In 1978 Robert Entenmann—of the Entenmann’s Bakery family—purchased a potato farm in Riverhead and transformed it into a Thoroughbred horse farm, once breeding up to two hundred mares. Apparently he was eager to do something new and different after a time, so he converted the farm into what became Martha Clara Vineyards—named after his mother—in 1995. The vineyard, comprising 113 contiguous acres out of a total of 205 that compose the Big E farm, is now planted with fourteen varieties of grapes, including Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Semillon, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Malbec. Because so much was invested in creating a first-class vineyard with its equipment and facilities, a planned winery was never built.
However, in April 2018 the property was sold by the Entenmann family for $15 million to the Rivero-González family. This would appear to be a major step in that family’s ambition for international recognition. The property had been on the market since 2014.
The Rivero-González family said in a release that it owns an eponymous winery and vineyard in Parras, Coahuila, Mexico. It has “15 years [of] experience in the Mexican wine industry and is excited about this acquisition, which will help the members of this family expand their interests beyond Mexico.” María Rivero will run the family’s wine operations at Martha Clara, which has been renamed RGNY. The Vineyard Website says that “the Riveros are willing to work with the local community in order to encourage and enhance the legacy of the former owners of Martha Clara Winery in a successful way.”
This makes it the second wine producer on the East End to be owned by Latin-Americans; the other was Laurel Lake, which until last year was in Chilean hands.
Jim Thompson came to Martha Clara from Michigan as Vineyard Manager in 2009. Steve Mudd told Jim, at the time of his first interview with Martha Clara, that in the North Fork the vineyard will be soaked with moisture every morning, but of course the grapes and vines need to be dry in order to develop healthily. This is because Long Island vineyards are on very flat land, so that there is no natural circulation of air unless a breeze comes up.
Originally, the vines were planted in rows that were treated with herbicides to such an extent that they were as smooth and clean as a billiard ball, but, since coming on board, Jim prevailed on Mr. Entenmann to reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides (he liked a trim, clean look in his fields) and allow cover crops to grow, such that now even toads have returned to the vineyard—a particularly good sign, given that toads are especially vulnerable to toxins, which they can absorb through the skin. The cover crops are white clover and low mow grass which is a combination of shorter growing fescues and a combination of the two.
Given the very flat, horizontal terrain of the property, Jim said that 7-foot spacing between rows is too narrow for tall vines that may reach 7 feet in height or more, because it means that when the sun is at its zenith of about 45° in the summertime, a shadow is still cast across the edge of a row immediately adjacent of another row, thus reducing solar exposure under the vines themselves, making it difficult to dry the soil adequately. It means that there is good sun from, say, 10:00am to 2:00pm, whereas a spacing of 8 feet could mean that the soil could enjoy the effects of the sun from 9:00am to 4:00pm. Presently, the spacing is 5′ x 7′ except for twenty acres that are 4′ x 7.’
He also remarked that, “It is a very different thing to sustain 15 acres versus 100. It is one thing to scout 15 acres and another to do so with 14 varieties on 100 acres. At Martha Clara, each variety is planted in at least two separate, non-contiguous blocks, so with 14 varieties we would have at least 24 blocks to scout, but it is more likely as many as 40. Clearly, with this many varieties in that many blocks it is difficult to manage. Scouting is time-consuming and needs to be done on a pretty regular basis to catch infestations before they can spread and do serious damage.”
“Fortunately, he went on, “Martha Clara [now RGNY] is well laid-out for a right-brain mentality, with very straight rows which are perfect for mechanical harvesting, which is essential for a vineyard of this size. After all, it would take 20 to 30 people in the vineyard to pick enough grapes to fill one stainless-steel fermentation tank, whereas the harvester can do so in a matter of an hour or so.”
It is “a vineyard in a box” according to Jim, for its 101 acres of planted vines are hemmed in on all sides by neighboring structures. It is also one of the four properties that forms the core group of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers certification program. In preparation for that, Jim says that , “I have narrowed my herbicide strip to 1/3 the total row width or less, I am doing some bud thinning which I anticipate/expect will reduce pesticide requirements. We have hired an intern whom I expect to be scouting for diseases and insects on a regular basis. I am reading related materials and articles.”
It is often difficult to find good vineyard workers to hire, according to Jim. Not long ago he had an applicant come to him who stood at the door to his office, leaning his right side against the door frame. Jim asked the man about his qualifications and then inquired about his work experience with the hoe. “It is not a problem,” averred the applicant. A day later, when Jim went to see the new crew at work, he found that the new “hoe worker” had no right arm. It was not a problem because he had gotten others to do the work.
Given all that, there are varieties that are easier to grow and maintain than others. Some vinifera varieties are especially difficult to deal with in the LI area, including Pinot Noir, Semillon, Syrah, and Viognier. For RGNY, the Pinot Noir is problematic because it can begin well and seem promising, but in the end produces unexciting wine. Semillon, Syrah, and Viognier have promise, Syrah may come up short on sugar, but flavors are beautiful in warmer years; in cooler years they tend to show more intense notes of black pepper. As for Viognier, it makes beautiful, well-rounded wines, but Jim [did comment on the] difficulty in handling it in the vineyard.
The vinifera varieties that do best in this climate are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Riesling. In fact, Jim would like to expand the Riesling planting, but first would need to research the available clones for their appropriateness in the North Fork soil. (Clone selection, as a matter of fact, is as vital to the success of a varietal as the choice of terroir for the vineyard, or, to put in another way, it’s vital to select a clone that will thrive in a given terroir.) He has also added two acres of Malbec (a French variety that often associated with Argentina), using three different clones, and will see how those do here. The one vinifera variety that Jim would also like to plant, once he knows more about it, is Torrontés (the aromatic grape from Argentina). Were he to do so, it would be the first planting of that variety in the Eastern US.
However, because vinifera vines are so susceptible to fungal disease in the LI climate—given its high humidity and volatility—Jim has planted three experimental plots of hybrid varieties: Marquette (a U. of Minn. red hybrid with Pinot Noir in its sap along with excellent cold hardiness and good disease resistance), La Crescent (another Minn. hybrid), and NY 95.301.01 (also known as “No-spray 301,” a Cornell hybrid that needs minimal inputs against mildews and fungi) to determine if these could handle the climate and terroir better than some of the vinifera vines. Juan explained that, “this has been done more out of curiosity as we have one row of each vine type. There is not enough for commercial production.” It is enough, however, to explore vines with the very traits that are lacking in virtually all vinifera varieties: resistance to cold and mildew—the bête noir of humid-climate vineyards.
A visit to the tasting room proved especially interesting, not only because of the range of wines offered, but because RGNY is promoting the use of kegs for dispensing wine by the glass. To them, kegs offer several advantages: 1. they help preserve wine better than do opened bottles; 2. they eliminate bottles altogether, thus reducing the amount of materials and energy required to make bottles; 3. they reduce the cost of shipping and storage, which can be expensive in the case of bottles; 4. they can be reused for up to fifteen to twenty years. There seems to even be a difference in the character of the wine from the keg compared to that from a bottle. The Pinot Grigio served from a keg had a tad more fruit than that which was poured from a bottle. Consequently, the winery would also like to sell wine in kegs to restaurants and tasting bars.
