“I’m only concerned about two things here: land preservation and the quality of the wine. I want people to come here in 1000 years and see the same thing.” – Russ McCall
With Long Island’s largest vineyard of Pinot Noir, and an equally-sized vineyard of Merlot, McCall focuses on crafting low-yield, quality-driven wines. The original vineyard (planted in 1996) and surrounding farm are in the town of Cutchogue, which the McCall family has called home for generations. The home of McCall Wines is an old potato barn previously used as a horse stable. The rustic tasting room is there, with its collection of old tools decorating the barn walls and the concrete buttresses reinforcing the walls a constant reminder of the North Fork’s agricultural past. There it sits on the property, surrounded by an expanse of lawn and a charming, pastoral feel to it, with Charolais cattle grazing in the adjacent pasture.
Until roughly three hundred years ago, Downs Woods and the adjacent McCall vineyards were the cultural center of an Algonquin Indian tribe. Known as Fort Corchaug, these natives long ago selected this unique maritime area along the estuary as their home. About two hundred years later, in 1902, Russell Simeon Walker, president of the Dime Savings Bank in Brooklyn, rode his horse and buggy out to the North Fork to find a summer home. From the Walkers to the Munkenbecks down to the McCalls, the property has remained in the family for generations.
For years Russell McCall worked as a distributor for high-end wines in Atlanta, Georgia, but an offer too good to turn down led him to sell the business and return to Long Island. Hence his interest in fine wine found a home for making his own. And he knows what he wants.
At the farm, a commitment to the preservation of local wild and agricultural land and to the environment is an important part of McCall’s mission. In 1996 Russell McCall allied himself with the Peconic Land Trust to save Down’s Woods, Fort Corchaug, and the farmland adjacent to his family’s property (over 200 acres in total) from the threat of a proposed development of condominiums, after which he replanted the corn and potato fields with 21 acres of vineyards. By selling the development rights, he has guaranteed that it will remain in a wild, natural state or be devoted to agriculture in perpetuity. (The Trust is funded by a 2% land transfer tax whenever land is sold. The tax goes to the township and accumulates 100s of $1,000s, which then allocates the money to the Trust and decide which property to purchase the rights from.)
The tasting room is in an old barn, of which Martha Steward said, “In the charmingly rustic tasting room, I got to sample some of the wines and I was so impressed that I bought a mixed case, which I enjoyed immensely.”
The addition of a wind turbine in 2010—the first for a farm in Long Island—has provided the clean wind energy; enough that it also supplies clean power to the Long Island Power Association.
In the same year, McCall began ranching organically grass-fed Charolais cattle, which graze in the fields by his vineyards. There are 50 head of cattle, of which 10 to 15 are sent to an abattoir each year and the meat is then sold to high-end restaurants as well as at the farm store. The animal feed on grasses that have not been chemically treated for 15 years, so effectively organic.
With the use of innovative techniques such as recapturing spray, they manage to limit the use of pesticides and herbicides and ensure that they don’t dissipate from the vineyard or affect either the neighboring preserve or the Charolais cattle, not to speak of the native wildlife, so that on any given day one may see foxes, pheasant, deer, hawks, turtles, wildflowers and more.
Committed to quality and sustainability, McCall released his first wines in 2007. Since then, they have found critical acclaim. They can be found on the wine lists of a handful of upscale restaurants in New York City and on the East End.
Corchaug Estate Vineyard
The original vineyard that Russell McCall planted in 1997 is referred to as Corchaug Estate. This vineyard was established on land rescued from development that borders the historic Fort Corchaug site and Down’s Woods preserve. The estate also includes our tasting room, an existing barn reclaimed as a place for visitors.
The southern end of the vineyard is planted with 11 acres of Pinot Noir, comprised by four clones selected from the best French clonal varieties grown in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, comprised by four clones: Pommard 4, and Dijon 667, 777, and 115. This is to date the largest successful Pinot Noir vineyard on Long Island.
Based on the French tradition, the vines are spaced closer than most in the region. On the north end of the farm the soil is rich with clay much like the best vineyards of Bordeaux, especially Pomerol, where there are ten acres planted with three clones of Merlot.
Just north of Corchaug Estate, across Route 25, lies a 16-acre vineyard planted by Dr. Peter Gristina in 1983. The neglected old vine Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay plantings were taken over by the McCalls in 2010, who first leased it for three years to assure the quality of the fruit, as the vines were not all in good shape. While rejuvenating them they found that the vines produce excellent fruit, and expanded the vineyard by adding a block of Sauvignon Blanc once the property was purchased in 2013. The land is unique in its hilly relief and the inclusion of a large kettle hole nestled in a parcel of protected forest. The glacial terrain, mostly sandy loam, has a positive effect not just on the drainage of the vines, but also the characteristics of the fruit.
