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 became 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.
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 that 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, which has been renamed RGNY. 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.”
This makes it the second wine producer on the East End to be owned by Latin-Americans; the other was Laurel Lake, which until last year was in Chilean hands.
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 [now RGNY] 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.”
It 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 RGNY, 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, Syrah may come up short on sugar, but flavors are beautiful 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 has 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 RGNY 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.
For many years all the wines were made at Premium Wine Group, but RGNY has now built a fully-equipped winery and has a full-time winemaker, Lilia Jiménez, who is from Mexico. Lilia has now proven herself beyond a shadow of doubt with her 2017 Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon blend, which won 95 points and Gold at the annual Decanter Awards of 2021. This is a remarkable accomplishment, especially given the very high prestige of the Decanter Awards, which are recognized worldwide.
based on interviews with Jim Thompson & Juan Micieli-Martínez
3 February & 29 March 2012; updated 30 April 2018
as well as recent online & printed sources
“At Paumanok we practice viticulture that allows us to achieve our goal of growing the ripest, healthiest grapes our vineyards can produce while managing the vineyards in a responsible, sustainable way. In general, we follow the program and principles of New York State’s Sustainable Viticulture Program set forth here: VineBalance, by Cornell Cooperative Extension with whom Paumanok has had a productive relationship since my parents planted our first vines in 1983. We believe that the most important factor in making great wine is starting with the healthiest, ripest fruit possible. Growing grapes in order to achieve this goal and growing them sustainably are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are one and the same.”
–Statement from an essay by Kareem Massoud, “Sustainable Viticulture at Paumanok”
Established in 1983, the 103-acre estate (with 72 acres currently planted to vine) is entirely owned and managed by Ursula and Charles Massoud, and their three sons, Salim, Kareem, and Nabeel . The main red varieties are Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon; the main white ones are Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. As for clones, a field already planted with Cabernet Sauvignon was replanted with clone 412, which produces very tiny grapes, which provide more flavor and tannins (it was developed by ENTAV/INRA of France, to which a royalty of $.20-.25 per plant is paid). However, there are no experimental plots as such here, for, as pointed out by Kareem, everything planted in the vineyard could be said to be experimental.
The dense planting of the vineyards (at 1,100 vines per acre) they say produces more concentrated fruit and therefore higher quality wines. Their wines are only made from estate-grown grapes and production is limited to just under 9,000 cases.
The first vineyard was planted across the street from the winery in 1982 (42 acres) but was not acquired until the late 1980s; the first Paumanok vines were planted in 1983, and the winery opened in 1991 with the release of the first estate-bottled wines; 12-15 acres were planted in a new field in 2005. They had to apply one to two tons of lime (calcium carbonate) per acre for the first twenty years on their original plots to bring soil acidity into balance so that it is now stabilized to the higher pH that is more amenable for vinifera varieties.
A more recent addition to Paumanok vineyards is a plot of 25 acres that was purchased from the Riverhead School Board in June of 2014, which will be planted to Chenin Blanc, the signature grape of the property. The property had originally been purchased by the school district for a school that was never built. The proceeds from the sale add to the coffers of the school district and represent an important resource for Paumanok, which will plant the first five acres to Chenin Blanc in 2015.
Certainly the newest and biggest addition occurred in August 2018, when Paumanok acquired Palmer Vineyards on Sound Avenue. This has added another 40 acres of vineyards to Paumanok’s holdings. It is a good fit with regards to the varieties planted at Palmer. Perhaps most appealing is the Albariño, which has been a great success at Palmer, so much so that other wineries are also planting the variety. Indeed, Paumanok has ordered an acre’s worth of this variety that is to be planted next year. The plan is that the new Paumanok planting will eventually be incorporated with the Albariño at Palmer to make even more wine of that variety. Meanwhile, the relatively small planting of Riesling at Palmer will be used to augment the larger Riesling planting at Paumanok.
The juice from the Palmer vineyards will be fermented at that winery but will be finished at Paumanok’s facility. Kareem will be responsible for all the winemaking for both properties.
Kareem, the eldest son, has been the winemaker in partnership with his father, Charles, for the last sixteen years. He also works very closely with his brother Nabeel, who manages the vineyard. Salim, the second son, is the factotum of the family business. For the Massouds, “sustainable” means “healthy,” for “the riper and healthier the berries the better the wine made with the least intervention.”
In the essay he provided me for this article, Kareem writes that “My perennial barometer of whether what we are doing is sustainable is the biodiversity in our vineyard: lady bugs, praying mantis, dragon flies, earth worms, etc., are present in our vineyard in abundance. As you probably know, some farms and vineyards actually introduce populations of some of these beneficial insects as biological controls. So the fact that we have them without having to introduce them says to me that we must be doing something right. We maintain a permanent cover of grasses and wild clovers and other vegetation [between the rows] and under the vine which create a habitat for all the biodiversity cited above.” In other words, at Paumanok they have naturally achieved the symbiotic diversity that is essential to sustainable viticulture.