In tasting six of the wines on offer, it was apparent that the fine wines can be very fine indeed, with a pronounced house style. The Syrah from the 2009 vintage was nearly mature and manifested the typical traits of a Syrah that had been barrel-aged for thirteen months—black fruit and cigar-box notes with an unusually forward expression of cracked peppercorns. It had been fermented with 3% Viognier blended in—as is the case in Côte Rotie. The strong spiciness appears to be the result of a cool vintage, though I suspect terroir and style also played a role here. In fact, the 2009 Viognier varietal (with its characteristic aromatics of spice and ripe white peaches with floral notes also had a strong spiciness on the palate—pronounced lemongrass, or was it white pepper? Both wines had a firm acid backbone to give them structure. I liked them both for their unusual spiciness, which makes them suitable for Indian, Thai, and Mexican cuisine or any well-seasoned food. The 2009 Cabernet Franc, made from hand-picked fruit, unfined and unfiltered, was also very nice, with herbal & chocolate notes on the nose & palate, integrated tannins and firm acidity, now ready to drink but still to benefit from some cellar aging. Terrific for accompanying barbecued steak, for example.
For many years all the wines were made at Premium Wine Group, but RGNY has now built a fully-equipped winery and has a full-time winemaker, Lilia Jiménez, who is from Mexico. Lilia has now proven herself beyond a shadow of doubt with her 2017 Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon blend, which won 95 points and Gold at the annual Decanter Awards of 2021. This is a remarkable accomplishment, especially given the very high prestige of the Decanter Awards, which are recognized worldwide.
based on interviews with Jim Thompson & Juan Micieli-Martínez
3 February & 29 March 2012; updated 30 April 2018
as well as recent online & printed sources
“At Paumanok we practice viticulture that allows us to achieve our goal of growing the ripest, healthiest grapes our vineyards can produce while managing the vineyards in a responsible, sustainable way. In general, we follow the program and principles of New York State’s Sustainable Viticulture Program set forth here: VineBalance, by Cornell Cooperative Extension with whom Paumanok has had a productive relationship since my parents planted our first vines in 1983. We believe that the most important factor in making great wine is starting with the healthiest, ripest fruit possible. Growing grapes in order to achieve this goal and growing them sustainably are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are one and the same.”
–Statement from an essay by Kareem Massoud, “Sustainable Viticulture at Paumanok”
Established in 1983, the 103-acre estate (with 72 acres currently planted to vine) is entirely owned and managed by Ursula and Charles Massoud, and their three sons, Salim, Kareem, and Nabeel . The main red varieties are Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon; the main white ones are Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. As for clones, a field already planted with Cabernet Sauvignon was replanted with clone 412, which produces very tiny grapes, which provide more flavor and tannins (it was developed by ENTAV/INRA of France, to which a royalty of $.20-.25 per plant is paid). However, there are no experimental plots as such here, for, as pointed out by Kareem, everything planted in the vineyard could be said to be experimental.
The dense planting of the vineyards (at 1,100 vines per acre) they say produces more concentrated fruit and therefore higher quality wines. Their wines are only made from estate-grown grapes and production is limited to just under 9,000 cases.
The first vineyard was planted across the street from the winery in 1982 (42 acres) but was not acquired until the late 1980s; the first Paumanok vines were planted in 1983, and the winery opened in 1991 with the release of the first estate-bottled wines; 12-15 acres were planted in a new field in 2005. They had to apply one to two tons of lime (calcium carbonate) per acre for the first twenty years on their original plots to bring soil acidity into balance so that it is now stabilized to the higher pH that is more amenable for vinifera varieties.
A more recent addition to Paumanok vineyards is a plot of 25 acres that was purchased from the Riverhead School Board in June of 2014, which will be planted to Chenin Blanc, the signature grape of the property. The property had originally been purchased by the school district for a school that was never built. The proceeds from the sale add to the coffers of the school district and represent an important resource for Paumanok, which will plant the first five acres to Chenin Blanc in 2015.
Certainly the newest and biggest addition occurred in August 2018, when Paumanok acquired Palmer Vineyards on Sound Avenue. This has added another 40 acres of vineyards to Paumanok’s holdings. It is a good fit with regards to the varieties planted at Palmer. Perhaps most appealing is the Albariño, which has been a great success at Palmer, so much so that other wineries are also planting the variety. Indeed, Paumanok has ordered an acre’s worth of this variety that is to be planted next year. The plan is that the new Paumanok planting will eventually be incorporated with the Albariño at Palmer to make even more wine of that variety. Meanwhile, the relatively small planting of Riesling at Palmer will be used to augment the larger Riesling planting at Paumanok.
The juice from the Palmer vineyards will be fermented at that winery but will be finished at Paumanok’s facility. Kareem will be responsible for all the winemaking for both properties.
Kareem, the eldest son, has been the winemaker in partnership with his father, Charles, for the last sixteen years. He also works very closely with his brother Nabeel, who manages the vineyard. Salim, the second son, is the factotum of the family business. For the Massouds, “sustainable” means “healthy,” for “the riper and healthier the berries the better the wine made with the least intervention.”
In the essay he provided me for this article, Kareem writes that “My perennial barometer of whether what we are doing is sustainable is the biodiversity in our vineyard: lady bugs, praying mantis, dragon flies, earth worms, etc., are present in our vineyard in abundance. As you probably know, some farms and vineyards actually introduce populations of some of these beneficial insects as biological controls. So the fact that we have them without having to introduce them says to me that we must be doing something right. We maintain a permanent cover of grasses and wild clovers and other vegetation [between the rows] and under the vine which create a habitat for all the biodiversity cited above.” In other words, at Paumanok they have naturally achieved the symbiotic diversity that is essential to sustainable viticulture.
Though Paumanok practices sustainable viticulture, Kareem thinks that organic farming, at least as understood by the general public, is a myth, insofar as organic farming allows the use of both copper and sulfur; nevertheless, some organic producers will claim that they are not “spraying chemicals” (but what are copper or sulfur if not chemicals?). Such farmers are therefore using the term “organic more as a marketing tool” than acknowledging the actuality of what organic farming entails. It is, in other words, a matter of the use , or misuse, of language. To him, it is more important to be “selecting more benign synthetic pesticides relative to more toxic organic (not an oxymoron) controls. The best example of a toxic organic control is copper. Copper does a great job at controlling downy mildew, but it is a heavy metal which is something we would rather not spray as it will destroy our soils as it accumulates in the soil over time. The sulfur used in [both conventional and organic] farming is made as a byproduct of petroleum production. There are numerous synthetic pesticides which are far more benign that we may opt to use instead.” Indeed, for Paumanok, organic is incidental to the outcome at the vineyard; however, he remains open-minded about aspects of biodynamics, as he thinks the compost tea preparations may be of value, but he remains skeptical of the ‘hocus-pocus’ associated with it, such as following astrological signs or stirring the compost teas in two different directions (the ‘biodynamic’ part of biodynamics). On the other hand, if the mystical aspects of biodynamics could be scientifically proven to be efficacious, he’d use it if it meant growing better fruit.