Hence, the two vineyards reflect French influence from two of its greatest regions, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Russell’s approach to making quality wine is focused on the vineyards, because as far as he’s concerned, the fruit determines what the wine will be come. In other words, there is no “winemaking agenda, just a farming agenda.”
McCall is quite candid in saying that He doesn’t always produce Pinot Noir successfully. A major reason for that is the unpredictable weather from year to year, a problem that is common for a maritime, cold-climate region. It is a difficult grape to cultivate because it is so sensitive the vagaries of clime and weather so that both yields and quality can be highly variable. These are reasons that it’s called the “heartbreak grape,” but what makes it worthwhile is how splendid a wine it can make in a good year. The McCall Pinots have received high praise from the NY Times, Wine Advocate, and Wine Enthusiast.
He predicts that the 2014 vintage has potential for greatness. The weather was sunny and there was nearly no rainfall for July, August, and September, creating dust-bowl conditions, bad for grass but terrific for grapes like Pinot Noir. By September the fruit was fully ripe and was all harvested; indeed, the Pinot is always picked between the 10th and 20th of September from the time that the vineyard was planted in ’97 with over 22,000 vines.
For example, in a humid climate such as Long Island’s, it’s necessary to start leaf-pulling early to expose the fruit to the sun and air so as to keep disease at bay. If needed McCall will have as many as 20 workers out in the vineyards pulling leaves. Indeed, at harvest all the grapes are picked by hand, for he doesn’t believe that mechanical harvesting has been perfectly sufficiently to be used for harvesting high-quality fruit. Furthermore, very much in the French tradition the vines were planted just three feet apart, which makes it even more difficult for machines to work in the fields. In other words, the vine density is about 2050 plants an acre given a 3×7 spacing. An important advantage of such close spacing is that it forces the vines to compete for water and rather than spread roots more or less horizontally they are forced to dig down into the soil—one of Helen Turley’s many axioms about winegrowing (in Russell’s eyes she is a genius). The result is that about two tons of grapes are taken from each acre, resulting in a total production of just under 5000 cases a year, depending on the vintage.
As for the future, Russell has three children, of whom but one may be interested in taking over, but it’s not yet his time.
In 2013 McCall was rated “Best Winery in New York” by the NYWGF. And in 2015 three of its wines were rate 90 or more in The Wine Advocate.
McCall’s makes two whites, a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc, that are quite good, especially as food accompaniment, but the winery’s real claim to fame is its reds, particularly the Pinots.
The 2010 Ben’s Bordeaux Blend is a wine that is only possible to craft in a great vintage like 2010. It’s produced from the best estate Merlot, plus three other varieties: Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc in roughly equal proportions. The blend of these Bordeaux grapes, often known as a meritage, is named for McCall’s late vineyard manager Ben Sisson. Drinking well now, it will continue to age well as a collector’s wine. The 2010 Merlot was highly praised by Wine Advocate (90 points) as an excellent food wine, given its somewhat understate though beautifully balanced style.
All the wines except for the Pinots are made by Gilles Martin, a highly-regarded consultant winemaker, at PWG.
The 2010 Reserve Pinot Noir is made from 100% estate-grown and hand-selected fruit from the very best grapes in the Corchaugh vineyard, the 2010 reserve shows intense fruit and subtle earthy and mineral notes with a hint of the sweetness of French oak. Extremely low yield, due to green harvesting, the 11-acre vineyard has intensified the deep essence of the variety. A wine like this is only possible once in a five to eight-year weather cycle. It is best to decant and drink now or to save it until 2017 or after. It was named “Best Pinot Noir in NY” at the 2013 NY Wine & Food Classic. The New York Times’ Howard Goldberg had this to say: “The star was the sophisticated 2010 Corchaug Estate reserve from McCall Wines in Cutchogue, which specializes in the grape; its combined breadth, depth and length was world-class (as its price might suggest). McCall’s regular 2010 Corchaug Estate ($39), almost as serious, was round and plummy.” Both are made at Millbrook Winery in the Hudson Valley for McCall by John Graziano (winemaker) and Bob Cabral (consultant).
Louisa Hargrave, doyenne of the Long Island wine industry, said of Russ, “Honesty is a mantra for McCall. ” But let Russ have the last work about himself: “You can sum me up simply. I’m not going to put our label on it unless it’s above average.”
