th century, large amounts of native grapes were found and it is possible that the earliest record of winemaking may date to before 1668, but this is an inference from a text by a missionary who writes about “vines, which bear tolerably good grapes from which our fathers formerly made wine for the mass.” Rev. William Botwick of Hammondsport in the 1830s may have been the first to plant grapes in the Finger Lakes for making wine and disseminate grapes for winemaking to his neighbors, and it was found that Isabella, as an earlier-ripener than Catawba, took best to the climate of the lake region. It took a long time for vinifera to catch on in the Finger Lakes, and that was, of course, thanks to the hard work of Dr. Konstantin Frank in the 1950s.
Chapter 4 is devoted to “Western New York,” which in this case means not only what would become the Lake Erie Region AVA but also the area from Rochester to Niagara, including the Genesee Valley, where a winery was established by Samuel Warren in 1834, 5 years before the Jaques winery was opened in Washingtonville in the Hudson Valley. The Irondequoit winery was established on its eponymous Bay on Lake Ontario near Rochester in 1841. A winery cooperative was formed on the Niagara Escarpment near Lockport in the 1860s. Much of the wine that was made for sacramental use. But where are these places, some of which are very little known? A map would be helpful.
“Collision of Cultures” (Chapter 5) covers one of the most interesting and fractious periods in American wine history—the rise of the anti-alcohol movement that led to Prohibition and the struggle of the producers of alcoholic beverages to resist that movement. As early as 1808 there was a reaction against the excessive consumption of spirits in particular, when a doctor near Glen Falls despaired of healing hard drinkers and founded the Moreau Temperance Association, which was aimed at spirits and brews, but not wine. By 1833 the American Temperance Union was established and the question became one of “which alcohols” to ban outright. Those who joined the Union and swore to totally abstain from the imbibing of any alcohol had a “T” placed by their names, hence the term ‘Teetotaler.’ Long before Prohibition, in fact, Rutherford B. Hayes, a teetotaler, was elected President in 1877. Figiel writes that “he drained the nation’s first household Dry . . . . Visiting dignitaries were confounded: ‘Oh, it was very gay,” one European ambassador said of a state dinner with the President, ‘the water flowed like Champagne.’ Individual towns and counties throughout the country and in New York began passing laws banning the sale of alcohol; indeed, the New York legislature passed a law restricting the sale of alcohol in 1845. That law was rescinded two years later, but the battle lines were drawn and the fight was on. The history of Prohibition is well-known and often told, and Figiel tells it with well-selected anecdotes to enliven the tale.
The sixth chapter, “Restart,” is about the hardscrabble road to recovery from Prohibition.
Chapter 7 is devoted to the Revolutionaries, those who changed the attitude and approach to grape growing and wine making in the State and withal most of the Eastern United States. There are capsule accounts of the work and accomplishment of five key figures who helped bring about significant change in the wine industry: Everett S. Crosby, Frederick S. Johnson, Konstantin Frank, Walter S. Taylor, and Mark Miller. Crosby was introduced to wine “in the rumble seat of a roadster after high school basketball games” during Prohibition and went on in 1950 to found High Tor Vineyard in the Hudson Valley. It was the first vineyard planted exclusively to French hybrids and the wines found a positive reception in wine shops and restaurants in New York City. In 1960 Johnson would establish his vineyard and winery on the Lake Erie escarpment and plant mostly hybrid grapes, bringing the region into the wine world after years of producing table grapes and grape juice. Frank, a difficult, determined, and uncompromising man is the father of vinifera wine in New York. Over a dozen years, starting in 1953, he planted a quarter of a million vines of a dozen vinifera varieties grafted to selected American rootstock and proved definitively that European vines could grow and thrive in the extreme cold of the Finger Lakes. Walter S. Taylor has to have been one of the most colorful characters on the wine industry stage: a rebel with a cause in opposition to big business and its overreaching attempts at control, particularly over the issue of the Taylor family name. Once Coca Cola had acquired the Taylor Wine Company it had an injunction issued against Walter S. using his surname on his own wines at Bully Hill. His irrepressible humor and anti-establishment outlook had him take on a goat as a mascot and quipped, “You can’t get my goat.” But read the story. And there was Mark Miller, owner of Benmarl Vineyards, who helped bring about a transformative law, the Farm Winery Act of 1976 that changed the New York wine industry forever.
