“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.
Most recently, 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.
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
Barney Loughlin, who died in early 2017 at 91 years of age, was a true American original.
He grew up on Meadow Croft Estate, right in the middle of Sans Souci Lake Nature Preserve in Sayville. His property of 20 acres, including his 7-acre vineyard, was acquired from the Roosevelts after the war.
After he left the army Barney first worked as a linotype operator for a small Sayville paper and then opened a print shop in town. However, he hated the work and was seeking an alternative.
Having served in Europe he had learned about wine and liked it. So Barney became interested in what was going on in the North Fork with the vineyards and wineries proliferating there. When he was told that wine grapes couldn’t be successfully grown near the South Shore of Long Island, he assumed the challenge (“it drove me nuts.”) and bought 1,800 vines which he, his wife Christine, and their three daughters planted by hand in 1984.
To get to the tasting room one takes a long drive down a dirt lane that runs past the magnificent home of John E. Roosevelt–a nephew of Theodore–Meadow Croft Estate. Shortly after that there are a couple of very decrepit structures, which include a storage shed and the winery.
Much further on (about a quarter of a mile, stands a shed that contains the tasting room. It’s a rough clapboard structure that announces itself with a neon OPEN sign.
On the particular day that we visited (in March 2016) there was a nip in the air and the wood stove inside was roaring. Barney was seated with his back to the heat and in front a portable radio blared Country & Western. When we asked him questions we had to shout to be heard, for he didn’t turn the volume down. His eyes were weak, his hearing worse, and the day before he’d fallen off his tractor and walking was painful for him.
The interview, such as it was, drew from Barney some profane reminiscences of his time as an U.S. Army infantryman in Italy, France, and Germany during World War II. He saw combat at Monte Cassino, which he described as “hell.” It turned out that Barney had myriad press clippings and photographs in an album that he’d had printed as a book. It covers the period from World War II to the present. His granddaughter, Brittany, pulled it out for our perusal, as can be seen in the photo above.
One of the biggest problems facing Barney’s vineyards is the fact that it is surrounded by forest. Deer, bugs, and birds have ravenous appetites sated by eating his grapes. The crop loss can be significant. Hence, his output each year can vary considerably, not only because of the weather.
Originally his wines were made at Peconic Bay Winery by Ray Blum. After the Lowerres purchased Peconic Bay they hired Greg Gove as winemaker, who then took over winemaking for Loughlin. As it turned out, Greg raised the quality level of Loughlin wines so much that Barney would accept whatever advice Greg gave him. In fact, Greg urged Barney to start a winery operation of his own, so with Greg’s guidance and advice he purchased grape-handling equipment, a bottling line, tanks and barrels, and by 2008 Greg was making the wines at his property (mis en boteilles au château).
Since Barney’s death his daughters, Mary Ellen Loughlin, Beth Cutrone, and Patricia Jones, have decided to keep the business going. Patricia works in the vineyards, Greg now is a consultant, while Beth is the winemaker. Mary Ellen keeps the books. Brittany, who lives in the city, comes out every weekend to run the tasting room. But Barney’s irrepressible personality shall be deeply missed.
Recommended wines: Chardonnay (dry, rather bright, lemony aroma and flavor, well balanced)
Also, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot; South Bay Breeze Blush (a blend of the Merlot and Cabernet grapes with no skin contact and has residual sugar.)
They are also coming out with a rosé, called Pinky Rosé, as a homage to their old donkey (depicted on the label).
Year Established: 1984, winery 2008 Vineyard: 7 acres
Annual production (varies by vintage): about 1,000 cases
From the east or west of Long Island, go south on Lakeland Ave off Sunrise Highway, towards Sayville. Lakeland Ave will eventually turn into Railroad Ave.
Take that further south toward Main Street and the center of town. Turn left at the light and stay to your immediate right and proceed east down South Main Street. Pass one light and continue on east. You will pass St. Ann’s Church on your left, and before you go over a small bridge there will be a white sign on your left and winetasting sign on your right.
Turn left and proceed down the dirt road bearing to the right of Meadow Croft Estate.
Christian Wölffer, a real estate entrepreneur, bought the 14 acres of potato fields known as Sagpond Farms in 1978. Enchanted by the idea of a vineyard of his own after tasting a Chardonnay planted by a Sagaponack neighbor, in 1988 he asked David Mudd to plant fifteen acres of vines. It has since grown to 55 acres, with ten parcels of vines with sub-parcels. The vine rows were planted running North to South and East to West, depending on the best orientation to the sun based on the terrain. By 1996 he had assembled 168 acres, which he devoted mostly to grazing land for his horses. His first release, a Chardonnay, was in 1991.
Roman Roth and Richard Pisacano are the team that together produces some of the finest wine made in Long Island. Roman, of course, is the winemaker (and now partner) at Wölffer, and Richie—as he’s known to his friends and colleagues—is the winegrower. One is, as it were, the right hand and the other the left. So close are they that Richie’s own wine brand, Roanoke Vineyards, is made by Roman. Roman himself has his own label, Grapes of Roth, which, since he became partner this year, will be sold in Wölffer’s tasting room.
Roman has been with Wölffer Estate as winemaker since 1992, Richie came to the Estate in 1997. Both of them had years of experience in the wine trade before coming to Wölffer’s.
Roman & full-time vineyard crew at lunch
Roman comes from southern Germany and learned about vineyards, varieties, and vinification there, as his was a winemaking family. He travelled and worked at wineries in California and Australia before returning home. In 1992 Roman received his Master Winemaker and Cellar Master degrees from the College for Oenology and Viticulture in Weinsberg. Soon after, he accepted the position of winemaker at Sagpond Vineyards, a new winery in the Hamptons. This was a winemaker’s dream—to be part of a new and growing wine region with the chance to create something new, to leave a footprint at the foundational level.
Over the next several years, Roth managed the expansion of Sagpond Vineyards into “Wölffer Estate,” now a 55-acre vineyard with a state-of-the-art winery producing a wide range of award-winning wines, all nestled in a 175-acre property with horses, paddocks, stables, and riding trails. Under Roth’s meticulous direction, Wölffer has become a Hampton’s destination, producing wines of excellent caliber and reputation.
In April 2003, Roman received the award of “Winemaker of the Year” presented by the East End Food & Wine Awards (judged by the American Sommelier Society). This reflected the excellence of the wines he produced as winemaker and as a consultant, and was recognition of his contribution to quality winemaking on Long Island as a whole. After Christian Wölffer’s untimely death in a swimming accident, the Estate was in the hands of his children, Joey and Marc. At that time Roman was made a partner in the firm and basically runs it. In December 2015 he was elected as President of the Long Island Wine Council to serve for two years.
Rich started his career with greenhouse plant propagation, then worked for Mudd Vineyards (the first Vineyard Consulting Management firm in Long Island) in 1977, while still in high school. He went on the design and maintain vineyards for Cutchogue Vineyards (now Macari South), Pindar, Palmer, Island (now Pellegrini), Jamesport, and others before he came to Wölffer. He was invited by Roman to come to Wölffer to help “rescue” the vineyard, to help bring the Estate to the next level and further improve the quality and reputation. When he arrived he brought along with him the ideas of sustainable viticulture and in fact followed the precepts of Cornell’s VineBalance program for the last ten years.
The first fifteen acres of Wölffer vines were planted by David Mudd in 1988, and it has since grown to 50 acres, with ten parcels of vines with sub-parcels. The vine rows were planted running North to South and East to West.
Wölffer’s terroir, given its location on a hill, varies considerably, much more so than the vineyards on the North Fork. The Estate has two types of soil, Bridgehampton loam and Haven.The Bridgehampton soils are mostly the flatter ground and the hillside soils, which are lighter, are mostly Haven. [i] Where the two converge one overlaps the other with interesting effects on the micro-terroir of individual vines. Both soils offer good drainage and the way that the vineyard slopes allows the cold air to flow out of the vineyard across to the Montauk Highway. With its undulating topography and overlapping soils, it makes for an especially interesting terroir, particularly so for Long Island. Rich refers to it as a “unique setting.”
Both Richie and Roman agree that “The vineyard comes first,” and “we focus on what we can do in the vineyard, then we can make wine from that.”
The California model is not a good one to follow in LI; Wölffer has healthy low vigor/well balanced vineyards. With respect to viticulture, Rich’s is a balanced approach, with individual attention to the vines. Indeed, given his 30-years of experience, they call him “the grape-whisperer.” As Rich pointed out, in his straightforward but modest way, “given time, one develops an intuition.”
For Rich, rule number one for a vineyard manager is to throw out the personal calendar and appointment book—the vineyard has precedence over all matters personal. The Manager is like a doctor on call, always ready to respond to an emergency. Or, as Rich puts it, “Sometimes I’m not a vineyard manager as much as I am vineyard-managed.”
For example, in 2011, despite the terrible weather, including Hurricane Irene’s contribution, Wölffer had no crop loss whatsoever thanks to the adequate manpower that was available to manage the problems engendered by the weather. Wölffer managed to harvest 2.79 tons per acre, which was right at the 20-year average for their harvests. The biggest challenge of the season was the sudden changes in the weather, and that requires a very nimble and highly attentive manager.
The symbiotic relationship between vineyard manager and vintner was demonstrated in the 2005 vintage, which had been a very good season until 20 inches of rain were dumped on LI in the space of a week just at harvest time, with the result that grapes were so swollen with water that the sugar levels were diluted to as low as 16 degrees Brix. Some growers went ahead and picked the swollen grapes immediately after the rain, others abandoned entire parcels of fruit. Roman, however, saw the potential for patience rewarded and had Rich leave the grapes alone for a few days. Three days of dry weather led to the grapes shrinking back to normal size and reaching 23 Brix, and by the fifth day the sugar level had reached 25 Brix, which was unheard of in terms of sugar levels that increased so dramatically in so brief a time. At that point some of the crop began to shrivel and raisin, so a 35-person crew was sent out to pick what were now very ripe grapes. Some other vineyards had been watching what was going on at Wölffer Estate and held off as well, but none had the resources that the Estate enjoyed, so as soon as the grapes were brought in the crew was sent out to help harvest the grapes at the other vineyards as well. As a result, some very good wine was made that year, although at much smaller yields than usual. This is part of what Rich calls Roman’s “wine-rescue program.”
The fact of the matter is that Richie and Roman “get energy from one another.”
Wölffer now has seven varieties planted, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Trebbiano and Vignoles—of which there is a half-acre. Chardonnay needs to be picked at full ripeness. In the mid-1990s the significance of proper clonal selection became better appreciated, so that optimal results can be obtained in the vineyard. Presently there are three Chardonnay clones planted: Davis 3+4 Dijon 76, and Clone 96. Dijon, which is a Burgundy clone, tends to offer comparatively low acidity by comparison with Davis 3+4, which was developed for the warmer climate of California. Merlot clones include 181 (from France), 3 (from U. of C. at Davis), and 6 (from Argentina).
Wölffer planted Trebbiano Toscano [aka Ugni Blanc] in 2010, the only Long Island vineyard to do so. The vines were productive by the 2nd year, yielding 3.5 tons / acre and by the 3rd year, 8 tons of good fruit. Given the large and experienced vineyard crew that the Estate can call on at harvest time, it was possible to harvest by hand 6 to 8 tons per hour, or about 40 tons at the end of a 7-hour day. In fact, many of the crew are people with other jobs but who have helped harvest the crop by hand for as long as ten years or more. They know what they are doing and are very efficient. According to Rich, the best of all the pickers are invariably women, who are more careful and attentive than are most of the men.
Vines’ vigor affects wine character. For that reason, there are rows of Cabernet Franc and Merlot that are reserved for making rosé that run down a slope, with Bridgehampton Loam eight feet thick at the top that is overlaid with Bridgehampton Loam as one goes down the slope, until the Haven is only eight inches thick. The Bridgehampton soils are mostly the flatter ground and the hillside soils, which are lighter, are mostly Haven. This represents ever-changing terror, which is to say that each vine in a row has a micro-terroir of its own. Indeed, thanks to drainage and soil changes along the rows, the vigor of the vines changes along the length of the slope. Consequently, in order to “harmonize” that vineyard parcel, Rich has leaf-pulling and green harvesting done along the rows at graduated intervals, with the vines furthest downslope getting the most attention, and those at the top less. Thus, the vines mature and are ready for harvest at nearly the same time. This is the work of a ‘grape-whisperer.’
Roman & crew at soccer. Goal!
Wölffer always has an adequate vineyard crew—for one thing, the Estate make harvesting fun and treats the harvest as a celebration. They feed the workers very well, with much coffee and snacks available throughout the workday. Because of so much attention in the vineyard throughout the season, there is mostly clean fruit at harvest time, which makes it easier and faster to hand-pick. In fact, a good crew can pick [clean fruit] by hand faster than a mechanical harvester is able to do. Naturally, by harvest time there are an abundance of workers available due to the fact that the tourist season has come to an end and many of the workers had been in the hospitality industry for the summer season.