However, none other than Jane Anson of Decanter Magazine had this appreciation of McCall’s wines: Decanter, Nov. 18, 2016
Premium Wine Group is a contract winemaking facility designed to allow an economical way to produce wine without the huge investment in equipment and facility. The individual style is driven by each Producer / Client in the production of their wine. PWG is designed with an array of technologically superior equipment which allows our clients complete freedom in producing wine. Our experienced staff of wine production professionals allows our clients the comfort that their wines are being handled in the highest quality practices.
Both “custom-production” and “custom-crush” services are provided to licensed producers and wholesalers of wine. These services are being utilized by many local wineries and wineries in the Northeast that source fruit from the North Fork of Long Island, see our Producers / Clients
Established in 2000, an initial 545 tons were received, we have steadily grown to 1,000 tons with an ultimate capacity of 1,400 tons. Premium Wine Group’s mission is to continually upgrade plant, equipment and services to allow our Producers / Clients the highest quality environment in which to sculpt their individual wines. This is evident with more than 18 Wineries producing over 100 individual wines each vintage.
NOTE: While Premium Wine Group makes wine for its many outside clients, there are also three employees that work there who are themselves clients: Russell Hearn, Managing Partner/Director of Winemaking, John Leo, production winemaker, and Erik Bilka, production winemaker. While this article is, foremost, about Premium, it also includes sections devoted to the wines of these three producers. (The winegrowing at Lieb Cellars (owned by partner Mark Lieb) and its wines will be the subject of a separate article, as will be the case with Clovis Point, whose wines are made by John Leo.)
It should also be noted that a press release issued on March 28, 2013, states, “Lieb Cellars and Premium Wine Group announced a merger of the two companies. Established in 1992 and 2000 respectively as two separate businesses with Mark Lieb as an investor, the combined companies have received substantial funding through their parent company Southport Lane, a private equity firm focused on growing its portfolio businesses. Southport Lane selected Lieb Cellars and PWG in part for their “custom crush” business, which is the production home of many North Fork wineries and the only one east of the Mississippi. There has been talk of the company going public.”
Because I interviewed John and Russell separately, and the conversations are so extensive, I’m dividing this post into two parts: The first (this one) is based on my conversation with John, and subsequently my interview with Russell, which also includes discussions of T’Jara Vineyard and SuhRu Wines: Oenology in LI: Premium Wine Group–Russell Hearn.
According to the bio of John Leo from Winemakers’ Studio Website, “A native of the Hudson Valley, New York, John graduated with a journalism degree and immediately proceeded to wander slowly around the world. He started working in wine in 1982 and joined the East End wine growing community in the early 1990s, becoming winemaker for Clovis Point, in Jamesport in 2004. John works full-time at Premium Wine Group where he makes the Clovis Point wines as well as Leo Family Red. A journalist by training, traveler by inclination, and grape grower by preference, John believes in honest hard work, natural transformation and the pleasure of sharing a bottle with friends.”
Personally, I found John to be thoughtful, articulate, soft-spoken yet straightforward, as well as clearly professional in outlook and attitude. It was a pleasure to converse with him.
Interview with John Leo (JL):
JM-L: I want to begin by asking you about your client list on the PWG website. I recognize all of the names but on [see below], but there is one that puzzles me, DeSeo de Micheal [sic], but actually that’s Deseo de Michael . . . What’s his full name?
JL: Michael Smith. His wife is Puerto Rican, so I think that she anointed the name.
JM-L: So that explains that mystery. Well, one of the reasons that I called you was because I’d been in touch with Chiara Anderson Edmands, and she’d said that one of the people that I have to speak to is you. So the advantage of speaking to you now is that I can now speak to you of your wine, their wine, and possibly Sherwood House, because I will be speaking to Bill Ackerman, the vineyard manager.
JL: You know, the consulting winemaker for Sherwood is Gilles Martin, so he’ll have more answers about style and things like that, but about the logistics part I can help out with because it all does come in here.
JM-L: So Gilles and Juan—who used to work here—and other consulting winemakers formulate what they want you to do and how do you work with them? How do they formulate what they want you to do?
JL: Well, we sit down to talk about that. I guess that in a stand-alone winery the winemaker is not only making the decisions but lifting the hoses and doing the work. But they usually have assistants, especially around harvest time, so they’re making their own plans about how much tonnage to bring in, how to ferment it, etc. etc., and their usually delegating that to their assistants in the cellar. So in a sense that’s what we are . . . we’re custom production, so the consultant tells us that he will bring in 5 tons of this Merlot, 6 tons of that Merlot, we want you to handle this one way and that another way. So we’re basically the cellar hands . . . we’re the winemaking service for that . . .
JM-L: So you are, in effect, the cellar assistants.
JL: In a sense, yes.
JM-L: Except that you actually do all the hands-on of making the wine . . .
