Peconic Bay Winery, which derives its name from the eponymous body of water by which it is located, was established in 1979 by Ray Blum, making it one of the oldest wineries in Long Island. Owned by Paul and Ursula Lowerre, who live and work in New York City, the winery closed its doors in October of 2013, because, according to Paul, as quoted in the North Fork Patch of October 28, “Our decision to stop production at Peconic Bay Winery was based on simple economics. . . . I’m not going to say we’re finished producing wine – but we’re most likely finished making wine for ourselves.”
In fact, in 2017 an attempt was made to use the winery tasting room to sell a variety of wine, beer, and spirits from producers in New York State, somewhat along the lines of Empire State Cellar, albeit on a small scale. The experiment lasted about a year, but in the end it was shut down. However, in October 2019, Peconic Bay Winery was sold to Stefan Soloviev, a real estate investor who owns other agricultural properties in Long Island. His former wife, Stacey Sloviev, will run the estate once it reopens in late Spring or early Summer. It is probable that the vineyards will be tended by Bill Ackerman, who looks after the vineyards of other wineries on the North Fork. More details about this story are to be found in this Newsday article: Soloviev buys Peconic Bay Winery
When it was in full operation under the ownership of Paul and Ursula Lowerre, the day-to-day running of the winery was by a very capable team that included Jim Silver, the General Manager, Greg Gove, the winemaker (who now makes wine under his own label, Race Wines), Zander Hargrave, the assistant winemaker (and now winemaker at Pellegrini), and Charlie Hargrave, Peconic Bay’s vineyard manager.
Indeed, because of its commitment to sustainable viticulture, Peconic Bay was directly involved with the VineBalance program of Cornell University Agricultural Extension. In fact, an entire row of Chardonnay had been turned over to the program by Jim, the GM, so that they could experiment with it as they wish.
Much of the care and nurturing of grapes simply cannot be done by machine. Pruning and tying, shoot positioning, thinning the leaves (also referred to as “opening up the canopy”) is vital to providing proper air circulation and sun exposure to the grape clusters; all these methods require knowledgeable, practiced hands.
The varieties grown at the vineyards included Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Chardonnay, which produced some of their best wines. For example, on the parcel called Sandy Hill the grapes are more subject to drought than elsewhere in the vineyard. Its terroir, however, also grows grapes with sugars that are higher and more concentrated, ultimately resulting in the best Chardonnay grapes of the property.
Charlie also knows the region and its climate better than most on the North Fork, and understands what weather changes can mean to fruit growing in any parcel of the vineyard, so he would quickly grasp what needed to be done through all vagaries of weather, be it excessive rain or periods of drought. For example, Greg Gove, the winemaker, said, “In 1999 we had hurricane Floyd come through. We were picking the grapes around these rain events, and in the midst of it all, the press broke down. We had to borrow a refrigerated truck to load it with as many grapes as we could.”
Jim Silver, Greg Gove, and Charlie conferred throughout the harvest, comparing notes on what affects each aspect of their responsibilities in deciding when to pick. The perfect balance of three factors are vital to deciding when to pick the grapes: pH, sugar levels (measured in Brix), and Total Acidity, or TA. Then they considered issues like short-term weather forecasts, available tank space in the winery, and the ready availability of a machine harvester or a hand-picking crew.
The result of this kind of collaboration and attention was that Peconic Bay wines won many awards over the years. To mention but a few: La Barrique, an oaked Chardonnay has won multiple awards, including Best Wine Discovery (White) at the 2007 Wine Literary Awards in California, their Riesling was named one of the top ten Rieslings in the United States, a Merlot was designated as Best in New York State, and so on. Quite a track record. And it all began in the vineyard.
Until the purchase of Peconic Bay by Solovieve, the Oregon Road vineyard parcels had been taken over by Premium Wine Acquisitions, and under the supervision of Russell Hearn is being managed by Bill Ackerman, of North Fork Viticultural Services. How this evolves under the new ownership remains to be seen. A critical decision will also be the choice of a winemaker. Perhaps, by May of 2019, all of this will be resolved and there will be more to the story.
Based on interviews with Jim Silver and Charlie Hargrave, 20 April 2011, updated 28 October 2014 and 10 November 2019.
According to the winery’s Website, it was sometime in the 1980s that Sam Rubin ventured to eastern Long Island and acquired what has since become Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard (BHFV). A lifelong farmer and naturalist, he began to till the soil, the basis for all great wines, using only organic compost and other natural inputs.
On his first 3.5 acres, Sam planted fine French vines and more were added after he purchased 13.5 adjoining acres. By then, his son Richard, a successful business entrepreneur, saw that his father needed help, so he stepped in with a sound business plan and a talented team to oversee and supervise wine production and vineyard management. Their approach has been successful in the context of the rather temperate and conducive climate of the region. The aforementioned, along with their hard work and high standards, remain the foundation for BHFV’s wines. The fact that they use no chemical fertilizers or herbicides (they merely turn weeds right back into the soil to enrich it) are key ingredients in their not-so-secret estate grape-growing recipe.
Sam died in 2014 at the age of 87, but the family has continued on with Richard at the helm. Steve Levine, who married Sam’s daughter Sharon, is the General Manager.
Tom Drozd, the winemaker, is a Riverhead native. Farming is in his blood, for as a child he would visit his grandfather’s farm in Jamesport and help with the picking of vegetables that grew there. Years later that farm was sold and is now part of Jamesport Vineyards. He has had long experience making wine in the region, going back to 1998, starting at Palmer Vineyards, where he worked until 2006 and then at Pellegrini Vineyards until 2014. Tom has been the consulting winemaker for Baiting Hollow since 2003. Richard Rubin and he work together on the blending of the wines, which are made at PWG. Bill Ackermann is the vineyard manager.
BHFV consists of 17 acres with 11 acres that are planted. Their estate fruit is supplemented with grapes from quality growers when needed to fill the demand for their wine offerings. They purchase Chardonnay grapes locally and until 2015, bought Riesling exclusively from the Finger Lakes. A more recently planted three-acre block of Riesling in their own vineyard allows them to claim that this varietal is from their own harvested fruit.
Tom is a firm believer in the idea that “it all starts in the vineyard.” For him, knowing the vineyard means walking it and carefully observing how the fruit is developing, for that tells him the direction that he’ll take once the actual winemaking commences. He sees himself as a caretaker of the fruit, working along with Bill Ackerman. What makes it particularly interesting is that Tom is still able to accomplish this even after having moved to Florida a couple of years ago. He communicates by phone and over the Internet (a method that permits him to view the crop between trips back to Long Island). He flies up regularly to be more hands-on, especially as harvest approaches. He makes the wines at Premium Wine Group’s custom crush facilities in Mattituck.
BHFV had, since 2007, maintained a horse-rescue sanctuary, which got started when they learned that countless numbers of American horses were being shipped to meet horrible deaths in both Canada and Mexico to satisfy an International market for horse meat in parts of Europe and Asia. They knew that we do not slaughter horses or eat them in the U.S. since they are revered and loved in our culture and so they were deeply disturbed. Further, they had discovered that the vast majority were young and healthy and this caused them to take action!
BHFV saved many horses over the years and have thankfully adopted out those they have rescued to loving homes by way of Sharon’s efforts and how caring, particular, and discerning she is. What remains is their ongoing effort to continue to raise funds for this cause. For this purpose, there is a wine-label series named after four of their former sanctuary’s most beloved residents. Wonderful individual wines offerings are available; ‘Mirage’ (a red blend), ‘Angel’ (Chardonnay), ‘Savannah’ (Rose) and ‘Isis’ (Dessert). A percentage of the proceeds from the sale of this horse rescue wine series go to support other reputable horse sanctuaries.