As Kareem points out, “at Paumanok, we manage our vineyard as sustainably as possible. . . . we do not use any more inputs (crop protectants, micro nutrients and fertilizers) than necessary to grow the ripest fruit possible.” For example, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is driven by self-seeded ground cover, mostly rye grass and sorghum. The cover is allowed to grow into the vine rows and is kept under control by a special vineyard mower that is towed by a tractor. This machine, the Fischer GL4K, is described on the manufacturer’s Web site as “the world’s first hinged mid row and undervine slasher, offering total chemical free weed control solutions for growers with delved, ‘V’ shaped or uneven grounds.” It does, however, have some drawbacks, one of which is that it is capable of damaging or even cutting off the vine from its roots, as can be seen in the photograph to the right. Kareem explains that the vineyard crew is still learning how to use the machine without causing damage to the vines. The point is that it should allow control of weed growth in the vineyard without the need to use herbicides at all. (There is a video of the machine in action on Paumanok’s Facebook page.)
Further IPM control is managed by:
. . . employing] various IPM (Integrated Pest Management) tactics to reduce our reliance on pesticides. For example, we perform the following activities on the entire vineyard: manual-shoot positioning with catch wires and clips to hold the shoots up straight, suckering, shoot-thinning, fruit-thinning or “green-harvesting”, hedging and leaf removal in the fruit zone. All of these practices increase the vines’ natural ability to resist disease (such as powdery mildew or downy mildew) by allowing UV rays from sunlight to burn off the inoculum [material that introduces disease to a previously healthy plant] and generally make conditions less favorable for mildew and other pathogens by creating a microclimate within the vine that minimizes moisture and allows it to dry quickly after a rain event by allowing better ventilation. In any vineyard, but particularly on Long Island [emphasis mine], these activities are essential to give the vine its best chance of naturally fending off pests such as powdery mildew which would take hold much more easily and rapidly – and require more spraying – had we not done these activities. We carry out these practices as diligently, meticulously and thoroughly as possible. What does that mean? For example, when we drop fruit, i.e., green-harvest, we don’t do it just once but repeatedly until harvest. Some vines may have been visited four, five, six or more times (for green-harvesting alone) to ensure that only the cleanest, most desirable fruit remains hanging on the vine upon harvest.
In addition, “Several of the pesticides we use would qualify for an organic program, however, there are some grape pests for which we feel there is no satisfactory organic control [my emphasis] that we know of at this time, such as black rot, phomopsis and botrytis. Given that grapevines must be sprayed (if you know of a grower that never sprays their vines, please let me know), our belief from day one has been to use the most effective, least toxic material available regardless of whether that product is labeled for organic or biodynamic use or not.” Paumanok has therefore invested in state-of-the-art spraying technology. Kareem says that “we use a recycling tunnel sprayer to spray our vineyard. This sprayer greatly reduces drift, and, as the name implies, recycles much of what would have otherwise been lost as drift. This results in a reduced environmental impact and improved profitability, two key pillars of sustainability.”
With respect to the Cornell University Agricultural Extension VineBalance program, Paumanok is very involved; it has the book and follows it. Indeed, Ursula Massoud is on the Cornell Cooperative Extension Advisory Committee for viticulture. VineBalance is working towards a certification program for New York grape growers, but there are politics involved that inhibit its advancement, which has to do with growers and producers of juice grapes by corporations like Welch’s. They do not want third-party certification versus the wine-grape growers who do want it. So the certification program is still in development. Another way in which Paumanok shows its commitment to sustainability is by the installation of the first solar panels at any vineyard. As Kareem points out, the family lives on the property and drinks water from their own well, so they have one more reason to be responsible custodians of the lands they farm. Theirs is a “terroirist” stewardship that respects the land and its produce.
In the vineyard they make sure that at harvest the vines are all clean before the machines go through. (Their machinery uses synthetic food-grade hydraulic fluid (costing $20-25/gallon) in order to minimize the amount of industrial fluid that can find its way into the environment. Nevertheless, they prefer hand-picking, but to ensure that boxes of picked grapes never touch the ground, an empty one is used underneath the box with grapes to keep the fruit clean. The goal always is to pick clean as well as healthy grapes.
Kareem has one last thought:
As Paumanok continues to experiment in the vineyard and improve on our [30+] years of viticultural experience on Long Island, we will pursue whatever methodology allows us to achieve our goal of growing the healthiest, ripest grapes possible regardless of whether that method is known as organic, practicing-organic, biodynamic, IPM, sustainable, etc. There is only one dogma to which we will adhere:
GREAT WINE IS MADE WITH THE HEALTHIEST, RIPEST GRAPES OBTAINABLE.
Consequently, given all the above, Paumanok joined the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers group, becoming the twentieth member as of November 2015.
And the results show in the wine that Kareem, as winemaker, produces at Paumanok. For me the proof is in one of the finest Sauvignon Blanc wines made in this country that I’ve tasted, and an excellent Chenin Blanc that is unique in Long Island. Paumanok also sells: steel-fermented Chardonnay, barrel-fermented Chardonnay, two Chenin Blancs, Cabernet Franc, three different Merlots, two Cabernet Sauvignons, a late-harvest Riesling, a late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc, two Rosés, and several blends, all made by what Kareem calls “minimalist” wine making (he dislikes the term “natural wine making,” which implies something that it really is not).
Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue also earned some impressive numbers, with four scores of 93 and three scores of 92.
“In the world of wine, Robert Parker has been recognized as possibly the world’s most influential wine critic,” said Paumanok winemaker Kareem Massoud. “We think of [wine ratings] as a necessary evil. Like it or not, people are going to evaluate your wine and give your wine a score. In spite of all of the limitations of relying on a number, it still feels good to end up with a highly rated wine.”
Massoud said Mark Squires of WA visited the winery in March of 2015 and later requested a second set of samples of the wines he tasted, a common practice for wine critics.
“Even the best critics will get palate fatigue,” Massoud explained.
One of the Paumanok standouts for Squires was its 93-point 2007 Merlot Tuthill’s Lane.
“Here, [Paumanok] makes a wonderful Merlot,” Squires wrote. “Full-bodied and caressing on the palate, this shows very fine depth, but it retains its elegance all the while.”
All in all, 23 of Kareem’s wines earned a score of 90 or more. That is more than any other winery on the Island and a remarkable achievement.
Paumanok was named NY Winery of the Year 2015 by the NY Wine and Food Classic held in August at Watkins Glen in the Finger Lakes. This is the second time that the winery has been so honored. Its 2014 Medium-Sweet Riesling was declared best white wine in the competition. See Edible East End’s article. More recently, Paumanok was selected as Winery of the Year 2021 by the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.
It should also be noted that in July 2018 Paumanok purchased Palmer Vineyards, another North Fork producer, and Kareem is now winemaker for both.