Though Paumanok practices sustainable viticulture, Kareem thinks that organic farming, at least as understood by the general public, is a myth, insofar as organic farming allows the use of both copper and sulfur; nevertheless, some organic producers will claim that they are not “spraying chemicals” (but what are copper or sulfur if not chemicals?). Such farmers are therefore using the term “organic more as a marketing tool” than acknowledging the actuality of what organic farming entails. It is, in other words, a matter of the use , or misuse, of language. To him, it is more important to be “selecting more benign synthetic pesticides relative to more toxic organic (not an oxymoron) controls. The best example of a toxic organic control is copper. Copper does a great job at controlling downy mildew, but it is a heavy metal which is something we would rather not spray as it will destroy our soils as it accumulates in the soil over time. The sulfur used in [both conventional and organic] farming is made as a byproduct of petroleum production. There are numerous synthetic pesticides which are far more benign that we may opt to use instead.” Indeed, for Paumanok, organic is incidental to the outcome at the vineyard; however, he remains open-minded about aspects of biodynamics, as he thinks the compost tea preparations may be of value, but he remains skeptical of the ‘hocus-pocus’ associated with it, such as following astrological signs or stirring the compost teas in two different directions (the ‘biodynamic’ part of biodynamics). On the other hand, if the mystical aspects of biodynamics could be scientifically proven to be efficacious, he’d use it if it meant growing better fruit.
As Kareem points out, “at Paumanok, we manage our vineyard as sustainably as possible. . . . we do not use any more inputs (crop protectants, micro nutrients and fertilizers) than necessary to grow the ripest fruit possible.” For example, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is driven by self-seeded ground cover, mostly rye grass and sorghum. The cover is allowed to grow into the vine rows and is kept under control by a special vineyard mower that is towed by a tractor. This machine, the Fischer GL4K, is described on the manufacturer’s Web site as “the world’s first hinged mid row and undervine slasher, offering total chemical free weed control solutions for growers with delved, ‘V’ shaped or uneven grounds.” It does, however, have some drawbacks, one of which is that it is capable of damaging or even cutting off the vine from its roots, as can be seen in the photograph to the right. Kareem explains that the vineyard crew is still learning how to use the machine without causing damage to the vines. The point is that it should allow control of weed growth in the vineyard without the need to use herbicides at all. (There is a video of the machine in action on Paumanok’s Facebook page.)
Further IPM control is managed by:
. . . employing] various IPM (Integrated Pest Management) tactics to reduce our reliance on pesticides. For example, we perform the following activities on the entire vineyard: manual-shoot positioning with catch wires and clips to hold the shoots up straight, suckering, shoot-thinning, fruit-thinning or “green-harvesting”, hedging and leaf removal in the fruit zone. All of these practices increase the vines’ natural ability to resist disease (such as powdery mildew or downy mildew) by allowing UV rays from sunlight to burn off the inoculum [material that introduces disease to a previously healthy plant] and generally make conditions less favorable for mildew and other pathogens by creating a microclimate within the vine that minimizes moisture and allows it to dry quickly after a rain event by allowing better ventilation. In any vineyard, but particularly on Long Island [emphasis mine], these activities are essential to give the vine its best chance of naturally fending off pests such as powdery mildew which would take hold much more easily and rapidly – and require more spraying – had we not done these activities. We carry out these practices as diligently, meticulously and thoroughly as possible. What does that mean? For example, when we drop fruit, i.e., green-harvest, we don’t do it just once but repeatedly until harvest. Some vines may have been visited four, five, six or more times (for green-harvesting alone) to ensure that only the cleanest, most desirable fruit remains hanging on the vine upon harvest.
In addition, “Several of the pesticides we use would qualify for an organic program, however, there are some grape pests for which we feel there is no satisfactory organic control [my emphasis] that we know of at this time, such as black rot, phomopsis and botrytis. Given that grapevines must be sprayed (if you know of a grower that never sprays their vines, please let me know), our belief from day one has been to use the most effective, least toxic material available regardless of whether that product is labeled for organic or biodynamic use or not.” Paumanok has therefore invested in state-of-the-art spraying technology. Kareem says that “we use a recycling tunnel sprayer to spray our vineyard. This sprayer greatly reduces drift, and, as the name implies, recycles much of what would have otherwise been lost as drift. This results in a reduced environmental impact and improved profitability, two key pillars of sustainability.”
With respect to the Cornell University Agricultural Extension VineBalance program, Paumanok is very involved; it has the book and follows it. Indeed, Ursula Massoud is on the Cornell Cooperative Extension Advisory Committee for viticulture. VineBalance is working towards a certification program for New York grape growers, but there are politics involved that inhibit its advancement, which has to do with growers and producers of juice grapes by corporations like Welch’s. They do not want third-party certification versus the wine-grape growers who do want it. So the certification program is still in development. Another way in which Paumanok shows its commitment to sustainability is by the installation of the first solar panels at any vineyard. As Kareem points out, the family lives on the property and drinks water from their own well, so they have one more reason to be responsible custodians of the lands they farm. Theirs is a “terroirist” stewardship that respects the land and its produce.
In the vineyard they make sure that at harvest the vines are all clean before the machines go through. (Their machinery uses synthetic food-grade hydraulic fluid (costing $20-25/gallon) in order to minimize the amount of industrial fluid that can find its way into the environment. Nevertheless, they prefer hand-picking, but to ensure that boxes of picked grapes never touch the ground, an empty one is used underneath the box with grapes to keep the fruit clean. The goal always is to pick clean as well as healthy grapes.
Kareem has one last thought:
As Paumanok continues to experiment in the vineyard and improve on our [30+] years of viticultural experience on Long Island, we will pursue whatever methodology allows us to achieve our goal of growing the healthiest, ripest grapes possible regardless of whether that method is known as organic, practicing-organic, biodynamic, IPM, sustainable, etc. There is only one dogma to which we will adhere:
GREAT WINE IS MADE WITH THE HEALTHIEST, RIPEST GRAPES OBTAINABLE.