“Transformation” is a chapter about the growth of large corporations like Coca Cola and Seagram’s that dominated the wine industry in the ‘60s and ‘70s until the passage of the Farm Winery Act of 1976 that was signed in to law by Governor Carey. Some of the winemaking practices in the larger wineries including “blending old American varieties like Catawba, Concord, and Delaware with bulk wine from California and new inputs from French hybrids. Water and cane sugar were routinely part of the mix. It was not uncommon for final blends to be up to one-third water and one-quarter Californian wine.” In some cases a small and profitable miracle was produced with “large quantities of bulk wine from small quantities of fruit.”
This is followed by a chapter devoted to Long Island, the last major wine region to be planted to wine grapes, unique among all the State AVAs in growing vinifera varieties only, with a tiny exception. Its history is comparatively brief, with the first vinifera vines planted in 1973 by Louisa and Alex Hargrave. Amateurs in Long Island, they showed that European varieties could produce excellent wine there and today Long Island has the most extensive plantings of Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc in the State, not to speak of nearly twenty others as well, including Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc, Dornfelder, and Albariño as well.
The final chapter is about the “Diaspora” of the wine industry throughout the State, encompassing new wine regions—though not new AVAs—in places like the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain, as well as further developments in the established AVAs of the Finger Lakes, the Hudson River Region, Lake Erie, Long Island, and New York City. In other words, “New York wine became more diverse, more promising, more impressive, more inconsistent, and more confusing.”
Circle of Vines bears comparison with Hudson Cattell’s Wines of Eastern North American, previously reviewed in a post on this blog. However, while there is some overlapping history, Catell’s book touches on the period From Prohibition to the Present (i.e., 2013). It is meant as a “History and Desk Reference,” and is a far more scholarly approach than Figiel’s, replete as it is with endnotes, an extensive bibliography, and seven appendices with tables and charts. This is not to denigrate what Figiel has done, but his is a less formal approach, and he does list his sources and include an index; his book is 169 pages devoted to just New York, while Chattell’s 235 pages cover the entire gamut of Eastern wineries from Maine to Florida and all the way to the Mississippi River. Both are informative and very useful resources. A reader would be glad to have them both.
Regrettably, the book has very poor-quality illustrations—given their half-tone newsprint reproduction—and there are no maps to support the text, apart from the one that shows the movement of the ice sheet that covered the state over 10,000 years ago. One can only hope that if there is a second edition there will be a map for each chapter as well as higher-quality images.Circle of Vines, The Story of New York State Wines, by Richard Figiel, 2014. Excelsior Editions imprint of SUNY Press, Albany. 194 pages with appendices and index. 31 monochrome half-tone illustrations, including one map.
A statement on the Lenz Winery Website by Sam McCullough, its vineyard manager:
At Lenz, our philosophy in the vineyard is high-touch. We are interventionists and we intervene, at great cost in time and effort, to micro-manage each vine to ripeness each year. Leaf removal, shoot thinning, cluster thinning, crop reduction, triple catch wires, super-attentive pest and fungus control (our ‘open canopy’ approach keeps fungus problems to a minimum), all combine to add cost (unfortunately) but to ensure fully ripe grapes of the highest quality.
Established in 1978, the winery has three vineyard plots with a total acreage of about 70 acres planted to nine different vinifera grape varieties: Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir. Of these, the principal red variety is Merlot and the principal white is Chardonnay. Bearing in mind that the original Lenz vineyard is over thirty years old and came under new ownership only in 1988, when Peter and Deborah Carroll purchased it from the original owners, Patricia and Peter Lenz, the original vines of Chardonnay and Merlot are among the oldest on the island.
