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. However, in October 2019, Peconic Bay Winery was sold to Stefan Soloviev, a real estate investor who owns other agricultural properties in Long Island. His former wife, Stacey Sloviev, will run the estate once it reopens in late Spring or early Summer. It is probable that the vineyards will be tended by Bill Ackerman, who looks after the vineyards of other wineries on the North Fork. More details about this story are to be found in this Newsday article: Soloviev buys Peconic Bay Winery
When it was in full operation under the ownership of Paul and Ursula Lowerre, 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.
Indeed, because of its commitment to sustainable viticulture, Peconic Bay was 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 was 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.
Until the purchase of Peconic Bay by Solovieve, the Oregon Road vineyard parcels had 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. How this evolves under the new ownership remains to be seen. A critical decision will also be the choice of a winemaker. Perhaps, by May of 2019, all of this will be resolved and there will be more to the story.
Based on interviews with Jim Silver and Charlie Hargrave, 20 April 2011, updated 28 October 2014 and 10 November 2019.
According to the winery’s Website, it was sometime in the 1980s that Sam Rubin ventured to eastern Long Island and acquired what has since become Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard (BHFV). A lifelong farmer and naturalist, he began to till the soil, the basis for all great wines, using only organic compost and other natural inputs.
On his first 3.5 acres, Sam planted fine French vines and more were added after he purchased 13.5 adjoining acres. By then, his son Richard, a successful business entrepreneur, saw that his father needed help, so he stepped in with a sound business plan and a talented team to oversee and supervise wine production and vineyard management. Their approach has been successful in the context of the rather temperate and conducive climate of the region. The aforementioned, along with their hard work and high standards, remain the foundation for BHFV’s wines. The fact that they use no chemical fertilizers or herbicides (they merely turn weeds right back into the soil to enrich it) are key ingredients in their not-so-secret estate grape-growing recipe.
Sam died in 2014 at the age of 87, but the family has continued on with Richard at the helm. Steve Levine, who married Sam’s daughter Sharon, is the General Manager.
Tom Drozd, the winemaker, is a Riverhead native. Farming is in his blood, for as a child he would visit his grandfather’s farm in Jamesport and help with the picking of vegetables that grew there. Years later that farm was sold and is now part of Jamesport Vineyards. He has had long experience making wine in the region, going back to 1998, starting at Palmer Vineyards, where he worked until 2006 and then at Pellegrini Vineyards until 2014. Tom has been the consulting winemaker for Baiting Hollow since 2003. Richard Rubin and he work together on the blending of the wines, which are made at PWG. Bill Ackermann is the vineyard manager.
BHFV consists of 17 acres with 11 acres that are planted. Their estate fruit is supplemented with grapes from quality growers when needed to fill the demand for their wine offerings. They purchase Chardonnay grapes locally and until 2015, bought Riesling exclusively from the Finger Lakes. A more recently planted three-acre block of Riesling in their own vineyard allows them to claim that this varietal is from their own harvested fruit.
Tom is a firm believer in the idea that “it all starts in the vineyard.” For him, knowing the vineyard means walking it and carefully observing how the fruit is developing, for that tells him the direction that he’ll take once the actual winemaking commences. He sees himself as a caretaker of the fruit, working along with Bill Ackerman. What makes it particularly interesting is that Tom is still able to accomplish this even after having moved to Florida a couple of years ago. He communicates by phone and over the Internet (a method that permits him to view the crop between trips back to Long Island). He flies up regularly to be more hands-on, especially as harvest approaches. He makes the wines at Premium Wine Group’s custom crush facilities in Mattituck.
BHFV had, since 2007, maintained a horse-rescue sanctuary, which got started when they learned that countless numbers of American horses were being shipped to meet horrible deaths in both Canada and Mexico to satisfy an International market for horse meat in parts of Europe and Asia. They knew that we do not slaughter horses or eat them in the U.S. since they are revered and loved in our culture and so they were deeply disturbed. Further, they had discovered that the vast majority were young and healthy and this caused them to take action!
