Jason’s Vineyard is in Jamesport on the North Fork of Long Island, encompassing 20 acres that he planted in 1996. But this was not Jason Damianos’s first vineyard. He had already worked at Pindar for much of his adolescence, so he really knew what it was like to work in one.
Jason, an intense and determined man, spent many of his weekends and summers during high school on Long Island working among the vines, cutting, pruning, suckering, and weeding, under the tutelage of the then winemaker Bob Henn. This is where he got his first exposure to the hard work in the fields that is the essential precursor to successful winemaking.
After studying business at the University of Hartford and obtaining two degrees, Jason found himself wearing a suit and being miserable. On visits to Pindar he would chat with Bob Henn, who advised him, “Jason, why don’t you become a winemaker? You don’t have to wear a suit. Do something you really care about.” The proverbial light bulb brightened and Jason went west and obtained a degree in oenology at California State University in Fresno, where he graduated with honors, followed by several years of training at the University of Bordeaux—a Mecca for wine students; he worked in renowned regions like the Médoc, Premiere Côte de Bordeaux, Loupiac and Cadillac.
Influenced by his experience in Bordeaux, Jason planted his vineyard with very little space between the rows, largely to reduce the number of buds to about 30 instead of 60 on each vine, which should help promote superior fruit. Today the vineyard flourishes with carefully-selected French clones of Chardonnay, Merlot, and both Cabernets. The spacing he chose directly contradicted what the Cornell viticulturists who had come to dispense advice had told the new vineyardists of Long Island, going back to the time of the Hargraves. The Cornell team advocated nine by twelve-foot spacing between the vines. Jason remonstrated with them, saying that the soil here was different—not clay as in Northern New York, but topsoil and sand (not to speak of the difference in climate)—and he refused to take their advice. His experiences in France had convinced him that Long Island needed to look to the maritime province of Bordeaux for inspiration, rather than California, since he is convinced that climatically and topographically there are more similarities between Bordeaux and the Twin Forks than perhaps anywhere else, particularly Northern New York, so Jason planted accordingly; his vines are spaced one meter by two meters apart.
In the spirit of the Golden Fleece, Jason brought a flock of sheep and alpacas to look after the vineyard in the most sustainable way he knew. They keep the weeds down and mow, with no need for mechanical intervention and, as a bonus, they fertilize the vines. The alpaca helps ward off pests.
Jason produces tightly-structured, full-bodied, and age-worthy wines that can, after reposing in a cellar over a span of time, eventually ripen into deeply-rewarding and long-lasting wines. This poses a dilemma for him since he feels the marketplace wants wines that are more immediately accessible. This dilemma is faced by a number of Long Island wineries. A compromise is not always easily obtained except by offering a wide selection of wines, some of which provide immediate and pleasurable consumption while others are for the more patient drinker who is willing to let the wine evolve in bottle for several years before pulling a cork.
The tasting room as the good ship Argo, which took Jason & his Argonauts to their fate.
The tasting room is unique, given its abstracted representation of the ship Argo, which was sailed by Jason and his Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. It adds a certain rather wacky charm to what would otherwise be just another tasting room. Greek mythology, history, and literature all enjoy a large place in the Damianos panoply of Long Island wineries: Pindar, after all, is named after the great ancient Greek poet, and two of Jason’s wines are named Golden Fleece and Hercules.
Jason & one of his sheep
Tragically, Jason, 49, died after a traffic accident on December 30, 2016. His family, which is very close-knit, is determined to keep his vineyard and winery in business for the foreseeable future. After all, they also run Pindar, Duckwalk, and Duckwalk North, so they know what they are doing. Still, his loss is a significant one for the wine community. He was also director of wine making at Pindar.
In January 2018 it was announced that Jim Waters, of Waters Crest Winery, has closed his tasting room and winemaking facility to become winemaker at Jason’s. Jim has long had a relationship with the Damianos family, and they have agreed that Jim can continue to make his own wine at the facilities as well for his Waters Crest wine-club members. His wine will be made in small batches for a club that he wishes to limit to no more than 500 members; there are already 400.
Wine offerings may vary from this list. 5 whites: ‘Golden Fleece’ (an assemblage of five white grapes: dominated by stainless-steel-fermented Chardonnay plus Seyval Blanc, Cayuga, Vidal Blanc, Riesling), Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, 2 pinks: ‘Andy’s Candy,’ Rosé; 5 reds: ‘Hercules’ (a sweet red blend of Cabernet & Merlot), Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Meritage, Merlot; 1 fortified: a port-style dessert wine.