Wölffer has already joined the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers program, which leads to certification in sustainable farming. They had, as mentioned above, been growing their vines responsibly since the mid-90s, so the transition to the LISW program was actually very easy, as they’d been following the VineBalance guidelines that are the basis for the LISW ones, but modified to better fit the conditions of Long Island, rather than for the whole state of New York. For example, they do not use pre-emergent herbicides or added nitrogen to the soil—the use of nitrogen-fixing cover crops takes care of that. Periodically, given the high acidity of the Long Island soil, about 1½ tons of lime per acre is added to raise the pH level of the soil to make it more amenable for the vines. By May of 2013, the vineyard had succeeded in meeting all 200 requirements of the LISW and obtained its certification for sustainable winegrowing.
The winery is large and sophisticated, enjoying excess capacity such that not only does Wölffer buy grapes from five other vineyards, including Mudd’s vineyard, Dick Pfeiffer’s, and Surry Lane’s to make Long-Island appellation wines under the Wölffer label. Roman gets to use the winery facilities to make his own Grapes of Roth and Richie’s own Roanoke Vineyards wines. He also uses the facilities to make wine for clients Scarola Vineyards and Gramercy Vineyards as well. Indeed, in 2009 an extremely selective picking of botrytised Riesling grapes took place in Jamesport Vineyards, allowing Roman to make a TBA under his Grapes of Roth label. Not too many TBAs are made anywhere in the US of A; the very first one was a feat of the late, great Konstantin Frank, in 1965, of Finger Lakes fruit, of course, not LI. That one made headlines—in 2015 Roman’s two latest efforts with botrytised wines have earned him the highest scores ever awarded for Long Island wines.
In fact, given that Roman makes three rosés, eight whites, thirteen different reds, three award-wining dessert wines, two sparkling wines, and two apple ciders (a total of 29 different wines alone for Wölffer’s, not to speak of the wines he makes for Roanoke Vineyards), the question arises. How does he do it? Well, as he explained, working at the Karlschüle in South Germany he dealt with a wide variety of reds and whites. There he learned that close attention to detail mattered: every tank had to be topped up, every bung properly place, etc. He also gave credit to the excellent wine-growing climate of Long Island, which shares the same latitude and Madrid and Naples and gets the most sun of all of New York State. So, in early August they begin picking the grapes for sparkling wine, when they’re not fully ripe, then grapes for the rosés, which also don’t need full ripeness, and on to the whites, then the reds, which need more ripeness, and at the end of October, the late-harvest grapes. It means he has time to deal with the winemaking over a period of as much as three months. He gives as much attention to a basic white as he does to a Christian Cuvée red, because he can, all because of the enabling climate and soil.
For Roman, to make good wine demands a very scrupulous attention to detail. Not only are the grapes all hand-picked at the proper time, but when the fruit arrives at the winery they have as many as 56 hands at work at the sorting table, so no bad fruit goes into the must. Few wineries have the resources to bring more than a dozen hands to that task. When the must is fermenting in the tanks they do pumpovers three times a day, where most wineries do it only twice or even once. Of course, it helps to be able to afford a cellar team that can give this kind of time to such matters. It also helps to have had one fabulous vintage after another since 2010—2011 being the exception—and it may be true for 2015 as well.
To Roman, the great untold story about Long Island wines is their longevity: a 20-year-old Chardonnay still drinking well, for instance, and red wines that can mature and hold up for 25 to 30 years. The word has not yet gotten out to collectors that the wines of the region can be laid down and over time they will increase in value—not yet like great Bordeaux, perhaps, but as rarity and demand increase, even that is a possibility.
Roman introduced a dry rosé to the Long Island wine repertoire in 1992, within a year of his arrival at the winery—he was quite bullish in his pursuit to make Wölffer rosé a respected and fashionable wine. The 2011 is made with 54% Merlot and 21% Chardonnay, 9% Pinot Noir, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8%Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2012 consists of 69% Merlot, 16.5% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Noir, 4.5% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. The blend, as one can see, varies considerably from year to year, depending on the results of the harvest. Whatever the blend, Wölffer calls it “Summer in a Bottle.”
Along with its wide range of varietal wines, including Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Trebbiano, and so on, Roman also makes a non-alcoholic verjus that is a low-acid alternative to vinegar (used in a salad make the salad much more wine-friendly), but it is also an eminently quaffable beverage that is its own “Summer in a glass.” Perfect for those friends who can’t or don’t drink wine, yet almost as enjoyable.
And I cannot omit mention of the time that I stopped by at Wölffer’s tasting room to try a glass of the 2000 Merlot, which at a $100 a bottle had caused a sensation. The glass of wine cost only $25, and I sipped it slowly for over an hour, observing how it evolved with time and exposure to air. Slightly closed at first, it wasn’t long before it was offering notes of plum and black berries, and then hints of cedar and clove, becoming brighter and deeper in bouquet and flavor, and lingering long on the palate. An extraordinary wine. I knew then that Long Island wine had arrived on the world stage. I had become hooked.
More recently, an article on the North Forker website of July 6, 2015, “Long Island wines receive record-breaking reviews in The Wine Advocate” stated that the critic, Mark Squires, of the Advocate had awarded two Wölffer Estate Vineyard wines — the Descencia Botrytis Chardonnay and Diosa Late Harvest — the highest scores ever received in the region, each earning 94 points.
“If I had to name a ‘short list’ of top wineries in the region, this would have to be on it, without requiring any thought,” Squires wrote in his review. “Under winemaker/partner Roman Roth and Vineyard Manager Rich Pisacano (who also owns Roanoke, at which Roth is also the winemaker), this winery excels in making age-worthy, structured wines.”
Further to that, in the Nov. 16 issue of Wine Spectator Wölffer’s Grapes of Roth 2010 Merlot one of the top 100 wines of the year 2015. No other Long Island winery has ever achieved that accolade. Tom Matthews wrote: “A polished texture carries balanced flavors of tart cherry, pomegranate, toasted hazelnut and espresso in this expressive red. Features firm, well-integrated tannins and lively acidity. Elegant. Drink now through 2022. 2,592 cases made.”
139 Sagg Road, PO Box 900. Sagaponack, NY 11962. Phone 631-537-5106
[i] According to the LISW Climate & Soil Web page, “Bridgehampton-Haven Association: These soils are deep and excessively drained and have a medium texture. It is its depth, good drainage and moderate to high available water-holding capacity that make this soil well-suited to farming.”
A statement on the Lenz Winery Website by Sam McCullough, its vineyard manager:
At Lenz, our philosophy in the vineyard is high-touch. We are interventionists and we intervene, at great cost in time and effort, to micro-manage each vine to ripeness each year. Leaf removal, shoot thinning, cluster thinning, crop reduction, triple catch wires, super-attentive pest and fungus control (our ‘open canopy’ approach keeps fungus problems to a minimum), all combine to add cost (unfortunately) but to ensure fully ripe grapes of the highest quality.
Established in 1978, the winery has three vineyard plots with a total acreage of about 70 acres planted to nine different vinifera grape varieties: Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir. Of these, the principal red variety is Merlot and the principal white is Chardonnay. Bearing in mind that the original Lenz vineyard is over thirty years old and came under new ownership only in 1988, when Peter and Deborah Carroll purchased it from the original owners, Patricia and Peter Lenz, the original vines of Chardonnay and Merlot are among the oldest on the island.
Sam is an affable, direct, and very knowledgeable farmer, with a degree in horticulture and with long experience in the business of growing wine grapes. He is not shy about saying that though the Lenz vineyards are farmed as sustainably as possible, when there is a need for using conventional farming methods he’ll not hesitate to employ them. The reason is simple: there is too wide an array of fungal and other pests to rely entirely on biodegradable or organic means of control. With respect to herbicides, he prefers to use what he calls pre-emergent controls so that stronger ones are not needed later in the event of an outbreak. The same is true of the fungicides he uses: low-impact controls for prevention, but will not hesitate to use copper and sulfur when infections do break out. It is because of this that he makes no claim to running a sustainable-farming operation, but is rather a conventionally-farmed property that tries to be ecologically low-impact where possible.
In other words, Sam is not taking Lenz down the organic road due to cost and practicality. Speaking frankly about Shinn Estate’s achievement in bring in its first organic harvest of grapes, he takes a wait-and-see attitude with regards to being able to achieve similar results three years in a row—which is necessary for organic certification. He feels that the weather last season was especially favorable for organic viticulture. It may not work so well this year if the weather turns too harsh. On the hand, Sam feels that some Biodynamic® applications may actually work insofar as even the very small quantities of compost tea that are used (about 50 gallons per acre) may enhance the development of healthy biota on the vines and help them better resist pests and other infections. He’s not persuaded that cow horns or astronomical events such as the soltices are at all important, and that the applications would work anyway. As he put it:
I am not opposed to organic viticulture or biodynamics. I am indeed skeptical that it is possible to consistently succeed at producing vinifera grapes in our climate without the use of synthetic chemicals and I am in no position to try it. I do not disdain or ridicule those making the effort. I wish them success.
I do believe, and strongly, that it is quite possible to use conventional agricultural methods responsibly and safely: safe for the environment, the farmer, farm workers and the consumers of our crops.
I believe conventional farming to be safe and economical. Without conventional farming, the 2% of our nation’s population who are involved in agriculture could not feed the country with production to spare. Those who wish to use alternative methods that avoid the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are free to do so and I wish them success. The popular hysteria so easily incited by the mention of pesticides and food is unfounded. However, those who wish to consume naturally-produced foods and can afford to do so constitute a lucrative market.
Thus, to the extent possible Lenz employs “green” practices in the vineyard, such as the use of self-seeded cover crops between rows so that there is considerable variety in the flora and fauna of the soil. These, of course, are a natural habitat for insects that are predators of many vineyard pests such as aphids. The crops also include plants that return nitrogen to the soil, encourage earthworms to propagate, and generally keep the soil healthy. Nevertheless, while he prefers to use pre-emergent herbicides to control pest plants, he will use Roundup to control weeds within the vine rows proper when necessary, as he considers it to be highly efficacious and of low environmental impact if used sparingly. So too with pesticides—he uses Danitol, a wide-spectrum insecticide/miticide that is essentially a synergized pyrethrin that is especially effective with grape pests such as the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the grape berry moth, and others, but will also use Stylet oil, which is biodegradable, as well.
Sam tries to use dry farming for the three vineyard plots and therefore has no irrigation lines permanently threaded into the rows of vines as is the case at some of the other wineries (not that those irrigate at times other than drought either). He finds that if there is a need to irrigate, it’s easy enough to bring the irrigation lines into the vine rows as needed, Furthermore, he explains that given the problems with permanently-installed irrigation lines, such as leaks, breakage, blocking of the lines, and so on, he really doesn’t think that it’s worth the expense, especially since irrigation is only needed once in every three to four seasons, when there is drought. So too with machine-harvesting vs. hand-picking the grapes. Rather than use a large and expensive machine such as that employed by a few other wineries, Lenz removes the grapes with a tractor-towed harvester. He notes that hand-picking clean grapes can cost around $100 a ton; hand-selecting while picking grapes can elevate the cost to about $200. By using a towed harvester with an attached selection table and a man or two to pick out the detritus—leaves, stems, bad grapes, insects—he can keep costs low and still have the advantage of selected grapes.
Actually, some varieties are better off being hand-picked, due in part to the thinness of the skins, and that is the case for the Lenz Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon. These are, after all, 36-year-old vines, which are able to produce more concentrated, flavorful fruit than can young vines, though they are rather shy bearers.
Sam works closely with Eric Fry, the winemaker who has been at Lenz for 25 years. When Sam first came to Lenz in 1990 the two “butted heads” at the beginning, but they now have a very effective relationship. It is, after all, for the winemaker to decide when the crop is ready to harvest, and both men agree that the kind of ripeness that they are looking for in the fruit can only be tasted, not just measured for sugar levels with a densitometer or looking at phenolic ripeness. It must taste just right to be harvested—this is experience, not science, at work in this instance.
Because they collaborate closely on the timing of the harvest, which includes deciding which parcels and which varieties to pick first—at optimum ripeness to the taste of the winemaker, ultimately, the estate grapes are ready to be made into wine not only for Lenz, but for several clients that do not have their own vineyards or winemaking facilities. These clients (not all of them in Long Island), buy their grapes from parcels set aside for them by Lenz and are then made into wine by Eric according to their style specifications. He also works closely with several local vineyards to help make their fruit into wine at the Lenz facilities.
Eric, by the way, is a really gifted winemaker and highly respected by his peers. Some refer to him as a kind of genius. He wears his gray hair in a pony tail and has something of the Hippie about him still. He is actually a very gentle person, very direct, strongly opinionated, self-assured, and generous with his time and readiness to help others. For Lenz, Eric’s practice is to make its best wines to be capable of aging, and he refers to himself as an “acid head”—not referring to LSD but to high acidity levels in the wine. In other words, he encourages it in the wines he makes. It is acidity, after all, that helps give wine structure and longevity. For Eric, that means holding on to the wine for a few years before releasing it. Most wineries don’t hold on to their wines any longer than is absolutely necessary once they’re bottled. It costs money to store it and it means that money is tied up until the wine
So, for example, when Eric works with clients, some of whom have collaborated with him for years, he tries to get them to take his advice. He feels that wine should be held for at least two years before being released to market, but not all of his clients see things his way—at least not at first.
He explains that “I actually have custom clients that I bottle for, that I make wine [for] here. We’re bottling the wine, and they’ll stand there and at the end of the bottling run, they’ll take cases off and throw them on the market, and I’m going, ‘Your call, I wouldn’t do that!’”