BHFV saved many horses over the years and have thankfully adopted out those they have rescued to loving homes by way of Sharon’s efforts and how caring, particular, and discerning she is. What remains is their ongoing effort to continue to raise funds for this cause. For this purpose, there is a wine-label series named after four of their former sanctuary’s most beloved residents. Wonderful individual wines offerings are available; ‘Mirage’ (a red blend), ‘Angel’ (Chardonnay), ‘Savannah’ (Rose) and ‘Isis’ (Dessert). A percentage of the proceeds from the sale of this horse rescue wine series go to support other reputable horse sanctuaries.
Its Website provides much insight about the goings on at BHFV, and while wines can be purchased online with free shipping and special offers, there seems to be limited technical information about them. However, this may be found by both email and phone inquiry.
When visiting wine country along Sound Avenue on the North Fork, BHFV is the west-most vineyard, located just east of Edwards Avenue. The tasting house, in the style of an English pub, is located in the carefully-restored 1861 farmhouse seen above.
Food & Wine Magazine, in its November 2015 issue, listed BHFV as one of the 20 “Best Long Island Wineries to Visit,” while Travel and Leisure selected it as a top wine destination for the Riverhead-Suffolk County region in 2018.
Why? Because the Rubins devoted nearly all of the first floor of a carefully-restored farmhouse and rustic rear courtyard to a tasting area. A visit is rewarded by a sense of history as well as comfort in which to relax, taste, and enjoy the food & entertainment.
Many of their wines have won awards in competitions. The 2011 Sweet Isis, a Riesling dessert wine, won Double Gold at the 2014 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition; the 2013 Riesling, just off-dry, won Double Gold at the 2015 Competition; the 2014 Cheval Bleu, a dessert wine based on Cabernet Franc, won Double Gold at the 2017 NY Wine & Food Classic; the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon won Double Gold at the 2017 Finger Lakes IWC and; the 2015 Riesling won Double Gold at the 2019 Finger Lakes IWC. That’s not to mention all the gold and silver medals that their other wines have been awarded just since 2012.
At first, the original 20-acre property was called Lieb Vineyard when it was established in 1992 by Mark and Kathy Lieb, but soon after, a new entity, Lieb Family Cellars, was created. Today both are under the rubric of Lieb Cellars. Because the vineyard has no winery of its own, at the beginning it used the winery facilities at Palmer Vineyards, and then those of Lenz Winery, where Eric Fry is the winemaker, but as of 2000 it has used the custom-crush facilities of Premium Wine Group (PWG), itself co-founded by Mark with Russell Hearn. By 2001 Lieb’s tasting room at PWG was opened and it began acquiring more land for vinifera vines. In early March 2013 PWG and Lieb Cellars came under the ownership of Southport Lane, a private equity firm. Peter Pace, a marketing executive with long experience in the spirits industry, was appointed as Managing Director of Lieb Cellars this past March, and Russell Hearn is Directing Winemaker of PWG and the winemaker for Lieb.
Lieb’s vineyards have been sustainably managed since its founding and it recently has been awarded a USDA grant of more than $23,000, which will help it support its management practices and sustainable viniculture over the next ten years. Indeed, it has also joined the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing program—its conversion to the programs guidelines and regulations should be straightforward, given that it already follows the VineBalance sustainable program by Cornell’s Agricultural Extension.
It should be pointed out that Lieb’s commitment to sustainable winegrowing is decidedly emphatic. From the beginning, it has said in its mission statement that Lieb is dedicated, “. . . to produce the highest quality estate-grown wines, without compromising the land on which we live.” Among the practices that they point out in particular are:
avoidance of herbicides
use of organic fertilizers
preservation of topsoil
replenishment of nutrients on a disciplined schedule
hand-tending and harvesting of vines
keeping fruit yields intentionally low
I met with the management staff at the tasting room on Oregon Road, Sarah Kane who is Director of Operations, as well as her colleagues Logan Kingston and Jean Partridge. They were very helpful and plied me with tastings of various Lieb wines—as the saying goes, liquor is quicker. We spoke about many things, including Lieb’s operations and its long-term plans for expansion, We spoke about many things, including Lieb’s operations and its long-term plans for expansion, and some of our conversation was quite philosophical and very interesting. Indeed, I’ll have to write a separate post for the discussion that we had, for there were some excellent insights into what the challenges are for Long Island wine producers, particularly with respect to competition and the selling of the wine in the larger marketplace. What was clear was their passion and commitment to not just Lieb, but Long Island wine as a whole.