In 1978 Robert Entenmann—of the Entenmann’s Bakery family—purchased a potato farm in Riverhead and transformed it into a Thoroughbred horse farm, once breeding up to two hundred mares. Apparently he was eager to do something new and different after a time, so he converted the farm into what is now Martha Clara Vineyards—named after his mother—in 1995. The vineyard, comprising 113 contiguous acres out of a total of 205 that compose the Big E farm, is now planted with fourteen varieties of grapes, including Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Semillon, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Malbec. Because so much was invested in creating a first-class vineyard with its equipment and facilities, a planned winery was never built. Meanwhile, Clydesdale draft horses for the weekend carriage rides available to visitors still graze in a paddock, and there is a small zoo with Baby-Doll sheep, Scottish Highland cattle, goats, a donkey, a llama, and other farm animals for the entertainment of children. Martha Clara has a family-oriented visitor’s center, and there is a very spacious tasting room where there are twenty-five wines to choose from, including several quaffable versions, some of them rather sweet.
However, in April 2018 the property was sold by the Entenmann family for $15 million to the Rivero-González family. This would appear to be a major step in the family’s ambition for international recognition. The property had been on the market since 2014.
The Rivero-González family said in a release that it owns an eponymous winery and vineyard in Parras, Coahuila, Mexico. It has “15 years [of] experience in the Mexican wine industry and is excited about this acquisition, which will help the members of this family expand their interests beyond Mexico.” María Rivero will run the family’s wine operations at Martha Clara. The Vineyard Website says that “the Riveros are willing to work with the local community in order to encourage and enhance the legacy of the former owners of Martha Clara Winery in a successful way.” Further plans have not been announced as yet.
This makes it the second wine-producer on the East End to be owned by Latin-Americans; the other is Laurel Lake, which is in Chilean hands.
At present all the wines are made at Premium Wine Group under the watchful direction of the new winemaker, María Rivero. The word is that a winery will eventually be built on the Martha Clara property.
Jim Thompson came to Martha Clara from Michigan as Vineyard Manager in 2009. Steve Mudd told Jim, at the time of his first interview with Martha Clara, that in the North Fork the vineyard will be soaked with moisture every morning, but of course the grapes and vines need to be dry in order to develop healthily. This is because Long Island vineyards are on very flat land, so that there is no natural circulation of air unless a breeze comes up.
Originally, the vines were planted in rows that were treated with herbicides to such an extent that they were as smooth and clean as a billiard ball, but, since coming on board, Jim prevailed on Mr. Entenmann to reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides (he liked a trim, clean look in his fields) and allow cover crops to grow, such that now even toads have returned to the vineyard—a particularly good sign, given that toads are especially vulnerable to toxins, which they can absorb through the skin. The cover crops are white clover and low mow grass which is a combination of shorter growing fescues and a combination of the two.
Given the very flat, horizontal terrain of the property, Jim said that 7-foot spacing between rows is too narrow for tall vines that may reach 7 feet in height or more, because it means that when the sun is at its zenith of about 45° in the summertime, a shadow is still cast across the edge of a row immediately adjacent of another row, thus reducing solar exposure under the vines themselves, making it difficult to dry the soil adequately. It means that there is good sun from, say, 10:00am to 2:00pm, whereas a spacing of 8 feet could mean that the soil could enjoy the effects of the sun from 9:00am to 4:00pm. Presently, the spacing is 5′ x 7′ except for twenty acres that are 4′ x 7.’
He also remarked that, “It is a very different thing to sustain 15 acres versus 100. It is one thing to scout 15 acres and another to do so with 14 varieties on 100 acres. At Martha Clara, each variety is planted in at least two separate, non-contiguous blocks, so with 14 varieties we would have at least 24 blocks to scout, but it is more likely as many as 40. Clearly, with this many varieties in that many blocks it is difficult to manage. Scouting is time-consuming and needs to be done on a pretty regular basis to catch infestations before they can spread and do serious damage.”
“Fortunately, he went on, “Martha Clara is well laid-out for a right-brain mentality, with very straight rows which are perfect for mechanical harvesting, which is essential for a vineyard of this size. After all, it would take 20 to 30 people in the vineyard to pick enough grapes to fill one stainless-steel fermentation tank, whereas the harvester can do so in a matter of an hour or so.”