Its Website provides much insight about the goings on at BHFV, and while wines can be purchased online with free shipping and special offers, there seems to be limited technical information about them. However, this may be found by both email and phone inquiry.
When visiting wine country along Sound Avenue on the North Fork, BHFV is the west-most vineyard, located just east of Edwards Avenue. The tasting house, in the style of an English pub, is located in the carefully-restored 1861 farmhouse seen above.
Food & Wine Magazine, in its November 2015 issue, listed BHFV as one of the 20 “Best Long Island Wineries to Visit,” while Travel and Leisure selected it as a top wine destination for the Riverhead-Suffolk County region in 2018.
Why? Because the Rubins devoted nearly all of the first floor of a carefully-restored farmhouse and rustic rear courtyard to a tasting area. A visit is rewarded by a sense of history as well as comfort in which to relax, taste, and enjoy the food & entertainment.
Many of their wines have won awards in competitions. The 2011 Sweet Isis, a Riesling dessert wine, won Double Gold at the 2014 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition; the 2013 Riesling, just off-dry, won Double Gold at the 2015 Competition; the 2014 Cheval Bleu, a dessert wine based on Cabernet Franc, won Double Gold at the 2017 NY Wine & Food Classic; the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon won Double Gold at the 2017 Finger Lakes IWC and; the 2015 Riesling won Double Gold at the 2019 Finger Lakes IWC. That’s not to mention all the gold and silver medals that their other wines have been awarded just since 2012.
Following is a highly selective list of books that I’ve read or consulted that I consider particularly worthwhile. If I haven’t read or consulted a book, I do not recommend it. Alas, there are more that I’ve not read than have—I’ve only 140 books on wine in my library, and some are still waiting to be read, though nearly all have served as references.
Grapes, Wine, Wineries, and Vineyards
There are seven general wine books that one should own in order to be truly well- and completely informed:
1. Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th ed. (2015) is just indispensable, with a comprehensive coverage of just about every topic bearing on wine that one can think of, a true Abbocatto to Zymase encyclopedia. All articles are signed, all cited references noted. Robinson was both the editor and a contributor. The 4th edition adds 300 additional, new terms, though many will only be of interest to wine professionals. For a full review on this blog, see the post: The Three Indispensable Wine Books.
2. Equally indispensable is Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson’s The World Atlas of Wine, 8th ed. (2019). How else could one find the way around the vinicultural regions of the world, including NY State? The maps are in full color, ranging in scale from street-level for the Champagne towns and the lodges in Oporto, to 1:45,000 and larger for wine regions. The text for the many regions is the very model of pithy, clear writing. For a full review on this blog, see the post: The Three Indispensable Wine Books.
3. In 2013, two new, serious reference books on wine—sure to become indispensable and classic are: Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy’s American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States (a very useful feature is its summary of each AVA, including the best grapes grown, and listing the top wineries by category); the other must-have is Jancis’s encyclopedic Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including their Origins and Flavours, written in collaboration with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. See my post, The Three Indispensable Wine Books, for a complete review of Wine Grapes.
4. Emile Peynaud’s vital and perennial The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation (trans. Michael Schuster, 1987). Originally written in French as La Goût du Vin in 1983), it is considered definitive by many in the field.
But then, there is always Jancis Robinson’s How to Taste (2000), which is both a how-to for tasting and a guide to the aromatic and gustatory sensations of the different varieties and how they can differ from place to place (i.e., from terroir to terroir). Robinson’s is certainly the more approachable for most readers.
5. WSET students and graduates, anyone interested in wine certification, and indeed, even winemakers can benefit from David Bird’s Understanding Wine Technology: The Science of Wine Explained, 3rd ed., which has been required reading for all WSET students, is a very clear and lucid explanation—in laymen’s terms—of what goes on right down to the molecular level of yeasts, viruses, and chemistry generally. It’s also a very good read.
6. I very much enjoyed and admired Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop’s Authentic Wine: toward natural and sustainable winemaking (2011), which has many really interesting insights into what really goes on in a vineyard, a winery, and what it takes to be a sustainable winegrower and producer. Much food for thought, though some may cavil about a few of the authors’ conclusions.
7. If one wanted to carry as much information about wine in a portable package, there’s one that I cannot live without: Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2020. It is pithy, witty, thicker than ever, and claims to be the Number One Bestselling Wine Guide, which it deserves to be. I’ve bought every edition since the very first one, published in 1977 (it was rather slim then). Also available as a Kindle Book from Amazon.
8. A book not to be overlooked is Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course,Revised, Updated & Expanded Edition (2018). Zraly is a truly gifted instructor and virtually anyone can benefit from his guidance. His approach is original and his book is the most popular wine book of its kind, with over three million copies sold worldwide.
New York and East Coast Wine
Long Island Wine Country: Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork and the Hamptons, is an useful guide to visiting Long Island vineyards and wineries. Written by Jane Taylor Starwood, editor-in-chief of Long Island Wine Press, she gives us an insider’s track on the owners, the winemakers, and the wineries themselves. In a conversational tone (and amply illustrated), the book leads the reader from East to West on the North Fork, and then down to the Hamptons, as though it would be followed geographically. It’s a bit frustrating an approach if one wants to do research and would prefer an alphabetical organization, but it’s a quibble given the overall quality and usefulness of the book, although it’s now rather out-of-date, given that it was published in 2009.
Louisa Thomas Hargrave wrote a gracious memoir, The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery. One cannot begin to understand what was involved in creating the Long Island wine industry without reading this charming and touching account of the establishment of Long Island’s first winery, Hargrave Vineyard, in 1973, when there were only small farms and potato fields. It is charming in its modesty, touching in its honesty, and a remarkable tale of what it takes to start a vineyard from scratch when you don’t even know what you’re doing! And look at what it started–a whole industry that is one of the dominant features of the East End of Long Island, begun with passion, commitment, and hard work, but ultimately at the cost of heartbreak and renewal. Now out of print, it may be available, used, on Amazon or AbeBooks.
In Marguerite Thomas’s Touring East Coast Wine Country: A Guide to the Finest Wineries (1996) we have the first important guide to the wines and wineries of the East Coast, from Maine to Virginia, replete with useful insights and a good background on the history of the viniculture of each state. It also provides biography capsules of some of the most important or interesting winemakers. Given that the book was first published in 1996, a good deal of its information is now more of historical interest, and it needs, and deserves, a new edition.
More recent is Carlo DeVito’s East Coast Wineries: A Complete Guide from Maine to Virginia, published in 2004. Still, even this needs to be brought up-to-date, but its value lies in its own take on East Coast wineries, with listings of the wines offered by each estate with brief descriptions, recommendations and excerpted tasting reviews of the wines. Let’s hope that, like Thomas’s guide, DeVito’s will also receive a new, updated edition soon. For the serious wine tourist, one guide complements the other, so why not buy both?
An interesting and somewhat chatty book is The Story of North Fork Wine: Historical Profiles and Wine Country Recipes (2009), John Ross’s up-close-and-personal look at the people who work in and run the wineries. A chef who owned Ross’s North Fork Restaurant, he became close to many in the wine trade, especially given that he was interested in devising recipes and menus that would best accompany the wines of the region.