Consequently, given all the above, Paumanok joined the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers group, becoming the twentieth member as of November 2015.
And the results show in the wine that Kareem, as winemaker, produces at Paumanok. For me the proof is in one of the finest Sauvignon Blanc wines made in this country that I’ve tasted, and an excellent Chenin Blanc that is unique in Long Island. Paumanok also sells: steel-fermented Chardonnay, barrel-fermented Chardonnay, two Chenin Blancs, Cabernet Franc, three different Merlots, two Cabernet Sauvignons, a late-harvest Riesling, a late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc, two Rosés, and several blends, all made by what Kareem calls “minimalist” wine making (he dislikes the term “natural wine making,” which implies something that it really is not).
Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue also earned some impressive numbers, with four scores of 93 and three scores of 92.
“In the world of wine, Robert Parker has been recognized as possibly the world’s most influential wine critic,” said Paumanok winemaker Kareem Massoud. “We think of [wine ratings] as a necessary evil. Like it or not, people are going to evaluate your wine and give your wine a score. In spite of all of the limitations of relying on a number, it still feels good to end up with a highly rated wine.”
Massoud said Mark Squires of WA visited the winery in March of 2015 and later requested a second set of samples of the wines he tasted, a common practice for wine critics.
“Even the best critics will get palate fatigue,” Massoud explained.
One of the Paumanok standouts for Squires was its 93-point 2007 Merlot Tuthill’s Lane.
“Here, [Paumanok] makes a wonderful Merlot,” Squires wrote. “Full-bodied and caressing on the palate, this shows very fine depth, but it retains its elegance all the while.”
All in all, 23 of Kareem’s wines earned a score of 90 or more. That is more than any other winery on the Island and a remarkable achievement.
Paumanok was named NY Winery of the Year 2015 by the NY Wine and Food Classic held in August at Watkins Glen in the Finger Lakes. This is the second time that the winery has been so honored. Its 2014 Medium-Sweet Riesling was declared best white wine in the competition. See Edible East End’s article. More recently, Paumanok was selected as Winery of the Year 2021 by the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.
It should also be noted that in July 2018 Paumanok purchased Palmer Vineyards, another North Fork producer, and Kareem is now winemaker for both.
Based on an interview with Kareem and Nabeel Massoud on 3 May 2011 with additions from “Sustainable Viticulture at Paumanok Vineyards,” an essay by Kareem; last updated September 15, 2018
Paumanok GPS Coordinates
North Fork of Long Island
1074 Main Road (Route 25)
P.O. Box 741
Aquebogue, NY 11931
By 2017 Barbara Shinn and her husband, David Page, had worked very hard for twenty years to create a natural ecosystem in their vineyard. In order to achieve this they committed themselves to growing grapes that they hoped would be organically certified by the USDA, as well as being fully certified by Demeter as a Biodynamic vineyard. It didn’t work out, at least not exactly. More about that below.
They did, however, become leaders in the sustainable farming movement in Long Island, so what happened in April 2017 was a complete surprise to the wine community. Interestingly, it was a surprise to Barbara and David as well. They received an unanticipated, solid offer to purchase Shinn Estate, including the winery, vineyard, inn, and windmill, that they could not refuse. The property was sold to Barbara and Randy Frankel, who live in the Hamptons.
When Barbara and David bought their property on the North Fork in 1998, they knew nothing about grape-growing or wine-making. At the time, they already owned a successful restaurant, Home, in New York City, but they were drawn to the North Fork by its excellent produce and seafood, as well as the rural charm and unspoiled villages. Already committed to the idea of using local produce served with local wines, a philosophy that was embedded in the cuisine and wine offerings of their restaurant, the wineries of the area also beckoned, and they finally bought a 22 -acre plot of what was once a wheat field. It has since been expanded to 28 acres of planted vines. They became friends with many vintners, including Joe Macari, Jr., who showed them how to develop a vineyard according to sustainable practices.
At first they only grew grapes for sale to other wineries, but by 2006 had one of their own. In 2007 David and Barbara opened their converted farmhouse into a B&B so that they could continue to pursue their devotion to the locavore movement along with their own wines. They moved from conventional farming to an increasingly organic and then Biodynamic approach slowly and carefully beginning in 2002, then started the transition to organic viticulture in 2005, and to Biodynamic practices by 2008. Unfortunately, they never got there.
The greatest problem facing Rose Hill–as well as all vineyards in Long Island (and for that matter, all of the East Coast)—is the hot and humid climate, which helps promote all manner of diseases of the vine, including powdery and downy mildew, black rot, and phomopsis viticola, or dead-arm. To control these pests, conventional farmers use a host of industrial pesticides with great success—it is this that has made vinifera grape-growing possible in regions where it would otherwise wither and die. However, there are new weapons for the organic and Biodynamic growers, such as Regalia (according to the manufacturer, “a patented formulation of an extract from the giant knotweed plant (Reynoutria sachalinensis). Its unique mode of action switches on the plant’s natural defense mechanisms to inhibit the development of bacterial spot, bacterial speck, target spot, powdery mildew, [etc].”). Shinn also uses Serenade (which according to its producer, “consistently helps growers win the battle against fungal and bacterial diseases, as it contains a unique, patented strain of Bacillus subtilis . . . to destroy diseases such as Fire Blight, Botrytis, Sour Rot, Rust, Sclerotinia, Powdery Mildew, [etc].”).