JL: And we have all the equipment—that belongs to us, and the facility belongs to us, and they’re being charged, sort of, per finished case. [See below, From the PWG website: Wine Production; which lists all the equipment they own.]
JM-L: I see.
JL: So we’re the winery with the labor to get the job done that they want, but in terms of how they formulate things, it’s straightforward, just like in any winery, they decide how they want to handle certain batches, what yeasts to use, what temperature to ferment at, how often to pump over, all those decisions they can make to then communicate them to us and we do the work.
JM-L: The thing, of course, is that they’re not being hands-on, so what happens when some kind of issue, say a stuck fermentation, takes place (which I’m sure doesn’t happen too often) . . .
JL: Not too often, no.
JM-L: or, for example, a temperature issue with the tanks, or you find that the amount of pumping over that they request perhaps is not optimum for the wine as its coming out . . .
JL: Right. That last one is a different issue. I might personally disagree with their protocols, but if that’s their protocol that’s what we do. Lots of oxidation, no oxidation, no air at all. They can ask for seven pumpovers a day or no pumpovers. They can demand of me whatever they want. If it seems that out of the ordinary we’ll clarify. We’ll say, “Are you sure that’s what you’re asking for? That’s not the norm.” Maybe we’ll have to charge more for more pumpovers, so we just want to make sure that that’s what you want.” When they confirm it, it doesn’t matter what I like or think is right or wrong for that batch of wine . . . they’re the boss. In terms of stuck fermentations or a little bit of sulfide issues or things like that, Andrew’s very attentive [Andrew Rockwell, the Laboratory Director]. We’re testing everything every day, after rackings, every day’s ferment, so Andrew’s sticking his nose in the tank every day, and he’s got a good nose and palate and he’s very sensitive, so he’ll let Russell or I know, or if the consultant’s already sitting in the room he’ll go directly to them, or we’ll call the consultant and say, “Hey, there’s an issue with tank 1956, there’s some sulfite issue, a little bit of a stink coming out of it.”
Also, a lot of our newer clients, for example Deseo de Michael, say, “I want to bring in my grapes this year, 600 pounds . . .
JM-L: 600 pounds. Well, if you only have a third of an acre . . .
JL: Exactly. So the first thing I explain to him if you want us to press it, that we need more than that because our presses aren’t that small, so we can’t press 600 pounds effectively, so you’re going to have buy some Chardonnay to put in with yours to make it. So he’s so small that it doesn’t make sense to have a consultant, you know, realistically, but the first year I helped him through that and I didn’t charge him anything, and I said, “You know, you can do it this way or you can do it this way. Here’s the decision points now. You can taste the juice coming out of the press, do you want to cut it there? Do you want to keep on pressing harder? You’ll see the change.” So we just walked him through it. So for 2011 he hired Gilles [Martin] to be his winemaker for his one Chardonnay, so now it’s at a more professional level.
JM-L: Good. But the vines must be very young . . .
JL: Sure. So that’s an extreme example of someone who wants to do things right, is willing to pay commercial charges, but he doesn’t have enough volume to get a full-time consultant . . . so we try to be as helpful as we can.
JM-L: Of course.
JL: We have other clients like that, they have a little bit of fruit in their back yard, so we try to avoid it, but when it’s a friend of a friend, we do stuff like that . . .
JL: You know, Juan [Micieli-Martinez, Manager and Winemaking Consultant of Martha Clara Vineyards], Gilles [winemaking consultant to several vineyards], Tom Drozd—who makes the Baiting Hollow wines, and Erik [Bilka, the other PWG production manager] has his own wine, and other clients who know what they’re doing. So we expect them to make all those decisions, so we’re just backing it up. We do have some non-Long Island clients, but that is just coincidence.
JM-L: So who are your non-Long Island clients?
JL: Well, you know, Silver Springs, up in the Finger Lakes.
JM-L: All the way up there? Do they send their fruit down?
JL: Mmm, no. When they started five or six years ago, they bought Long Island red, so they make some things up there in the Finger Lakes, and that goes for the white, the hybrid stuff, and they wanted to buy some red, so they approached us and said, “We want to buy a few tons, and how do we get it up to us and what can we do?” And, I don’t think they actually have a winery, I think all their production is custom, either here or there. So anyway, that’s how we got started. And now, every couple of vintages they’ll send some white juice down, and they’ll have us ferment it here because it’s going to be part of a bigger blend or something like that.
JM-L: I see. Very interesting.
JL: So they’re one. And then there’s Belhurst, Belhurst Castle . . .
JM-L: Are they also in the Finger Lakes?
JL: Yes, they are. They’re basically a hotel, a resort hotel, and again, they might have a little show winery, but I haven’t actually been there. But we make their wines, sort of for the same reasons, they’re purchasing all their fruit, both red and white, and we’re making the wine for them.