Sam is an affable, direct, and very knowledgeable farmer, with a degree in horticulture and with long experience in the business of growing wine grapes. He is not shy about saying that though the Lenz vineyards are farmed as sustainably as possible, when there is a need for using conventional farming methods he’ll not hesitate to employ them. The reason is simple: there is too wide an array of fungal and other pests to rely entirely on biodegradable or organic means of control. With respect to herbicides, he prefers to use what he calls pre-emergent controls so that stronger ones are not needed later in the event of an outbreak. The same is true of the fungicides he uses: low-impact controls for prevention, but will not hesitate to use copper and sulfur when infections do break out. It is because of this that he makes no claim to running a sustainable-farming operation, but is rather a conventionally-farmed property that tries to be ecologically low-impact where possible.
In other words, Sam is not taking Lenz down the organic road due to cost and practicality. Speaking frankly about Shinn Estate’s achievement in bring in its first organic harvest of grapes, he takes a wait-and-see attitude with regards to being able to achieve similar results three years in a row—which is necessary for organic certification. He feels that the weather last season was especially favorable for organic viticulture. It may not work so well this year if the weather turns too harsh. On the hand, Sam feels that some Biodynamic® applications may actually work insofar as even the very small quantities of compost tea that are used (about 50 gallons per acre) may enhance the development of healthy biota on the vines and help them better resist pests and other infections. He’s not persuaded that cow horns or astronomical events such as the soltices are at all important, and that the applications would work anyway. As he put it:
I am not opposed to organic viticulture or biodynamics. I am indeed skeptical that it is possible to consistently succeed at producing vinifera grapes in our climate without the use of synthetic chemicals and I am in no position to try it. I do not disdain or ridicule those making the effort. I wish them success.
I do believe, and strongly, that it is quite possible to use conventional agricultural methods responsibly and safely: safe for the environment, the farmer, farm workers and the consumers of our crops.
I believe conventional farming to be safe and economical. Without conventional farming, the 2% of our nation’s population who are involved in agriculture could not feed the country with production to spare. Those who wish to use alternative methods that avoid the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are free to do so and I wish them success. The popular hysteria so easily incited by the mention of pesticides and food is unfounded. However, those who wish to consume naturally-produced foods and can afford to do so constitute a lucrative market.
Thus, to the extent possible Lenz employs “green” practices in the vineyard, such as the use of self-seeded cover crops between rows so that there is considerable variety in the flora and fauna of the soil. These, of course, are a natural habitat for insects that are predators of many vineyard pests such as aphids. The crops also include plants that return nitrogen to the soil, encourage earthworms to propagate, and generally keep the soil healthy. Nevertheless, while he prefers to use pre-emergent herbicides to control pest plants, he will use Roundup to control weeds within the vine rows proper when necessary, as he considers it to be highly efficacious and of low environmental impact if used sparingly. So too with pesticides—he uses Danitol, a wide-spectrum insecticide/miticide that is essentially a synergized pyrethrin that is especially effective with grape pests such as the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the grape berry moth, and others, but will also use Stylet oil, which is biodegradable, as well.
Sam tries to use dry farming for the three vineyard plots and therefore has no irrigation lines permanently threaded into the rows of vines as is the case at some of the other wineries (not that those irrigate at times other than drought either). He finds that if there is a need to irrigate, it’s easy enough to bring the irrigation lines into the vine rows as needed, Furthermore, he explains that given the problems with permanently-installed irrigation lines, such as leaks, breakage, blocking of the lines, and so on, he really doesn’t think that it’s worth the expense, especially since irrigation is only needed once in every three to four seasons, when there is drought. So too with machine-harvesting vs. hand-picking the grapes. Rather than use a large and expensive machine such as that employed by a few other wineries, Lenz removes the grapes with a tractor-towed harvester. He notes that hand-picking clean grapes can cost around $100 a ton; hand-selecting while picking grapes can elevate the cost to about $200. By using a towed harvester with an attached selection table and a man or two to pick out the detritus—leaves, stems, bad grapes, insects—he can keep costs low and still have the advantage of selected grapes.