Over time, many of his collaborators come around to his way of thinking, or as he puts it, speaking of some of them: “Old Field is into my rhythm, Whisper’s into my rhythm, Harmony, they’re into my rhythm. This is a new client that we’ve just taken on, and I’m still trying to teach him my rhythm, to teach him my way of doing things, and so he had several wines that he was out of stock, and he was calling me up every day going ‘Oh, I need it, I need it.’ And I go like, ‘That means you didn’t plan ahead.’
“At the beginning he bristled and he got all upset and he was like, ‘You’re not cooperating with me.’ And I’m going, ‘I’ll do what you want, but if you want good wine, you should do what I want.’ So he’s coming around, he’s beginning to understand the concept, because I bottled a red wine for him and he wanted to release it right away and I said ‘It’s your wine, you can do whatever you want.’ And he goes and takes a sample and he goes ‘This doesn’t taste like it was before we bottled it.’ I’m going, ‘Well, hello? It needs some bottle age.’ And he’s going, ‘Oh, OK.’”
When he makes a Chardonnay, be sure that the wine is not just made from the Chardonnay grape, pressed, fermented in steel, and bottled—a simple, straightforward, and possibly excellent wine. That’s not Eric’s way. He seeks complexity, and a Chard may be, as he says, 5 % of the wine may be “keg fermented” in 15-year-old barrels, with perhaps a little M-L (malo-lactic) to add more character, but not so much that it makes the wine buttery, as a full M-L may do to a Chard. It imparts more complexity, but in the background. You can’t taste the oak, you can’t discern the M-L, but you can tell that the wine is complex.
But let’s talk about yeast. Eric is a “control-freak,” which means that he’s not someone who uses wild or indigenous yeast in his fermentation. He prefers to buy yeast that has been specifically modified for a particular set of characteristics. For example, for the Chardonnay just mentioned, he used EC1118, a workhorse yeast that brings out fruit flavors. In fact, as he explains, “I’ve been experimenting with yeasts for thirty years. Right after harvest, you go through and taste the barrels or taste the kegs; it’s like ‘Holy cow, this one tastes like this and this one tastes like this, and they’re so different and it’s amazing the yeast affect whatever like that.’ Six months later, you can’t tell them apart.”
He went on to say, “With different wines I use different yeasts on purpose and get different characters on purpose, but most of all the concept that I have is, if whatever yeast you’re using or whatever you’re doing, if the fermentation sticks you’re screwed. So what I do is I use yeasts that are dependable, that will not screw up, because if they screw up, everything’s out the window. All the wonderful nuances you’re looking for, they’re gone.
“The yeast does have a function and does make different flavors, but it’s overrated, it’s not a large factor.”
Eric is also something of a provocateur, so he asked me what I thought about the concept of terroir. I said that I considered the idea of terroir—as conceived by the French—to be something real and that affected the wine made from grapes grown in a particular place. To which he replied, “Terroir is BS, strictly a marketing gimmick. It’s all about marketing.” He then offered me a glass of wine of which he was very proud: the first botrytised dessert wine made at Lenz in the twenty-three years that he’d been winemaker there. Usually botrytis only produced gray rot, something to be avoided and which needed to be controlled with fungicide, but last year the conditions were unique, and the botrytis that settled on the Chardonnay grapes appeared when the grapes were very ripe, the early-morning humidity would burn off as warming sun rose in the East, and violà, a rich and delicious botrytised dessert wine at 73° Brix. When I pointed out that this happened in most years in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, which surely was an expression of terroir, Eric was dismissive, “Well, whatever.” Provocative, indeed. With respect to organic viticulture Eric feels, again, that it is mostly a matter of marketing rather than making a better wine.
Sam was a bit more philosophical about the matter of terroir, suggesting that its influence may be exaggerated but that it shouldn’t be entirely dismissed out of hand. And, after all, I would like to point out, it is what is done in the vineyard by human intervention, whether by using one kind of trellising over another, say single vs. double Guyot, or vertical shoot positioning or something else, how often the vines are green-harvested or not at all, the use of sustainable practices such as crop cover or biodegradable pesticides, and even the use of a recycling tunnel sprayer for pesticide agents, that are all part of terroir. This, of course, is a broad definition of the term; the traditional definition is more narrow and confines itself to geographical/geological/climatological issues of soil, climate, slope, drainage, aspect to the sun, etc.
Thus, both Lenz wines and the client wines benefit from the careful, practical, and highly professional care that is given to the grapes in the fields from which they are made. Then there is the thoughtful care that the wines get in the winery itself. These are crafted wines, not “natural” ones. The result can be tasted and Lenz wines have often been compared—favorably—to great European wines; for instance, the Lenz 2005 Old Vines Chardonnay held its own to a Domaine Leflaive 2005 Puligny-Montrachet “Les Folatieres,” while a Lenz 2002 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon tied with a 2002 Château Latour at a blind tasting held at the great Manhattan restaurant Le Bernardin in April 2011. These comparative tastings have been held every year since 1996 and always pit Lenz wines against French equivalents—not California ones, for the Lenz style is closer to that of France than the West Coast. The Lenz Website has a list of these blind tastings and the results.
I can attest to this personally with a blind tasting that I conducted with friends in 2012, comparing a 2007 Meursault-Charmes 1er Cru with a 2007 Lenz Old Vines Chardonnay–they all guessed that the Lenz was the Burgundy wine.
And to think that such results come from a Long Island vineyard . . .
Based on interviews with Sam McCullough & Eric Fry at the Lenz Winery in April 2011 and September 2014
For further reading, Fry and his wines were written about by Eileen Duffy in her book, Behind the Bottle (Cider Mill Press, 2015). Profiles on Sam McCullough and Eric Fry by John Ross can be found in his book, The Story of North Fork Wine: Historical Profiles and Wine Country Recipes (Maple Hill Press, 2009). Jane Taylor Starwood, former editor-in-chief of Long Island Wine Press, featured Lenz Winery in Long Island Wine Country: Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork (Three Forks, 2009). Philip Palmedo and Edward Beltrami discussed Lenz in The Wines of Long Island (Amereon House, 2000).
Raphael Winery entrance, by Petrocelli Construction
Raphael Winery, in Peconic, on the North Fork of Long Island, was founded by John Petrocelli Sr. and his wife, Joan, and is family-owned. Petrocelli is also the owner of J. Petrocelli Construction, which specializes in quality design and building, and the handsome, 28,000 sq. ft. winery was designed by him, inspired by the architecture of the Neapolitan monasteries of his native Italy. He named it after his father, Raphael, who was an avid home winemaker like his own father before him, so John Sr. came by his oenophilia perhaps genetically. The venture was five years in planning and cost $6,000,000 to complete, with the intention of making the premium winery of Long Island, Italian-inspired but Bordeaux-oriented.
When the commitment to build the winery was made, it was clear that a vital component, the vineyard, needed to be tended to by expert viticulturalists. The family then hired David and Steve Mudd—Mudd VMC is the premier vineyard management consulting firm on the Island—to help guide them in the development of a Bordeaux-type of winery. Also hired as advisers were Paul Pontallier, managing director of Ch. Margaux—one of the five Premier Cru châteaux in Bordeaux— along with Richard Smart, a respected Australian viticulture consultant who had earned his Ph.D. at Cornell. With their advice the cellar and equipment was developed along those lines, and built twelve feet below the ground in order to allow for the first gravity-fed fermentation tanks to be used in the region, using as models Opus One and Mondavi, of Napa Valley. (Gravity feed is considered to be less stressful and damaging to the fruit and organic matter that constitutes the must than is mechanical pumping.)
One of Raphael’s vineyard plots
In 1996 the Mudds planted the first vineyard for Raphael with Merlot, and have been managing the vineyard, which has grown to 60 acres over the years, ever since, using sustainable practices, including what Steve Mudd calls “fussy viticulture”—green harvesting by hand—from the very beginning. (In fact, the first wine made under the Raphael label came from Merlot vines grown at the Mudds’ own vineyard and were vinified at Pellegrini Vineyard. The first wine produced at the new facility was the 1999 vintage.) Other varieties have been planted since the Merlot, including Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
According to Steve Mudd, a nine-foot space between rows is supposed to provide room for equipment to move along the rows, but it’s a myth that that much space is necessary. Pontallier, when asked his opinion about the row spacing and vine density, said, “it is not for me to say” what it should be, but back in 1994, when the vineyard was still in the planning stage, he had argued against close spacing, suggesting 3 meters (10 feet). The density of the first planting at Raphael is just 820 vines per acre (9’x6’ spacing) as opposed to about 2,550 in Bordeaux. Later plantings increased the density somewhat, and the rest of the vineyard is now spaced at 9’x5’, or 968 vines/acre.
The quality wines produced by Raphael simply would not be possible if it weren’t for the work done in the vineyard by Steve Mudd and his crew. High-quality fruit is always there for the winemaker, even in a bad-harvest year like 2011.
For further insight into the viticultural practices at Raphael, the reader is referred to another post, on Mudd VMC, the contracted vineyard manager for the winery.
Richard Olsen-Harbich, who had been Raphael’s winemaker since its founding and helped define its style of wines—made reductively, using native yeasts, with minimal intervention, in order to allow the hand-picked grapes to more clearly express the terroir. After he left in 2010 to work at Bedell Cellars Leslie Howard became winemaker, but in 2012 Les moved on and Anthony Nappa, former winemaker at Shinn Estate, maker of Anthony Nappa Wines, and founder of the Winemaker’s Studio, took over as winemaker at Raphael.
I met Anthony several years ago, when he was winemaker at Shinn (2007 to 2011). When he first went to there it was with the understanding that he could use their facilities to make wine for his own label, which bears his name. His first wine under his label was 200 cases of LI Pinot Noir. After he left Shinn he focused more on his own wines and made them at Premium Wine Group, the custom crush facility in Mattituck.
He now has same arrangement with Raphael. As he explains, “We keep everything very separate. [Raphael’s] business is very separate from ours. We pay to make the wine here; it’s just like at Premium. We pay to store it; we pay everything just like we would if we were just a customer. A lot of times I’m working on my stuff, I’m working on their stuff or whatever, but I just try to keep everything very separate. They don’t sell our wine, we don’t sell their wine.” (To read more about Anthony Nappa and his own wines, see Oenology in LI: Anthony Nappa Wines.)
For Anthony, who has certainly had plenty of experience on both coasts, Long Island is the place to make wine in the East. He told me that “I really think Long Island is the best wine region on the East Coast by far. It’s so diverse; we’ve so much potential. The wines that I’d tasted even ten years ago were better than anywhere else along the East Coast, and they’re even better now.”
To the question, “What have you done since you’ve been here to in any way define the wines of Raphael to a new standard, an Anthony Nappa standard?”
He replied that by “having standards, the first goal is to just figure out where we are and what’s going on with sales and production, and try to get the business side of things in line as far as what we’re making, cutting packaging costs, and streamlining the whole production side. Raphael wants to make money, so obviously the financial side of it is important. And then on the winemaking side, it was just looking at every product. The first thing is to only make as much as we sell. A lot of wineries just bring in the fruit, make it, bottle it, warehouse it. Our goal is to figure out what we’re selling, and any excess we sell off in bulk—any fruit or wine or whatever—and then figuring out each product and having a standard for it.
“We have a whole line of what we call ‘First Label.’ It’s all the Reserve wines, and those are all from our vineyard. We buy a lot of fruit too, but those are all from our vineyard. It’s just like with my own wines, we have very high standards for fruit and we have very high standards for the quality of each wine. I’ll just not make a wine. If the quality is not there, if the fruit doesn’t deliver, it gets downgraded to a lower level wine, and if the vineyard doesn’t deliver, we just don’t buy the fruit. That’s easy for me, because I’m the one buying the fruit.
“It’s easy to fuck things up. You’re taking grapes and from the moment you pick them, it’s all downhill. You’re just trying to protect it through the process, but it’s on a long, slow trail to becoming vinegar from the moment you pick it . . .”
I replied, “It seems to me every single winery should have a sign that says ‘First thing, don’t fuck it up.’”
He went on: “But we try to make everything. I’m a non-interventionist. I want the grapes to express themselves. I want the Cab Franc to taste like Cab Franc and I don’t want to just make everything taste the same. So usually I just bring things in and let everything ferment wild and let things go. And then I intervene when I have to. When the fruit comes in we look at it and we make decisions sometimes on the fly based on what we’re going to do. Then I always err on the side of caution. If I’m not sure about something I do nothing, and I intervene when I have to.”
Anthony concluded with this remark: “I think a lot of wineries just go through the motions and just make the same wines every year and there’s a huge separation between upstairs and downstairs and outside and inside and there needs to be more synergy, there to have some more consistency. No one has done anything different ever in this business that hasn’t been done for the last thousands of years. It’s just about taking thousands of decisions and putting them in a different order and you get a different result. But there are no secrets, you know.”
Trying Raphael’s wines in the spacious and handsome tasting room proved to be very interesting, as there was a wide range of wine types and styles on offer, and he had plenty to say about them. (Please note: the wines identified as “First Label” are considered to be Reserve Wines; i.e., the best produced by the winery.)