But when it came to discussion of the viticultural practices of the operation, they got me in touch with the head of the vineyard crew for the original Lieb parcels, Jildo Vázquez, originally from El Salvador, who has been with Lieb for the past sixteen years. He’s held in very high esteem by the staff who cannot praise him enough for his work ethic, skill, and dedication.
Jildo came in from the vineyards where he’d been working on a tractor when I asked to speak to him. Speaking in Spanish, I asked him what he and his crew did to bring quality fruit grown sustainably to the winery. Rather shy and very soft-spoken, particularly with a stranger, even though speaking Spanish, I had to draw Jildo out. He answered my questions very simply and directly: “Well, this first thing that we do is check that each vine is health and clean. Then we make sure to spray them as needed.” When I asked him what kind of sprays he uses, he said, “I don’t know, as I don’t do it. I dedicate myself to making sure that the plants are clean.” It turns out, according to him, that there are individuals who are trained to do that particular job and must be properly licensed. It wasn’t enough that a sprayer have the requisite experience; he needed, as Jildo put it, “to have the backing of the law.” An answer, I thought, that was very reassuring in the context.
For that reason, he only maintains the vines and keeps them clean of any diseases that may threaten them. Towards the end of the season and just before the harvest he’ll spray the vines to clean them of any bacterial or fungal growths. He also ensures that each vine has no more than fourteen or sixteen shoots so that it grows well.
I asked about the use of fertilizers and he told me that though he knows that they are used in some places, they are not employed at Lieb because they can adversely affect the vines. With respect to using machines to harvest the grapes, he made a point of explaining just why they aren’t used at Lieb: they gather not only fruit, but also leaves, stems, bird droppings, damaged fruit, dirt, and so on. That’s why they only pick by hand—the harvested fruit is clearly superior.
As his replies suggest, this is a vineyard that is closely and carefully managed, and the quality of the fruit shows in their wines.
Jildo has been collaborating with Russell Hearn closely since PWG began making Lieb’s wine thirteen years ago, especially now that the two firms have been merged. Jildo is himself a gifted winegrower, as Russell himself attests, given that with his long experience and acute eye he’s able to see if anything is wrong with a vine, and even without tasting can visually see when a vineyard is ready to harvest. Russell thinks very highly of Jildo and enjoys working with him. During the growing season, Russell goes out into the vineyard about once a week, and during the harvest he goes every day with Jildo.
As Logan pointed out, Jildo is extremely dedicated, and with the acquisition of the Peconic Bay vines he has been getting up at 5:30 every day and doesn’t quit until 7:00 in the evening. He has a crew of eight, some of whom have been working with him for years.
At present Lieb has its vineyards planted to Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Blanc, and Petit Verdot, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. Some of the vines were planted as far back as 1982.
Indeed, Lieb/PWG (Southport Lane) has taken control of Peconic Bay’s vineyards, as the latter is has just put its winery up for sale. That’s an additional 58 acres in two large parcels, in consequence of which Lieb has hired Steve Mudd, a long-time wide-ranging vineyard consulting manager in the East End to help run Peconic Bay’s Main Road vineyard and Bill Ackerman of North Fork Viticultural Services (NFVS) who works the one on Oregon Road. The two men coöperate on certain aspects of the management of the fields, particularly with respect to the sprays to use. Ackerman mixes his sprays at his own property and then brings in his equipment into all the vineyard parcels, using double-curtained machines that help keep the sprays contained and partially recycled.