JM-L: Is PWG unique in New York State?
JL: Not any more. We were the first on the East Coast as a custom crush, and I don’t know, but I think that there are one or two in the Finger Lakes now. I know that East Coast Crush started up and it’s connected to one of the bigger wineries. I don’t know if it’s the exact same facility or if they have separate business names to bring in more clients, or it’s a whole new facility. Russell might know that. And I think that I heard of another place, White Springs was, again, doing their own thing but doing a lot of custom work, I think that just changed ownership and might now be all custom.
JM-L: I see.
JL: But, anyway, we started people thinking about it as an option, since they save a lot of money and only pay for what they’re bringing in rather than buying equipment that’s going to cost them two million to put in and they’re only going to use it once a year, so . . .
JM-L: Yes, like Raphael, which spent six million dollars on their own winery . . .
JL: Yeah, it’s a different interest. If you have the money to invest and you want that showpiece, you know, that’s . . .
JM-L: Well, they have that showpiece, there’s no question of that. Pretty impressive! So, when you have a really abundant harvest out here, even the wineries that have facilities of their own may find themselves with more fruit than they can handle . . .
JM-L: So you do take overage, as it were . . .
JL: Yes. If we have the space for it, sure, and it happens where we have one particular client, another winery that knows pretty much that they’re going to have more fruit coming in every year than they have space for themselves, so they’ve been saying fairly consistently that they need a tank of twenty tons, or something, for this overage. There are other wineries where it’s more vintage-related, most years they’re self-sufficient but some years they’re looking for extra space, so as long as we have the room we’re happy to do that. We also do pressing and settling; some Connecticut buyers of wineries, are buying local Chardonnay or other varieties and they’re looking for a place to have it destemmed, pressed, cold settled [chilled], and then they’re taking it as juice so that they don’t have to drive [the purchased grapes] all the way around. So that’s another part of our business that is pretty consistent every year.
JM-L: So you’re just sending them the must?
JL: Yes, either the must for reds or the settled juice for, say, Chardonnay.
JM-L: And then they ferment it.
JL: Yes, and we have fee schedules—so they don’t have to bring things just to bottle; we have a pressing and settling charge, or you can ferment it here, age it here, and then sell it in bulk, instead of selling it in the bottle, and you’re not paying the full cost . . . In other words, PWG has a fee schedule for all its varied services that allow a client to decide whether to take a wine all the way to bottle, or to sell it early in the process as juice (before fermentation) or later in the process as bulk wine.
JM-L: OK. Well, you and Russell, and who else helped found this?
JL: Well, I’m not a partner, Russell is. It’s Russell and Mark Lieb and a fellow called Bernard Sussman—he isn’t located out here. He lives in New Jersey or may have moved to Florida now. They’re the three partners. I’ve been here since it opened. I was working with Russell at Pellegrini Vineyards when he was planning this, and when 2000 was our first harvest he asked me if, when this was done, I’d like to come with him.
JM-L: Now, how many clients did you start with?
JL: Roughly a dozen.
JM-L: Really? So in other words, you first determined that there would be a market out there, you determined that there would be people who would bring their fruit in, if you would just set up . . .
JL: Yes. And, you see, the reason that we knew that—especially Russell—was that Russell, had been the winemaker for Pellegrini Vineyards, at that point, for eight or nine vintages, and people kept approaching him, saying “I have fruit for sale, I’m thinking of starting my own label, do you have room?” So he was doing custom production at Pellegrini, with whatever excess space he had there, for Erik Bilka and everyone else . . . and, you know, people were looking for space. He knew that there were more vineyards coming online, he knew that this would be a growth market. And I think that Russell first approached Mark Lieb—or it might have been vice versa—because Lieb had a forty-acre vineyard and no facility, and he was trying to buy more property so that he could build a winery, and there was some political issue, possibly, and it was taking longer than he expected so they got together and he said, “OK, you build this and I’ll be an investor in it and instead of making it a Lieb winery we’ll make it a custom production winery. And Russell, you’re going to run it, right?” And it was very clever and it was the right time to get something started . . .”
JL: Most of those clients are still with us. I’d say that the only ones that aren’t were the ones that got sold or closed down. But Martha Clara was there the first year, Sherwood House was there, so pretty much everyone who was looking for a place and found us in 2000 has stayed.
JM-L: So Deseo de Michael [aka OR Wine Estate as of 2014] is the just latest . . . ?
JL: Yes, pretty much. Around 2010, in terms of having a license and all of that. But for example, my wine, which is a 2007, and Erik [Bilka], who makes a Riesling from Finger Lakes juice that he brings down, and he started in 2009, and that’s it; it’s not so much new vineyards coming on line anymore, but rather people buying fruit who want to start their own brands.