The 2010 First Label Chardonnay ($39), which came out of Mudd Vineyards (there is no Chardonnay planted at Raphael) was pressed to yield 120 gallons per ton of grapes (clone CY3779), so out of 5 tons of this particular parcel 600 gallons, or about 3,000 bottles, were made. It underwent a 100% malolactic fermentation, was kept on its lees, and spent eight months in oak barrels. It was bottled unfiltered, with low sulfites. The result was that in the glass the wine was clear, offering citrus, butterscotch flavors, and toasty notes. It has the typicity of an oaked Chardonnay, somewhere between a Burgundy or California version. 2010 was perhaps the greatest wine vintage in Long Island—given its early budding, excellent weather, and early harvest—and the quality of the Chardonnay was also a reflection of this. Made by Leslie Howard.
The 2013 First Label Sauvignon Blanc ($28) The last months of the growing season had no precipitation and no notable disease pressure, so Raphael was able to harvest each grape variety at leisure and at each one’s peak. According to them all the wines from 2013 show exceptional natural balance and full ripeness, which is also promising for the future longevity of the wines of this vintage. The Sauvignon Blanc was made from hand-selected grapes from their oldest vines to help produce balanced, structured wines. Made with partial skin contact and cold-fermented in stainless steel, this dry wine exhibits a bright nose of citrus and pineapple, along with flavors of pineapple, grapefruit and lemongrass, a full body and a long dry acidic finish.It’s a clear, pale-lemon colored wine with aromas of pineapple, white peach, and, citrus; clean, medium-bodied, with high acidity and a mineral finish. An exceptionally enjoyable Sauvignon Blanc that matches well with seafood and spicy Indian and other Asian cuisines. Made by Anthony Nappa. 13.1% ABV.
The 2013 First Label Riesling ($28) from the same excellent vintage as that of the Sauvignon Blanc described above. The grapes were hand-harvested and pressed very gently after two days of skin contact in the tank. The juice was fermented using naturally-occurring indigenous yeasts from the skins. Fermentation was carried out cold at 55F and lasted 5 weeks. The wine saw no wood, as befits a Riesling. It was blended from several batches and then bentonite-fined for heat stability, cold-stabilized and sterile-filtered before bottling. This is a limited-production, dry Riesling that offers a firm but balanced acidity matched by fruit concentration that produces a beguilingly aromatic and rather full-bodied—for a Riesling—with a dry, minerally finish. This wine shows flavors of fresh apricot and ripe pear. Excellent as an aperitif or to accompany seafood, chicken dishes, and spicy cuisines. Anthony Nappa. 12.4% ABV.
The 2013 Cabernet Franc ($25) also benefited from the excellent conditions of the vintage. The fruit was hand-harvested, de-stemmed, and crushed. The grapes from different lots were then fermented apart. The fermentation was carried out at 75F to retain fruit flavors and took a month with pumpovers twice a day. The wine was aged with 50% in stainless steel and the rest in French oak barrels, where it underwent natural malolactic fermentation. The aging took ten months before the wine was blended and then bottled unfiltered and unfined. The resulting wine has a firm acidity, full body, and offers a pronounced fruity aroma of ripe red berries with herbal notes and a hint of tobacco. It is actually ready to drink now bout would certainly bear aging a few more years, given that it was so recently bottled. A fine accompaniment to any variety of pork, beef, or lanb dishes. It would be good with cheese or chocolate as well. Anthony Nappa. 12.9% ABV.
In June 2015 the Wine Advocate blog posted a review of 200 Long Island Wines, of which 7 were from Raphael, earning scores of 86 to 92 points. The top Raphael wine was the 2010 Merlot First Label, by Leslie Howard, with 92 points, followed by the 2014 Suvignon Blanc First Label, at 91 points, by Anthony Nappa, and the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon by Howard at 90 points. Quite a track record from Robert Parker’s Website.
Based on interviews with Anthony Nappa and Steve Mudd
13 June 2012; updated 22 June 2014
39390 Main Road/Route 25, Peconic, NY 11958; (631) 765.1100
Walk into the tasting room, go up to the bar, and you are confronted not by a list of wines on the board in front of you, but instead an indication of the seriousness about wine that prevails at Jamesport Vineyards: a diagram of the vineyards and the varieties planted. Here the focus is clearly on what matters first: the vineyards where it all begins.
Right behind the winery and tasting room, are two lots planted with Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Further east, at Mattituck, are six lots planted with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Syrah. The largest vineyards are in Cutchogue, where there are fourteen lots in all. The Cabernet Sauvignon is there, as well as Merlot Block E, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Merlot; eight different varieties in all, in twenty-two separate lots on three plots. It all adds up to sixty acres that are cultivated sustainably.
Our conversation began, not with or about Long Island wines, winemaking, or winegrowing, but with the devastating effects of this past winter up North, in the Niagara Escarpment of both Canada and New York, and Michigan, where the temperatures dropped to minus forty below—so cold that the Great Lakes froze over. What that meant was that there was no moderating “lake effect” to protect the vines. It also meant that there was no heavy snowfall in Syracuse, for example, due to the freezing of Lake Erie. Most importantly, it meant that there was severe crop damage in the vineyards, with as much as 65 to 75% of the vines killed by the cold. Yet, in Long Island, thanks to the surrounding salt-water bodies of the Sound, Peconic Bay, and the Atlantic, the temperatures were effectively moderated by the “maritime effect”, which is to say that large, deep bodies of water that have not frozen over mitigate the cold that prevails in the region as a whole so that the vines—especially vinifera vines—can get through the winter unscathed by the cold, which, when severe, can cause the woody trunks to split open, causing the vines to die. (It did happen in Long Island in 1984, which Ron called a “massacre” of the vines. The Sound was frozen, the Bay was too, resulting in no protection for the vines; it was the worst winter on record.) This year was not as bad, but there was some creek freezing in January, when the lowest recorded temperature was minus five Fahrenheit.
In discussing terroir, that wonderfully untranslatable French word, Ron talked about the nature of Long Island’s climate in relation to the vintages. Climate and place are what pretty much define the kind of weather that will prevail in a particular region. Long Island enjoys a maritime climate, which along with the warmer waters that the Gulf Stream brings past, also is prey to some dramatic changes in weather. In 2005, ’07, and ’10, the summers were very warm and the grapes developed beautifully. On the other hand, late rain in 2011 lead to a terrible vintage, which led Eric Fry, winemaker at Lenz, to say of the reds that they “were only good for blending.” Ron agreed and added that at Jamesport the fruit was so poor that they decided to cut down 85 tons rather than make bad wine that would sully the winery’s reputation. It was a costly decision, but Jamesport’s reputation–as well as that of the Long Island wine industry–was at stake as well. After all, whereas California has had over 150 years to establish its reputation, and European regions have had centuries, Long Island, at barely forty years, still has to be careful about its good name. Ron did make the point that others that chose to make wine in that year may have enjoyed different circumstances in their vineyards.
Ron is the second generation in the family to take over Jamesport Vineyards, which was founded by his father, Ron Goerler, Sr., in 1980. He had studied to be a soil scientist but realized that he loved working out-of-doors and decided to return to the winery to do exactly that. The challenge now will be for him to be able to pass the operation over to one or more of his four sons, the oldest of which is twenty. Will any of them be interested in making the commitment? After all, he has five brothers and one sister and none of them have any interest at all. With respect to the commitment, “It’s very much like having a head of cows—whether you’re raising them, feeding them, selling them–whether it’s retail or wholesale–and most important of all, growing them—you have to be there all the time.” Even in the wintertime, when things are quiet at the winery, the vineyard needs pruning and sixty acres of vines can take a long time.
The spacing in the vineyard varies. Originally the first vines were planted 9 by 8 feet thanks to the recommendations at the time by Cornell, but all that was later pulled out. Later vines were separated by 7 x 5 or 8 x 5; they just planted seven acres of Sauvignon Blanc 2 years ago at 7 x 5. The winery is the biggest producer of Sauvignon Blanc in LI, which Ron considers his signature wine because the variety does so well here Originally he and his father started Sauv Blanc with just a single clone: Clone 1. The problem with it was that it was a “big, fat clone” from California, very vigorous and wanting to produce big clusters, but it didn’t do that well in a maritime climate like Long Island’s, because it was too susceptible to rot. As Ron pointed out, Sauvignon means “savage.” Now, with less vigorous rootstocks like 10114 or Perrier, they get smaller vines. The new clones come from Bordeaux, such as 316, 317, and the Musqué clone, which was planted ten years ago and is very aromatic; and a clone from Italy; they all produce small clusters. (For a comparison of clonal differences, see “How do Sauvignon Blanc Clones Differ?”— but this is only about the taste of wine made from the clones, not the vegetative differences.) This is similar in effect to the Dijon clones (76 and 95) that they put in to replace the original Chardonnay vines (Wente clones from UC Davis).
30 years ago, one didn’t think about all these clones and their differences—the knowledge wasn’t there and the technology wasn’t either. Many of these clones were only released to the public about 20 years ago, although they had been working on developing these back in the 70s and 80s. In fact, it was just over 30 years ago that Ron and his father, Ron Goerler, Sr., went on a trip to Germany and saw what they were doing in the vineyards there, then came to the realization that training vinifera to high-cordon trellises didn’t make any sense. Top wire, recommended by Cornell, was meant for droopy American and hybrid vines, and not only was unsuited for the vertical growth of the European vines, but it made the work of pruning and harvesting more difficult, given that one had to work at eye-level or above—very tiring on the worker’s arms. It was in 1985 that a very hard winter struck and the trunks of the vines split. It forced the issue of replanting the vines and training them vertically to what is called VSP (Vertical Shoot Positioning), on a trellis with a low cordon at about 35” high.
For Ron, the level of the low cordon is perfect for the vineyard workers, all of whom come from Latin America—they tend not to be as tall as Americans and are more comfortable with the height for pruning the vines and picking the grapes. The Latinos are prepared to do work that American workers disdain because it’s too hard. They have a strong family values—there’s a network of them—and a very sound work ethic. As Ron pointed out, one of the biggest issues this country faces is immigration. (The immigrants from south of the border are an important labor pool for American agriculture; stop them from coming and agriculture would face a huge crisis.)
Ron is not only the vineyard manager but also the winemaker—a hat he claimed when his last winemaker departed. I asked him how he’s been affected by being “chief cook and bottle washer” and his quick reply was, “I’ve lost a lot of weight.” While he was president of the LIWC (Long Island Wine Council) he was so busy with issues that he couldn’t effectively focus on his business at the winery, but now that he’s left the position he has the time he needs to really think about it. He travels to in search of new blood and new ideas. In his opinion, if one doesn’t keep on the lookout, not just for ideas but also the people to implement them, one isn’t going to be successful.
He said, “For example, some years ago a vineyard specialist was here from California and he taught me one thing, it’s all about balance. The fruit will tell you when it’s exactly where it should be (i.e., sugars, acidity, phenolic ripeness), because that’s the kind of fruit that will then yield balanced wines. It’s the work done in the vineyard that does that.” That’s Ron’s philosophy—it’s “balance here and balance there.”
Ron tends to pick the grapes when they’re on the ripe side—something that Eric Fry taught him years ago. Back when they began in Long Island they all picked early because of the birds, no netting to protect the vines, the then-prevailing technology, and so on. Ron went on to say that, “It was Eric who watched us as we were picking in September instead of October, and he pointed out to me that it was better to wait for the acidity to come around, the fruit, the phenolic ripeness. Years ago most LI grapes were picked early and the wines were green. There was a joke then that one knew when the grapes had reached 18 Brix because Alex Hargrave would be picking and the birds would be eating. Alex didn’t believe in netting.”
With respect to sustainable winegrowing, while Jamesport has not yet joined the LI Sustainable Winegrowing Council, it will do so this year. Ron was unable to join when it was first established in 2010 given how busy he was as President of the LI Wine Council. Ron had worked with Alice Wise of the Cornell NYAES (New York Agriculture Extension Station) in Riverhead 15 years ago to help revise the NY State VineBalance guidelines for sustainable growing to more closely reflect viticulture in Long Island. At present Jamesport uses IPM (Integrated Pest Management), grows cover crops, does not employ herbicides, and has set up weather stations in the vineyard to better monitor issues like growing disease pressure, “anything that we can do to minimize impact in the field we do, to protect the quality of the product.”
“We never can be an organic-producing region here in LI, there’s too much humidity here,” he pointed out. Even though Rex Farr is growing certified organic produce, including wine grapes, the question remains, how consistently can organics be produced year after year? That’s the challenge, because the disease pressures are so high. In fact, Ron doesn’t even like the word “organic,” given how much it is abused and misused. “Sustainable is a great word because it means that you’re trying to be profitable, you’re trying to minimize the impacts in the field, having respect for the land. When we bought this land it had been orchards and row crops; the soil had to be replenished and that takes years to make the land [viable for sustainable production].”
Holding on to wine inventory is another serious issue for small wineries (every single winery in Long Island is small—even Pindar, which is the largest producer at about 70,000 cases (840,000 bottles). Ideally, a wine is released when it’s ready to be consumed, which is easy enough for whites, most of which aren’t destined for aging but are meant to be drunk young. Red wines are another matter. Again, most reds are also meant to be enjoyed early on after being bottled, but a small percentage are deliberately made for aging, which means that these wines age in oak barrels for a long time and then need further aging in bottle. It is best if such wines can stay on premises at the winery until they are ready for release, say in two or three years, when they are more ready to drink. The problem is that it ties up money because there is no income from wines in inventory. In other words, it costs the winery cash flow. What peeves Ron is that the average tasting room visitor cannot understand that, which can matter if the price has to be set at a point that returns that cost back to the winery’s coffers. So most aged wine has to be more costly to the consumer for that reason along with other important ones, such as highly-selected quality fruit, careful attention in the winery, and time in costly oak barrels. Given the costs involved and the resulting quality, the prices for fine red wines are well justified.