And then there are the Lieb wines. For starters, Sarah pointed out that Lieb Cellars’ 91-point Blanc de Blanc brut sparkling wine, made entirely of Pinot Blanc, which we were tasting during the interview, was the result of the cooperation of two winemakers: Eric Fry of Lenz Vineyards, who made the dosage, and Russell, who finished the making of the wine. In fact, Lieb has employed the gifts of Eric to make dosages for the last twelve years, other than the 2009, which was entirely Russell’s effort. Eric, according to Sarah, has the right palate for the Pinot Blanc sparkler that Lieb so famously makes. Tom Collichio’s Craft Restaurant house sparkler —is made by Russell as well as another for Topping Rose House, another Collichio restaurant.
Essentially, Lieb has two brands: Lieb Cellars, which includes the Reserve wines, and Bridge Lane, its second label (right). I’ve tried most of their wines, of which I have purchased several over the years and a few of which are still in my cellar. All of them, without exception, are clean, well-made, and taste true to the varieties from which they are made. Lieb is especially well-known for both its award-winning Pinot Blanc sparkler and its also medalled Pinot Blanc Reserve wine. I’m also especially fond of the 2008 Cabernet Franc, which is wonderful to drink, mature and ready now, or cellared for a few years more. One that I’ve not yet tried is the White Merlot, where the grapes are picked early in the harvest season and crushed without any skin contact. From its description on the Lieb Website, it sounds intriguing.
A final note: as of September 24, 2013, according to Lenn Thompson in his New York Cork Report, Lieb has joined Merliance:
. . . formerly known as the Long Island Merlot Alliance, [which] announced today that Lieb Cellars has joined its ranks and that two barrels of Lieb Cellars’ Merlot will be included in the 2012 vintage of Merliance, the group’s cooperative merlot blend.
This move isn’t surprising. Acquired along with Premium Wine Group by private equity firm Southport Lane earlier this year, Lieb Cellars is now under the business leadership of Peter Pace and technical direction of Merliance co-founder winemaker Russell Hearn.
“Lieb seeks to expand the visibility of Long Island wine at high-profile venues across the Northeast,” said Pace in a press release, citing Citi Field, Navy Beach, JFK Airport and other destinations as the winery’s newest points of distribution. “With this expansion, we will certainly elevate the perception of our region as a source for quality wines, with merlot foremost among them.”
Lieb currently makes three merlot-based wines: its Reserve Merlot — always a NYCR favorite and a great value — its second-label Bridge Lane merlot and Right Coast Red blend. “There’s a reason merlot wines dominate our red portfolio,” said Hearn. “The grape thrives on Long Island, enabling us to make wines of consistent quality, no matter what the vintage brings. By joining the Merliance, we seek to continue the important research and quality initiatives the organization advances, and grow the perception of merlot and merlot blends as the signature wines of Long Island.”
With the addition of Lieb Cellars, the Merliance has seven members, including Clovis Point, McCall Wines, Raphael, Sherwood House Vineyards, T’Jara Vineyards and Wölffer Estate Vineyard.
Established in 1996, Sherwood House Vineyards is committed to the production of world-class wines using only estate-grown vinifera grapes. Owners Dr. Charles Smithen and wife Barbara believe that producing fine wine is a combination of passion and patience, handcrafting their wines using traditional methods combined with the latest scientific techniques. “There’s very little nature and man can do in true harmony,” says Dr. Smithen. “A vineyard is one of those things. Making wine requires both science and art to excel. Anyone can learn the science. But it’s the art, the near-intuitive understanding, the smell, sense, and feel, that makes the difference.”
On their 38-acre farm, the Smithens initially planted Chardonnay vines from Burgundian clones, but after careful research and planning, have since added Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. Sherwood House currently produces a Stainless Steel Fermented (un-oaked) Chardonnay, Barrel Fermented (oaked) Chardonnay, Blanc de Blanc (sparkling), White Merlot, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and a Bordeaux-style red blend, using the facilities of Premium Wine Group, as Sherwood House has no winery of its own [author’s emendation].