Actually, some varieties are better off being hand-picked, due in part to the thinness of the skins, and that is the case for the Lenz Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon. These are, after all, 36-year-old vines, which are able to produce more concentrated, flavorful fruit than can young vines, though they are rather shy bearers.
Sam works closely with Eric Fry, the winemaker who has been at Lenz for 25 years. When Sam first came to Lenz in 1990 the two “butted heads” at the beginning, but they now have a very effective relationship. It is, after all, for the winemaker to decide when the crop is ready to harvest, and both men agree that the kind of ripeness that they are looking for in the fruit can only be tasted, not just measured for sugar levels with a densitometer or looking at phenolic ripeness. It must taste just right to be harvested—this is experience, not science, at work in this instance.
Because they collaborate closely on the timing of the harvest, which includes deciding which parcels and which varieties to pick first—at optimum ripeness to the taste of the winemaker, ultimately, the estate grapes are ready to be made into wine not only for Lenz, but for several clients that do not have their own vineyards or winemaking facilities. These clients (not all of them in Long Island), buy their grapes from parcels set aside for them by Lenz and are then made into wine by Eric according to their style specifications. He also works closely with several local vineyards to help make their fruit into wine at the Lenz facilities.
Eric, by the way, is a really gifted winemaker and highly respected by his peers. Some refer to him as a kind of genius. He wears his gray hair in a pony tail and has something of the Hippie about him still. He is actually a very gentle person, very direct, strongly opinionated, self-assured, and generous with his time and readiness to help others. For Lenz, Eric’s practice is to make its best wines to be capable of aging, and he refers to himself as an “acid head”—not referring to LSD but to high acidity levels in the wine. In other words, he encourages it in the wines he makes. It is acidity, after all, that helps give wine structure and longevity. For Eric, that means holding on to the wine for a few years before releasing it. Most wineries don’t hold on to their wines any longer than is absolutely necessary once they’re bottled. It costs money to store it and it means that money is tied up until the wine
So, for example, when Eric works with clients, some of whom have collaborated with him for years, he tries to get them to take his advice. He feels that wine should be held for at least two years before being released to market, but not all of his clients see things his way—at least not at first.
He explains that “I actually have custom clients that I bottle for, that I make wine [for] here. We’re bottling the wine, and they’ll stand there and at the end of the bottling run, they’ll take cases off and throw them on the market, and I’m going, ‘Your call, I wouldn’t do that!’”
Over time, many of his collaborators come around to his way of thinking, or as he puts it, speaking of some of them: “Old Field is into my rhythm, Whisper’s into my rhythm, Harmony, they’re into my rhythm. This is a new client that we’ve just taken on, and I’m still trying to teach him my rhythm, to teach him my way of doing things, and so he had several wines that he was out of stock, and he was calling me up every day going ‘Oh, I need it, I need it.’ And I go like, ‘That means you didn’t plan ahead.’
“At the beginning he bristled and he got all upset and he was like, ‘You’re not cooperating with me.’ And I’m going, ‘I’ll do what you want, but if you want good wine, you should do what I want.’ So he’s coming around, he’s beginning to understand the concept, because I bottled a red wine for him and he wanted to release it right away and I said ‘It’s your wine, you can do whatever you want.’ And he goes and takes a sample and he goes ‘This doesn’t taste like it was before we bottled it.’ I’m going, ‘Well, hello? It needs some bottle age.’ And he’s going, ‘Oh, OK.’”
When he makes a Chardonnay, be sure that the wine is not just made from the Chardonnay grape, pressed, fermented in steel, and bottled—a simple, straightforward, and possibly excellent wine. That’s not Eric’s way. He seeks complexity, and a Chard may be, as he says, 5 % of the wine may be “keg fermented” in 15-year-old barrels, with perhaps a little M-L (malo-lactic) to add more character, but not so much that it makes the wine buttery, as a full M-L may do to a Chard. It imparts more complexity, but in the background. You can’t taste the oak, you can’t discern the M-L, but you can tell that the wine is complex.