Among the challenges that LI wineries have to face is their relationship to the community. For example, while Ron was President of the LIWC, the council “has been doing battle with the town of Southold for three years; they’re trying to define what agriculture is out here, what a farm winery represents, by writing laws that [the State] already on the books which define what a farm winery is, what the [winery] license should be. It’s when you have a group of individuals and they have “power control” and they look out the window and they see the landscape change and it’s all changed and they don’t like it because they don’t see us as farmers but think of us as winery owners—they don’t even call us farmers—who don’t work the land and they think that we’re all rich. And all the old farmers that sit on the board there say ‘you’re never going to make it.’ It’s a known fact that you’re never going to make money growing grapes, that’s true all over the world now (unless you’re a Grand Cru that someone wants to pay a thousand dollars for a pound of grapes), the reality is that you have to turn it into wine. And that means developing infrastructure: tasting rooms, sell it wholesale, develop markets, and that’s basically what the last forty years have been—developing a market in Long Island. There are [State] laws that regulate what you can do as a grower, a producer, there are all kinds of laws. The problem is that the town wants to have its own laws.”
“We had a problem with Vineyard 48, which did something that really blew up and got the neighbors really upset. We have a next-door neighbor who used to work this land way back when, and he sits out on his veranda smoking his cigar and we do work here all the time and whenever I see him I go over and see him and ask him how things are and given him a bottle of wine, and he’s cool about [the work that we do in the vineyard or when people come to our tasting room]. But when his kids come home they’re not so cool about it because they just come up for the weekend. Unfortunately, when do we make money out here? On the weekends. The thing that the town wrestles with is the traffic. We have a single road for the traffic that comes in and out of here. So the question becomes, are they behind the region or not? And many of them want to keep it just the way it [was], just a Peyton Place, sleepy, quiet . . . . The idea is to make it so difficult for us to conduct business that we’ll be forced out in the long run.”
The reality is that many of the small businesses in the towns are dependent on the tourist traffic that comes here. When it was just potato farms the season lasted from Memorial Day to Labor Day and that was it. Back in the 80s, when interest rates were up to 19% farmers couldn’t get the loans they needed to keep going and they turned belly up because they had already taken loans before this and couldn’t continue to make the payments. They’d been hoping that the next crop would get them back in the black. But it’s the same with grapes: you have to have a good crop, but you have a year like 2011 and suddenly you have a lot of empty bottles that you can’t fill.
Another reason the potato farmers went bust was that they couldn’t see how to convert potatoes to another more profitable product. (It’s only recently that one farmer, on the advice of his children, turned his spuds into chips—which are selling really well all over the Island—while others are having the potatoes turned into spirits at a new distillery, Long Island Spirits, as LiV Vodka. In fact, if a wine doesn’t turn out as it should, it can be taken there and made into a grape brandy.
Indeed, Ron has been experimenting with making brandy from his grapes and at present he has a barrel of 180 proof spirit—that’s 90% abv—which he’s thinking of making into schnapps, adding different kinds of different local fruit such as strawberries, raspberries, apple, and so on.
There are other issues of concern to Ron. Just a week before our interview, he had returned to LI from a trip to Champagne with Steve Bate, Executive Director of the LI Wine Council , and winemaker Jim Waters, under the auspices of Protect Place (see Edible East End), an organization founded in Napa with the signing of The Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin in 2005, which LIWC signed and joined in 2010. Protect Place, the signatories of which also include Rioja, Jerez/Xeres/Sherry, Oporto, Chianti Classico, Bordeaux, and Tokaj among others, is primarily devoted to ensuring that participants do not use terms like Sherry, Chablis, Port, Champagne, etc. as terms for wines not originating in those regions. In fact, Ron said, there remain a few producers on Long Island that still use terms like Champagne (or Méthode Champenoise) and Port. That has to change, but people are resistant to doing that, as they’ve been using such terms for many years. Another issue that is being addressed by Protect Place and many of its members is that of the new .vin and .wine domain names that have been proposed by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers). Protect Place is firmly opposed to their implementation, on the grounds that these new domains will confuse the public and allow widespread abuse. The 48 member wineries of the LIWC are united in that opposition.
Jamesport currently makes six reds and six whites, plus a rosé and a late harvest dessert wine. They offer two ranks of wine, the “crowd-pleasing” East End wines, which include Cinq (a blend of five red varieties) Cinq Blanc (a blend of five white varieties), Chardonnay, and Rosé. The Estate wines include four whites: a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling “Trocken” and Riesling Late Harvest; the Estate reds include Cabernet Franc, Mélange de Trois ( a blend of three varieties dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon), Jubilant Reserve (a blend that is primarily Cab Franc), Sidor Reserve (a Syrah-dominated blend), and a Petit Verdot Reserve. Plus a verjus—a non-alcoholic kind of vinegar here made with unripe Riesling grapes. (Old Jamesport Cab Sauvs may still be found, and some Pinot Noir is still around).
Cabernet Franc, which Jamestown makes in three styles, is its premier red wine, while Cab Sauv can only be made on warm years because it ripens late, such as in ‘05, ‘07, and ’10. The earlier two vintages which are nearly all sold out, but the’10 is just now on the market. However, Ron wants, in the end, to focus on just three wines: Sauv Blanc, Cab Franc, and Merlot—the most widely planted grape in the region. (They pulled all their Pinot Noir because after twenty years of effort they just weren’t getting the return in quality fruit. In fact, it was costing about $15,000 to work the plot of Pinot, but too often disease would ruin the crop; in the end there was no alternative.) The reason that he currently produces twenty different wines at two different price ranges is to please the crowds that come to the tasting room as well as figure out what they want.
The Cab Franc Estate wine typically is aged for 18 months. The 2007 spent nearly two years in oak, and that was the one we tasted. It has about 5% Merlot in the blend. It made me think of a Right Bank Bordeaux—specifically, St. Emilion. The 2007 Jubillant blend was tasting beautifully, made of 68% Cab Franc, 18% Cab Sauv, 18% Merlot, 2.5% Syrah, and 2.5% Petit Verdot—a kind of Bordeaux blend in the 19th-Century style, with the addition of some Syrah. It was softer, with well-knit tannins—a very flavorful, well-balanced wine.
We also tasted a 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from a cool vintage, which gave it a grassy flavor and herbal notes, with firm acidity; as Ron says, “a real crowd-pleaser.” He likes to ferment his Sauv Blancs in puncheons so that they get some wood flavoring but not as much as would be imparted by barrels. The 2012, however, was not done in puncheons because of the conditions of that year, so it was done in barrels. The 2013 reserve is sitting in puncheons right now, and will take that classic fumé style that comes from the wood. Ron likes using the puncheons because they don’t impart so much oak, instead allowing the maturing wine to absorb the complexing tones of the wood.
A Riesling was poured, and it had a firm acid backbone, bone-dry with plenty of mineral and slate tones to it. This is a wine that is not traditionally seen in Long Island, but there are four acres of it in the vineyard. Ron sees the acidity as holding the wine together as well as balancing it to pair with food. With respect to high-acid wines, Ron said that he’s experimenting with Albariño, of which he as an acre planted that will be ready for next year. This was inspired by Miguel Martín, who was the first to plant the variety in Long Island at Palmer Vineyards, where he’s now had several years of success with it. Ron likes it because it also is an aromatic grape, somewhere between Riesling and Sauv Blanc. A bonus of this variety is that if the crop doesn’t result in a quality varietal wine it can also be used for blending.
The point is clear. Jamesport Vineyards is serious about making quality wine and, as a top-rated winery in Long Island it succeeds in doing exactly that. The wines are as honest as the winemaker, Ron Goerler, Jr. That’s very honest indeed.
Since the interview in April 2014 Ron has hired a new winemaker, Dean Barbiar, a very talented oenologist who earned his wine education at the University of Maryland and has experience making wine in many corners of the world. Ron is now free to work in the vineyard more given that it’s his true passion. He has also been succeeded as President of the LIWC by Sal Diliberto. Now he can really focus on the business of running a winery.
Main Road (Route 25)
Jamesport, NY 11947
Virtually every wine grape vineyardist in Long Island wants to work his fields as organically as possible, though very few ever actually intend to become fully organic or certified organic. Most of them farm sustainably, and about twenty vineyards are practicing Certified Sustainable Winegrowers. Shinn Estate in September 2010, succeeded when it harvested its first entirely organic grapes, 2.6 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, but it has been a struggle to maintain organic practices from season to seaason, given the disease pressures on Long Island. a year later the first certified-organic grapes were harvested by a little-known farm with a vineyard in Calverton. The Farrm, owned by Rex Farr, has been organically-certified since 1990, growing various vegetable crops such as heirloom tomatoes, leeks, and lettuce. Its first vinifera grapes were planted in 2005 though its first successful grape harvest took place in October of 2011. On August 28, 2013, Southold Farm announced on its Website that it plans to produce the first Long Island wine made from certified organic grapes purchased from The Farrm’s 2013 harvest.
The challenge has been met, but as Ron Goerler, Jr., former president of the Long Island Wine Council has said, “it’s extremely challenging” and other farmers have tried and failed at it. Nevertheless, several East End gardeners and farmers of other crops have been using organic and biodynamic methods with some success for years now. An excellent article, “Farming to a Different Beat” by Geraldine Pluenneke, published in April 2011,  discusses in a very fair-minded way the issues of biodynamic farming and viniculture in Long Island. It points out the success that some of the practitioners have had, such as Amy Pink, a backyard vegetable gardener, or K.K. Haspel, who grows “legendary tomato seedlings,” or Mary Wolz, a beekeeper in Southold who maintains a hundred hives on both forks of the island.
Kareem Massoud, of Paumanok Vineyards, is cited in Pluenneke’s article as saying that “Whatever viticultural methodology allows me to achieve the healthiest, ripest grapes possible is the course that I shall pursue, regardless of whether that method is known as conventional, IPM, sustainable, practicing organic, organic, biodynamic or any other name.” In a separate interview that I had with Louisa Hargrave a years ago, the doyen of Long Island wine vineyards made clear that if she had to do it all over again, she’d consider using Biodynamic® practices.
There is a series of posts in this blog that deals with the individual vineyards and takes off from this piece (now updated to April 2014). So far, twenty of the vineyards of the East End have been written about in Wine, Seriously.
Both the sustainable and organic/Biodynamic® movements in winegrowing are among the most important developments in the wine world in recent years. Whether or not it results in superior wines is difficult to say with any certainty, but that is a separate argument that will not be pursued here. Rather, the focus is on the challenge not only to produce organic wine in Long Island, which represents a special challenge, but also to look at the issue of sustainability in viticulture as a whole.
Let us begin by looking at two excellent wineries: Channing Daughters Winery and Wölffer Estate Vineyards, both in the Hamptons Long Island AVA, which is to say the South Fork of the island, which has fields of Bridgehampton loam—sandy and well-drained—and a Bordeaux-like maritime climate, with Atlantic breezes that ward off frost until late in the harvest season. The two forks, or East End–as they are collectively known, also enjoy the most days of sunshine and longest growing season of all of New York State, though the South Fork has a slightly later onset of spring and a somewhat longer season than the North, as well as a less windy clime. All of the East End has high humidity and, potentially, a great deal of rain right into harvest time.
In discussions with Larry Perrine of Channing Daughters and Richard Pisacano of Wölffer’s, I learned that both had decided against seeking organic certification, though they do practice sustainable viticulture as far as is possible. Their primary reason for rejecting the organic certification route was that the climate conditions—cool and very humid—seriously militates against organic farming. As Perrine pointed out: “Organic is virtually impossible in rainy climates like Bordeaux, Friuli, and LI; downy mildew and black rot cannot be contained by using organic methods.” In Pisacano’s view, “organic certification is too demanding and expensive, apart from the fact that the level of humidity in the area is just too high to allow for organic practices for preventing the control of diseases and molds like powdery mildew and botrytis.” Both want to be able to use conventional pesticides as a fallback if needed, and they also find that added sulfites are needed in the wineries, and these are precluded by USDA Organic Certification; nevertheless, both vineyards do participate in the New York Sustainable Viticulture Program, or VineBalance, as well as in the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers program, which is itself based on VineBalance and provides a different kind of certification for sustainable (not organic) practices. But all of this was said back in 2009.
The North Fork Long Island AVA shares much of the same terroir as the Hamptons AVA, but it is affected more by its proximity to Long Island Sound than to the Atlantic, and it suffers from similar issues. Only one of its fifty-six vineyards are yet organically certified (The Farrm, as mentioned above), although a number of them, such as Macari Vineyards and Palmer Vineyard work their land as organically and sustainably as possible, as do other vineyards, such as Peconic Bay. In 2009 Joe Macari told me that he no longer believed that 100% organic viticulture is possible in the North Fork, though he practices sustainable farming to the extent possible, using only organic fertilizers and soil work, for example. Back then Jim Silver of Peconic Bay Winery had said flatly that any idea of producing organic grapes in Long Island is simply impossible—the stuff of dreams.