Martha Clara is “a vineyard in a box” according to Jim, for its 101 acres of planted vines are hemmed in on all sides by neighboring structures. It is also one of the four properties that forms the core group of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers certification program. In preparation for that, Jim says that , “I have narrowed my herbicide strip to 1/3 the total row width or less, I am doing some bud thinning which I anticipate/expect will reduce pesticide requirements. We have hired an intern whom I expect to be scouting for diseases and insects on a regular basis. I am reading related materials and articles.”
It is often difficult to find good vineyard workers to hire, according to Jim. Not long ago he had an applicant come to him who stood at the door to his office, leaning his right side against the door frame. Jim asked the man about his qualifications and then inquired about his work experience with the hoe. “It is not a problem,” averred the applicant. A day later, when Jim went to see the new crew at work, he found that the new “hoe worker” had no right arm. It was not a problem because he had gotten others to do the work.
Given all that, there are varieties that are easier to grow and maintain than others. Some vinifera varieties are especially difficult to deal with in the LI area, including Pinot Noir, Semillon, Syrah, and Viognier. For Martha Clara, the Pinot Noir is problematic because it can begin well and seem promising, but in the end produces unexciting wine. Semillon, Syrah, and Viognier have promise, but Juan pointed out that “Syrah may come up short on sugar, but flavors are beautiful in our Syrah in warmer years; in cooler years they tend to show more intense notes of black pepper. As for Viognier, it makes beautiful, well-rounded wines, but Jim [did comment on the] difficulty in handling it in the vineyard.”
The vinifera varieties that do best in this climate are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Riesling. In fact, Jim would like to expand the Riesling planting, but first would need to research the available clones for their appropriateness in the North Fork soil. (Clone selection, as a matter of fact, is as vital to the success of a varietal as the choice of terroir for the vineyard, or, to put in another way, it’s vital to select a clone that will thrive in a given terroir.) He has also added two acres of Malbec (a French variety that often associated with Argentina), using three different clones, and will see how those do here. The one vinifera variety that Jim would also like to plant, once he knows more about it, is Torrontés (the aromatic grape from Argentina). Were he to do so, it would be the first planting of that variety in the Eastern US.
However, because vinifera vines are so susceptible to fungal disease in the LI climate—given its high humidity and volatility—Jim and Juan have planted three experimental plots of hybrid varieties: Marquette (a U. of Minn. red hybrid with Pinot Noir in its sap along with excellent cold hardiness and good disease resistance), La Crescent (another Minn. hybrid), and NY 95.301.01 (also known as “No-spray 301,” a Cornell hybrid that needs minimal inputs against mildews and fungi) to determine if these could handle the climate and terroir better than some of the vinifera vines. Juan explained that, “this has been done more out of curiosity as we have one row of each vine type. There is not enough for commercial production.” It is enough, however, to explore vines with the very traits that are lacking in virtually all vinifera varieties: resistance to cold and mildew—the bête noir of humid-climate vineyards.
A visit to the tasting room proved especially interesting, not only because of the range of wines offered, but because Martha Clara is promoting the use of kegs for dispensing wine by the glass. To them, kegs offer several advantages: 1. they help preserve wine better than do opened bottles; 2. they eliminate bottles altogether, thus reducing the amount of materials and energy required to make bottles; 3. they reduce the cost of shipping and storage, which can be expensive in the case of bottles; 4. they can be reused for up to fifteen to twenty years. There seems to even be a difference in the character of the wine from the keg compared to that from a bottle. The Pinot Grigio served from a keg had a tad more fruit than that which was poured from a bottle. Consequently, the winery would also like to sell wine in kegs to restaurants and tasting bars.
In tasting six of the wines on offer, it was apparent that the fine wines can be very fine indeed, with a pronounced house style. The Syrah from the 2009 vintage was nearly mature and manifested the typical traits of a Syrah that had been barrel-aged for thirteen months—black fruit and cigar-box notes with an unusually forward expression of cracked peppercorns. It had been fermented with 3% Viognier blended in—as is the case in Côte Rotie. The strong spiciness appears to be the result of a cool vintage, though I suspect terroir and style also played a role here. In fact, the 2009 Viognier varietal (with its characteristic aromatics of spice and ripe white peaches with floral notes also had a strong spiciness on the palate—pronounced lemongrass, or was it white pepper? Both wines had a firm acid backbone to give them structure. I liked them both for their unusual spiciness, which makes them suitable for Indian, Thai, and Mexican cuisine or any well-seasoned food. The 2009 Cabernet Franc, made from hand-picked fruit, unfined and unfiltered, was also very nice, with herbal & chocolate notes on the nose & palate, integrated tannins and firm acidity, now ready to drink but still to benefit from some cellar aging. Terrific for accompanying barbecued steak, for example.