But let’s talk about yeast. Eric is a “control-freak,” which means that he’s not someone who uses wild or indigenous yeast in his fermentation. He prefers to buy yeast that has been specifically modified for a particular set of characteristics. For example, for the Chardonnay just mentioned, he used EC1118, a workhorse yeast that brings out fruit flavors. In fact, as he explains, “I’ve been experimenting with yeasts for thirty years. Right after harvest, you go through and taste the barrels or taste the kegs; it’s like ‘Holy cow, this one tastes like this and this one tastes like this, and they’re so different and it’s amazing the yeast affect whatever like that.’ Six months later, you can’t tell them apart.”
He went on to say, “With different wines I use different yeasts on purpose and get different characters on purpose, but most of all the concept that I have is, if whatever yeast you’re using or whatever you’re doing, if the fermentation sticks you’re screwed. So what I do is I use yeasts that are dependable, that will not screw up, because if they screw up, everything’s out the window. All the wonderful nuances you’re looking for, they’re gone.
“The yeast does have a function and does make different flavors, but it’s overrated, it’s not a large factor.”
Eric is also something of a provocateur, so he asked me what I thought about the concept of terroir. I said that I considered the idea of terroir—as conceived by the French—to be something real and that affected the wine made from grapes grown in a particular place. To which he replied, “Terroir is BS, strictly a marketing gimmick. It’s all about marketing.” He then offered me a glass of wine of which he was very proud: the first botrytised dessert wine made at Lenz in the twenty-three years that he’d been winemaker there. Usually botrytis only produced gray rot, something to be avoided and which needed to be controlled with fungicide, but last year the conditions were unique, and the botrytis that settled on the Chardonnay grapes appeared when the grapes were very ripe, the early-morning humidity would burn off as warming sun rose in the East, and violà, a rich and delicious botrytised dessert wine at 73° Brix. When I pointed out that this happened in most years in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, which surely was an expression of terroir, Eric was dismissive, “Well, whatever.” Provocative, indeed. With respect to organic viticulture Eric feels, again, that it is mostly a matter of marketing rather than making a better wine.
Sam was a bit more philosophical about the matter of terroir, suggesting that its influence may be exaggerated but that it shouldn’t be entirely dismissed out of hand. And, after all, I would like to point out, it is what is done in the vineyard by human intervention, whether by using one kind of trellising over another, say single vs. double Guyot, or vertical shoot positioning or something else, how often the vines are green-harvested or not at all, the use of sustainable practices such as crop cover or biodegradable pesticides, and even the use of a recycling tunnel sprayer for pesticide agents, that are all part of terroir. This, of course, is a broad definition of the term; the traditional definition is more narrow and confines itself to geographical/geological/climatological issues of soil, climate, slope, drainage, aspect to the sun, etc.
Thus, both Lenz wines and the client wines benefit from the careful, practical, and highly professional care that is given to the grapes in the fields from which they are made. Then there is the thoughtful care that the wines get in the winery itself. These are crafted wines, not “natural” ones. The result can be tasted and Lenz wines have often been compared—favorably—to great European wines; for instance, the Lenz 2005 Old Vines Chardonnay held its own to a Domaine Leflaive 2005 Puligny-Montrachet “Les Folatieres,” while a Lenz 2002 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon tied with a 2002 Château Latour at a blind tasting held at the great Manhattan restaurant Le Bernardin in April 2011. These comparative tastings have been held every year since 1996 and always pit Lenz wines against French equivalents—not California ones, for the Lenz style is closer to that of France than the West Coast. The Lenz Website has a list of these blind tastings and the results.
I can attest to this personally with a blind tasting that I conducted with friends in 2012, comparing a 2007 Meursault-Charmes 1er Cru with a 2007 Lenz Old Vines Chardonnay–they all guessed that the Lenz was the Burgundy wine.
And to think that such results come from a Long Island vineyard . . .