Vital–thanks to its clear, lucid writing and very useful history of LI viticulture and winemaking–is the excellent Wines of Long Island, 3rd edition (2019) by José Moreno-Lacalle, based on the 2nd edition by Edward Beltrami & Philip E. Palmedo. It includes profiles of the most important personalities in the LI wine world as well as all the producers, with descriptions and reviews of wineries and their wines–both past and present–and a generally judicious insight into the trends and achievements of the region. Definitely worthwhile owning, if you love LI wines. (Is this called self-promotion?)
Organic and Biodynamic Viniculture
Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course: The Birth of the Biodynamic Method, is the foundation text of the biodynamic movement. A compilation of eight lectures delivered in Germany in 1924 provides, in Steiner’s own words, the basis for what he called a new science based on the natural rhythms of the world and the cosmos, as recovered from the traditional practices of the peasant farmers of yore. It is meant as a healthy antidote to the rise of farming methods based on industrial chemicals and fertilizers. Many leading vineyards are farmed by this method, from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy to Shinn Estate in Long Island. You owe it to yourself to read the lectures if you wish to really understand what Biodynamics is about.
Nicolas Joly is a leading proponent of Biodynamic viticulture, and he practices his preaching at one of the greatest vineyards of the Loire, the Coulée de Serrant. Joly’s Wine from Sky to Earth: Growing and Appreciating Biodynamic Wine, is a true believer’s panegyric to Biodynamics. His ideas and those of the founder of Biodynamics®, Rudolf Steiner, are put into practice at two vineyards that I know of: Macari Vineyards and Shinn Estate.
Lon Rombough’s The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture, is an excellent introduction to how to grow grapes organically. It’s also very practical, as the guide is really intended for the novice who wants to start a backyard vineyard or even a commercial one. It takes the reader step-by-step on establishing an organic vineyard, imparting along the way a good deal of knowledge and savvy advice.
Other Wine Books of More than Passing Interest (or Not)
Tyler Colman, Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink (UCal Press, 2008). I highly recommend this book for its clarity and scholarship. The subject of politics in the wine world proves to be fascinating, and the author chose to approach it by comparing, for example, the AOC laws of France (and by extension, much of the EU) with the AVA regulations promulgated by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). There are surprising insights into how and why wine is grown and made in different countries, why labels look the way they do on each side of the Atlantic, and the effects of custom, religion, crime, regionalism, nationalism, and so forth on the wine trade. Eminently worthwhile for the serious wine-lover.
John Hailman, Thomas Jefferson on Wine (UMiss Press, 2006). Another book that is based on sound scholarship and research, also well-written, but one may wish to skip all the tables and lists, which are difficult to grasp at times simply because the wines of Jefferson’s period (1743-1826) varied so much in name, currency, weights and volumes, that clear comparisons with our own period are so difficult to make. Still, if one has the patience, there is reward in seeing how all-encompassing were the interests and tastes of the first great oenophile of the United States of America.
Thomas Pellechia, Wine: The 8,000 Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade (Thunder’s Mouth Press, NY, 2006) A work with great potential written by someone who has long been in the wine trade but whose sense of history is lacking in scholarship and critical acuity. Some of what he writes is couched in such vague or confused historical terms as to be virtually useless, especially when dealing with antiquity and the Middle Ages. The writing style is breezy and casual, but it lacks polish and lucidity. Such a shame.
A far better foray into wine history would be the classic Gods, Men, and Wine, (1966) by William Younger, or the more recent Story of Wine (1989)—or the New Illustrated Edition (2004)—by Hugh Johnson, both of which are better-written and historically more reliable. Neither of the latter books is available in Kindle versions, but they do enjoy the virtue of been on real, durable paper bound in hardcover.
A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage (2005), is more than just about wine. It tells its story by means of six beverages: beer (Mesopotamia & Egypt), wine (Ancient Greece & Rome), spirits (Colonial America), Coffee (Europe in the Age of Enlightenment), Tea (the British Empire), and Coca-Cola (Modern America and the Age of Globalization). It’s both amusing and informative, but I’d put the emphasis on the amusement. Unless you’ve utterly uninformed about wine or the other beverages, this is really History 001, rather lightweight.
Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine, edited by Barry C. Smith (2007), with essays by experts such as Paul Draper, Jamie Goode, Andrew Jefford, and others, with an enthusiastic Foreword by Jancis Robinson. The contributors also include a couple of philosophers and a linguist. The language of wine as presented in this book is clearly academic. A worthwhile but challenging book, well worth the time to read.
Wine Wars, by Mike Veseth (2011), which, with chapter headings like “The Curse of the Blue Nun,” “The Miracle of Two-Buck Chuck,” and “The Revenge of the Terroirists,” is an interesting and amusing way of treating the effects of globalization on the modern world of wine. It is also rather informative, and occasionally provides some surprising nuggets of information (such as the fact that Trader Joe’s is actually a German company).
In the words of Carol Sullivan, Gramercy “is a very pretty, pretty farm.” Gramercy Vineyards was originally a chicken farm, still with many of its original buildings, including a hen house that once kept about 50,000 chickens and a hatchery (shown above) in a separate structure. Both sweet corn and corn for feed were planted out back, as well as a hay field. The woman who later bought the chicken farm then built greenhouses and hoped to turn it into a nursery, but it never happened.
The main house is essentially original, 167 years old (about 1857); the property is just shy of fifteen acres, with other structures as well as other houses. A tenant burnt one house to the ground so she had to rebuild. To her dismay, Insurance only paid for part of the loss. As she pointed out, “One quickly learns the difference between insured value and replacement value.”
Carol said that at the time the hay field was replanted with it was replanted with three-and-a-half acres of Merlot vines in 2003, she “had no idea what I was getting into. None whatsoever.” Just two clones of Merlot were selected by Erik Fry, winemaker at Lenz Winery. Merlot was chosen because Carol and Erich Moenius—her then-partner—loved the Right-Bank wines of Bordeaux, which are made predominantly of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, resulting in complex and focused wines, such as those of Pomerol and St-Emilion. Besides, Merlot had already established itself as a premium variety of the East End.
According to Carol (on the Gramercy Website), “A year of living in Florence, Italy during college, being around vineyards and learning to love wine, had a profound effect on me. Planting and tending a vineyard has had a greater impact on my life than I ever imagined. Becoming a steward of the land is an immensely satisfying experience.”
“My partner, Erich, was incessantly saying ‘I want a vineyard, I want a vineyard, I want a vineyard.’ as we asked for a clearing and we found that this farm was for sale. “ , She went on to explain that “We got married, two years later we got divorced, but we’d been together for twelve years.” Erich is now back in Germany.
When the vineyard was first planted, they hired a manager who just wasn’t doing a good job of it. “In 2007 we hired Peter Gristina and bought the farm equipment and started doing it more hands-on. Erich lasted barely a year doing that. It was more work than he was willing to do.” Once on she was on her own, Peter taught her good habits about spraying vines; Carol is meticulous about it and now handles the spray chemicals herself.
Laurel Lake Preserve is adjacent to the Gramercy property—870 acres of woods so it gets a lot of animal pressure from all the woods—while the nets are for birds, they are primarily to help protect the vines from raccoons, but these are undeterred by ties, clip, and they’ll even untie string. They also rip the nets. In the 2012 season raccoons may have devoured as much as a third of the crop, just feeding from the lower bunches of grapes. On the other hand, deer aren’t much of a problem because the vineyard is fully fenced.
To help bring the animal pressure under control, Carol bought a dog from a Mississippi breeder. Cutie, is half-Jack terrier and half-Jack Russell, and is about three years old. Cutie got her name before she Carol acquired her, and at three years of age you just don’t change a dog’s name (but I dubbed her “Jumping Jack,” for she couldn’t keep still).