Based on an interview with Kareem and Nabeel Massoud on 3 May 2011 with additions from “Sustainable Viticulture at Paumanok Vineyards,” an essay by Kareem; last updated September 15, 2018
Paumanok GPS Coordinates
North Fork of Long Island
1074 Main Road (Route 25)
P.O. Box 741
Aquebogue, NY 11931
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
Based on interviews with Miguel Martin & Josh Karp in October 2010; updated May & August 2018
Palmer Vineyards was opened to business in 1986 when Bob Palmer, a New York City advertising and marketing executive, purchased farmland on the North Fork of Long Island in 1983. He built what was then the most modern winery on the island and planted a vineyard. Before long, using his marketing savvy and traveling worldwide to promote his new venture and its product, Palmer became one of the best-known LI wineries. Since then many other vineyards and wineries have been established on the East End, some of them even larger and more modern. Yet Palmer still has one of the largest vineyards, at 100 acres planted to vines (in two parcels, each of 50 acres), with an annual production of 10,000 to 12,000 cases, including red and white wines, a rosé, and a traditional-method sparkling wine.
Until 2018, Palmer’s winemaker was Miguel Martín, who was hired by Mr. Palmer in 2006 to succeed Tom Drozd as winemaker. Miguel an experienced and highly knowledgeable vintner had previously worked at, among others, Robert Mondavi in California, Caliterra in Chile, and Gonzalez Byass in Spain. While living in Barcelona (he worked in the Penedés wine region of Cataluña) he and his wife, Ellen, who is from the Hamptons area, saw an ad in a trade publication for a winemaker in Long Island. When Palmer took Miguel on he was told that he had free rein to do whatever he deemed fit to run the winery and make wine. It was an offer Miguel could not turn down, so he moved back to the Island with his family and took over winemaking at Palmer. He has done exactly as Palmer told him to do, making very good, often excellent wines, and constantly extending Palmer’s offerings: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Viognier. He was also the first to plant Albariño–a Spanish variety from Galicia– in the region in 2010. Its wine is aromatic, with a touch of spice, yet dry, and it became an immediate hit.
Over the years, Miguel continued to introduce a new range of wines. The latest, released in 2018, is Reposo, a dessert wine made from raisined, botritised Gewürztraminer grapes left on the vine for weeks after harvest. The grapes were then fermented in used brandy casks and allowed to age for eight years before being bottled and released. A fine account of the production of this wine can be found at Edible Long Island: Palmer Reposo wine.
I’d visited Palmer Vineyards a few times before, but in mid-October, 2010, I arrived at the time of the harvest. I observed first-hand the work of a mechanical harvester—a $300,000 behemoth that is share-owned with another vineyard in order to make it more affordable. The harvester is used for collecting the grapes so efficiently that it can complete a 200-yard row in about 10 minutes or less, with little damage to the fruit, but of course without the selectivity that comes with hand-picking. Obviously, this is not the method the winery uses for producing top-quality wines with prices to match, but rather is one means of producing decent wines at affordable prices. In this case the vineyard lot in question was planted with Merlot, and a crew of experienced vineyard workers efficiently went through the rows to be harvested, lifting and fixing the bird netting to expose the grape clusters. The harvester straddles a row and using a set of mechanical beaters shakes the vines so that the ripe grapes fall to a conveyor belt of plastic cups that carry the grapes up to a collection grid that dumps the grapes into either of two mechanical arms—one on either side of the harvester—with bins large enough to hold about a ton-and-a-half of fruit each. When the bins are full—after four or five rows have been harvested—the harvester delivers its largess to a stainless-steel gondola with a capacity of five to six tons. Once the gondola is filled with grapes, it proceeds to the winery, where it is immediately hooked up, by means of a 4-inch diameter hose, to a pump that then feeds the grapes into a destemmer-crusher.
The destemmer-crusher is a compact machine that accomplishes two things at once: it removes any stems or leaves from the grapes by means of a steel rotating spindle with long steel pins, hurtling them out at one end of the machine while the grapes pass through, by gravity, to the crusher. The crusher does just that to the fruit, which is to say that it crushes the grapes enough to break their skins and allow the juice to flow out. (Pressing is a much more forceful way of getting the maximum juice out of the grapes, leaving behind only the pomace—but more on that at a later time.)
On a subsequent visit in late October, I observed a handpicked harvest, where Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were being selectively clipped, stems and grapes together, and delivered to the winery. This time, a crew received the bins of grapes and dumped them on a sorting table. Any bad bunches were removed and the rest pushed into the destemmer-crusher, which this time was piling the removed stems so quickly that they needed to be regularly removed by pitchfork and placed in a wagon. These grapes were destined for the high-end wines made at Palmer.
So, back at the winery, after a day’s harvest, I had a chance to sit down with Miguel and talk about another matter that is of special significance to this series of posts on viticulture in LI: the question of terroir, which is something that has long been discussed, argued over, embraced as a concept of agriculture in France, while seriously questioned in the United States.
Here is a classic statement about it by one of its adherents:
‘The very French notion of terroir looks at all ‘the natural conditions which influence the biology of the vinestock and thus the composition of the grape itself. The terroir is the coming together of the climate, the soil and the landscape. It is the combination of an infinite number of factors: temperatures by night and by day, rainfall distribution, hours of sunlight, slope and drainage, to name but a few. All these factors react with each other to form, in each part of the vineyard, what French wine growers call a terroir.’ –Bruno Prats, the proprietor of Château Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux, as quoted in The Vintner’s Art: How Great Wines are Made, by Hugh Johnson and James Halliday (1992)
(One of the factors not named explicitly above is the human one: culture, politics, agricultural practices, even belief systems play a part in terroir. In other words, human intervention, such as the choice of varieties to be grown, the vine density, pruning and training methods, how the vine rows are laid out—e.g., to take advantage of sun or to deal with prevailing winds—etc.)
According to Miguel, the most important issue in LI is the climate (which includes the weather), as it is the one element that cannot be controlled, being highly variable and therefore the greatest challenge to both the viticulturist and the vintner. In 2009, for example, the vineyard lost 10-15% of harvest due to heavy rains, but had to spend more in order to retain the fruit that was still hanging. Indeed, climate is definitely a controlling factor in terms of site choice, viticultural practices as mentioned in the paragraph above, and dealing with such issues as vine diseases and pests, which is particularly problematic given the high humidity that prevails in LI. Thus, virtually all vineyards on the North Fork , including Palmer, use double-cordon training with Vertical Shoot Positioning (which is explained in my introductory post to this series, Viticulture in Long Island, introduction to Parts 2-xx).
With respect to the soil as a part of the concept of terroir, Miguel is firm in saying that the effects of soil alone are exaggerated, and he cites for evidence an article published in The New York Times in May of 2007, by Harold McGee and Daniel Patterson, “Talk Dirt to Me.” The point is made in the article that what we like to call goût de terroir (taste of the earth), is in fact not at all the result of rocks and soil alone, but more the result of the fermenting yeasts and human intervention. “Plants don’t really interact with rocks,” explains Mark Matthews, a plant physiologist at the University of California, Davis who studies vines. “They interact with the soil, which is a mixture of broken-down rock and organic matter. And plant roots are selective. They don’t absorb whatever’s there in the soil and send it to the fruit. If they did, fruits would taste like dirt.” He continues, “Any minerals from the solid rock that vine roots do absorb — sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, a handful of others — have to be dissolved first in the soil moisture. Most of them are essential nutrients, and they mainly affect how well the plant as a whole grows.” This insight is a clarification of the soil factor in terroir, but would seem to put to rest the notion of a goût de terroir as something discernible in wine.