Because Martha Clara had spent so much money on developing its vineyard it was decided not to build a winery, given its enormous cost, and to contract its wine assemblage to Premium Wine Group. A visit to PWG, where Juan now works, allowed an opportunity for some barrel tasting. Several wines were sampled, including the 2011 Viognier—developed on its lees in steel, and the 2010 Syrah—which will be blended with 3% Viognier in the Côte Rotie style—which, tasted from the barrel, showed a more demur peppery flavor given the cooler vintage than that of 2007.
based on interviews with Jim Thompson & Juan Micieli-Martínez
3 February & 29 March 2012; updated 30 April 2018
as well as online & printed sources
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.
Carlo DeVito works as a publisher and editor in New York City, is the author of several books, including East Coast Wineries: A Complete Guide from Maine to Virginia (Rutgers U. Press, 2004), maintains a few blogs, principal among them is East Coast Wineries, and commutes home every day to Ghent, NY, where his winery and vineyard are located. Carlo is clearly a very busy man as well as a humorous one. Visit his blog and read his post for March 16: The Difference Between Beer People and Wine People . . . especially here on the East Coast.” It’s about dogs, too, but read the post for yourself. Another of his blogs is Hudson River Valley Wineries, which Carlo uses to publicize the sagas, tales, wines, and personalities of the region.
Hudson-Chatham Winery, in Ghent, NY (in Columbia County, to the east of the Hudson River) was established in 2007, soon after Carlo and Dominique, his wife, purchased the property—the last fifteen acres of what was once a 500-acre dairy farm—that had been left fallow for more than twenty years. The couple had been in search of a property with which they could realize the dream of having a winery and vineyard, and after a long and extended tour of parts of the East Coast, they had found what they wanted. One of Carlo’s criteria for the location was that it be in what was already an established winegrowing community. As he pointed out, in the wine trade, at least in the East, people aren’t cutthroat competitors but rather cooperative and helpful ones. After all, virtually all of the wineries of the Hudson River Region are very small operations. They all need one another. That mattered a great deal to Carlo.
So, in early 2007 they planted a small vineyard, then barely three acres in size. They also started the renovation of a 1780 farmhouse that had a long history, had character, and was in considerable disrepair. They had never owned a farm before, much less planted a vineyard or run a winery. Despite repeated warnings about the problems and difficulties of running such an establishment, Carlo persisted and Dominique, despite considerable doubts, joined him as a partner in the crime. Actually, Carlo was doubting his own sanity all along, but this, after all, had been an obsession of his for all of his adult life. (That obsession may well have been what was behind his writing his book on East Coast wineries, published three years before they bought the property.)
Carlo already knew that there were certain varieties that he want to plant and grow. They included Seyval Blanc, Baco Noir, and Chambourcin—all French-American hybrids. The long-term plan was to first plant the hybrid varieties and over time introduce some vinifera as well. The first thousand stalks that they purchased were Seyval, DeChaunac, Chancellor, and Golden Muscat. In order to plant them they first had to rip the soil to a depth of about two to three feet in order to break up the hardpan. The soil was analyzed by both the Cornell-run Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY, and by Rutgers, in New Jersey. Both recommended adding lime to the soil to bring the soil to a pH that was good for the vines. The hybrids were vines that had good resistance to the harsh winters of the region, as well as tolerance for the high summer humidity. In the end, as Carlo said, “the vines even weathered us and all our mistakes.” (Sadly, that wasn’t true of the Muscats that were planted—they wanted warmer climes.)
Soon after they’d started the vineyard, he had the great good fortune to meet Steve Casscles, who has two vineyard of his own and grows some obscure heirloom varieties. Chatham-Hudson presently buys the entire production of Steve’s vineyards for its table-wine grapes. As a result, Hudson-Chatham has also helped bring back Chelois—Steve is the winemaker, after all—along with Léon Millot and Dutchess—hybrids all. Another vineyard, managed by the winery, in Kinderhook grows grapes to go into its Port and Sherry-style fortified wines. Yet another plot in Central New York provides most of the old-vine Baco Noir for the winery.