Cutie keeps the raccoons under control. She’s up all night, and cruises the vineyard during the day looking for woodchucks–there aren’t any anymore. At night she’s looking for raccoons and she gets one or two a night. But her face shows the scars of her fights with the ‘coons; she was blemish-free when she arrived on Labor Day. One night Carol had just come home from dinner and heard screams. She knew something was wrong, so she got her flashlight and went to a section of the vineyard back near the woods where the shrieks were coming from. Cutie had cornered a raccoon (about 20 pounds—twice her size) on a pole.
Roman Roth, the winemaker, refers to the vineyard as a “little oven” because of the way both cold air and water just drain away from the sight, which means that the grapes have more warmth to help them ripen. Carol does irrigate when necessary—had to in 2012, and that involves a lot of work and a lot of expense. That’s why she has worked more than full-time over the years—among other things, Carol has managed several construction projects as a residential and interior designer as well as a realtor.
It’s a very, very pretty farm producing quality fruit that made very good wine by Roman Roth, one of the master winemakers of Long Island. Indeed, in his skilled hands, Gramercy produced some really lovely wines, of which I have several. The winemaker’s notes follow, and my own afterwards:
“Merlot Reserve: After a spectacular growing season [2007 was an outstanding vintage in Long Island] we selected this special section of the vineyard. The grapes were carefully hand-picked and sorted then cold soaked for 5 days before the fermentation started. The maximum temperature reached was 86F and the wine was pumped over up to 3 times a day during the peak of fermentation.
“The wine was dry after 2.5 weeks and was gently pressed and racked into barrels.
Malolactic fermentation was finished 100% and the wine received a total of 6 rackings.
It was bottled on the 28th of April 2009.
There are three wines: a rosé made from Merlot, an Estate Merlot, and a Reserve Merlot.
In January 2013 we shared this wine for lunch with friends. These were our impressions: Ruby in color with a narrow, clear meniscus. Pronounced aromas of ripe, black fruit, with notes of leather, cigar box, and toast. In the mouth it is balanced and rich, the fruit quite forward with nicely-knit tannins and a fairly long finish. At seven years it is clear that this wine has some years ahead of it, but it is ready now.
We learned in 2015 that Gramercy was no longer making wine, but Carol explained that she had turned over the use of the vineyard to Sal Diliberto, who also has his own vineyard and winery. Indeed, Diliberto had already field-grafted 600 vines to Cabernet Franc from Merlot, but his health kept him from carrying on with further plans. However, as of April 2019 Carol has granted a 10-year lease of the vineyard to new neighbors, Michael and Monika Harkin. Monika’s family is from Hungary and own a vineyard there. When they married they went to live in Hungary for four years, and Michael got the bug for farming from his experience there. He has hired Robert Hansen, a vineyardist of many years experience on the island to help him. At the moment, they haven’t yet selected a new winemaker, but it’s still months until the harvest, after all.
Regarding the wines that are in her cellar, Carol said that “. . . the reds are aging well and still available. The 2010 Claret, a mix of Merlot and Reilly Cellars Cab Franc, is exceptional as is the Merlot of that year. She has Merlots from the 2007 through 2011 and all “are maturing superbly too.” Indeed, a 2008 that we had in April 2019 was very much alive and well, a mature wine that was beautifully balanced, with well-knit tannins and deep red-fruit flavors. Those wines can be tasted and purchased at the winery by appointment only, seven days a week.
Bedell Cellars was established by Kip Bedell in 1980, making it one of the oldest vineyards on the East End and only one of ten that have vines that are 30 years old or more. Bedell was eventually sold in 2000 to Michael Lynne, executive producer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and a former head of New Line Cinema. Lynne, who already had just purchased Corey Creek Vineyards, brought both great enthusiasm and deep pockets to Bedell, has turned the winery and its tasting room into an elegant and modern space to make and display some of the most distinctive wines on the North Fork, as well as a collection of fine Contemporary Art. Unfortunately, Lynne died in March 2019 after a struggle with cancer.
Bedell’s winemaker, Richard Olsen-Harbich, is himself a long-time veteran of the wine trade in Long Island, both as a vineyard manager and winemaker, first working at Mudd Vineyards, and then worked at Bridgehampton Winery in both capacities. It was while he was at Bridgehampton that he drew up the applications for the Hamptons AVA and then one for the North Fork, and finally one for Long Island. It was at there that Rich saw the effects of bad vineyard siting, when the vines collapsed during a hard winter, due to cold spots and poor drainage. Nevertheless, he managed to produce a number of award-winning wines at Bridgehampton, in the end working with purchased fruit. He then went on to work at Hargrave Vineyard—the pioneer vineyard that had started viticulture on the island—and later helped establish Raphael with Steve Mudd, a well-known grower and vineyard consultant. He remained at Raphael until 2010, when he moved to Bedell. With a degree in agronomy from Cornell and his years of experience in the business, Rich has among the strongest credentials of anyone in the East End wine business. As pointed out by Jay McInerney, wine writer for the Wall Stret Journal, in his wine column of Sept. 6, 2013, “The Other Bordeaux Lies Closer to Home,” “The arrival of Richard Olsen-Harbich in 2010 seems to have marked a turning point. . . . [and he] has taken Bedell Cellars to new heights since he arrived at the winery.”
David Thompson, Bedell’s former vineyard manager, was responsible for, among other things, helping to write the Long Island sustainability guidelines for Cornell University’s Vine Balance Initiative, a ‘best practices’ handbook for sustainable grape growing in New York State. Rich, who has a complete grasp of what goes on in the Bedell vineyards, worked closely with vineyard Thompson, who had been there with Kip since its inception, until he retired in June 2016 and Donna Rudolph filled his shoes. Donna came to Bedell in 1996, having worked at Ressler Vineyards for 13 years before that. At Bedell, she oversees sustainably-grown grapes on three vineyard sites spanning 75 acres on the North Fork.
With respect to the vineyards and the cultivation of the vines, he says that:
“When we plant a new field we start a liming program early on; our aim is to bring the pH up to 6.2 to 6.4. Thereafter we only need to replenish the soil with lime once or twice in every ten years. We use a water tank to irrigate new vines when there’s a dry spell.
“Our preferred vine spacing varies, according to the plot of vines: it can range from 9’ by 7’ or 8’, 8’ by 3’ for Syrah vines, and even 8’ by 4’. I’d say that the average spacing works out to about 9’ by 5’. We typically harvest about two tons an acre and we prefer to pick the grapes manually.”
“Practicing sustainable agriculture means that you have to have a system that pays attention to both ecology and economy. You need low-impact strategies because, after all, our vineyards are near towns and we have an obligation to be good neighbors. So, we hire local people, do not foul our own nests, and we have social obligations as well. For example, in order to preserve the vineyards as farmland forever, we have sold our development rights to the Peconic Land Trust. “We make our own compost, using the natural by-products of grape pressing and fermentation and returning these to the vineyard soil. In my opinion, using fish fertilizer is not sustainable, as it means devastating wild fish populations, so I consider that to be ‘dirty’; it’s better and cleaner to use commercial nitrogen fertilizer made from peanut byproducts.” The Website adds that “We avoid or minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers, instead encouraging responsible natural stewardship of soil health, fertility, and stability.”
Bedell participated in the Cornell University VineBalance program for years, and the winery is also a founding member of the North Fork Sustainable Winegrowing certification program, itself an outgrowth of VineBalance.