Leo Family Red: a History
JM-L: I see. So let’s talk about you . . .
JL: I don’t own my own vineyard; my situation is a little different in that I lease two acres. Well, I have a long-term agreement since 1999, with a particular vineyard to lease the two acres and I bring in my own fruit, with the understanding that I’ll do all the handwork. I do the pruning, I do the thinning, I do the harvesting.
JM-L: So you’re not buying fruit, you’re essentially the vineyard manager for a parcel that’s leased to you. So you have complete control of the fruit.
JL: Yes. The things that I didn’t have control over—I started at Martha Clara in 1999–where they controlled the spray schedule, the weed control, anything that had to do with tractor work—I could make suggestions. So in that respect I didn’t have complete control. But I was fine with that. That lasted until 2006, when they decided that they wanted to harvest their own fruit on that plot, so they decided that I was too small to make an exception for . . . so I was all ready to move anyway, and I was fine with that; it was time to move on. So I continued the same arrangement with Pellegrini Vineyards, in their easternmost vineyard, called South Harbor. So there were two acres planted with Merlot there as well, same arrangement as before, so I don’t have control of the spraying schedule. So I worked with the vineyard manager and that worked out nicely. That was between 2007 through 2010. In 2010 I started working for Onabay Vineyard as a winegrowing consultant, working out in the vineyard. So they asked me, would I be interested in leasing a couple of acres with them, and since I was already telling them what to do and hands-on with their whole vineyard it finally meant that it felt like my own vineyard, in that sense.
JM-L: Oh, that’s very nice.
JL: So in 2011 I moved to Onabay. I was very happy with Pellegrini, but at Onabay, where they’ve planted several varieties, I was able to have an acre of Merlot, half-an-acre of Cabernet Franc, and half-an-acre of Petite Verdot.
JM-L: So you were finally able to make a Meritage.
JL: Yes. And I did . . . since 1999 I’ve made wine every year, selling it off in bulk, but bottling a barrel for myself to have something to drink, and. . .
JM-L: I see. So now you’re now making wine in your own way—originally you were only making Merlot . . .
JL: Only growing Merlot. So the early vintages were 100% Merlot, but I started to go to other sources—Premium, for example, and other clients, to get a little bit of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, whatever happened to be available depending upon the year, including Syrah, Malbec, as well. Working here made it easy for me to know what was out there—the quality, the amounts, whatever was available . . . 2007 was the first wine I bottled and labeled myself; up to 2006 it was a just hobby project, what I kept at home for drinking myself and then to cover costs I’d sell most of the bulk; I sell anywhere from 200 gallons to 1000 gallons a year depending on my harvest yield and my blending needs.
[From the Winemaker’s Studio Website, there is this description of the 2007: “The first and so far, only wine released under the Leo Family label. A blend made of sustainably farmed grapes: 80% Merlot, 7% Syrah, 6% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon from the North Fork of Long Island. Aged 18 months in French and Hungarian oak, released spring 2011.”] [NOTE: I tasted this wine on Feb. 2 at a dinner party where venison was the main course. It followed a rather funky Spanish Tempranillo, and it showed beautifully. It was already showing secondary aromas and flavors, including lightly-smoked wood, coffee, lead pencil, and sour cherry. It was balanced and had an agreeable persistence on the palate and a very clean finish. I’d describe it as elegant and somewhat austere–rather like a Premier Cru from St-Emilion (Bordeaux). Its structure suggests several more years of maturation and good longevity. It was very much appreciated by all the guests at the venison dinner, and was a really fine food & wine pairing.]
[The back label—shown at right—tells even more about the wine and how it is made. . . ]
JM-L: And how much bulk are you selling now?
JL: Depending on the harvest . . . it was a lot, anywhere from 500 cases to a 1,000, or 200 gallons, some years there wasn’t very much. The 2007 was a blend of Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot . . . it’s not all Merlot.
JM-L: Which means that it’s more of a Left Bank than Right Bank Bordeaux style of wine.
JL: Yeah, with the Syrah tossed in too.
JM-L: And with the Syrah, which in the 19th Century, they used in winemaking in Bordeaux.
JL: Yes, I read that too. I’m not going to market it as Bordeaux . . . it’s just was the best that I could do.
JM-L: Of course you’re not going to label it as Bordeaux. Despite all the claims about how Bordeaux-like your wine is, this is still Long Island, after all . . .
JL: Exactly. There’s no French on the label, it’s just Leo Family Red . . .
JM-L: And where is it available? Can I buy it, for example, at Empire State Cellars?