Nevertheless, as Barbara Shinn admits, the Achilles Heel for any organic or Biodynamic viticulturalist is downy mildew. By far the most effective control of this blight is copper sulfate, which is an industrial product that is almost unique in being accepted for both USDA Organic as well as Biodynamic farming. While there are usually few limits as to how much copper sulfate can be applied in the course of a growing season, anyone using it is aware that the copper content is inimical to healthy soil. While it may destroy downy mildew, it is also highly toxic to organisms in the soil, and in sufficient quantities it will drive out beneficial ones such as earthworms. Worse, it is a strong irritant to workers and also has long persistence in the soil, to which it bonds strongly, so it accumulates over time. However, Biodynamic farming does allow up to three pounds of copper sulfate per acre to be added in the course of a year. For many farmers, this would not be enough, and double that application would not be unusual, especially in this region. Still, Shinn tried to abide by this strict limit.
Like all Long Island viticulturalists, the Vineyard uses Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) for training their vines. The vines are planted to a 7’×4’ European-type density, which helps to lower yields and leads to more intense wine. Then, shortly after budbreak they select the shoots that each vine will grow to provide canopy, removing the rest. Once the vines bear fruit, they go through each one again, removing about two-thirds of the berries so that the remainder will benefit better from the resultant increased nourishment they receive from the vine. This means that the wines made from this fruit will have more intense flavor and aroma without having to resort to very much intervention in the winery.
One approaches the winery from a narrow country road distinguished only by the sign for the estate and the attractive farmhouse by the entrance. A tall windmill, installed to generate electricity for the winery spins its blades in the wind and stands as a testament to the commitment to self-sufficiency and sustainability. Carefully-tended rows of vines have been planted nearly to the edge of the road. Barbara and David were in the parking area with Anthony Nappa, their winemaker back in 2010, when I arrived. (Anthony is now winemaker at Raphael and Patrick Caserta has taken his place.) Shortly, we went to the warehouse where they age their wines in oak barrels.
Tasting from the barrels is always an interesting challenge, as one is tasting a wine in the process of maturation rather than when it is ready to drink, but quality is evident in each sample of the red wine that we taste . . . much of which is destined for eventual blending. Shinn produces a large variety of wines, red, white, rosé, and even a sparkling wine. Their best wines are made exclusively from estate-grown grapes (the other wines are from grapes bought from local growers). These are the wines that are meant to benefit from the organic and Biodynamic procedures that they follow. We then proceeded to taste their many, distinctive wines in the tasting room. (A full discussion of the wines will come in a separate posting.)
The vineyard tour brought us first to the irrigation system, which is an electrically-controlled mechanism that Shinn uses primarily for its Biodynamic compost tea inoculation, which is administered once a month. The tea is made by taking the Biodynamic preparation that has been aged in cow horns buried in the ground, then mixed with water into a 50-gallon batch that is fed into the twenty-two acre vineyard over a period of an hour. This is but one of several means by which Shinn provides the necessary, natural nutrients to keep the soil healthy. Other organic soil amendments include limestone, potassium, humic acid, kelp, and fish hydrolizate (liquefied fish, which is rich in nitrogen).
Furthermore, the Shinn vineyard uses a full cover crop, which is to say, the crop is not only between the vine rows, but grows right into them. They do not even till the soil. As the Shinn Website explains it:
As a vineyard is a monoculture crop, vegetal diversity is attained by planting various kinds of cover crops between the rows of vines. Thus there are different kinds of grass, clover, and perennials and annuals that grow throughout the vineyard. This cover crop provides habitat for all manner of insect life, enhances the organic mix of the soil, and is a healthy environment for the microorganisms of the soil.
In addition to its diversity, the cover crop also helps reduce the vigor of the vines by forcing them to compete for water with other vegetation when it’s rainy (a good thing when one is growing wine grapes) and at the same time helps the soil retain moisture better when it’s dry.
Like any vineyard that is farmed according to sustainable practices, Rose Hill employs Integrated Pest Management to deal with insect pests (which means using natural predators to help control them). They also have sought to encourage insectivore bats to live in special habitats built for them in the vineyard—so far, however, the bat houses have no takers.
They planted different clones of each grape variety, with six selections of Merlot, for example, and three each of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. There are also two selections of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon that account for the white varieties. Each block of grapes is hand-harvested separately, with the east and west sides of each row of vines being picked separately as well. In addition, they also lease a small, five-acre plot, Schreiber Vineyards, which is planted with 30-year-old vines of Chardonnay and Riesling, which adds more variety to their portfolio of wines. It lies just a mile up Oregon Road and is farmed identically to the Shinn vineyards.
Given all of this care and attention in the vineyard, the fact remains that weather will inevitably have an impact, and in a region like Long Island—unlike California—weather variability is a given. It is, of course, a major reason for vintage differences. Last year, for example, there were very heavy rains that affected some vineyards much more than others. Where some vineyards only a few miles away lost up to 30 or 40% of their fruit, Shinn only lost about 10 to 15%. The reason was their particular mesoclimate—the heavy rains left their crop thoroughly soaked, and the vines looked as though they were on the verge of collapse, but just after the rain was over, a strong, persistent wind came up that dried the vines quickly, so that even the wild yeasts on which they depend in the winery were restored after only a few day. The berries lost all the water they’d absorbed very quickly too, so the damage was minimal. (Of course, the weather of another summer could produce the reverse of this outcome; there is never a guarantee.)