In the Palmer vineyard, historically a combination of both natural and synthetic composts has been used based on soil needs, such as additional nitrogen or phosphate. The lack of either of these would be visible in the vine leaves by means of certain patterns of discoloration. Indeed, in what should be seen as a move towards a more organic viticulture, Josh wrote in an e-mail: “With some (much needed) advice from Barbara Shinn I have started a [natural] compost pile. At Palmer we always put the pomace back into the fields along with the prunings from the winters’ pruning but a [natural] compost I feel will affect the soil faster and with more nutrients.”
Palmer, like most East End vineyards, uses clones designed for late blooming and early ripening in its newer plantings, such as of Albariño, Viognier, and Muscat, in order to avoid the damages inflicted by spring frosts and autumn weather. Clover (which is self-seeding) is planted for ground cover between the rows, because it is low-growing and nitrogen-fixing. Copper-sulfate sprays are used up to one month before the harvest. One should only spray the foliates, not the fruit (there is a type of curtain spray system used for this—it has a trough that recovers and recycles dripped spray so that it doesn’t enter the soil, an important factor, as high levels of copper in the soil can be toxic to the topsoil biota). As harvest-time approaches, the copper sprays are put aside and alternative, more environmentally-friendly sprays such as Serenade or Stylet oil are used. (Stylet oil is a highly-purified white mineral oil which is extremely versatile and it functions as an effective insecticide, fungicide, and miticide.) Thus, if there is a late appearance of, say, powdery mildew, it can then be dealt with in a way that poses no risk to the plant, the fruit, the land, or the worker. Furthermore, said Josh: “Any product used is always being checked to see if it can be used less (fewer times used along with a lower rate) with the same effectiveness or can be replaced for a product that can be organic or that is considered less harsh.”
What this all means is that supervision of the vineyard is a constant, requiring that both the winemaker and vineyard manager are checking daily for signs of disease, pests, vine malnourishment, and so on. For example, overlapping canes lead to problems of rot, so must be corrected regularly by the vineyard workers in the field. Bird netting (seen in the picture wrapped and marked for the row on which each will be set) has to be carried, after veraison, into the rows of vines and set properly, otherwise birds would decimate the crop. (The nets do not trap the birds, but merely keep them from reaching the grape bunches.) That still leaves raccoons, deer, foxes, and other vermin to feed on low-lying fruit. Groundhogs need to be monitored too, for their tunnels and underground burrows can heave vines and kill them. One must love nature in a tough way in the vineyard. This year Palmer has installed both bat and owl boxes to help keep insects and animal pests under better control. Unfortunately, owls and bats seem to be rather particular about where they nest and the offer of domiciles has so far gone ignored. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t around, though. Both are among the vineyards natural friends, but there are also insect predators who feed on aphids, mites, caterpillars, moths, and so on. Ladybugs, for instance, are a natural control for aphids, which suck the vine leaves and can cause them to wither. In other words, to the extent possible, natural pest controls are used.
What all this has meant is that Palmer Vineyards was very ready to join the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing group some years ago, and in May 2018 was again recertified as complying with the standards of LISW, the Vinebalance Workbook, and international standards of sustainability.
Bob Palmer died in January of 2009, and though the winery continues as he had envisioned it, his family had put the property up for sale. In July 2018 it was purchased by Paumanok Vineyards, owned by the Massoud family. Paumanok had been seeking to expand and Palmer fit it plans very well. Unfortunately, while they held on to most of the Palmer staff, they could not justify having two winemakers and had to let Miguel go. Kareem Massoud, the very gifted winemaker at Paumanok, will handle winemaking at both wineries. The story was published in the Wine Spectator:Paumanok Vineyards buys Palmer
Miguel is held in such high esteem that when it was reported that he was now unemployed, Wölffer Estate immediately contacted him and offered him the position of Assistant Winemaker to Roman Roth. But then, they’d known Miguel for years, and he also makes the white wines for Roanoke Vineyards, owned by Richie Pisacano, who is the vineyard manager at Wolffer. That story is told in an article in Edible East End: Miguel Martin moves to Wölffer Estate
By 2017 Barbara Shinn and her husband, David Page, had worked very hard for twenty years to create a natural ecosystem in their vineyard. In order to achieve this they committed themselves to growing grapes that they hoped would be organically certified by the USDA, as well as being fully certified by Demeter as a Biodynamic vineyard. It didn’t work out, at least not exactly. More about that below.
They did, however, become leaders in the sustainable farming movement in Long Island, so what happened in April 2017 was a complete surprise to the wine community. Interestingly, it was a surprise to Barbara and David as well. They received an unanticipated, solid offer to purchase Shinn Estate, including the winery, vineyard, inn, and windmill, that they could not refuse. The property was sold to Barbara and Randy Frankel, who live in the Hamptons.
When Barbara and David bought their property on the North Fork in 1998, they knew nothing about grape-growing or wine-making. At the time, they already owned a successful restaurant, Home, in New York City, but they were drawn to the North Fork by its excellent produce and seafood, as well as the rural charm and unspoiled villages. Already committed to the idea of using local produce served with local wines, a philosophy that was embedded in the cuisine and wine offerings of their restaurant, the wineries of the area also beckoned, and they finally bought a 22 -acre plot of what was once a wheat field. It has since been expanded to 28 acres of planted vines. They became friends with many vintners, including Joe Macari, Jr., who showed them how to develop a vineyard according to sustainable practices.
At first they only grew grapes for sale to other wineries, but by 2006 had one of their own. In 2007 David and Barbara opened their converted farmhouse into a B&B so that they could continue to pursue their devotion to the locavore movement along with their own wines. They moved from conventional farming to an increasingly organic and then Biodynamic approach slowly and carefully beginning in 2002, then started the transition to organic viticulture in 2005, and to Biodynamic practices by 2008. Unfortunately, they never got there.
The greatest problem facing Rose Hill–as well as all vineyards in Long Island (and for that matter, all of the East Coast)—is the hot and humid climate, which helps promote all manner of diseases of the vine, including powdery and downy mildew, black rot, and phomopsis viticola, or dead-arm. To control these pests, conventional farmers use a host of industrial pesticides with great success—it is this that has made vinifera grape-growing possible in regions where it would otherwise wither and die. However, there are new weapons for the organic and Biodynamic growers, such as Regalia (according to the manufacturer, “a patented formulation of an extract from the giant knotweed plant (Reynoutria sachalinensis). Its unique mode of action switches on the plant’s natural defense mechanisms to inhibit the development of bacterial spot, bacterial speck, target spot, powdery mildew, [etc].”). Shinn also uses Serenade (which according to its producer, “consistently helps growers win the battle against fungal and bacterial diseases, as it contains a unique, patented strain of Bacillus subtilis . . . to destroy diseases such as Fire Blight, Botrytis, Sour Rot, Rust, Sclerotinia, Powdery Mildew, [etc].”).