The team at Sherwood is led by two veterans. Winemaker Gilles Martin received his Master of Oenology from France’s prestigious Université Montpellier and directed production at more than a dozen prominent wineries in France, South America, and California, before settling on Long Island. Viticulturist Bill Ackerman has 15 years of experience growing grapes on Long Island and a reputation for meticulousness, outstanding grape quality and viticultural innovation. In 2012, the New York International Wine Competition held in New York City named Sherwood House the “North Fork Winery of the Year.”
Bill Ackerman Interview
Bill Ackerman, owner of North Fork Viticultural Services, originally came to the North Fork for both the land and the proximity to the sea, as he likes sports fishing. He went on to start his own vineyard, Manor Hill Vineyard, in 1995. He started NFVS in 2009 and the first harvest he worked was in 2010, so that was the operational beginning of his business. I caught up to him in the middle of the 2012 grape harvest at Sherwood House.
At present he has five full-time employees, including Irwin, who’d been with him since when he had Manor Hill. Of Irwin, he says, “I’m eternally grateful to him because he’s the only one who speaks Spanish and English.”
NFVS already has six clients, including Onabay, Sherwood House, Clovis Point, Lieb, Sargon, and, as of 2013, one of the two vineyard parcels of Peconic Bay (the other is looked after by Steve Mudd).
Sargon vineyard, located in Orient, on the North Fork, is owned by a retired neurosurgeon out of NYC—about 12.5 acres planted to grapes planted around 2002 by Steve Mudd. The vineyard is about five-eighths red-grape vines, the rest is Chardonnay (Dijon clones 76 & 96). The reds include Merlot (clones 1 & 314), Cabernet Franc clones (1, 332 & 327); Cabernet Sauvignon (clone 327).
Sherwood House’s 12.5 acres of vinifera vines were also planted by Steve Mudd. Nevertheless, Bill states that he is not an active competition with Steve nor does he go out of his way to compete. Rather, he says, he spends his time trying to grow the best grapes he can for making wine. “It makes a difference if you grow grapes just for the sake of growing grapes versus knowing that the grapes are going to be used to make a varietal.”
He’s largely self-taught, based on the work he’d done at Manor Hill, from roughly 1995 to 2006 and reading is a big part of his knowledge. He points out that, “I use empirical evidence; based on what I’ve read I’ll ask myself, does this make sense for this environment, this climate, will it work? Certain parts of what I read will make sense, certain parts probably will not make sense, because of the environment. I take a look at how plants react to what it is we’re doing, and that’s the empirical side. When I had Manor Hill, that’s I made a lot of changes to then current growing practices.”
With regard to organic practices, Bill says that it’s a good objective, but given the Long Island climate, which is humid and wet, one is really hard-pressed to adhere to pure organic practices. It’s a noble cause, but he likes sustainable winegrowing, because it offers degrees of freedom that are needed here. When I asked him about Biodynamics, he replied, “Biodynamics, as in, taking compost material and turning it into energy sources?” And he laughed and went on to say that the closest he gets to it is in orienting a vineyard so that its rows run directly north to south, the he can take advantage of the sun, or for that matter east to west, depending. Actually, he acknowledges having heard the term but never paid it much attention.
With respect to the LI Sustainable Winegrowers program, Bill has attended a majority of the meetings that have been held before the program was incorporated. Given the newness of the program, on behalf of his clients he wants to know more about the standards that will have to be met: for example, the inputs or sprays that will be allowed, the spraying schedule, things that we have to get comfortable with. The irony of it is that his clients are already doing sustainable practices. As he says, “I didn’t even know the word ‘sustainable,’ I just did what I thought was appropriate, based on what I read and what I knew about other areas of the world that grew grapes for wine. While I was in California writing software I visited tons and tons (no pun intended) of grape areas, if you will.”