Meanwhile, Carlo is planting his own vineyard to Seyval Blanc, Chelois, and Baco Noir with the idea that eventually most if not all of the wines will be estate-produced. This is being phased in over time as production increases. By the end of Spring 2014 there will be 5 ½ to 6 acres planted to vines, with Baco Noir making up a third of that, and Chelois another third. In time some vinifera varieties will be grown as well, such as Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and even Gamay. Carlo would like to grow Pinot Noir as well, but doesn’t believe that it would thrive on his site, but he may purchase fruit from a vineyard in Columbia County further south and close to the River.
In fact, the winery buys its Cabernet Franc from Long Island, and it makes a “Burgundy-style” wine—actually a lighter kind of red wine than is usual for the variety. Indeed, Carlo prefers the lighter Burgundy style for all his reds, regardless of the variety. So Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah, and other varieties that make heavier, bigger wines will not be part of the winery portfolio.
The predominant spacing in the vineyard is 8 ½ feet across by 6 between the vines; with vinifera it will be 8 feet by 4. Lucie Morton and others have demonstrated great success with the closer spacing of the vines—more vines per acre but less fruit on each vine by means of green harvesting. The resultant fruit is really fantastic. For now, all the trellising in the vineyard is VSP, though Greg Esch, the new vineyard manager, has some ideas about using different trellises for the newer varieties that will be planted. In fact, according to Carlo, there are issues with some of the hybrids. For example, Baco Noir “has some riparia in it so that it tends to grow kind of wild pretty quickly,” whereas Seyval Blanc has more vinifera in its genes and grows straight up and develops a nice fruiting zone. Baco grows in every possible direction so that it needs a good deal of hands-on attention. Clearly, the Baco is a candidate for another kind of trellis than VSP, whereas Seyval works very well with it. The same will be true of the Chelois.
According to Carlo, shale and river rock predominate in the schisty soil of the property.
With respect to sustainable practices in the vineyard, Carlo pointed out that his is a family farm, which is to say that his wife, his children, his pets, and he like to walk the property, including in the vines. Furthermore, there’s a pond nearby with brook trout; “If I leach, there are a lot of dead fish across the street.” He therefore uses inputs in the field as lightly as possible, including copper and sulfur. He wants his family to stay healthy, the trout to live, and the vines to thrive, so he is very careful with what he uses. He is not seeking to become organic, it’s too difficult to do successfully where he is. Just as close to it as possible.
Since Greg has come on board there’s been a great deal more leaf-pulling, hedging than before, resulting in a much better crop without requiring additional inputs. That wasn’t just because of the weather, as it also had to do with using netting for the first time (to protect the grapes from birds), and employing a number of other “best practices.” It was really a matter of not having the hands available to do that kind of work before this, and what Greg has done has yielded immediate results. Still, there are pest pressures all the time, if not from birds then from deer and groundhogs. Dogs and cats are useful here. We discussed chickens as a possible means of controlling insects, but for a long time there were too many foxes. Now the foxes seem to have disappeared and the groundhog population has exploded. At least now chickens are again a possibility.
It should be noted that for such a new micro-winery as Hudson-Chatham the results that it achieves in competitions is remarkable. In last year’s (2013) Hudson Valley Wine and Spirits Competition, its 2010 Merlot Reserve won both a Double Gold and Best in Show. That wine and the 2007 Merlot were both made from Long Island fruit (Merlot grows very well there), and the 2007 won the highest score of any Hudson Valley-made red: 85 points. That certainly reflects the outstanding winemaking skills of Steve Casscles. Other wines include Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, also made from Long Island grapes, and a Riesling the fruit of which was sourced from the Finger Lakes. The Hudson RIver vineyards that provide fruit to the winery include Casscles Vineyard in Athens (14 acres across the river), Casscles MIddlehope, near Marlboro (4 acres, also across the river), Kinderhook AC Vineyard (1 acre in Columbia County), Masson Place Vineyard at Pultney Farm, near Hammondsport (5 acres, Lake Keuka in the Finger Lakes), and the estate vineyard, North Creek, located at the winery.