Nevertheless, as Barbara Shinn admits, the Achilles Heel for any organic or Biodynamic viticulturalist is downy mildew. By far the most effective control of this blight is copper sulfate, which is an industrial product that is almost unique in being accepted for both USDA Organic as well as Biodynamic farming. While there are usually few limits as to how much copper sulfate can be applied in the course of a growing season, anyone using it is aware that the copper content is inimical to healthy soil. While it may destroy downy mildew, it is also highly toxic to organisms in the soil, and in sufficient quantities it will drive out beneficial ones such as earthworms. Worse, it is a strong irritant to workers and also has long persistence in the soil, to which it bonds strongly, so it accumulates over time. However, Biodynamic farming does allow up to three pounds of copper sulfate per acre to be added in the course of a year. For many farmers, this would not be enough, and double that application would not be unusual, especially in this region. Still, Shinn tried to abide by this strict limit.
Like all Long Island viticulturalists, the Vineyard uses Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) for training their vines. The vines are planted to a 7’×4’ European-type density, which helps to lower yields and leads to more intense wine. Then, shortly after budbreak they select the shoots that each vine will grow to provide canopy, removing the rest. Once the vines bear fruit, they go through each one again, removing about two-thirds of the berries so that the remainder will benefit better from the resultant increased nourishment they receive from the vine. This means that the wines made from this fruit will have more intense flavor and aroma without having to resort to very much intervention in the winery.
One approaches the winery from a narrow country road distinguished only by the sign for the estate and the attractive farmhouse by the entrance. A tall windmill, installed to generate electricity for the winery spins its blades in the wind and stands as a testament to the commitment to self-sufficiency and sustainability. Carefully-tended rows of vines have been planted nearly to the edge of the road. Barbara and David were in the parking area with Anthony Nappa, their winemaker back in 2010, when I arrived. (Anthony is now winemaker at Raphael and Patrick Caserta has taken his place.) Shortly, we went to the warehouse where they age their wines in oak barrels.
Tasting from the barrels is always an interesting challenge, as one is tasting a wine in the process of maturation rather than when it is ready to drink, but quality is evident in each sample of the red wine that we taste . . . much of which is destined for eventual blending. Shinn produces a large variety of wines, red, white, rosé, and even a sparkling wine. Their best wines are made exclusively from estate-grown grapes (the other wines are from grapes bought from local growers). These are the wines that are meant to benefit from the organic and Biodynamic procedures that they follow. We then proceeded to taste their many, distinctive wines in the tasting room. (A full discussion of the wines will come in a separate posting.)
The vineyard tour brought us first to the irrigation system, which is an electrically-controlled mechanism that Shinn uses primarily for its Biodynamic compost tea inoculation, which is administered once a month. The tea is made by taking the Biodynamic preparation that has been aged in cow horns buried in the ground, then mixed with water into a 50-gallon batch that is fed into the twenty-two acre vineyard over a period of an hour. This is but one of several means by which Shinn provides the necessary, natural nutrients to keep the soil healthy. Other organic soil amendments include limestone, potassium, humic acid, kelp, and fish hydrolizate (liquefied fish, which is rich in nitrogen).
Furthermore, the Shinn vineyard uses a full cover crop, which is to say, the crop is not only between the vine rows, but grows right into them. They do not even till the soil. As the Shinn Website explains it:
As a vineyard is a monoculture crop, vegetal diversity is attained by planting various kinds of cover crops between the rows of vines. Thus there are different kinds of grass, clover, and perennials and annuals that grow throughout the vineyard. This cover crop provides habitat for all manner of insect life, enhances the organic mix of the soil, and is a healthy environment for the microorganisms of the soil.
In addition to its diversity, the cover crop also helps reduce the vigor of the vines by forcing them to compete for water with other vegetation when it’s rainy (a good thing when one is growing wine grapes) and at the same time helps the soil retain moisture better when it’s dry.
Like any vineyard that is farmed according to sustainable practices, Rose Hill employs Integrated Pest Management to deal with insect pests (which means using natural predators to help control them). They also have sought to encourage insectivore bats to live in special habitats built for them in the vineyard—so far, however, the bat houses have no takers.
They planted different clones of each grape variety, with six selections of Merlot, for example, and three each of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. There are also two selections of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon that account for the white varieties. Each block of grapes is hand-harvested separately, with the east and west sides of each row of vines being picked separately as well. In addition, they also lease a small, five-acre plot, Schreiber Vineyards, which is planted with 30-year-old vines of Chardonnay and Riesling, which adds more variety to their portfolio of wines. It lies just a mile up Oregon Road and is farmed identically to the Shinn vineyards.
Given all of this care and attention in the vineyard, the fact remains that weather will inevitably have an impact, and in a region like Long Island—unlike California—weather variability is a given. It is, of course, a major reason for vintage differences. Last year, for example, there were very heavy rains that affected some vineyards much more than others. Where some vineyards only a few miles away lost up to 30 or 40% of their fruit, Shinn only lost about 10 to 15%. The reason was their particular mesoclimate—the heavy rains left their crop thoroughly soaked, and the vines looked as though they were on the verge of collapse, but just after the rain was over, a strong, persistent wind came up that dried the vines quickly, so that even the wild yeasts on which they depend in the winery were restored after only a few day. The berries lost all the water they’d absorbed very quickly too, so the damage was minimal. (Of course, the weather of another summer could produce the reverse of this outcome; there is never a guarantee.)
By 2012 Shinn Estate was one of the founding Vineyards to join the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers certification program (for more about it see the post, LISW). That was the easy part, as it were, since they were already following all the practices set forth in the LISW workbook. The hard part, organic certification, still eluded them in 2017 as downy mildew, in this humid climate, still cannot be tamed by strict adherence to organic grower’s guidelines.
And now they have sold Shinn Estate to a New Jersey financier and his wife, Barbara and Randy Frankel: Shinn Estate Announcement of Sale. Newsday wrote that the sale had “not been part of the plan,” but an unexpected offer changed that. “It came as a surprise to us someone would walk through the door and make us an offer,” he said. He declined to discuss terms of the sale or the new owners.
Randy Frankel is a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, whose various business interests include a minority stake in the Tampa Bay Rays baseball franchise and part-ownership of Windham Mountain Ski Resort in Windham, N.Y., according to an online biography. The Frankels wanted to take a new path in business, and as residents of the Hamptons were well familiar with the wineries of the East End of the Island. They hired Robert Rudko as an advisor. Rudko, who has been in the wine trade for many years, helped find the property, which fit their hopes and expectations exactly.
Rudko is now running the property as both CEO and General Manager; he is working with the new owners, assessing the vineyard, the winery and tasting room, and the B&B. Already, according to him, an expanded tasting room with a real “Wow” design is in the works. The winery is due for some significant equipment upgrades and the B&B is being refurbished. He said that once all the work is completed, it will leave visitors “slack-jawed” by the transformation.
Patrick Certa, who has worked with the Shinns as winemaker for several years now, has continued in that role since 2017. The vineyard and the sustainable practices used to work it continue as well. However, the new owners are hoping to acquire new vineyard parcels to add to the current acreage in order to expand production.
Barbara and David were apparently mentally ready for this break, as they already had a commitment to running a hydroponic farm that they own in Maine. Nevertheless, they said they will remain connected to the business as consultants for the “foreseeable future.”