To the question, “What do you do for the Sherwood House vineyard that is different from what was being done before you came on?” Bill answered:
“Well, we did what I call ‘renewal pruning.’ What I noticed, as far as I could see, was that when they pruned the vines they weren’t anticipating what would happen in subsequent years. So what happens is, if you don’t pay attention to how you are pruning for subsequent years . . . it isn’t just a question of this harvest year or that harvest year; you end up getting a fruit zone—or actually a ball or a knot right at the apex of the vine, and all these little shoots come out of it, and you have little or no real new growth coming out of it, which means it’s not strong enough to accommodate a healthy crop. And if you do get a shoot out of it, it tends to create a much thicker cane—which they call ‘bull canes’—so, long story short, what we did is to try to bring the down the head of the vine–down lower—in order to promote the growth of younger shoots down below so that we could train them to come up. Ideally what I want to see is a ‘Y’, a single trunk and then a left and a right cane each year.
“One of the things that I did when first I got out here and started my own vineyard—which is, again, Manor Hill—everybody was growing two trunks per plant, and nobody ever said ‘do it’ or ‘don’t do it.’ The reason that they did it out here at the time was that they were concerned about frost killing the plant and they’d have one trunk left. And I was, like, if the frost killed the plant, which had two trunks coming out of one rootstock, you’re going to kill the plant, period. And I spoke of ‘empirical’ before—I went around my vineyard and saw that naturally there was one trunk, and the vines, canes, the vertical shoots, all seemed to be much more balanced to me. And I saw several vines that way and so I said to my guys, ‘We’re cutting off that second trunk, period, end of story.’ And that’s what we did. And I never told anyone to do it elsewhere, I just wanted to do it in my vineyard—I guess because they saw the quality that we generated, that gave them the impetus to cut off the second trunk in their vineyards.
“Part of that renewal pruning that we do is first to push down what I call the fruit zone of the vines so that we can renew the canes so that they’ll have the vertical shoots. And the other thing to do where appropriate is to cut off the second trunk; if it’s giving healthy growth you leave it alone, but if it’s aged and not giving that growth you cut it off.
“From my reading and experience I’ve come to understand that the trunk is nothing more than a highway or conduit for the nutrients. And the other side of the coin is that if the plant is putting too much of its effort into growing trunks and canes, it’s not going to put in as much effort to grow healthy and flavorful fruit. We [also] fruit-thin for two reasons: a) in order to improve ripening, and b) if you have too many clusters bunched close together that makes them more prone to disease—so we also thin in that regard. The more I learn about trunks and canes, again, if you have too much cane growth, that detracts from the quality of the fruit. I didn’t know this when I was doing this eons ago, I just saw a more balanced plant, and that was enough for me. Again, you can read all you want, but you have to check and see what’s going on in the field to make sure that what you’re reading and trying to implement field, you need to check to be sure so that what you’re doing is beneficial to the plant, the region, etc.”
Bill tells me that he uses the same practices in all the vineyards in which he works. He pointed to the Sherwood House vineyards and mentioned that they use dry farming—there is no drip irrigation. His view of irrigation is that it is:
“ . . . strictly an insurance policy, and you don’t use irrigation [for vines] as you would for tomatoes, for instance. You know, vines, specifically vinifera, do not enjoy a wet environment. The more you irrigate it the less flavor you’re going to have in general. The more canopy you’re going to have, so that’s going to detract from the flavor. There’s a huge balance between having the right, healthy canopy and the right degree of cane growth—we literally go about cutting, but there are places where we just let the canes grow laterally, and you’re not hedging them. So when you hedge them you’re not going to catch every single cane, so when I see lateral canes that the hedger didn’t catch then I send my guys in to cut them off. To me there are three key things: balance, uniformity, and the right amount of dryness—you don’t want to stress the plant so much that it’s going to die. In dry periods obviously I use irrigation to keep the plant healthy, but there’s another reason, especially around here, and that is because . . . we know that it’s going to rain here and when it does rain we don’t want the vines to soak it up immediately and then crack and then that induces disease.”