With respect to organic farming, Rich says that he believes that the science of organics is flawed and that much more work needs to be done before we can say that we really understand what organics add to sustainability. In this respect he points out that both copper and sulfur of the kind that is used in farming are industrial products, so neither can be considered ‘natural’ or ‘organic,’ and copper, while highly toxic and with long persistence in the soil, is permitted in organic agriculture. Both sulfur and copper are insuperable fungicides and are difficult to replace when humid conditions may prevail, as is often the case in Long Island.
Bedell’s excellent Website adds the following information:
There are several other ways we have worked for the public interest through a sustainability-minded vineyard program:
We participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentive Program and Conservation Security Program, which rewards good land stewardship through nutrient, pest and cropland management, natural windbreaks, and non-planted wildlife buffer areas.
We established a dense cover crop of grasses, fescues, and clovers between the rows of grapevines to maintain high biological species diversity in the vineyard. These row-middle cover crops also reduce soil erosion and promote symbiotic relationships between plants and beneficial insects.
We minimize off-farm inputs such as agricultural chemicals to protect the farmer, the environment, and society at large.
If we have to spray a fungicide to control a specific grapevine pathogen such as powdery mildew, we use one with the lowest possible environmental impact.
We avoid or minimize agricultural chemicals that do not biodegrade and might build-up in the soil over time.
We scout the vineyard for insects using Integrated Pest Management principles and economic threshold evaluation to eliminate or minimize insecticide use.
We encourage a natural flow of ecosystem elements through the presence of Bluebird houses, honey bee hives, and deer migration corridors. At Bedell, we employ sustainable, ecological viticulture to ensure the highest quality fruit without unnecessary, high-risk practices. We grow grapes for our own unique environmental conditions – the first step toward a pure expression of local terroir in our wines.
Bedell’s conviction about terroir is found, vividly expressed, in the cave of the winery, where a plexiglass box hanging on the wall displays a cross-section of vineyard soil (though compressed vertically many times over) showing how loam, sand, clay, and gravel are layered. (The image also holds the reflection of wine barrels, appropriately perhaps.) It helps explain how stratification can account for such factors as drainage and/or retention of water in the soil—which is important in understanding how vines respond to the terroir in which they grow, along with the effects of slope, aspect to the sun, etc. (See “Olson-Harbich’s Obsession with Soil . . . ” on the New York Cork Report blog, June 2, 2011.)
Furthermore, it goes on to say, “We maintain viticultural practices that produce the highest quality fruit possible, while also being sensitive to the environment and financially viable over time. . . . Each of our three unique vineyard sites is a holistic ecological system,” and together total approximately 80 planted acres: Bedell Home Vineyard on the Main Road in Cutchogue, behind the winery and tasting room; Corey Creek Vineyards on Main Road in Southold, adjacent to the Corey Creek tasting room; and Wells Road Vineyard on Main Road in Peconic. According to Rich, there are five sections planted to Merlot, its most important variety, for a total of 32 acres in 50 separate plots, as can be seen on the maps below. The other varieties planted at the sites include Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Syrah.
Bedell’s viticultural philosophy is presented very clearly on its Website (about the vineyards); indeed, I find it is the fullest, yet pithiest exposition of its viticultural practices of any of the Island vineyards, and the only one to offer plot maps. Rich’s blog posts on the Website are especially worth reading-for example, his assessment of the 2013 vintage: Lucky 13.
As a vintner dedicated to making ‘natural’ or ‘minimalist’ wines, he points out, first of all, that “we try to stay away from late season fungicide applications in order to preserve the wild yeasts that are used for fermentation.” Indeed, one of Bedell’s hallmark’s is its commitment to the use of indigenous yeasts, thanks to Rich, who, in fact has inaugurated what has become a new ritual at Bedell–the care and feeding of the yeast in preparation for the fermentation of the new harvest. It’s a bit of a witch’s brew, minus the eye of newt and leg of toad–perhaps it should be called a ‘fairies’ brew,’ given the addition of wildflowers, freshly-picked local fruit, including apple, pear, and a white peach. (A post on Facebook about this provoked an article in October 2013 by Louisa Hargrave, The Yeasty Beasties, which is well-worth reading.) In fact, Eric Fry has an amusing anecdote about Rich’s commitment to wild yeast:
That’s his thing and he does it… he’s been doing it for years and he seems to have it figured out, and cool, that’s good fine, yeah, good for him, good for him. It’s really funny because when Rich moved from Raphael to Bedell, he showed up at Bedell and he’s looking around, he’s rummaging around, and seeing what’s there and everything like that, and he came over [to see me at Lenz] and said “I’ve got like six or eight boxes of yeast here, do you want them?”
I said “OK, I’ll take them.” Because [Rich] says “I don’t want them.”
As with all of the top vineyards that I’ve visited on the East End, Bedell’s wines begin in the vineyard and the results are telling. For example, it’s Bordeaux-style blend (with some Syrah), Musée, was awarded 91 points by Wine Spectator for the 2007 vintage—one of the highest scores by that publication for a red wine from the East End. The sample I tasted was already rich in flavor, with good acidity and tannins to give it backbone, but it was still a bit closed. Clearly, it needs to be laid down for a few years. Bedell claims that it can keep for up to 15-20 years. Any wine that can develop for that long has to be exceptional, so to drink it now would be to commit infanticide. I also bought a few bottles of Corey Creek’s Gewürztraminer, which I found to be among the best of that variety of any North American ones that I’ve tasted. Irresistible.
In April 2016 the 2014 Sauvignon Blanc earned 90 points from WA while the 2014 Chardonnay also got a score of 90 with the remark: “ beautifully balanced . . . all about the finesse.” The 2010 ‘Taste Red’ earned 90 points from WA. In April 2017 WE awarded the Bedell 2014 Cabernet Franc 90 points and others are rated in the high 80s. In January 2019’s Cork Report, Lenn Thompson rated the Taste Rosé as 90 points, given its “nice fruit flavors.” These are very good to excellent scores indeed. There is also a zippy, straightforward quaffing wine, known as ‘Main Road Red’ that is always reliable.
The 2014 Taste Red (a blend of Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc) is a real favorite of ours and is meant for serious oenophiles. Rich and full-bodied, it offers a bouquet of cherry, plum, and toast, and is complex in the mouth, offering cherry, plum, chocolate, and herbs. It can be laid down for several years.
This is a vineyard and winery that commands high respect and praise. I recommend visiting winery and its elegant tasting room, festooned with a collection of contemporary art including works by Barbara Kruger, Chuck Close, and others. If you cannot get there soon, at least visit the Bedell Website.
Due to Lynne’s death, the winery is now for sale. The asking price is $17.8 million.
Based on an interview with Richard Olsen-Harbich on 12 May 2011, with additions from the Bedell Website updated 4 April 2019
“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
Jason’s Vineyard is in Jamesport on the North Fork of Long Island, encompassing 20 acres that he planted in 1996. But this was not Jason Damianos’s first vineyard. He had already worked at Pindar for much of his adolescence, so he really knew what it was like to work in one.
Jason, an intense and determined man, spent many of his weekends and summers during high school on Long Island working among the vines, cutting, pruning, suckering, and weeding, under the tutelage of the then winemaker Bob Henn. This is where he got his first exposure to the hard work in the fields that is the essential precursor to successful winemaking.