JL: It’s available there; you can also buy it at the Winemakers’ Studio, that’s my biggest outlet . . . Anthony Nappa’s. They pour it and sell it on a regular basis. There’s also a small wine shop right here in Mattituck, called J. Shields. It’s owned by a woman who’s a real oenophile. She just loves wine; I think she studied the sommelier’s course . . . so she took it in a couple of weeks ago. So it’s on the shelf there.
JM-L: What was your aim in making your particular wine?
JL: Honestly, it’s kind of a cliché. I wanted to make a wine that I would enjoy drinking. There are no asterisks. I wanted it to stand on its own on a commercial level. I want make it only in good vintages and have it taste better than what people are expecting. . I wanted to be able say: Taste it and if you like it, buy it, and if you don’t, well, there are no questions asked. I made 420 cases, I think I have about 160 left. If I’m stuck with a hundred cases, fine, I’ll be happy to drink it for the rest of my life.
JM-L: So you’re really saying that the 2007 has great longevity.
JL: Yes, I think it does. Because I released it last year and it’s certainly drinking better this year. It hasn’t shown any signs of fading and improving still.
JM-L: You think that it has the structure to last another five, ten years?
JL: Five, ten years from now? I think so, but I honestly don’t know? It’s hard to say. Two to three years to reach its peak, and how long will it hold?
JM-L: Well, as you know, that’s a sign of good wine and good winemaking. The very fact that there is so much wine being made in Long Island that is age-worthy is, I think, a stunning testament to the level of the winemaking here, and the quality of the fruit and everything else. It’s no secret, after all, that for us, that the quality of the wine from Long Island is, frankly, at times sensational—and, well, times that it’s not— but given how good it is I often to prefer it to that of California.
JL: I’ve come the same way, obviously I’m in the industry and you could say that I’m completely biased, but I’m less and less happy when paying sixty or seventy dollars for a California wine that turns out to be an ordinary red wine, just high in alcohol but without much character.
JM-L: As soon as Robert Parker says “jammy and full of fruit,” I know immediately that that is a wine that I’m not likely to touch.
JL: Exactly. They’re making a style. Good for them. They’re marketing a style and making it work. We’re just not that.
JM-L: The other thing to remember is that everything here is “micro.” You just do not have the production to take on California, you just can’t make enough for a national market.
JL: And that should free us up a lot to experimentation, to be able to focus on quality, which more and more of our customers are asking for over the twelve years we’ve been in the business; at first our clients were just happy to get the fruit in, get it at 22 Brix, get the right pH. It’s got to have flavor. We’re all working on making higher quality wine, we’re challenging one another, we’re raising the bar.
JM-L: And what other vintages have you made since the 2007?
JL: Put into bottle and labeled—just the 2010.
JM-L: And that was a fabulous vintage.
JL: It was very good. At first I didn’t think that it was going to be as good as the 2007, but as I sampled it from the barrel it just got better and better, to the point that I decided to bottle it. Now I think it may even be better than the 2007. Leo Family Red will only be made in the best vintages. And now that we have 2012 in barrel I’m optimistic that 2012 could be another Leo
JM-L: Well, that’s a good policy.
JL: Well, it’s nice to have a day job!
JM-L: John, you’ve been more than generous with your time, and I thank you for it. I’ll get back to you when I’m ready to write about Clovis Point.
Erik Bilka, who was not interviewed, is the other production winemaker at Premium, and also has his own wine label: Influence—a Riesling made from grapes sourced from Ovid Farm in the Finger Lakes.
“Every vintage a winemaker’s goal is to showcase the best attributes from the fruit he is presented. Fruit intensity, acidity, and sugar balance are all attributes which bring a wine to a harmonious blend of aroma, flavor, and palette impression. The winemakers’ influence determines the quality seen in the glass.
“Once harvested, Influence Riesling is delivered to White Springs Winery in Geneva, NY on Seneca Lake, where the experienced staff led by Derek Wilber crush, press, and cold settle the juice, which is then shipped to Premium Wine Group on the North Fork of Long Island. Upon arrival, winemaker Erik P. Bilka begins the winemaking process. The juice is fermented in stainless steel tanks. Before completion fermentation is halted in order to maintain the natural residual sugars found in this semi-dry vintage. The refining process which involves separating natural occurring sediment from the final product is done delicately in order to preserve the fruits integrity. This minimalist approach by the winemaker influencing only what the juice requires, allows the fruit to be showcased in the final wine.”