By 2012 Shinn Estate was one of the founding Vineyards to join the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers certification program (for more about it see the post, LISW). That was the easy part, as it were, since they were already following all the practices set forth in the LISW workbook. The hard part, organic certification, still eluded them in 2017 as downy mildew, in this humid climate, still cannot be tamed by strict adherence to organic grower’s guidelines.
And now they have sold Shinn Estate to a New Jersey financier and his wife, Barbara and Randy Frankel: Shinn Estate Announcement of Sale. Newsday wrote that the sale had “not been part of the plan,” but an unexpected offer changed that. “It came as a surprise to us someone would walk through the door and make us an offer,” he said. He declined to discuss terms of the sale or the new owners.
Randy Frankel is a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, whose various business interests include a minority stake in the Tampa Bay Rays baseball franchise and part-ownership of Windham Mountain Ski Resort in Windham, N.Y., according to an online biography. The Frankels wanted to take a new path in business, and as residents of the Hamptons were well familiar with the wineries of the East End of the Island. They hired Robert Rudko as an advisor. Rudko, who has been in the wine trade for many years, helped find the property, which fit their hopes and expectations exactly.
Rudko is now running the property as both CEO and General Manager; he is working with the new owners, assessing the vineyard, the winery and tasting room, and the B&B. Already, according to him, an expanded tasting room with a real “Wow” design is in the works. The winery is due for some significant equipment upgrades and the B&B is being refurbished. He said that once all the work is completed, it will leave visitors “slack-jawed” by the transformation.
Patrick Certa, who has worked with the Shinns as winemaker for several years now, has continued in that role since 2017. The vineyard and the sustainable practices used to work it continue as well. However, the new owners are hoping to acquire new vineyard parcels to add to the current acreage in order to expand production.
Barbara and David were apparently mentally ready for this break, as they already had a commitment to running a hydroponic farm that they own in Maine. Nevertheless, they said they will remain connected to the business as consultants for the “foreseeable future.”
The sale represents the closing of a distinguished and dramatic chapter in the story of the wineries of Long Island and the opening of a new one. Shinn Estate is no more; as of 2021 it is now called Rose Hill Vineyards. They still run the Farmhouse as an inn.
Rose Hill Vineyards
2000 Oregon Road
Mattituck, NY 11952
“Green” is a global movement to promote sustainable practices in all walks of life, from recycling waste to reducing one’s dependence on materials that cannot be reused, as well as improving automobile fuel economy, minimizing energy consumption (reducing one’s ‘carbon footprint’), and promoting safer, cleaner means of producing energy, primarily by the use of renewable sources such as wind and solar power. It also means promoting and using sustainable practices in agriculture, whether in the raising of farm animals and produce, or in viticulture (the growing of table and wine grapes)—itself a type of agriculture. Green—a synonym for “sustainable”—is now a mantra for the ecologically-aware and sensitive consumer and it demands to be taken seriously by those who produce food, wine, and care for the land on which it is raised.
A big push towards sustainable practices in viticulture in New York State recently has been made by Walmart, which joined the Sustainability Consortium in 2009, and wants to sell grape juice with an “ecolabel” displayed on the containers, showing that it has been sustainably produced. Given that Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, its demand has forced winegrowers throughout the state, whether producing juice grapes or wine grapes, to respond to it. What follows is about the response to the challenge on the part of Long Island winegrowers.
In a presentation by Barbara Shinn, of Shinn Estate Vineyards, and Richard Olsen-Harbich, of Bedell Cellars, given at the 31st Annual Long Island Agricultural Forum, held on January 13, 2012, attended by most of the vineyard managers in the region—all were invited to attend—an outline of the process by which vineyards could become certified for practicing sustainable viticulture gave clear form to what is involved in achieving that goal, with the objective of minimizing environmental impact and as a means of responding to the needs of the community at large.
The VineBalance Program
What follows is a précis of the presentation along with relevant commentary by the participants who together form the Core Group in the certification project: Barbara Shinn, Richard Olsen-Harbich (the presenters), Jim Thompson of Martha Clara Vineyards, and Larry Perrine of Channing Daughters. In addition, Alice Wise, who is the Viticulturalist and Education Specialist for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, at the Long Island Horticultural Research & Extension Center in Riverhead, provided some background for this article on the initial sustainable viticulture program for New York State, VineBalance:
“In 1992, I received a grant to create a Long Island sustainable viticulture program. Working with a group of growers, we created a set of vineyard management guidelines that emphasized good stewardship practices. Established programs such as Oregon LIVE, Lodi Rules, and AEM (Agricultural Environmental Management) were very helpful to us. A number of individuals associated with those programs provided guidance as well. Our efforts drew attention from both upstate wine growers and the upstate Concord industry. Starting in 2006, a group from Cornell and from the industry received a series of grants to create statewide guidelines, now called VineBalance.
“Growers participated in the process of creating the guidelines so additional review has not been necessary. That said, VineBalance was written to be inclusive of all grape industries in NY. There are certain things in it that do not apply to Long Island. Also, vineyard management is not a static thing, it evolves each season as we learn how to best manage our vineyards. Consequently, Long Island growers decided to further refine VineBalance to more closely reflect the current management of Long Island vineyards.
“VineBalance will continue to serve as the framework for any sustainable viticulture programs in NY. The creation of additional, region-specific guidelines is great, it shows that growers are analyzing their practices and are genuinely interested in the process. All regions should do this.”