After studying business at the University of Hartford and obtaining two degrees, Jason found himself wearing a suit and being miserable. On visits to Pindar he would chat with Bob Henn, who advised him, “Jason, why don’t you become a winemaker? You don’t have to wear a suit. Do something you really care about.” The proverbial light bulb brightened and Jason went west and obtained a degree in oenology at California State University in Fresno, where he graduated with honors, followed by several years of training at the University of Bordeaux—a Mecca for wine students; he worked in renowned regions like the Médoc, Premiere Côte de Bordeaux, Loupiac and Cadillac.
Influenced by his experience in Bordeaux, Jason planted his vineyard with very little space between the rows, largely to reduce the number of buds to about 30 instead of 60 on each vine, which should help promote superior fruit. Today the vineyard flourishes with carefully-selected French clones of Chardonnay, Merlot, and both Cabernets. The spacing he chose directly contradicted what the Cornell viticulturists who had come to dispense advice had told the new vineyardists of Long Island, going back to the time of the Hargraves. The Cornell team advocated nine by twelve-foot spacing between the vines. Jason remonstrated with them, saying that the soil here was different—not clay as in Northern New York, but topsoil and sand (not to speak of the difference in climate)—and he refused to take their advice. His experiences in France had convinced him that Long Island needed to look to the maritime province of Bordeaux for inspiration, rather than California, since he is convinced that climatically and topographically there are more similarities between Bordeaux and the Twin Forks than perhaps anywhere else, particularly Northern New York, so Jason planted accordingly; his vines are spaced one meter by two meters apart.
In the spirit of the Golden Fleece, Jason brought a flock of sheep and alpacas to look after the vineyard in the most sustainable way he knew. They keep the weeds down and mow, with no need for mechanical intervention and, as a bonus, they fertilize the vines. The alpaca helps ward off pests.
Jason produces tightly-structured, full-bodied, and age-worthy wines that can, after reposing in a cellar over a span of time, eventually ripen into deeply-rewarding and long-lasting wines. This poses a dilemma for him since he feels the marketplace wants wines that are more immediately accessible. This dilemma is faced by a number of Long Island wineries. A compromise is not always easily obtained except by offering a wide selection of wines, some of which provide immediate and pleasurable consumption while others are for the more patient drinker who is willing to let the wine evolve in bottle for several years before pulling a cork.
The tasting room as the good ship Argo, which took Jason & his Argonauts to their fate.
The tasting room is unique, given its abstracted representation of the ship Argo, which was sailed by Jason and his Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. It adds a certain rather wacky charm to what would otherwise be just another tasting room. Greek mythology, history, and literature all enjoy a large place in the Damianos panoply of Long Island wineries: Pindar, after all, is named after the great ancient Greek poet, and two of Jason’s wines are named Golden Fleece and Hercules.
Jason & one of his sheep
Tragically, Jason, 49, died after a traffic accident on December 30, 2016. His family, which is very close-knit, is determined to keep his vineyard and winery in business for the foreseeable future. After all, they also run Pindar, Duckwalk, and Duckwalk North, so they know what they are doing. Still, his loss is a significant one for the wine community. He was also director of wine making at Pindar.
In January 2018 it was announced that Jim Waters, of Waters Crest Winery, has closed his tasting room and winemaking facility to become winemaker at Jason’s. Jim has long had a relationship with the Damianos family, and they have agreed that Jim can continue to make his own wine at the facilities as well for his Waters Crest wine-club members. His wine will be made in small batches for a club that he wishes to limit to no more than 500 members; there are already 400.
Wine offerings may vary from this list. 5 whites: ‘Golden Fleece’ (an assemblage of five white grapes: dominated by stainless-steel-fermented Chardonnay plus Seyval Blanc, Cayuga, Vidal Blanc, Riesling), Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, 2 pinks: ‘Andy’s Candy,’ Rosé; 5 reds: ‘Hercules’ (a sweet red blend of Cabernet & Merlot), Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Meritage, Merlot; 1 fortified: a port-style dessert wine.
In 1978 Robert Entenmann—of the Entenmann’s Bakery family—purchased a potato farm in Riverhead and transformed it into a Thoroughbred horse farm, once breeding up to two hundred mares. Apparently he was eager to do something new and different after a time, so he converted the farm into what is now Martha Clara Vineyards—named after his mother—in 1995. The vineyard, comprising 113 contiguous acres out of a total of 205 that compose the Big E farm, is now planted with fourteen varieties of grapes, including Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Semillon, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Malbec. Because so much was invested in creating a first-class vineyard with its equipment and facilities, a planned winery was never built. Meanwhile, Clydesdale draft horses for the weekend carriage rides available to visitors still graze in a paddock, and there is a small zoo with Baby-Doll sheep, Scottish Highland cattle, goats, a donkey, a llama, and other farm animals for the entertainment of children. Martha Clara has a family-oriented visitor’s center, and there is a very spacious tasting room where there are twenty-five wines to choose from, including several quaffable versions, some of them rather sweet.
However, in April 2018 the property was sold by the Entenmann family for $15 million to the Rivero-González family. This would appear to be a major step in the family’s ambition for international recognition. The property had been on the market since 2014.
The Rivero-González family said in a release that it owns an eponymous winery and vineyard in Parras, Coahuila, Mexico. It has “15 years [of] experience in the Mexican wine industry and is excited about this acquisition, which will help the members of this family expand their interests beyond Mexico.” María Rivero will run the family’s wine operations at Martha Clara. The Vineyard Website says that “the Riveros are willing to work with the local community in order to encourage and enhance the legacy of the former owners of Martha Clara Winery in a successful way.” Further plans have not been announced as yet.
This makes it the second wine-producer on the East End to be owned by Latin-Americans; the other is Laurel Lake, which is in Chilean hands.
At present all the wines are made at Premium Wine Group under the watchful direction of the new winemaker, María Rivero. The word is that a winery will eventually be built on the Martha Clara property.
Jim Thompson came to Martha Clara from Michigan as Vineyard Manager in 2009. Steve Mudd told Jim, at the time of his first interview with Martha Clara, that in the North Fork the vineyard will be soaked with moisture every morning, but of course the grapes and vines need to be dry in order to develop healthily. This is because Long Island vineyards are on very flat land, so that there is no natural circulation of air unless a breeze comes up.
Originally, the vines were planted in rows that were treated with herbicides to such an extent that they were as smooth and clean as a billiard ball, but, since coming on board, Jim prevailed on Mr. Entenmann to reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides (he liked a trim, clean look in his fields) and allow cover crops to grow, such that now even toads have returned to the vineyard—a particularly good sign, given that toads are especially vulnerable to toxins, which they can absorb through the skin. The cover crops are white clover and low mow grass which is a combination of shorter growing fescues and a combination of the two.
Given the very flat, horizontal terrain of the property, Jim said that 7-foot spacing between rows is too narrow for tall vines that may reach 7 feet in height or more, because it means that when the sun is at its zenith of about 45° in the summertime, a shadow is still cast across the edge of a row immediately adjacent of another row, thus reducing solar exposure under the vines themselves, making it difficult to dry the soil adequately. It means that there is good sun from, say, 10:00am to 2:00pm, whereas a spacing of 8 feet could mean that the soil could enjoy the effects of the sun from 9:00am to 4:00pm. Presently, the spacing is 5′ x 7′ except for twenty acres that are 4′ x 7.’
He also remarked that, “It is a very different thing to sustain 15 acres versus 100. It is one thing to scout 15 acres and another to do so with 14 varieties on 100 acres. At Martha Clara, each variety is planted in at least two separate, non-contiguous blocks, so with 14 varieties we would have at least 24 blocks to scout, but it is more likely as many as 40. Clearly, with this many varieties in that many blocks it is difficult to manage. Scouting is time-consuming and needs to be done on a pretty regular basis to catch infestations before they can spread and do serious damage.”