On the other hand, Shinn Estate has been working on conversion to full organic USDA certification and Demeter certification for the last thirteen years. It is now 100% organic in soil work and pest control, and as noted above, has harvested the first (albeit not certified) organic/Biodynamic® grapes in Long Island. If Shinn could have grown 100% organic/ Biodynamic® grapes for three successive years, the Estate would then have become certified, and that would be a major achievement for the East End. Unfortunately despite continued and dedicate effort, disease pressure due to high humidity was such that it did not happen. Instead, Shinn has chosen to join the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers program, established in 2012 and based on Cornell’s VineBalance. This is a far more viable approach for most if not all vineyards on the Island. (The sole exception has been Rex Farr, who has been growing certified organic produce since 1990 (certification came through the Northeast Organic Farming Association or NOFA). His vines were planted in 2005, with the first harvest taking place in October 2011. Farr sells his fruit to wine producers.)
The discussions mentioned above have taken place over a period of six years and it is clear that the perceptions and ideas about organic/sustainable viniculture in Long Island are still evolving.
What is it that makes it so challenging to grow certified organic wine grapes in Long Island?
Let us then look at what is required to produce certified organic grapes: of first importance is how the chosen method will affect the quality of the wine made from organic grapes, along with the cost of the conversion to a new viticultural regimen, as well as the long-term operating costs—a determining factor with respect to profit. Much literature has been devoted to the advantages of organic or sustainable viticulture, despite the significant obstacles that need to be overcome.
In the United States, the various forms of sustainable grape-growing are:
Organic (certified, which is to say, 100% organic as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, [USDA] and its National Organic Program [NOP])
Organic (but not USDA certified, falling under categories 2,3, and 4, listed further below)
Biodynamic® (a special category of organic, but following the tenets of Demeter; not recognized by the USDA)
Sustainable or natural (incorporating organic viticulture, but not completely)
Organic farming is defined by the USDA, as explained by the Organic Consumers Association Web page: 
[In 1990] . . . along came the National Organic Program (NOP), also part of the USDA. The NOP’s goal has been to set guidelines for the processing and labeling of organic products and to maintain the “National List” of allowed and prohibited substances. According to the NOP and the ATF . . . there are four categories that organic products can claim:
Made With Organic Ingredients [70-95%]
Some Organic Ingredients; i.e., less than 70%.
As can be seen, the range of choices is wide, the ramifications of any particular approach daunting. Time and cost are important considerations in the process of converting from conventional to organic/sustainable practice, and these vary according to the chosen option. In the case of the USDA organic certification, at least 3 years is required to convert a vineyard for certification; if Biodynamic®, the transition is the same as for USDA certification and, in fact, overlaps it.
A comparative study performed by Gerald B. White, of Cornell University, ca 1995, broke out the costs of conventional vs. organic viticulture, and provides a basis for projecting those to be sustained after conversion. The study concluded that the costs of organic farming could be considerably higher than it would be for conventional, but it was conducted in 1995 at a vineyard in the Finger Lakes, using very different varieties (one labrusca & two hybrids) from the vinifera ones grown in Long Island. However, the fact that the three varieties in the experiment each had different issues, results, and costs, suggests that the same may be true with different vinifera varieties. An article in the October 2007 issue of Wines & Vines Magazine, tells of wineries that have had some success with the transition to organic viticulture, including Shinn Estate. Though more an anecdote than a scientific study, it captures much of what has changed since the 1995 Cornell study.
Nevertheless, the choices remain dauntingly complex, for the issue is not merely to choose between USDA-certified organic or non-certified, or between Demeter certification or ACA-only certification, but there are different degrees or types of sustainable farming that go beyond standard certification (“natural” winemaking vs. conventional [or interventionist] winemaking as well as socially-responsible viticulture are two matters beyond the purview of this essay, as they are not directly concerned with viticulture proper).
Clearly, a three-year transition period is really a minimum period, as was the case with Shinn Estate, where the process took much more time, before they finally decided to not try to be certified. For certification, the transition needs considerable preparation, including establishing a USDA-mandated buffer zone of at least 25 feet (8 meters) to separate organic transition fields from those farmed conventionally. The conversion also entails some significant adjustments: there can be no chemical sprays, herbicides, and pesticides, or use artificial fertilizer for the vineyard plot, replacing them instead with natural pesticides and herbicides, foliate sprays, and organic manure or compost, which are all more expensive than the industrial versions. On the other hand, fixed costs should not change, nor wage levels, but more manual field work would be necessary, especially if machine harvesting were not used, which would be the case a vineyard went the “natural” route.
As pointed out by Kingley Tobin, “The three main areas of vineyard management to focus on are Weeds, Disease, and Pests.” For weed control, using ground cover is a good sustainable practice, and helps reduce the use of glyphosate-based herbicides that tend to shut down the main precursor to plant phenolics; the improved phenolic content of the grapes should result in a better product.
For disease, as the soil returns to a more natural state and the vines are no longer exposed to industrial products that diminish their ability to resist bacterial and fungal infections, they should, over time, develop Systemic Acquired Resistance (SAR). Foliate inputs can be made organic by switching to highly-effective silicate applications such as the Demeter 500-series preparations (e.g., 501 horn-silica) or even horsetail tea, which has been used successfully upstate. Periodic applications of chemical sprays may be needed until SAR has been induced, but the use of tunnel spraying apparatus should keep such sprays from entering the soil. Even this may be avoidable if one applies safe, organic sprays such as sulphur for powdery mildew, while liquid seaweed, fatty acids, compost sprays can all be applied against botrytis. Given the high humidity of the Long Island region, more frequent applications may make up for their general lack of toxicity as compared to industrial ones.
For pest control, properly-selected ground cover, such as clover, will attract bees and other beneficial insects. Ladybugs can be purchased in quantity and released after flowering to prey on aphids, eggs, larvae, scale, and other parasites.  Pyrethrums (made from flowers) work naturally to deter wasps and yellow jackets that are attracted to the fruit. Soil-borne pathogens that feed on the root damage caused by phylloxera may be controlled by measured use of hydrogen peroxide, as well as by application of harpins (e.g., Messenger®) on the grapes, while BTH can be used to help increase resistance to Botrytis. All this means much more attention must be paid to the condition of the vineyard throughout the season, compared to a conventional approach. This is essentially the practice of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
This can all be accomplished over time, though much experimentation as well as trial-and-error will usually be necessary, as every vineyard will have unique issues of its own. The bottom line is that organic viticulture is more labor-intensive, but with potentially lower supply-and-materials costs, so that the fruit that results should be of higher quality, entirely free of industrial residue or traces, safer for consumption, and better for the land. The question: can 100% certified organic grapes, as stipulated in the USDA guidelines, be grown long-term in the Long Island AVAs, or is sustainable viticulture the best that can be hoped for? The Farrm has been raising organically-certified fruit and vegetables since 1990, and vinifera grapes since 2005. He has achieved this in part because he has been willing to accept smaller crops when the disease pressure is very strong, and that depends on the weather from year to year.
United States Department of Agriculture, National Organic Program, “Labeling: Regulatory Text,” § 205.303 (5). (Henceforth referred to as USDA, NOP, Labeling:)
New York Guide to Sustainable Viticulture Practices: Grower Self-Assessment Workbook, “[the Program] . . . is designed to encourage practices with low environmental impact that maintain or improve soil.” Also see Channing Daughters Winery, “A Vineyard With a Purpose” Web page.
 Interviews with Alejandra Macari and Barbara Shinn, 20 April 2009, with Jim Silver at Peconic Bay Winery, 7 July 2009, and with Miguel Martín of Palmer Vineyards, 12 October 2010.
 Despite Shinn’s involvement with VineBalance, she does take issue with the term “sustainable,” holding that it can mean anything that a practitioner wants it to, and prefers to speak of “natural viticulture.”
 The five categories are my summation of several sources: USDA, NOP, Labeling: § 205.301; Monty Waldin, “organic viticulture” The Oxford Companion to Wine, p. 498; Jon Bonné, “A fresh take on sustainable winemaking”; also, Sustainability in Practice (SIP) ™ Vineyard Certification Program, FAQ PDF.
 Organic Consumers Association, “Clearing up the confusion about Organic Wine,” introduction. Also see the USDA, NOP, and Labeling: § 205.301a-d, the source for the list. Only the first two items on the list (a & b) are of concern to us.
 Gerald B. White, “The Economics of Growing Grapes Organically,” 19white.pdf. This and other studies to be found at the http://www.nysaes.cornell.edu/hort/faculty/pool/ website were all part of a project funded by the federal Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension program (SARE) from 1991-95.
 Suzanne Gannon, “Extreme Viticulture: How Northeast growers farm vinifera organically and sustainably,” Wine & Vines Magazine, online, sections on Shinn Estate Vineyards (Long Island) and Cornell’s Program (n.p.)
 The need for certifying agents is mentioned in passing in the USDA, NOP, Labeling: § 205.303 (5). For a discussion of Accredited Certifying Agents (ACA) see Renée L. Robin, “Defining Organic Practices for Wines and Grapes,” in Wine Business Monthly online, section on “Getting Certified: What Rules Apply?”:
These ACAs can be private, public or non-profit entities that have received authorization to certify from the USDA. As of January 2006, there are 53 domestic ACAs and 40 foreign-based ACAs. Currently 11 of these ACAs are located in California.
 Joe Dressner, “Natural Wine,” The Wine Importer, speaks of the “French Natural Wine Movement,” whose members refer to themselves, “. . . as the sans soufistres” because they refuse to add sulfur to their wine when vinifying. The movement to make wine without sulfites has spread to the United States and has, indeed, been incorporated into the USDA certification standard for 100% organic (USDA, NOP, Labeling: § 205.302). The issue of what actually constitutes “natural” winemaking is open to debate, as pointed out in Pameladevi Govinda’s “Natural Progression: The Real Dirt on Natural Wine,” Imbibe Magazine online.
 Actually, practically speaking, it is more like ten to fifteen years, according to my interview with Barbara Shinn.
 See Russo and Taylor’s “Yield and Quality of Vegetable Crops . . .” Technical Abstract, which set up such a 70-meter buffer zone for their experiment.
 According to an article by Renée L. Robin, “Defining Organic Practices for Wines and Grapes,” in Wine Business Monthly online, production cost increases can be “as much as 5 to 10 percent” during the period of transition, after which such costs should be about the same or even less that conventional methods.
 Jancou, Pierre. MoreThanOrganic.com: French Natural Wine, “As it is picked, the fruit must be collected into small containers, to avoid being crushed under its own weight, and taken to the winery as quickly as possible.”
 Kingsley Tobin, “Organic Viticulture & Winemaking: Changing New Zealand Grapegrowing and Winemaking to an Organic Philosophy,” section on Solution to Problems, n.p.
 Don Lotter, “Wine quality, organic viticulture and vine systemic acquired resistance to pests,” section on “Vine systemic acquired resistance and wine phenolics” (n.p.). Lotter states that “SAR is induced by low to moderate levels of insect and pathogen attack, the ability of plants, particularly organically managed plants, to induce a type of situation-responsive immunity to attack by diseases and pests is known as systemic acquired resistance (SAR), in which defensive compounds, mostly phenolics, are produced.”
 United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Web site, “Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Principles.”
 Barbara Shinn e-mail to me, 7 June 2010. She further asserts that “This is a huge success for the region and a big tipping point. Hopefully the region will take comfort that it can indeed be done and done well.”
Anderson, Lisa. “Organic Winemaking, Northwest Style,” WineSquire.com, at http://winesquire.com/articles/2001/wnw0107.htm, accessed 25 March 2009.
Asimov, Eric. “The Pour: Natural Wines Redux,” New York Times, 16 March 2007.
Pluenneke, Geraldine. “On Good Land: Farming to a Different Beat,” Edible East End, Spring 2011; published online on 25 April 2001 at: http://www.edibleeastend.com/online_magazine/farming-to-a-different-beat/
Railey, Raven J. “Wine with a conscience: How three local wineries go green,” San Luis Obispo’s website, 4 April 2009, at http://www.sanluisobispo.com/183/story/674260.html
Robin, Renée L. “Defining Organic Practices for Wine and Grapes,” Wine Business Monthly, 15 April 2006.
Robinson, Jancis, MW, editor. The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006
Robinson, Jancis, MW, “More French Wineries go Biodynamic,” SFGate.com, home of The San Francisco Chronicle, 2 February 2006.
Russo, Vincent and Merritt Taylor. “Yield and Quality of Vegetable Crops in Conventional and Organic Production Systems,” USDA Agricultural Research Service, at http://www.ars.usda.gov/research/publications/Publications.htm?seq_no_115=194264, 1 December 2006; last modified 14 April 2009. [NOTE: this is an interpretive summary and technical abstract of a 2006 article: “Soil amendments in transition to organic vegetable production with comparison to conventional methods: Yields and economics.” HortScience, 41(7):1576-1583.]
Shinn, Barbara, Vineyard Manager, Shinn Estate, telephone interview conducted on 20 April 2009.
Sustainability in Practice (SIP) ™ Vineyard Certification Program, “Frequently Asked Questions” [FAQ], PDF file downloaded from http://www.vineyardteam.org, accessed 8 April 8, 2009.