More recently, the March 2017 issue of Wine Enthusiast Magazine rated the 2014 Middlehope Casscles Vineyard Baco Noir (Hudson River Region) at 91 points, referring to its “surprising depth and complexity.” It awarded 90 points to the 2014 Columbia County Pinot Noir (Hudson River Region) for its “complexity . . . and neatly balanced yet silken palate.” The 2014 Old Vines Masson Place Vineyard Pulteney Farm Baco Noir won 88 points as did the 2014 Reserve Casscles Vineyard Baco Noir. The 2014 Casscles Chelois got 87 points–all highly respectable to excellent ratings for the outstanding 2014 vintage.
Hudson Valley grapes are used for all the hybrid-based wines. Two different Seyval Blancs—one of which is estate-bottled; one called Salmagundi, a blush wine made from Vidal Blanc and DeChaunac; a Baco Noir Reserve Casscles Vineyards and a Baco Noir made from 60-year-old vines from Mason Place Vineyards at Putney Farms; and a Casscels Vineyards Chelois. One wine, the Empire, is what the winery calls a New York State super-blend, which claims to be the first wine made from grapes from all three AVAs of the Empire State: Merlot from LI, Cab Franc from the Finger Lakes, and Hudson Valley Baco Noir. Many of these have also won awards, including gold medals from the NY State Fair, Hudson Valley Wine & Grape Association, NY Food & Wine Classic, and the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, among others. It has been positively reviewed by Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Edible Manhattan, Hudson Valley Wine magazine, Hudson Valley Magazine,Hudson Valley Table, Rural Intelligence, and All Over Albany.
It should be pointed out that the Merlot and Empire wines are the only ones that have the body and weight of Bordeaux reds, the others are all done with the heft of Burgundies, which is to say, lighter in body.
The tasting room is a cozy, attractive space where interesting events can happen, such as a vertical tasting of Chelois. On a Saturday in March they served a 2013 out of the barrel, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2000, and 1987. I’d no idea about Chelois, but I certainly do now, and in fact I bought a couple of bottles of the 2010. A fascinating range of aromas, flavors, color, and structure, and who would have believed that Chelois could age and last as well as it did? Vertical tastings of the Empire blend and the Merlot are planned as well. For only $25, a reservation to one of these events is well worth while, for they are both instructive and very enjoyable. Not too many wineries offer verticals, to my knowledge.
In July 2015 Hudson-Chatham opened a satellite tasting room across the Hudson River in Tannersville, which is in Greene County. It’s NNW of Kingston and accessible from the NY State Thruway, taking the Saugerties exit: 6036 Main Street, phone (518) 589-4193. It’s a tribute to the success of the winery that a satellite was even possible. In 2017 a new tasting room was opened in Troy, at 203 River St. It’s open Tuesdays through Sundays. Such is the success of Hudson Chatham’s wines. Perhaps, in the near future, they’ll open one in Kingston. (One can only hope.)
Not bad for a small winery run by a publisher who works in New York City. He now needs to update his book, East Coast Wineries, and include Hudson-Chatham in it. Being a publisher, it should be easy.
One more thing: If anyone is curious to know what happens when you buy property to create a winery and vineyard, the Hudson-Chatham Wine Blog is the place to go. It’s informative and hilarious in equal measure. You’ll find the link under Our Blogs: Winery News. It covers the history going back to 2006 and continues on through the present.
Based on an interview with Carlo DeVito, 26 January 2014
Peconic Bay Winery, which derives its name from the eponymous body of water by which it is located, was established in 1979 by Ray Blum, making it one of the oldest wineries in Long Island. Owned by Paul and Ursula Lowerre, who live and work in New York City, the winery closed its doors in October of 2013, because, according to Paul, as quoted in the North Fork Patch of October 28, “Our decision to stop production at Peconic Bay Winery was based on simple economics. . . . I’m not going to say we’re finished producing wine – but we’re most likely finished making wine for ourselves.”
In fact, in 2017 an attempt was made to use the winery tasting room to sell a variety of wine, beer, and spirits from producers in New York State, somewhat along the lines of Empire State Cellar, albeit on a small scale. The experiment lasted about a year, but in the end it was shut down.
The account that follows is now primarily of historic and vinicultural interest only:
When it was in full operation, the day-to-day running of the winery was by a very capable team that included Jim Silver, the General Manager, Greg Gove, the winemaker (who now makes wine under his own label, Race Wines), Zander Hargrave, the assistant winemaker (and now winemaker at Pellegrini), and Charlie Hargrave, Peconic Bay’s vineyard manager, not to speak of the vineyard crew.