Upon my remarking that the area has a very high water table, He went on to say:
“The thing is, the soil is not that deep . . . maybe six inches in some shallow places and as deep as it goes is twenty-four–maybe—the average being about twelve to eighteen, so I could dig anywhere from twelve to twenty-four inches down here and I’ll hit gravel and then sand.” (Sherwood House’s vineyards lie on sandy loam with a good amount of clay.)
Another thing that Bill pointed out, with respect to sustainable practices, is the use of minimal herbicides underneath and he cultivates under the vine, which is very difficult to do without [specialized and] expensive machinery and it’s difficult to train the crew to use it. According to Bill, it’s valuable for two reasons: 1) it takes off the suckers from the root zone which prevents it from sucking up unnecessary water; 2) when it does rain it acts like a sponge and sucks it up and lets it drain quicker to the ground, through the soil [meaning unclear]. And if there is any herbicide material it’s less likely to go into the plant because it’s taken the suckers off. The fundamental reason is for dryness and then the residual reason is to help with minimal use of herbicides.
I made the observation that there was a lot of disease pressure in 2011, due to the bad weather, to which Bill remarked that there was a lot of Downy Mildew in 2012 as well. It was so humid and there was so much rain that it was ideal conditions for growing things that want to be green, like grass, for example. “You get a lot of water and then you get a lot of sun; well, the vine doesn’t really want that. What grows in that environment on a vine is fungus.” Vines, after all, are unique in their own needs and that they can thrive where other plants don’t.
In fact, many vineyards in Long Island, including Sherwood House, are planted on what were once potato fields. Potatoes, as Bill explained, want an acidic environment whereas grape vines need a more neutral soil environment, with the result that many vineyards need to add lime to the soil to help bring the pH to that neutral level. Many people have been putting Dolomitic lime, which contains a lot of magnesium [calciummagnesiumcarbonateCaMg(CO3)2] to the vineyards, which is a positive. But the thing about magnesium is that it binds up the aluminum, which is what potatoes want; so NFVS uses lime that has no magnesium, but rather a high-calcium lime, which is CCE [Calcium Carbonate Equivalent] rated. Another kind of lime that he uses is a pelletized version that is more soluble, so it breaks down more evenly. He also does a certain amount of foliar sprays to help where there might not be enough nutrients in the soil. Furthermore, he pointed out, adding too much fertilizer puts more nitrogen in the soil, and vines don’t tolerate an excess of that either. Whatever inputs NFVS uses, incremental nitrogen is avoided to the extent possible.
As Bill says, “everything’s a balance. What do I think that I need to get the best flavor, to get the best health out of the vine. Flavor first, then health; you don’t want a diseased vine, because then you don’t get the flavors; it’s that combination.”
For foliar inputs Bill uses a recyclable sprayer. He applies the foliars in conjunction with whatever other sprays are needed at the time, but he points out that one has to be very careful not to mix a highly alkaline component with a highly acidic one.
With respect to cover crops—if he could change the cover in all the vineyards he works—his preference is fescue or a [indistinct word]; rye, for example, has an effect on certain soil enzymes that encourages denitrification, as do some flowering plants.
Bill meditated about winegrowing in France:
“In France they grow some of the best fruit and make some of the best wines on some of the least fertile soil in the world. And what they have that we don’t have here naturally is the natural limestone. I think that they tend to forget about that. I was talking to someone from France not long ago, [and he pointed out] that their topsoil is barely soil—it’s just dirt. They don’t irrigate or anything, but was it a foot, two feet, three feet—how far under the ground?—they have limestone, and it sweat and wept a little bit of moisture—like condensation on a glass—that was just all that the plants needed. But it’s also a calcium-rich environment . . . . If I was going to do anything artificial, I’d try to bring in some crushed limestone and let it dissolve in the soil naturally.”
As our interview drew to a conclusion, he went on to tell me that Sherwood House is going to plant the remaining acreage—about seven—to vines, and he’d like to see a little bit of that put in there, as that plot has been fallow and hasn’t had potatoes and hasn’t had any chemicals on it—so for Bill it’s a kind of virgin environment, perfect for sustainable farming.