However, while VineBalance provides a pathway to self-certification, that does not carry the same weight as certification by a recognized third-party certification authority, and is therefore not really meaningful in the marketplace or wine industry. Certification by an outside authority has many advantages, such as:
Validation of a claim of sustainable farming practices
Promotion of on-farm accountability
Provision of a pro-active response to local needs and concerns
Acting as another tool with which to respond to global competition
Improving the strength and viability of the Long Island wine brand
The concept of sustainability as laid out in virtually every certification program in the U.S. boils down to three concerns:
Worker & Community care
Certification Program Models
There are, already, a number of third-party certification authorities with national or global recognition, based on the strength of their guidelines and regulation, such as:
Certified California Sustainable Wine (CCSW)
Napa Green—Napa Valley Vineyards (NVV)
Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine (OCSW)
Oregon LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology)
Sustainability in Practice (SIP)
Serra presentation to LI Winegrowers
Each of these, as well as the internationally-recognized authority, Sustainable Wine New Zealand (SWNZ), is directed at specific ecological systems, which is why Long Island needs its own authority, but these at least provide models for the project to be known as Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers (LISW). In December of 2011, Chris Serra, of Oregon’s LIVE certification program, was invited to give a presentation to the East End vineyard managers. The expenses for his trip were paid for by Martha Clara, Bedell, Shinn Estate, and Channing Daughters, the four vineyards whose managers form the Core Group.
Whatever certification authority Long Island wine growers create must have credibility and address not only agricultural standards of sustainability but must also deal with ethical issues; for example, a certifier representative must not be involved with the vineyards being visited in the capacity of consultant or have any other ties to them.
How Certification Works
Certification is a seasonal program that would involve:
Use of the VineBalance Workbook (the full title is The New York Guide to Sustainable Viticulture Practices Grower Self-assessment Workbook)
Core Criteria based on the Workbook
Winegrower’s Pledge that is signed in the spring prior to the growing season.
One of the challenges regarding sustainability and certification is the issue of participation. The larger the body of participants, the more viable and reputable the certifying authority will be. Jim Thompson, a thoughtful Midwesterner with long experience in agriculture, says that “sustainability [in Long Island] is achievable.” Furthermore, a Sustainable Certification will help the local industry survive by giving it stronger bona fides. Thus, he believes that certification should be made accessible to all vineyard managers. However, as Olsen-Harbich pointed out, “One of the issues that the certification project needs to address is that of offering ‘inclusivity’ versus ‘teeth.’ In other words, the lower the bar for certification, the more people will join, but once standards for certification have real ‘teeth’ and make real demands on those who want certification, the likelihood is that fewer will seek it.”
Participation in a third-party certification program means that:
Members get a visit from a certifier representative in the first and second years of the track to certification and every third year thereafter.
A visit means a walk through the vineyard and a view of the records kept by the vineyard
A review of practices in the VineBalance Workbook
A review of vineyard inputs (i.e., chemicals used to control disease and fertilizers applied to the fields)
The report by the representative is then sent to the Core Group of the certification authority
For example, Shinn Estate is currently seeking to be certified by both Demeter (the Biodynamic® Certification body) as well as the National Organic Program (N.O.P.), each of which applies standards for general agriculture, but not specifically viticulture. As is the case with all certification agencies, the record keeping is fully standardized though the standards are not particular to viticulture. For Shinn, there is one visit per year every year, which comes at the end of the season, often right after harvest. It involves a two-to-three hour visit consisting of a walk through the vineyard followed by a sit-down session in which the vineyard records are reviewed. The advantage of a late-season visit is that it allows the certifier to see the condition of the vineyard after a full season’s farming, such as the ground cover, and allows for a full review of the entire season’s inputs. For Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers, after the first two years, there is one visit every three years. “It isn’t very demanding,” says Shinn, “provided you’ve kept good records.”
Scouting the Vineyard
Let us consider one aspect—a very important one—of a vineyard manager’s responsibilities, for it bears directly on the issue of sustainable practices. It begins with the concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). An authoritative viticultural specialist and qualified soil scientist, Larry Perrine explains: “IPM originally and primarily has to do with the control of insects. It requires knowledge of the life-cycle of each of the insect pests, thus to know when they are most vulnerable to pest-control applications. Insect infestations don’t behave like fungal ones—fungal control requires foliar application before an infestation develops, whereas insect pests can be tolerated up to a certain level of insect damage. Therefore, scouting in the vineyard is necessary to determine when or if the insects are reaching the point at which insecticide application is necessary. Scouting means that the vineyard manager needs to check a block of vines and calculate the density of pests present on, say, 50 leaves. For example, Grape Berry Moths overwinter in trees that may border a vineyard. Vineyard rows bordering those trees are most vulnerable to GBM attack. They can best be controlled by strategic use of insecticides, after scouting—for minimum environmental impact. The use of pheromone lures on twist ties, which confuse the moths during their mating season, can be helpful.”
Barbara Shinn, who has long been deeply committed to certification, elaborates, “I might go out to a particular block of vines and check the vine leaves for the presence of mites. If, say, I find that out of forty rows of vines, ten of the middle rows of vines have significant mite populations whereas the rest only had one or two mites, then I would have to consider applying the appropriate insecticide for the mites in the infected rows only—the more specific the target that the insecticide is designed for the better, as there is less collateral damage. Of course, each grower has to set his or her own limits—there is no set number. All growers have a list of acceptable inputs for sustainable, or organic, or Biodynamic practices. One selects from the list starting with the inputs with the lowest impact to the environment to those with the highest.”