Tobin, Kinsley. “Organic Viticulture & Winemaking: Changing New Zealand Grapegrowing and Winemaking to an Organic Philosophy”, at http://organicnz.vibrantplanet.com/page/2020-18, accessed 25 March 2009.
NOTE: While Premium Wine Group makes wine for its many outside clients, there are also the wines of three of the employees that work there: John Leo, production winemaker, Russell Hearn, Managing Partner/Director of Winemaking, and Eric Bilka, production winemaker. While this article is, foremost, about Premium, it also includes sections devoted to the wines of these 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 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 both John and Russell separately, and the conversations were so extensive, I’ve divided the interviews into two posts: The first was based on my conversation with John, and was published on January 30. I was then away for six weeks on a cross-country trip and another week was recently spent in Northern Virginia (I was exploring vineyards on both occasions), so I have only now published this post based on my interview with Russell, which also includes discussions of T’Jara Vineyards and SuhRu Wines. Jed Beitler, Russell’s partner at T’Jara, contributed, by e-mail, a discussion of how he and Russell work out the blends for their wines–his comments are follow the interview with Russell.
From the bio of Russell Hearn on the Suhru Wines Website:
With 30 years of winemaking experience, in Australia, New Zealand, France and the USA, Russell Hearn has taken his Australian training with him throughout the journey. During the last 20 years on the North Fork of Long Island, Russell has established himself as an industry veteran who has helped forge our region into one known for producing World Class Wines. As winemaker for Pellegrini Vineyards, in Cutchogue, since 1991 Russell garnered five 90-point scores from the Wine Spectator. Russell continued to drive the style and quality of Pellegrini Wines for almost two decades [until August 2012].
He has consulted for a number of wineries on the North Fork of Long Island, in the Finger Lakes, in New England and in Virginia. He has lectured at Industry Technical Conferences in: New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Interview with Russell Hearn:
JM-L: John [Leo] just mentioned that PWG has more than 150 different lots of wine.
RH: Yep. Well, really, we actually have closer to 200 fermentations. Of that 130 are different lots.
JM-L: So of course that means that you are blending some of these fermentations.
RH: That’s right.
JM-L: What brought you to Long Island all the way from Australia?
RH: A girl.
JM-L: It happens so often!
RH: I worked in the industry in Australia, then exchanged for one harvest to Burgundy, and another year exchanged a harvest in New Zealand, and while I was there I took some vacation time, backpacked around New Zealand, and met this American girl at that point. Then she came to visit me in Australia, when I went back to work for Houghton Wines in Australia, and the next year I went on an exchange internship to California, so I went across and visited her in Massachusetts. There’s not much winemaking going on in Massachusetts, but I decided to stay for a while. Then I went back to Australia, then came back then went to Virginia for two years, then Long Island. We’ve been married now for twenty-seven years.
It was either Australia or East Coast; California, Oregon, Washington didn’t really interest me.
JM-L: For what reasons, may I ask?
RH: For a combination of personal reasons and professional ones. California—large chunks of it—has what a winemaker can see in Australia, the climate’s just like it is in Australia; Oregon’s too far from the ocean, Washington State’s too far from the ocean—regions that don’t fit my personal objectives.
JM-L: I see. So you really like the ocean—water life, sailing, surfing, swimming . . . .
RH: Sailing, swimming, surfing that’s right. I want to be close or in the water a lot, and I didn’t know that until we lived in Virginia for two years. And as pretty as the Blue Ridge Mountains are, we were three-and-a-half hours from the water and I realized that it didn’t work.
JM-L: Were you working for a winery there?
RH: Yes, a winery called Dominion Wine Cellars, it’s in Culpeper. It doesn’t go by that name anymore; it was bought by Williamsburg Winery three or four years after I left. And then I came here, consulted for several wineries initially; then for Bob and Joyce Pellegrini in late ’91, when they were looking to design a winery, I worked with local architects as they designed the facility; I designed the production part inside, it was built, I was with them for their first vintage in ’92, and I was there full-time until 2000. Then we I thought of Premium Wine Group, so I was starting this with two other partners, Mark Lieb and Bernie Sussman, I switched to a consultant role at Pellegrini—a very active consultant until the last vintage, 2011—and it’s stopped as of this vintage.
JM-L: I see. So now you’re full-time here.
RH: I finished up, yes. Being full-time here, yes. I was doing that in addition . . . .
JM-L: I don’t know, you people in the wine trade in Long Island seem to have to find more things to do and you’re all working—probably—80-90 hour weeks.
RH: It keeps it interesting . . . .
JM-L: It does. I don’t have that kind of energy, but I certainly enjoy writing about it, drinking it, and I especially enjoy meeting and speaking to people in the trade. They’re very interesting. They’re not just farmers, and they aren’t just chemists . . . .
RH: Yes, it’s a combination of . . . . There aren’t too many industries in which you have to have so many tiers that you must have at least competence in: growing it, making it, marketing it, managing it, so that makes it very challenging and very interesting.
JM-L: Yes. Well, you must have always had a very high organizational sense. You couldn’t possible have conceived of this business—PWG—if you didn’t.
RH: Hm. I think the best thing that one should do in starting in the trade or starting from school is to work at a large winery. The winery at which I started in Australia—Houghton’s—made about 800,000 cases. So it’s not a huge winery—Hardy’s, which owns Houghton’s, makes five and a half million cases. In a huge winery you’re pigeon-holed, in a large winery you’re forced into an organizational necessity . . . because you’re not as big so you have to do everything to make good wine, and that’s critical in winemaking. It’s not only how you do it or where you do it, it’s also when you do that is critical in winemaking. If you start off in a small winery, or only work in a small winery, you don’t get those organizational skills, because they never needed to, that force you to think ahead.
JM-L: Yes, just learning by the seat of your pants . . . learning on the job.
RH: Houghton’s was very organized so I was exposed to a good organizational structure, which as a result allows me to do this relatively comfortably. There are a lot of moving parts in the shuffle, so we need to make sure that people are paying the correct amount of attention and timing things so that they run on schedule, do deliveries. It’s not really so much of an issue: we have several full-time people, we have additional interns at the time of harvest [when the grapes are brought in to PWG]. We have good people who we’ve hired over the last twelve years. John’s been here twelve years, Eric has been here eleven, Rinaldo’s nine, Rosa’s eight, and Andrew started four years ago. Patrick’s been here a couple of years. . . we haven’t had a lot of turnover. We all know what has to be done and we have some smart people here, and so far it’s been turning out well.
JM-L: So everyone’s on salary. How many people are there in all?
RH: Eight full-time people and four additional people during harvest. The winery is working 18 to 20 hours a day, with a lot of automated procedures. So from September through November we get people from different parts of the world in the industry. We have two Australians for this harvest, a girl from Hungary in the industry, and an American. So we go from five days a week for nine months of the year to seven days a week and then in two shifts. So at this stage the night shift will be coming in about ten minutes . . .
JM-L: They work until midnight?
RH: Yep! As the harvest progresses—as we get into the second half—in October they’ll start coming in at 2:00pm or 3:00pm and work until 2:00-3:00am.
JM-L: Are they sleeping by the vats?
RH: Not yet! Not yet.
JM-L: Temperature control has changed that, hasn’t it?
RH: Yes, yes, exactly. We have a lot of technology here that allows us to sleep well. So the winery will be operating 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, from September until about the week of Thanksgiving, after which we start packing it in. We go back to six days a week for a while and then back to five days.
JM-L: And then you go back to having a life of your own again.
RH: Yeah, my wife says that she’s a “harvest widow” for a period of time, so . . . .
JM-L: A “harvest widow”—that’s good! So I just posted, recently, a piece on Raphael, and one of the salient facts about Raphael is that it cost six-million dollars to build that facility. That’s very deep pockets for a great deal of money . . ., but then it’s a showcase. You’re no so concerned with being a showcase, so much, though your facilities are attractive, but of course highly functional. How much did it cost to build this facility?
RH: Well, in today’s dollars it would be north of six-million, but as you can see it’s predominantly equipment. Therefore the saleable value, if you will, is real because it’s all asset. I mean, the building is an asset obviously, and the building cost, in today’s dollars, might be a million, since it’s a metal building, it’s concrete, it’s not aesthetic. It’s practical, functional. Setup prices would have been three-ish million.
JM-L: Yes. Well, Raphael went so far as to design their winery so that it could use gravity feed, which is also a very expensive proposition. Would you someday incorporate that into your facility?
R.H: Ultimately we can use fork lifts and gravity, on that level, so we don’t have a tier setup—everything’s one level. But we have some —I like to think—real quality additions to our equipment that really minimize the effect of not having gravity [feed]. We don’t pump skins—red-grape skins—everything is gravity because we drain the tank and put the skins into bins that are then fork-lifted back to the press. A lot of wineries don’t do that, so they pump the skins to the press. We don’t do that, and we try to be very gentle on the wine. And we have bulldog Waukesha pumps which push nitrogen rather than pump . . . they’re Waukesha twin-lobe pumps that are the gentlest in the industry. But they’re very expensive and for a small winery to have a Waukesha pump would be cost-prohibitive. We have four of them because we’re trying to make an affordable way of making quality wine. We have equipment here that isn’t anywhere else on the North Fork and the only ones on the East Coast, on some levels.
JM-L: Really? So you really are a premium Premium winemaker.
RH: Winemonger [chuckles]. We kicked around the idea of being Premier—being the first—and that didn’t really carry the concept of being Premium, and we have a high number of quality wines that are coming out through this facility. We allow people to do what they want to do so, depending on how high a bar they’re shooting for, I think that they can get that at this facility.
JM-L: Right. Very interesting. I was speaking to John [Leo] about his involvement and how you work with your clients and he said that you are, essentially, the cellar crew for the clients. Obviously, you get your marching orders from the consulting winemaker they hire and there are so many approaches that can be taken to making wine. You have to adapt to so many requests—do it this way, not that way—do that many pumpovers, no pumpovers, and so on . . .
RH: We have to be flexible for their needs. We’re assisting them in making their wine, we’re intimately involved in the quality control, with their practices and their whole organization. But the stylistic choices are 100% driven by the producers.
JM-L: Until recently Duck Walk was selling a magnum of their Chardonnay for $10, which is a terrific price, but they don’t have that anymore. Obviously, it isn’t possible to sell much wine at prices that low. Your costs out here are too high . . .
RH: It wouldn’t be economically viable in the long term. The one thing that we have is quality, which means that we have to sell on quality and we have to be realistic about how much we can ask for those quality products. So, where is that? It’s in the high teens and up.
JM-L: So, do you have special equipment to make sparkling wines?
RH: We do. We have all the equipment that we need for riddling [a fully-programmable 1,000-bottle automatic riddling machine] and disgorging, and bottle washing, and capsule pleating, and so on, so we do offer that service.
JM-L: Do you also provide for aging . . . ?
RH: Once it’s bottled, we do not continue to store wine here; so each producer would warehouse their wine elsewhere. Ours isn’t large enough for it; we can’t keep any volume for any length of time.
JM-L: That wasn’t your intention to begin with.
RH: No, were we to expand into something like that, we could. But we’re already full with tanks and barrels.
JM-L: Have you had to expand with more tanks and so forth as the business grew?
Let’s take a look at the diagram. Locations of tanks, this is the main tank room . . .
. . . and then we have external tanks and additional tanks near the bottling area. So in the original setup these tanks [pointing, above] were not here. These others [pointing to other tanks outlined in red] were not here—these four. In the second year we’ve added all of these and in the fourth year we added some outside. In the fifth year we added a substantial number outside and in the seventh year we added more tanks outside and just last year we put in another eight tanks. So when we started in the first year we had sixty-five tanks and now we have 125, so we’ve nearly doubled our capacity since or first production. We now use about 70% of our total capacity so we have room for more tanks. Do I think we’ll add more? I think it’ll be a few more years before we increase our capacity. We do have some organic growth—we’re adding more people.
JM-L: Exactly. Now, you also have your own label: Suhru.
RH: Two, actually. Suhru, which is Susan Hearn and myself, and we work with growers around the state, mostly in the North Fork and the Finger Lakes, to source the fruit that grows best in those regions, so we bring Riesling from the Finger Lakes and Shiraz and other red fruit from the Island here. So my wife and I and another couple that we’ve known for twenty years, bought a piece of land here in Mattituck in 2000, and planted it in 2000 and 2002. We sold fruit initially, and then in 2007 we started T’Jara Vineyards.
JM-L: Oh, yes, T’Jara. Isn’t that based on an Australian word?
RH: Yes. It’s sort of phonetic. We put a hyphen [apostrophe] between the two words, which mean “where I live/where I grow/where I farm/where I’m from.”
JM-L: I see. Does it sound like that when an Aboriginal pronounces it?
RH: Yes, T-Jara. You know, I guess you could say that it’s the Aboriginal word for terroir, although they don’t grow grapes there; they never have.
JM-L: Yes, though I’m sure that today many Aboriginals work in the wineries.
JM-L: Are there any Aboriginals who actually own their own wineries?
RH: Well, not that I’m aware of. I’m no longer really that connected [to the Australian wine industry] to know about that. But I suppose that there are.
JM-L: I ask because in South Africa there is a program to help get black Africans into the business. This is true of the South African label Indaba . . . .
RH: Oh, yes, of course. They make a very nice Chenin Blanc.
JM-L: Getting back to Suhru and T’Jara, Do you have styles that you wanted to make that would stand out from what everyone else does?