Indeed, because of its commitment to sustainable viticulture, Peconic Bay is directly involved with the VineBalance program of Cornell University Agricultural Extension. In fact, an entire row of Chardonnay had been turned over to the program by Jim, the GM, so that they could experiment with it as they wish.
Much of the care and nurturing of grapes simply cannot be done by machine. Pruning and tying, shoot positioning, thinning the leaves (also referred to as “opening up the canopy”) is vital to providing proper air circulation and sun exposure to the grape clusters; all these methods require knowledgeable, practiced hands.
The varieties grown at the vineyards included Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Chardonnay, which produced some of their best wines. For example, on the parcel called Sandy Hill the grapes are more subject to drought than elsewhere in the vineyard. Its terroir, however, also grows grapes with sugars that are higher and more concentrated, ultimately resulting in the best Chardonnay grapes of the property.
Charlie also knows the region and its climate better than most on the North Fork, and understands what weather changes can mean to fruit growing in any parcel of the vineyard, so he would quickly grasp what needed to be done through all vagaries of weather, be it excessive rain or periods of drought. For example, Greg Gove, the winemaker, said, “In 1999 we had hurricane Floyd come through. We were picking the grapes around these rain events, and in the midst of it all, the press broke down. We had to borrow a refrigerated truck to load it with as many grapes as we could.”
Jim Silver, Greg Gove, and Charlie conferred throughout the harvest, comparing notes on what affects each aspect of their responsibilities in deciding when to pick. The perfect balance of three factors are vital to deciding when to pick the grapes: pH, sugar levels (measured in Brix), and Total Acidity, or TA. Then they considered issues like short-term weather forecasts, available tank space in the winery, and the ready availability of a machine harvester or a hand-picking crew.
The result of this kind of collaboration and attention wass that Peconic Bay wines won many awards over the years. To mention but a few: La Barrique, an oaked Chardonnay has won multiple awards, including Best Wine Discovery (White) at the 2007 Wine Literary Awards in California, their Riesling was named one of the top ten Rieslings in the United States, a Merlot was designated as Best in New York State, and so on. Quite a track record. And it all began in the vineyard.
In the meantime, the Oregon Road vineyard parcels have been taken over by Premium Wine Acquisitions, and under the supervision of Russell Hearn is being managed by Bill Ackerman, of North Fork Viticultural Services. The vineyards, at least, shall remain in production for the foreseeable future.
Based on interviews with Jim Silver and Charlie Hargrave, 20 April 2011, updated 28 October 2014.
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 twenty-two acre plot of what was once a wheat field. 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 Shinn Estate—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 Estate 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, newly installed to generate electricity for the winery spins its blades in the wind and stands as a testament to Barbara and David’s 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, Shinn Estate 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, will continue in that role. The vineyard and the sustainable practices used to work it shall 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 Vineyards and Farmhouse
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
On October 19, 2016, this final e-mail came from Southold Farm + Cellar:
“Despite the hardships, the wines, made with indigenous yeasts and minimal amounts of the preservative sulfur dioxide, have been beautiful.” —Eric Asimov – New York Times.
By now most everyone should have had their wine arrive. Thanks to all of you for your support and patience as we made our way through that deluge of orders (during harvest no less!)!
We are going to keep the online store open until October 28th, with the last shipments going out by October 31st. So if you’d like to stock up for the holidays now would be a good time as we don’t imagine we’ll be up and selling again until late Spring 2017.
So with that and the last of the grapes having been picked, the time has come for Southold Farm + Cellar to say goodbye to its current home, the place where it all started and begin the transition to its new home in Texas. We don’t want to get too maudlin, but we are going to miss this place and the people who have been a part of our little winery’s journey. We are better having had this opportunity here, even if it was only for a short time, and we wouldn’t change any of it, because as the old saying goes: things happen for a reason. So we leave with no regrets and our hearts full of excitement for what is to come.
However, read this late appreciation of Regan’s wines from none other than Jane Anson of Decanter Magazine: Decanter, Nov. 18, 2016
Update 19 August 2017: The Meadors are now settled in Fredericksburg, Texas, in the heart of the Hill Wine Country. They still have leftover inventory of their 2016 Long Island wines. Their new wine study is to open in a few weeks.
As of 10 September 2018 the winery is now producing its own Texas wines.
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.”