What Certification Means
There are real potential benefits that come with sustainability and certification, and Long Island’s third-party certification will be carefully watched by wineries elsewhere in the Eastern United States, including Virginia, South Carolina, and New Jersey. What LISW does will certainly influence them in the development of certification authorities for their regions.
The Web site for LISW will include:
The VineBalance Workbook
A list of participants in the Certification Program
Olsen-Harbich, an articulate, acknowledged expert in both the vineyard and the winery, pointed out that, “Sustainability is a pathway which is ongoing and is not an ideology. It must be, and is, based on peer-reviewed science. It is the most viable form of safe agriculture.” Nevertheless, vineyard managers and all other farmers, whether sustainably farming or not, often use three products that are not naturally-made:
Stylet oil, a highly-effective, biologically-degradable foliar input used to control fungal diseases such as Downy mildew, but which is itself a highly-refined petroleum product
Sulfur, while a natural element, is another highly-effective foliar input used to control diseases and is usually a by-product of petroleum refining
Copper sulfate is also a widely-used industrial product that is used in agriculture primarily as a fungicide.
In addition, he points out, “Chemical companies have their ears open to what is going on in agriculture, and as a major player in the production of agricultural inputs (herbicides, fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, etc.), they are always ready to come up with new products. These, in turn, often push the boundaries between natural/sustainable/synthetic inputs. They need to be considered, but with great care, when addressing the issue of sustainability.” Perrine cautions that, “There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ pesticide. Both traditional materials such as copper or sulfur, as well as the most recently developed hydrocarbon-based pesticides need to be considered for environmental impact, therefore sustainability.”
Olsen-Harbich goes on to say, “There is also the matter of synthetic nitrogen vs. compost nitrogen—which is the preferred product to use in a sustainable program? Fish products, which are natural, are often used in the form of compost and fertilization material, but the very practice of commercial fishing is itself not sustainable.” To which Perrine adds, “Synthetic nitrogen accounts for more than 50% of the nitrogen used to grow plants around the world. To maintain a food production to feed the world, requires more than the organic sources of nitrogen that are available. The 100,000,000 tons of synthetic nitrogen produced around the world consumes only 1.5% of the world’s annual fossil fuel consumption. Indeed fish fertilizer is not sustainable, while synthetic N is
Weighing in on the nitrogen issue, Barbara Shinn has this to say:
“Here is where even amongst a group of ecologically-based farmers opinion differs. I prefer to take a byproduct from the fishing industry and make it useful by regenerating my soil with it – along with seaweed, whey (from the cheese making industry) and compost (made on-farm with our winemaking musts, bedding from the local horse-boarding industry and wood chips from the local tree trimming industry). The reuse and recycling of materials helps close a cycle that otherwise could be viewed as unhealthy for our planet and does not originate from a fossil fuel. I prefer to use materials on my soil that are connected to an originally living material. This type of soil work has been proven in peer reviewed papers to produce more minerally complexed food, and of course wine is an agricultural product so wine is food. In my opinion synthetic nitrogen dumbs down the soil, skipping over the all-important step of feeding the microbial life and in essence ignoring the natural lifecycle of our soil. In this respect, synthetic nitrogen is not sustainable. This difference in opinion is what makes our LISW group dynamic and, in the end, a viable springboard for fascinating discussions.”
Furthermore, “As ecologically practicing farmers it is important to retain our brotherhood. Whether we practice Sustainable, Organic, Permaculturalist, Biodynamic, or any other restorative-based farming, our root issues are the same. As a whole group banded together our concerns for the future of this planet have a huge voice, much louder than if we were separated by difference of opinions.”
For the LISW, there are potential partnerships with environmental entities such as:
The CCE (Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment), which is committed to encouraging citizens’ involvement in promoting strong environmental policy at the state and local levels
Sustainable Long Island, which promotes community revitalization
Peconic Land Trust, “which is dedicated to conserving Long Island’s working farms and natural lands.”
According to the CCE, “Long Island has been designated as a sole-source aquifer region by the U.S. EPA. This means that 100% of our drinking water supply comes from underground. The almost 3 million residents on our island are completely dependent on groundwater as our fresh water supply. The Lloyd aquifer is the deepest and cleanest source of drinking water on Long Island.” Larry Perrine says, quite bluntly, that with respect to agriculture, “there is, of course, the question of where the line gets drawn, especially with respect to a community’s sole-source water supply—as is the case in Long Island—the protection of which is of pre-eminent concern.”
Further to that, Perrine pointed out, “The Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing program will include on its Web site materials to help the public better understand what sustainable farming is and how it helps protect the community and its drinking water. The reason this must be done is that too many people come to conclusions based on the easiest and most available informational sources, which often are not reliable, fact-checked, or accurate, but often sensationalize the news. Such sources include TV, the Web, and newspapers. We wish to provide science-based and factual information that can be readily understood by the concerned public.”
Sustainability and the Community
To the question of how a vineyard relates to its community, Barbara Shinn, made the following points:
“Farming practices, as mentioned above, such that they should not have a negative effect on the community at large; choice of sustainable inputs is an important part of this.