RH: Yeah. Suhru is a little more of a niche in that we are not going with mainstream varietals. We do not make Chardonnay; we don’t make Merlot as a varietal, or Cabernet Franc. We don’t make varietals from these three main varieties that we have out here. We do utilize the red ones in our blend, but the goal of Suhru is to make wines that we enjoy drinking: crisp, vibrant, good-acidity whites, and some quick-to-market, soft, juicy reds. More mainstream in respect of pricing, mid to high teens, and in approachability. T’Jara is sort of aiming for the high end of the market out here. We all have to aim high, shoot for the moon, but we aim to make the best red wine out here: the fullest—but, soft wines that will age because of the quantity of tannins plumper but lusher.
JM-L: So you pick the grapes as late as possible?
JM-L: You want them to go beyond their phenolic ripeness?
RH: Yes. So they’re barrel-aged for a long period of time but they’re not designed to be oaky wines.
JM-L: So you use a lot of used oak?
RH: Well, reasonably so, but everything’s Hungarian, and Hungarian oak is very tight-grained so it doesn’t give up the flavor as much as other—the French—would be. That doesn’t imprint on the wine heavily, so it keeps that soft plumpness. We use old oak barrels—one to seven-years-old ones so as to get the benefit of aging but without the imprint of tannin. Typically we don’t go for that long maceration that, you know, leads to that astringency level that needs time. They’re big wines but their big, soft wines.
JM-L: They’re almost ready to drink by the time that they’re released?
RH: Absolutely. The goal . . . that is goal number one. You do not need to age them—they will benefit if you age them, but you don’t need to do so. Stylistically, for example, Pellegrini’s wines [made by Russell], over the years, have rewarded aging. But that’s a stylistic choice. We looked at that model and Jed Beilter [Russell’s partner at T’Jara], Laurie, and Sue and I decided that that wasn’t what we wanted and we wanted our wine to give pleasure from the beginning.
So from a brand standpoint, there’s a separation in terms of the market segment that each is shooting for. In price separation as well.
Suhru is a brand; at T’Jara we make only as red wines: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot are planted there.
JM-L: So how many cases of wine are you able to produce?
RH: Well, we have seventeen acres under vine out of twenty acres of land, so ultimately we’ll have 3,000 cases; right now we have about a thousand cases.
JM-L: I see. And what’s the density of your plantings?
RH: 7 X 5 and 7 X 4. Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot are 7 X 4 we’re trying to carry as little per vine as possible. Merlot is 7 X 5 and Cab Franc is 7 X 6—Cab Franc is more vigorous . . . .
JM-L: Well, that seems to answer the question of why one chooses a density of 7 X 5 or 7 X 4 or 7 X 6—it has to do with the vigor of the vines. That makes sense. OK, so T’Jara . . . and Suhru?
RH: Suhru is producing fifteen-hundred cases. T’Jara is a thousand cases.
JM-L: So for T’Jara you’re harvesting what? About two-and-a-half tons an acre?
RH: Yes, about two-and-a-half to three tons, depending on the year and the variety. More on the lower end for Cab Sauv, closer to three on the Merlot.
JM-L: Russell, thank you very much for the time you’ve given me. This conversation was a pleasure.
What follows are the T’Jara blending notes by Jed:
The process actually begins much earlier in the vintage year with how the growing season has gone. Depending on the strength of the season, we’ll know which component varietals we’ll have to work with. For example, 2007 was both a long and a very hot year. A spectacular year all around. So all our fruit showed beautifully on the vine. That includes our Cab Franc, our Merlot, our Petit Verdot and our Cab Sauvignon. In 2010, just to compare vintages, it was a hot year, but not as long a year. The Cab Sauvignon didn’t ripen to a state that we felt was good enough to put in our wines. So you won’t see that component fruit in our 2010 releases.
This past year, 2012, was also a very strong growing season and all our component varietals grow to maturity. Each year, however, the fruit shows different characteristics. So you can’t always assume that the Merlot that came out of the barrel in 2012 will be the same as every year preceding that. It’s always a clean slate when it comes to blending a particular year’s components.
The process Russ and I go through is the same every year we’ve worked together. We assemble the component varietals and look to see what possibilities exist. As you can see from the photo, it’s not the most romantic picture of what transpires. Beakers, water baths, pipettes all arrayed on a conference room table.
It also helps that Russ and I learned early on that we had very similar tastes in terms of our palates. When Russ was the winemaker at Pellegrini, he first brought me in to their conference room for a similar exercise. We had three flasks, filled with either Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc or Merlot. We each had to come up with three blends: a Cab Sauv, a Merlot and a red blend. Blinded from each other’s admixtures, we each came up with three offering and presented them to each other. the three blends were all very close to each other and, as we had previously experienced, cemented the fact that we were of similar minds when it came to what we thought would be best in the bottle.
This year, we are dealing with four or, potentially five component varietals to make our wines. Initially, we didn’t think we would release a red reserve in addition to the Merlot and the Cab Franc. While 2012 was a good growing season, we just weren’t sure that we’d have a reserve that would be good enough to release.
As the process unfolds, we start with one of our wines. As you know, for a wine to be called by its varietal name, it must contain at least 75% of that component fruit. Anything after that is up to the winemaker. Anything less than that has to be called a blend or some other nondescript name.
Russ and I went through the Merlot and the Cab Franc. We started with the minimums and tested a number of different combinations of supporting varietals, each to bring something specific to the blend. Maybe it was more roundness. Maybe it was more length. Sometimes, we are trying to balance the various smells coming from the component fruits: red berry versus darker stone fruit; more chocolaty or tobacco notes versus more jammy qualities. All those ingredients are what we are trying to balance to achieve a wine that, year over year, will have a similar (not necessarily the same) consistency that those who have tried and liked our wines will come to expect as the years roll on.
To our surprise, we not only were able to come up with what we feel are very formidable Merlot and Cab Franc blends, but we also came up with a reserve blend for the 2012 that we are very proud of. From the initial sampling, we went through iteration after iteration of blending options. It kind of surprised us when we focused in on the final option. But we’re very happy with the result.
That whole process, going from large fractions of blending components to the fine-tuning took over three hours. But the process doesn’t stop there. And I’m sure Russ can add further to this discussion here, but he’ll take the blending notes from our session in the conference room and start the process of putting the final blends together in the barrel. He will still tweak a particular blend as it matures in our Hungarian oak barrels before it’s ready for bottling. Maybe a touch more Cab Franc here, a slight addition of Malbec there. That’s all part of Russ’s magic as a top-flight winemaker.
In the end, it’s all part of the joy we have as partners in coming up with wines we are proud to call T’Jara.
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)
Based on an interview with Perry Weiss, and Rosamond and Christian Baiz, 12 May 2011
Upon arriving at the vineyard, which is just off the main road going through Southold, the old barns and house give little clue as to where to go, and there may be no one there to greet you. Still, you approach the likeliest suspect, a low, long barn which, it turns out, has a sign reading “Tasting Room” near a kind of logo confected out of a ring of old wine corks encircling a painted tin rooster that hangs on the barn siding. Still no one there and the tasting room was closed, because everyone is out in the fields pruning, removing vine suckers, or spraying the vines. This is a very small family operation, and the day I arrive, by appointment for the interview, there is too much to be done to have someone greet me upon arrival. It is, after all, mid-May, early for visitors but timely for the vineyard.
I phone Perry Weiss, the winemaker, on her cell and she arrives shortly from the vineyard. She is direct, engaging, and very polite, the while giving me all the time I need to conduct my interview with her. When done, she takes me into the fields to meet her mother, Rosamond Phelps Baiz, the vineyard manager, who is removing any suckers growing from the base of the vines with a gloved hand, nearly caressing each vine as she rubs the base in a careful but swift motion. Then we go to the house, where I meet her father, Christian Baiz, the vineyard factotum, who is briefly on a break from spraying the vines to refill the machine. In fact, Perry has taken over the duties of winemaker from Ros, who replaced Perry in the vineyard. The truth of the matter in an operation so small is that everyone has to pitch in everywhere, so all three of them are jacks-of-all-trades.
This is wine-growing and wine-making writ small—a true family operation that is not sustained by deep pockets but rather by passion, enthusiasm, and caring about what they do. It came into existence as a vineyard because the property has been in family hands since 1919. The first vineyard was established in 1974 by Chris using cuttings of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir that they bought from Alex and Louisa Hargrave, who had themselves just started up their own vineyard the year before—the very first one on Long Island. More Pinot Noir vines were added in 1985, and then Merlot and Cabernet Franc in 1997, just after Chris and Ros purchased the property from his family. They had to pull up the Chardonnay when it became clear that it wasn’t doing well at the site. In all they’ve now planted a total of twelve-and-a-half acres to vines, which produce about a thousand cases of wine every year. At the time they acquired The Old Field, they were living in Bronxville, just north of New York City, and decided to make a go of running a vineyard and so moved permanently to Southold and the farm.
Like the Hargraves when they started, the Baiz family had little notion of how to run a vineyard and make wine, but they were determined not only to succeed in the vineyard but to make quality wine as well. Also like their predecessors, they didn’t start with a large amount of capital. Unlike them, however, they had the experience and knowledge of the Hargraves themselves to draw upon, as well as of other wineries and vineyards that had gone into business before they did, such as Bedell Cellars, Lenz Winery, Peconic Bay, and others. Still, Ros had never driven a tractor, for example, and much had to be learned from scratch.
Now, they work as a team, though the one hired hand they’d once relied on was no longer available, as he was denied a visa to return to the US to work in the vineyard, though son Ryan does join in the work when he visits. Working over twelve acres means nearly 12,000 vines that need to be tended, which is a great deal of work to be done manually. There are six contiguous plots, including Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir. Recently they also planted 250 vines of Sauvignon Blanc by the Bay to see how that will do. For now, lacking significant wine-making capabilities, they make wine from their own grapes at the winery at Lenz Vineyards, where Perry works with master winemaker Eric Fry to create varietals with their own distinctive signature of the Old Field.
Unlike most other vineyards on the Island, The Old Field has had no need to adjust the acidity of the soil, for the site was—before English settlers purchased the land over 370 years ago—occupied for perhaps 500 years by a large Corchaug Indian village of about 170 huts. The inhabitants evidently fished and harvested tons of shellfish every year (the field is right on Southold Bay). The shells were cast in the field and over the years became part of the soil, making it rich in calcium and keeping the pH high at 6.8-7.1. The vineyard also enjoys a high water table, so there is little need to irrigate, except for very new plantings. This alone makes for a unique terroir.
In this bucolic setting there is a pond which is a source for frogs and insects, including dragonflies that are natural insect predators. The space between the rows has cover crops of grasses and legumes, including clover and fescue, which also encourage a diversity of insects. They have a wild-flower patch as well, which also promotes the presence of ‘good’ insects in the vineyard. And then there are the red-tailed hawks, the great horned owls, and always the chickens. Here, IPM seems to take care of itself.
Indeed, the commitment to sustainable viticulture also includes “hand-harvesting, hand leaf-pulling, hand pruning” and so on, “which keeps the tractor out of the field, lessening soil compaction and diesel usage.” They also flail-chop vine prunings, thus adding mulch back to the soil. They use a tractor only to handle needs that cannot (or ought not) to be done manually. For instance, they employ organically-approved sprays where possible, delivered by a trailer-sprayer designed to focus on specific parts of the vine, as they cannot afford the far more expensive and effective tunnel-recycling sprayers used by more affluent vineyards. (Therefore, as drift is inevitably a factor under windy conditions, they also try to confine spraying to windless days.)
Old Field Vineyard is an enthusiastic participant in the Cornell University VineBalance Program, and do not mind that they are regularly checked on to ensure that they are in compliance, which is what is required of those vineyards that participate in the program. They do not, however, at least at this time, think of converting the property to organic farming, though they will use organic viticulture where it is practicable for them.
One of the reasons that the Baiz family purchased the property in 1996 was to keep it from being developed. The one thing that they will not do is sell the development rights to the fields as some other vineyards have done. There is a problem with that, after all, insofar as land values have risen exponentially to the point that an acre of land can cost over $100,000 while the rights can fetch a few tens of thousands at best—in other words, they cannot afford to, though in principle they are in favor of a Land Trust.
Thus, this fifth-generation family on the Old Field is working to sustain the what is the second Long Island vineyard and its land for more generations to come, practicing sustainability, hand-harvesting their fruit, and producing wines red and white wines, including an unusual white that is made from Pinot Noir, two Chardonnays, a Cabernet Franc, and two Merlots, not to speak of a Blanc de Noir sparkler that had earned 90 points from the Wine Spectator. It begins in the vineyard, along with a great deal of sweat.
For those who wish to see just what’s involved in farming sustainably, The Old Field Vineyards offers a Sustainable Agriculture Tour on Saturdays at 11:30am, as well as a Sustainable Agriculture Tour with Tasting and lunch on selected Saturdays.
Christian F. Baiz and Rosamond Phelps Baiz, Proprietors Eric Fry, Master Winemaker Christian F. Baiz, Tractor/Lawnmower operator Rosamond Phelps Baiz, Assistant Vineyard Manager, Winemaker, Assistant Tasting Room Manager Perry Weiss, Vineyard Manager/Tasting Room Manager/ Assistant Winemaker Ryan Weiss, Grounds and Structures