The sale represents the closing of a distinguished and dramatic chapter in the story of the wineries of Long Island and the opening of a new one. Shinn Estate is no more; as of 2021 it is now called Rose Hill Vineyards. They still run the Farmhouse as an inn.
Rose Hill Vineyards
2000 Oregon Road
Mattituck, NY 11952
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).
Based on interviews with Alex and Joe Macari, Jr on 9 July 2009 & 17 June 2010; updated 21 November 2014
Macari Vineyards is on the North Fork of Eastern Long Island (aka the East End) in Mattituck, and owned and operated by the Macari Family. Joseph Macari Jr., now runs the winery with his wife, Alexandra (called Alex by those who know her—but actually Alejandra, for she’s originally from Argentina). Though Macari Vineyards was established in 1995, the Macari Family has owned the 500-acre estate—bounded by the south shore of Long Island Sound—for nearly 50 years [though in 2009 they sold 60 acres of non-vineyard land, so it is now down to 440 acres]. What were once potato fields and farmland now includes a vineyard of 200 acres of vines with additional fields of compost, farmland, and a home to long-horn cattle, goats, Sicilian donkeys and ducks.
Macari sees itself as on the cutting edge of viticulture and has long been committed to as natural an approach to winemaking as is possible. Since 2005 Joseph Macari, Jr. has been considered as a pioneer in the movement towards natural and sustainable farming on Long Island, employing principles of biodynamic farming beginning with the vineyard’s first crops. By giving consideration to the health of the environment as a whole and moving away from the noxious effects of industrial pesticides towards a more natural and meticulous caretaking of the soil and plants, Macari believes that it has found a more promising way to yield premium wines (recalling the old French axiom, that wine begins in the vineyard). This does not mean that Macari claims to be producing organic grapes, nor organic wines—that, in Joe’s view, is not possible for a vineyard of its size in Long Island, given the climate, with its high humidity and much rain during the growing season, both of which tend to encourage the ravages of fungal and bacterial infections of the vines, as well as attacks by a range of insects.
My first visit was in July of last year, and my follow-up visit was this June. We started in the new and modern Tasting Room at the Winery. Alex, as Joe’s wife is called) began with a tasting of a range of Macari wines, all of which were well-made and at the least, quite good, with some of very fine quality, well-balanced, with good acidity and fruit. The winery produces both barrel-fermented and steel-fermented whites as well as barrel-fermented reds and a couple of cryo-ice wines (“fake” ice wine, as Alex teased, but Joe is an enthusiast, and the wine is actually delicious and has won awards). In fact, the winery employs two winemakers, one of whom is Austrian and makes the steel-fermented whites as well as the ice wines. (I’ll review the wines when I write about wine-making at Macari in a separate post.)
The vineyard tour in a 4-wheel-drive pickup truck began with an exploration of the composting area, where manure from the farm animals is gathered (cows—including long-horn steers—horses, and chickens) as well as the vine detritus (which is charred in order to render any infection or harmful residue neutral), and 35 tons of fish waste that is delivered once a week by a Fulton Fish Market purveyor (Joe says that the fish guts & bones provide excellent nitrogen & DNA for the compost, so it is highly nutritive for the vines). At the time of my visit the compost heaps—some of which were from six to eight feet high—were covered in weeds, which will be removed before the compost is applied as fertilizer.
In order to save time and space—two valuable commodities in growing wine grapes—vineyards sometimes graft new vines onto a mature rootstock, rather than starting an entirely new plant. According to the Macari Website, theirs is the first vineyard on Long Island to successfully grow over-grafted vines. With over-grafting, a new variety can be grown from the rootstock of a different plant, which is a much faster way of growing vines than planting new ones. The future of every vineyard depends on the carefully executed process of planting new vines. Macari’s vision of the future is constantly evolving as the owners, vineyard manager and winemaker learn more about their vines, and the microclimates found in the fields.
The vineyard proper is very well-tended, the various varieties separated into blocks, using Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP), and in many parcels irrigation tubes were carefully aligned along the bottom wires of the rows to provide drip irrigation if necessary, though the high humidity and rainfall of the region reduces the likelihood of needing its use. In fact, the 2009 season thus far has had such an excess of rainfall—often very heavy—that in many parts of the vineyard there was blossom damage and many of the developing bunches of grapes were, in effect, incomplete due to fruit loss.
Joe has been using, to the extent possible, both organic and Biodynamic® methods of viticulture, but due to the highly-humid conditions in the vineyard, he must still resort to conventional sprays from time to time, so he refuses to claim to be organic or biodynamic, though he finds that to the extent that it is possible to use these viticultural methods, it is worthwhile. For one thing, Joe worships Mother Earth, and believes in the Rudolf Steiner principle that there ought to be a harmony between earth, sky, and water, and in consequence has resorted in the past to planting cow horns at the ends of rows, with the requisite composting “teas” that are recommended by the biodynamic movement. He plans to return to this practice again in coming years. Though Alex appears to be skeptical of the remedy, the special attention and care demanded by organic and biodynamic practice are evident in the vineyard, as can be seen in the picture above, which shows the cover crop extending from between the rows right into the vines themselves, weeds and all, in order to allow the greatest amount of vegetative variety and expand the quantity of beneficial insects and other fauna to find their natural habitat.
Another reason that Macari does not seek Organic Certification is economical. It is one thing to apply expensive organic sprays on, say a 20-acre field, quite another to do so on 200. The sprays cost twice as much as the industrial alternatives and the spraying would involve higher labor costs, as the number of times that the spray needs to be applied would be higher than for conventional applications. Furthermore, the fact that you can practice organic and/or biodynamic farming without going for 100% organic—being pragmatic about using industrial sprays when absolutely needed, but otherwise being committed to organic ones when it is suitable—means that you can have a sustainable, healthy vineyard in almost all respects.
In other words, as Joe sees it, Organic Certification may be economically viable for a small vineyard, but is much less so for large ones.
One additional bit of evidence regarding the exceptional care given the Macari vineyards is the employment of a team of specialized grafters from California, who travel around the country—and the world—grafting new shoots to old roots, so that, for example, a field of Chardonnay can be quickly converted to Sauvignon Blanc. The process is highly meticulous, requiring special knowledge of the condition of the roots. For example, in the case of a root with splitting bark, one type of graft and wrapping may be applied as opposed to another for a root that doesn’t suffer from the problem. This team of five men can graft about 500 roots a day at a cost of $2.00 per root—a highly efficient rate that is cost-effective for the vineyard. (This team had earlier been working in Hawaii, and has also done grafting for Château Margaux—yes, that one in Bordeaux of 1855 Classification fame—and at the same time was working at Peconic Bay Vineyards nearby.)
As a further example of the globalization of viticultural practices, Joe also has a French specialist in tying vines to the trellising system come from Southern France with his own team in order to train his Guatemalan workers in how to properly tie vines to the wires, for it must be done properly if the vines are to be held to the wires for the duration of the growing season.
To the extent that one can achieve balance with nature in viticulture (or in agriculture as whole), Joe Macari has certainly shown that he in the vanguard of that search. It is not for the sake of certification, either organic or biodynamic, that he does this, but out of respect for his vineyard’s terroir, which is to say, the land, the soil, the vines, the climate. But all viticultural work involves experimentation, and Joe is always experimenting, as new ideas and information become available to him. There is always a better way. The pursuit is endless, and the story therefore never ends.