“Land conservation, which means how the vineyard property seeks to maintain and protect animal and plant species and their variety that naturally appear and exist on the property, apart from pests that need to be controlled
“Public education about vineyard practices and objectives, particular to both viticulture and to farming practices generally. This can include information offered to visitors to the winery as well as the publication of books and articles for the general public (such as this one).”
Jim Thompson, observed that the issue of sustainability carries with it legal, environmental, and personal concerns. On a legal basis, certification would mean that a vineyard’s neighbors—often private homes or other, non-farm businesses, could rest assured that nothing dangerous is going into the ground or being wafted into the air that could affect a person’s health or neighborhood. On an environmental level, it would mean, for instance, that ground water would be protected, hence the community drinking water would be safe. “On a personal level,” he went on to say, “it means a safer environment in which to work, with the satisfaction of knowing that vineyard workers would be not exposed to the potential toxicity that is present in many of the [possible] input applications used in the vineyard.”
Larry Perrine summarized the situation well when he said: “It should be kept in mind that the natural world is in most cases self-healing over time. Farming itself is not natural, for it represents a massive intervention in nature. The goal of sustainability is to mitigate the impact of that intervention. The farmer is therefore in a compromised position, for in agriculture there is no perfection—he is always striving for something at which we can never arrive. Still, we want to leave a proper legacy for our children.”
The Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers program became a reality in April 2012. With its debut, Long Island is be the Eastern US leader in Sustainable Certification. (It has 501(c)(3) not-for-profit status.)
According to Perrine: “LISW expects about 10 wineries to sign up initially. Others are taking a wait-and-see attitude. It may take a few years for them to join. Not all of the initial members will effect a complete change-over to the sustainable practices advocated by LISW in the first year. It is, after all, only a pathway and not in itself the goal.” [One of the first to join apart from the core group was Wölffer Estate.]
Trent Pressler, CEO of Bedell Cellars, addressing the LISW audience.
On 6 June 2013 Bedell Cellars hosted the First Anniversary celebration of the founding of the LISW. As of September 2015 the LISW now has nineteen members, with sixteen of them already having achieved full certification:
Bedell Cellars (founding member)
Channing Daughters (founding member)
Corwith Vineyards (certified)
Duckwalk Vineyards (in transition)
Harbes Family Farm & Vineyard (certified)
Kontokosta Winery (in transition)
Martha Clara (founding member)
Mattebella Vineyards (certified)
McCall Wines (certified)
One Woman Vineyards (certified)
Palmer Vineyards (certified)
Paumanok Vineyards (certified)
Pindar Vineyards (in transition)
Roanoke Vineyards (certified)
Sannino Bella Vita Vineyards (certified)
Shinn Estate (founding member)
Sparkling Pointe (certified)
Surrey Lane Vineyards
Wölffer Estate (certified)
Paumanok Vineyards and Sparkling Pointe are the latest to achieve certification as of November 2015, bringing the total to 20 members. So the majority are already certified, each having put nearly 200 elements of sustainable practice into operation for a year or longer with two left in transition to certification. This represents very fast growth for a new certification authority, as it already has nearly a third of all the vineyards on the island. Such rapid growth can be explained in part by the fact that many of the vineyards already were practicing the guidelines of Cornell’s VineBalance program, which is the underpinning of LISW approach. There are still some that are taking a wait-and-see position, such as Osprey’s Dominion (“we’re already farming sustainably, but we need to be sure of the benefits of joining”) and Lenz (Sam McCullough told Wine Spectator [May 2012 issue]:
“The number one reason we’re not participating is that I typically buy my pesticides for the coming season at the end of the year [to save money], so I had already committed to purchase things that they don’t allow in the program,” said Sam McCullough, vineyard manager for the Lenz Winery. While he cited fungus control as his big concern in Long Island’s humid climate, he felt the sustainability program provides enough options to deal with any problems that might arise and didn’t think the required changes would be onerous.” Still, McCullough has yet to decide about participating next year. “I think it’s a fine idea, but I don’t know that there are really that many genuinely harmful practices out here. We’re all pretty responsible. I see it mainly as a perception issue and a public relations act rather than changing the way we take care of the environment, but anything that helps market our product is a good thing.”
Furthermore, the Spectator pointed out that “smaller wineries are concerned about the cost and whether consumers are willing to spend more to offset the extra expenses. Right now, [Roz] Baiz [of The Old Field Vineyard] said, she’d rather use the combined $800 in membership and inspection fees to purchase some new needed equipment.”
But twenty have joined so far, such as Mudd’s Vineyard, which says that “It’s the right thing to do.”
For wineries that are certified, the LISW logo can be included on the wine labels, thus showing that the wines are made from grapes raised with a conscience. This, it is hoped, will also help promote Long Island wines among those consumers who care about this, and the number who do are steadily growing.
Certification is accomplished by the expertise of LISW’s independent third-party inspector: Allan Connell, the former District Conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), using the New York VineBalance Grower Workbook as a roadmap for evaluation of the sustainable viticultural practices of Long Island vineyards.
As of Feb. 27, 2014, a new post was published on the Bedell blog by Richard Olsen-Harbich: “Seal of Approval,” pursuant to a visit last December by one of the world’s leading experts in the field of sustainable viticulture – Dr. Cliff Ohmart. Pursuant to that visit, on March 17, 2014, Wine Spectator published a blog post by its Managing Editor, Dana Nigro: How Serious Is Long Island About Sustainable Wine? with the subtitle, “Region’s new program gets green thumbs-up from outside expert.”
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.