Brix at Harvest – 19.8
Ph – 3.10
Titratable Acid – 7.02
Residual Sugar – 22.00 grams/ liter
Aged – 100% Stainless Steel Tank
Bottled – March 31, 2011
To me, the commitment by the oenologists who work at PWG simply goes beyond the normal range of expectation and duty. For each of them is so passionate about wine, and apparently has so much excess energy, that it’s not enough for them to only work full-time at their place of employment, they have a deep need to practice their skills for themselves and their reputations. One can’t ask for more devotion than that. It’s also hard to find better winemakers.
Services provided by Premium Wine Group range from grape sourcing, crush/pressing, fermenting, barrel aging, bottling, Methode Champenoise riddling and disgorging, and Compliance Issues. These services are available to “custom production” clients, Alternating Proprietorship and existing wineries. North-East wineries sourcing North Fork of Long Island fruit may wish to ferment rather than move unstable fruit during harvest. Or those that have exceeded their own production capacity might look to utilize our wide variety of equipment.
Contact us for (Fee Schedule or Component Services Fees) and (Standard Procedures for what is included).
The “producer” is to supply at their expense all:
Fruit (delivered to PWG)
Fermentation supplies (yeast, enzyme and tannin, malo-lactic bacteria)
Wooden cooperage or oak additives
Packaging supplies (bottles, corks, capsules, labels and related items)
Winemaking direction (consultation)
With a highly trained staff operating within a State of the Art facility, all wine production services requested can be performed in a timely and professional manner. Additional specialized equipment allows such processes as:
EuroSelect Destemmer-Crusher, the gentlest way of destemming
Tube-in-tube Must Chiller capable of dropping must temperature 20° F. downstream from the destemmer-crusher en route to press or fermentation tank
Reverse Osmosis System to remove water from grape juice
Ozone Machine for barrel sanitization
Lees filtration via Crossflow System
Crossflow wine filtration via Vaslin Bucher FX 8 System
Complete semi-automatic Methode Champenoise bottling, riddling and disgorging equipment
Mainguet Crown capping device
Oenoconcept – Twin cage (1,000 bottle) automatic riddling machine fully programmable for the most complete riddling
Mainguet – Neck freezing
Mainguet – corking and wire hood application
Sick International – external bottle scrubbing/washing and drying unit
Sick International – capsule dispensing and eye sensitive/ orientating automatic double station capsule pleating device
Full in-line 4,000 bottle/hour bottling line.
McBrady – cardboard dust evacuating and nitrogen bottle sparging device
GAI monoblock twenty (20) spout vacuum/ gravity filler with double (2) nitrogen sparging and triple (3) head vacuum corker
GAI single head screw capping machine, capable of applying Stevlin and Stevlin Lux screw caps
Automatic capsule dispenser and eight (8) head (reversible) capsule spinner and heat shrink capability
Sick Automatic champagne capsule dispenser and pleating device
Kosme – triple station (neck, front and back) six (6) turret pressure sensitive servo motor driven labeler
Manual inspection and packing station
Top and bottom ‘Little David’ case taper
Lanxess Velcorin DT 6 S dosing unit
Our facility has a fully-equipped laboratory, with a full-time Lab Director and assistant during the Harvest period. A production software system (Winemaker Database) allows our clients’ bulk inventory to be tracked from the time juice or bulk wine arrives at the winery, every movement, addition, chemical analysis and process is recorded and tracked. Our clients have full access to this detailed history of their inventory.
Mettler Toledo Auto-Titrator, generating pH, TA, and FSO2 automatically for reliable consistency
Total Acid (Automated Titration)
Total and Free SO2
Heat and Cold Stability
Enzymatic R.S. and Malate
Routine Wine / Lot Maintenance
We can receive hand harvested fruit in small half-ton bins, or machine harvested in gondolas. The receiving pad consists of a Weightronix truck scale and printer, two 7-ton Membrane presses with s/s dump hopper for whole-cluster pressing. Two destemmer / crushers: Rauch E20 and Euroselect ES, to ensure uninterrupted receiving capacity. Both presses utilize direct to press systems, if requested, to minimize solids and for “dug-out” red fermentations. Our 50-ton Refrigeration system ensures more than sufficient capacity for rapid cooling of juice. Tube-in-tube must-chiller capable of decreasing must temperature 20ºF. Additionally we have a 700 KW generator to ensure uninterrupted electrical service.
Numerous ‘gentle on wine’ Waukesha (twin lobe) pumps.
Pneumatic ‘punch-down’ tool above (18) red fermentation tanks.
(2) in-line tank heaters to maintain warm red ferments, correct malo-lactic temperature in tank, pre-bottling temperature control.
Crossflow filtration system Vaslin Bucher FX 3 with lees filtration add-on capability plate and frame pad filter as well as membrane cartridge filtration capability.
Steam and ozone capability.
Producers / Clients (all of which use only Long Island fruit)