“Fortunately, he went on, “Martha Clara is well laid-out for a right-brain mentality, with very straight rows which are perfect for mechanical harvesting, which is essential for a vineyard of this size. After all, it would take 20 to 30 people in the vineyard to pick enough grapes to fill one stainless-steel fermentation tank, whereas the harvester can do so in a matter of an hour or so.”
Martha Clara is “a vineyard in a box” according to Jim, for its 101 acres of planted vines are hemmed in on all sides by neighboring structures. It is also one of the four properties that forms the core group of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers certification program. In preparation for that, Jim says that , “I have narrowed my herbicide strip to 1/3 the total row width or less, I am doing some bud thinning which I anticipate/expect will reduce pesticide requirements. We have hired an intern whom I expect to be scouting for diseases and insects on a regular basis. I am reading related materials and articles.”
It is often difficult to find good vineyard workers to hire, according to Jim. Not long ago he had an applicant come to him who stood at the door to his office, leaning his right side against the door frame. Jim asked the man about his qualifications and then inquired about his work experience with the hoe. “It is not a problem,” averred the applicant. A day later, when Jim went to see the new crew at work, he found that the new “hoe worker” had no right arm. It was not a problem because he had gotten others to do the work.
Given all that, there are varieties that are easier to grow and maintain than others. Some vinifera varieties are especially difficult to deal with in the LI area, including Pinot Noir, Semillon, Syrah, and Viognier. For Martha Clara, the Pinot Noir is problematic because it can begin well and seem promising, but in the end produces unexciting wine. Semillon, Syrah, and Viognier have promise, but Juan pointed out that “Syrah may come up short on sugar, but flavors are beautiful in our Syrah in warmer years; in cooler years they tend to show more intense notes of black pepper. As for Viognier, it makes beautiful, well-rounded wines, but Jim [did comment on the] difficulty in handling it in the vineyard.”
The vinifera varieties that do best in this climate are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Riesling. In fact, Jim would like to expand the Riesling planting, but first would need to research the available clones for their appropriateness in the North Fork soil. (Clone selection, as a matter of fact, is as vital to the success of a varietal as the choice of terroir for the vineyard, or, to put in another way, it’s vital to select a clone that will thrive in a given terroir.) He has also added two acres of Malbec (a French variety that often associated with Argentina), using three different clones, and will see how those do here. The one vinifera variety that Jim would also like to plant, once he knows more about it, is Torrontés (the aromatic grape from Argentina). Were he to do so, it would be the first planting of that variety in the Eastern US.
However, because vinifera vines are so susceptible to fungal disease in the LI climate—given its high humidity and volatility—Jim and Juan have planted three experimental plots of hybrid varieties: Marquette (a U. of Minn. red hybrid with Pinot Noir in its sap along with excellent cold hardiness and good disease resistance), La Crescent (another Minn. hybrid), and NY 95.301.01 (also known as “No-spray 301,” a Cornell hybrid that needs minimal inputs against mildews and fungi) to determine if these could handle the climate and terroir better than some of the vinifera vines. Juan explained that, “this has been done more out of curiosity as we have one row of each vine type. There is not enough for commercial production.” It is enough, however, to explore vines with the very traits that are lacking in virtually all vinifera varieties: resistance to cold and mildew—the bête noir of humid-climate vineyards.
A visit to the tasting room proved especially interesting, not only because of the range of wines offered, but because Martha Clara is promoting the use of kegs for dispensing wine by the glass. To them, kegs offer several advantages: 1. they help preserve wine better than do opened bottles; 2. they eliminate bottles altogether, thus reducing the amount of materials and energy required to make bottles; 3. they reduce the cost of shipping and storage, which can be expensive in the case of bottles; 4. they can be reused for up to fifteen to twenty years. There seems to even be a difference in the character of the wine from the keg compared to that from a bottle. The Pinot Grigio served from a keg had a tad more fruit than that which was poured from a bottle. Consequently, the winery would also like to sell wine in kegs to restaurants and tasting bars.
In tasting six of the wines on offer, it was apparent that the fine wines can be very fine indeed, with a pronounced house style. The Syrah from the 2009 vintage was nearly mature and manifested the typical traits of a Syrah that had been barrel-aged for thirteen months—black fruit and cigar-box notes with an unusually forward expression of cracked peppercorns. It had been fermented with 3% Viognier blended in—as is the case in Côte Rotie. The strong spiciness appears to be the result of a cool vintage, though I suspect terroir and style also played a role here. In fact, the 2009 Viognier varietal (with its characteristic aromatics of spice and ripe white peaches with floral notes also had a strong spiciness on the palate—pronounced lemongrass, or was it white pepper? Both wines had a firm acid backbone to give them structure. I liked them both for their unusual spiciness, which makes them suitable for Indian, Thai, and Mexican cuisine or any well-seasoned food. The 2009 Cabernet Franc, made from hand-picked fruit, unfined and unfiltered, was also very nice, with herbal & chocolate notes on the nose & palate, integrated tannins and firm acidity, now ready to drink but still to benefit from some cellar aging. Terrific for accompanying barbecued steak, for example.
Because Martha Clara had spent so much money on developing its vineyard it was decided not to build a winery, given its enormous cost, and to contract its wine assemblage to Premium Wine Group. A visit to PWG, where Juan now works, allowed an opportunity for some barrel tasting. Several wines were sampled, including the 2011 Viognier—developed on its lees in steel, and the 2010 Syrah—which will be blended with 3% Viognier in the Côte Rotie style—which, tasted from the barrel, showed a more demur peppery flavor given the cooler vintage than that of 2007.
based on interviews with Jim Thompson & Juan Micieli-Martínez
3 February & 29 March 2012; updated 30 April 2018
as well as online & printed sources
“I’m only concerned about two things here: land preservation and the quality of the wine. I want people to come here in 1000 years and see the same thing.” – Russ McCall
With Long Island’s largest vineyard of Pinot Noir, and an equally-sized vineyard of Merlot, McCall focuses on crafting low-yield, quality-driven wines. The original vineyard (planted in 1996) and surrounding farm are in the town of Cutchogue, which the McCall family has called home for generations. The home of McCall Wines is an old potato barn previously used as a horse stable. The rustic tasting room is there, with its collection of old tools decorating the barn walls and the concrete buttresses reinforcing the walls a constant reminder of the North Fork’s agricultural past. There it sits on the property, surrounded by an expanse of lawn and a charming, pastoral feel to it, with Charolais cattle grazing in the adjacent pasture.
Until roughly three hundred years ago, Downs Woods and the adjacent McCall vineyards were the cultural center of an Algonquin Indian tribe. Known as Fort Corchaug, these natives long ago selected this unique maritime area along the estuary as their home. About two hundred years later, in 1902, Russell Simeon Walker, president of the Dime Savings Bank in Brooklyn, rode his horse and buggy out to the North Fork to find a summer home. From the Walkers to the Munkenbecks down to the McCalls, the property has remained in the family for generations.
For years Russell McCall worked as a distributor for high-end wines in Atlanta, Georgia, but an offer too good to turn down led him to sell the business and return to Long Island. Hence his interest in fine wine found a home for making his own. And he knows what he wants.