Based on interviews with Sam McCullough & Eric Fry at the Lenz Winery in April 2011 and September 2014
For further reading, Fry and his wines were written about by Eileen Duffy in her book, Behind the Bottle (Cider Mill Press, 2015). Profiles on Sam McCullough and Eric Fry by John Ross can be found in his book, The Story of North Fork Wine: Historical Profiles and Wine Country Recipes (Maple Hill Press, 2009). Jane Taylor Starwood, former editor-in-chief of Long Island Wine Press, featured Lenz Winery in Long Island Wine Country: Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork (Three Forks, 2009). Philip Palmedo and Edward Beltrami discussed Lenz in The Wines of Long Island (Amereon House, 2000).
Empire State Cellars, once located in the huge Tanger Mall in Riverhead, Long Island, closed its doors on December 27, 2014. It was unique as the only retail outlet to sell wine, brews, and spirits from all of New York State. Not really a store, it was a satellite tasting room of Peconic Bay Winery, in Cutchogue, on the North Fork of Long Island, whose owners, Paul and Ursula Lowerre, fully financed ESC’s creation. However, Peconic Bay closed the winery doors last year, and closing ESC is another cost-cutting move on the part of the Lowerres, who were unwilling to continue to pay the very high and profit-robbing rent.
The story of how ESC came to be, however, is worth preserving.
Jim Silver, who was the general manager of Peconic Bay Winery until it closed its doors in 2013, first conceived of the idea of a satellite tasting room in 2010, when it became clear that the large number of visitors to the tasting room at Peconic Bay Winery was regularly pressing its capacity.
It was not possible to expand the tasting room given current conditions, so Jim pitched his idea to the winery’s owners that a satellite tasting room in the area could draw yet more people and at the same time provide for exposure not only of Peconic Bay’s own wines, but those of other wineries from all the viticultural regions of New York State, include the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) of the North Fork, the Hamptons, all of Long Island (which includes Queens and Brooklyn), the Hudson Valley, the Finger Lakes, Lake Erie and the Niagara Escarpment. They liked the idea and gave Jim the go-ahead to follow up on it.
Jim negotiated with the Tanger Outlets Mall in Riverhead for a store location and worked with the State Liquor Authority on the licensing of the premise. The lease was dependent on the license. The cooperation from the SLA could not have been better, given that a mandate of the agency is to help promote New York State wine. When the SLA chairman, Dennis Rosen and his counsel came to talk to Jim, Jim told them, “This is what we’re going to do.” Withal, he explained that, as a NY winery, Peconic Bay Winery was allowed by law to open an off-premise retail outlet.
In this case the outlet would offer not only PBW’s own wines, but those of any and all wineries in NY State, provided that they’d be willing to sell their wines to a competing winery at a fair discount from their on-premise retail prices. (One must understand that most of NY State’s wineries have a very small production, so it behooves them to sale from the winery tasting room, where they can sell at full price with no discount for retailers. On the other hand, a presence at other outlets, including restaurants, gets them a broader exposure to the public.) Furthermore, as a retail outlet of a winery, ESC could also sell wine to restaurants at wholesale prices. The SLA counsel immediately grasped the scope of the idea and observed that this was the three-tier distribution system rolled into one. Indeed, across the United States, wine is typically distributed as follows:
Wineries can sell to customers directly at their premises or distribute them to retailers by selling at a considerable discount to wholesalers or distributors.
Wholesalers provide the wine to duly-licensed retailers and restaurants at a price that allows them to sell the wine profitably.
Retailers then sell the wine to the public with whatever markup they choose to make.
New York, as a leading producer of table wine, has enacted fairly liberal laws on behalf of its wineries, so its laws permitted exactly the kind of retail outlet that Jim had conceived. Ergo, Empire State Cellars. Roughly a third to a half of the wines offered come from Long Island, with the balance coming from the rest of the state. ESC then broadened its offerings to include New York State craft brews and spirits. There are NY Vermouth and Absinthe makers, Bourbon and Single Malt Whiskeys, liqueurs, rums, vodkas, and so on. All craft and all of high quality. Craft brews of all manner are made in New York as well, garnering a great deal of attention and respect. One could have it all by confining oneself to just the products of our State.