At the farm, a commitment to the preservation of local wild and agricultural land and to the environment is an important part of McCall’s mission. In 1996 Russell McCall allied himself with the Peconic Land Trust to save Down’s Woods, Fort Corchaug, and the farmland adjacent to his family’s property (over 200 acres in total) from the threat of a proposed development of condominiums, after which he replanted the corn and potato fields with 21 acres of vineyards. By selling the development rights, he has guaranteed that it will remain in a wild, natural state or be devoted to agriculture in perpetuity. (The Trust is funded by a 2% land transfer tax whenever land is sold. The tax goes to the township and accumulates 100s of $1,000s, which then allocates the money to the Trust and decide which property to purchase the rights from.)
The tasting room is in an old barn, of which Martha Steward said, “In the charmingly rustic tasting room, I got to sample some of the wines and I was so impressed that I bought a mixed case, which I enjoyed immensely.”
The addition of a wind turbine in 2010—the first for a farm in Long Island—has provided the clean wind energy; enough that it also supplies clean power to the Long Island Power Association.
In the same year, McCall began ranching organically grass-fed Charolais cattle, which graze in the fields by his vineyards. There are 50 head of cattle, of which 10 to 15 are sent to an abattoir each year and the meat is then sold to high-end restaurants as well as at the farm store. The animal feed on grasses that have not been chemically treated for 15 years, so effectively organic.
With the use of innovative techniques such as recapturing spray, they manage to limit the use of pesticides and herbicides and ensure that they don’t dissipate from the vineyard or affect either the neighboring preserve or the Charolais cattle, not to speak of the native wildlife, so that on any given day one may see foxes, pheasant, deer, hawks, turtles, wildflowers and more.
Committed to quality and sustainability, McCall released his first wines in 2007. Since then, they have found critical acclaim. They can be found on the wine lists of a handful of upscale restaurants in New York City and on the East End.
Corchaug Estate Vineyard
The original vineyard that Russell McCall planted in 1997 is referred to as Corchaug Estate. This vineyard was established on land rescued from development that borders the historic Fort Corchaug site and Down’s Woods preserve. The estate also includes our tasting room, an existing barn reclaimed as a place for visitors.
The southern end of the vineyard is planted with 11 acres of Pinot Noir, comprised by four clones selected from the best French clonal varieties grown in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, comprised by four clones: Pommard 4, and Dijon 667, 777, and 115. This is to date the largest successful Pinot Noir vineyard on Long Island.
Based on the French tradition, the vines are spaced closer than most in the region. On the north end of the farm the soil is rich with clay much like the best vineyards of Bordeaux, especially Pomerol, where there are ten acres planted with three clones of Merlot.
Just north of Corchaug Estate, across Route 25, lies a 16-acre vineyard planted by Dr. Peter Gristina in 1983. The neglected old vine Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay plantings were taken over by the McCalls in 2010, who first leased it for three years to assure the quality of the fruit, as the vines were not all in good shape. While rejuvenating them they found that the vines produce excellent fruit, and expanded the vineyard by adding a block of Sauvignon Blanc once the property was purchased in 2013. The land is unique in its hilly relief and the inclusion of a large kettle hole nestled in a parcel of protected forest. The glacial terrain, mostly sandy loam, has a positive effect not just on the drainage of the vines, but also the characteristics of the fruit.
Hence, the two vineyards reflect French influence from two of its greatest regions, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Russell’s approach to making quality wine is focused on the vineyards, because as far as he’s concerned, the fruit determines what the wine will be come. In other words, there is no “winemaking agenda, just a farming agenda.”
McCall is quite candid in saying that He doesn’t always produce Pinot Noir successfully. A major reason for that is the unpredictable weather from year to year, a problem that is common for a maritime, cold-climate region. It is a difficult grape to cultivate because it is so sensitive the vagaries of clime and weather so that both yields and quality can be highly variable. These are reasons that it’s called the “heartbreak grape,” but what makes it worthwhile is how splendid a wine it can make in a good year. The McCall Pinots have received high praise from the NY Times, Wine Advocate, and Wine Enthusiast.
He predicts that the 2014 vintage has potential for greatness. The weather was sunny and there was nearly no rainfall for July, August, and September, creating dust-bowl conditions, bad for grass but terrific for grapes like Pinot Noir. By September the fruit was fully ripe and was all harvested; indeed, the Pinot is always picked between the 10th and 20th of September from the time that the vineyard was planted in ’97 with over 22,000 vines.
For example, in a humid climate such as Long Island’s, it’s necessary to start leaf-pulling early to expose the fruit to the sun and air so as to keep disease at bay. If needed McCall will have as many as 20 workers out in the vineyards pulling leaves. Indeed, at harvest all the grapes are picked by hand, for he doesn’t believe that mechanical harvesting has been perfectly sufficiently to be used for harvesting high-quality fruit. Furthermore, very much in the French tradition the vines were planted just three feet apart, which makes it even more difficult for machines to work in the fields. In other words, the vine density is about 2050 plants an acre given a 3×7 spacing. An important advantage of such close spacing is that it forces the vines to compete for water and rather than spread roots more or less horizontally they are forced to dig down into the soil—one of Helen Turley’s many axioms about winegrowing (in Russell’s eyes she is a genius). The result is that about two tons of grapes are taken from each acre, resulting in a total production of just under 5000 cases a year, depending on the vintage.
As for the future, Russell has three children, of whom but one may be interested in taking over, but it’s not yet his time.
In 2013 McCall was rated “Best Winery in New York” by the NYWGF. And in 2015 three of its wines were rate 90 or more in The Wine Advocate.
McCall’s makes two whites, a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc, that are quite good, especially as food accompaniment, but the winery’s real claim to fame is its reds, particularly the Pinots.
The 2010 Ben’s Bordeaux Blend is a wine that is only possible to craft in a great vintage like 2010. It’s produced from the best estate Merlot, plus three other varieties: Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc in roughly equal proportions. The blend of these Bordeaux grapes, often known as a meritage, is named for McCall’s late vineyard manager Ben Sisson. Drinking well now, it will continue to age well as a collector’s wine. The 2010 Merlot was highly praised by Wine Advocate (90 points) as an excellent food wine, given its somewhat understate though beautifully balanced style.
All the wines except for the Pinots are made by Gilles Martin, a highly-regarded consultant winemaker, at PWG.
The 2010 Reserve Pinot Noir is made from 100% estate-grown and hand-selected fruit from the very best grapes in the Corchaugh vineyard, the 2010 reserve shows intense fruit and subtle earthy and mineral notes with a hint of the sweetness of French oak. Extremely low yield, due to green harvesting, the 11-acre vineyard has intensified the deep essence of the variety. A wine like this is only possible once in a five to eight-year weather cycle. It is best to decant and drink now or to save it until 2017 or after. It was named “Best Pinot Noir in NY” at the 2013 NY Wine & Food Classic. The New York Times’ Howard Goldberg had this to say: “The star was the sophisticated 2010 Corchaug Estate reserve from McCall Wines in Cutchogue, which specializes in the grape; its combined breadth, depth and length was world-class (as its price might suggest). McCall’s regular 2010 Corchaug Estate ($39), almost as serious, was round and plummy.” Both are made at Millbrook Winery in the Hudson Valley for McCall by John Graziano (winemaker) and Bob Cabral (consultant).
Louisa Hargrave, doyenne of the Long Island wine industry, said of Russ, “Honesty is a mantra for McCall. ” But let Russ have the last work about himself: “You can sum me up simply. I’m not going to put our label on it unless it’s above average.”
However, none other than Jane Anson of Decanter Magazine had this appreciation of McCall’s wines: Decanter, Nov. 18, 2016
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).