PS–For another recent appreciation of Joe Macari’s work, see the informed and thoughtful account by Louisa Hargrave in the January 14, 2010 issue of the Suffolk News at https://www.macariwines.com/macari.ihtml?page=awards&awardid=184
In fact, a favorite wine of ours offered at the New York Uncorked wine tasting was a really sublime 2013 Sauvignon Blanc by Kelly—deeply perfumed with floral aromas and the typical Sauvignon flavor profile beautifully tamed with a fine balance of citrus fruit and floral notes against a firm acidic backbone. The best American SB that I can remember, frankly. Kelly was so happy with the result that she said that she wished that she could “swim in it”–in a tank, to be sure.
In the summer of 2014, Macari was named New York State Winery of the Year at the NY Wine & Food Classic, a tasting competition of over 800 wines from across the state’s viticultural areas. Macari’s 2010 Cabernet Franc was named by the competition’s judges as the Best Red Wine of the show.
150 Bergen Avenue, Mattituck, NY 11952
Cutchogue Tasting Room
24385 Route 25, Cutchogue, NY 11935
Walk into the tasting room, go up to the bar, and you are confronted not by a list of wines on the board in front of you, but instead an indication of the seriousness about wine that prevails at Jamesport Vineyards: a diagram of the vineyards and the varieties planted. Here the focus is clearly on what matters first: the vineyards where it all begins.
Right behind the winery and tasting room, are two lots planted with Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Further east, at Mattituck, are six lots planted with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Syrah. The largest vineyards are in Cutchogue, where there are fourteen lots in all. The Cabernet Sauvignon is there, as well as Merlot Block E, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Merlot; eight different varieties in all, in twenty-two separate lots on three plots. It all adds up to sixty acres that are cultivated sustainably.
Our conversation began, not with or about Long Island wines, winemaking, or winegrowing, but with the devastating effects of this past winter up North, in the Niagara Escarpment of both Canada and New York, and Michigan, where the temperatures dropped to minus forty below—so cold that the Great Lakes froze over. What that meant was that there was no moderating “lake effect” to protect the vines. It also meant that there was no heavy snowfall in Syracuse, for example, due to the freezing of Lake Erie. Most importantly, it meant that there was severe crop damage in the vineyards, with as much as 65 to 75% of the vines killed by the cold. Yet, in Long Island, thanks to the surrounding salt-water bodies of the Sound, Peconic Bay, and the Atlantic, the temperatures were effectively moderated by the “maritime effect”, which is to say that large, deep bodies of water that have not frozen over mitigate the cold that prevails in the region as a whole so that the vines—especially vinifera vines—can get through the winter unscathed by the cold, which, when severe, can cause the woody trunks to split open, causing the vines to die. (It did happen in Long Island in 1984, which Ron called a “massacre” of the vines. The Sound was frozen, the Bay was too, resulting in no protection for the vines; it was the worst winter on record.) This year was not as bad, but there was some creek freezing in January, when the lowest recorded temperature was minus five Fahrenheit.
In discussing terroir, that wonderfully untranslatable French word, Ron talked about the nature of Long Island’s climate in relation to the vintages. Climate and place are what pretty much define the kind of weather that will prevail in a particular region. Long Island enjoys a maritime climate, which along with the warmer waters that the Gulf Stream brings past, also is prey to some dramatic changes in weather. In 2005, ’07, and ’10, the summers were very warm and the grapes developed beautifully. On the other hand, late rain in 2011 lead to a terrible vintage, which led Eric Fry, winemaker at Lenz, to say of the reds that they “were only good for blending.” Ron agreed and added that at Jamesport the fruit was so poor that they decided to cut down 85 tons rather than make bad wine that would sully the winery’s reputation. It was a costly decision, but Jamesport’s reputation–as well as that of the Long Island wine industry–was at stake as well. After all, whereas California has had over 150 years to establish its reputation, and European regions have had centuries, Long Island, at barely forty years, still has to be careful about its good name. Ron did make the point that others that chose to make wine in that year may have enjoyed different circumstances in their vineyards.
Ron is the second generation in the family to take over Jamesport Vineyards, which was founded by his father, Ron Goerler, Sr., in 1980. He had studied to be a soil scientist but realized that he loved working out-of-doors and decided to return to the winery to do exactly that. The challenge now will be for him to be able to pass the operation over to one or more of his four sons, the oldest of which is twenty. Will any of them be interested in making the commitment? After all, he has five brothers and one sister and none of them have any interest at all. With respect to the commitment, “It’s very much like having a head of cows—whether you’re raising them, feeding them, selling them–whether it’s retail or wholesale–and most important of all, growing them—you have to be there all the time.” Even in the wintertime, when things are quiet at the winery, the vineyard needs pruning and sixty acres of vines can take a long time.
The spacing in the vineyard varies. Originally the first vines were planted 9 by 8 feet thanks to the recommendations at the time by Cornell, but all that was later pulled out. Later vines were separated by 7 x 5 or 8 x 5; they just planted seven acres of Sauvignon Blanc 2 years ago at 7 x 5. The winery is the biggest producer of Sauvignon Blanc in LI, which Ron considers his signature wine because the variety does so well here Originally he and his father started Sauv Blanc with just a single clone: Clone 1. The problem with it was that it was a “big, fat clone” from California, very vigorous and wanting to produce big clusters, but it didn’t do that well in a maritime climate like Long Island’s, because it was too susceptible to rot. As Ron pointed out, Sauvignon means “savage.” Now, with less vigorous rootstocks like 10114 or Perrier, they get smaller vines. The new clones come from Bordeaux, such as 316, 317, and the Musqué clone, which was planted ten years ago and is very aromatic; and a clone from Italy; they all produce small clusters. (For a comparison of clonal differences, see “How do Sauvignon Blanc Clones Differ?”— but this is only about the taste of wine made from the clones, not the vegetative differences.) This is similar in effect to the Dijon clones (76 and 95) that they put in to replace the original Chardonnay vines (Wente clones from UC Davis).
30 years ago, one didn’t think about all these clones and their differences—the knowledge wasn’t there and the technology wasn’t either. Many of these clones were only released to the public about 20 years ago, although they had been working on developing these back in the 70s and 80s. In fact, it was just over 30 years ago that Ron and his father, Ron Goerler, Sr., went on a trip to Germany and saw what they were doing in the vineyards there, then came to the realization that training vinifera to high-cordon trellises didn’t make any sense. Top wire, recommended by Cornell, was meant for droopy American and hybrid vines, and not only was unsuited for the vertical growth of the European vines, but it made the work of pruning and harvesting more difficult, given that one had to work at eye-level or above—very tiring on the worker’s arms. It was in 1985 that a very hard winter struck and the trunks of the vines split. It forced the issue of replanting the vines and training them vertically to what is called VSP (Vertical Shoot Positioning), on a trellis with a low cordon at about 35” high.
For Ron, the level of the low cordon is perfect for the vineyard workers, all of whom come from Latin America—they tend not to be as tall as Americans and are more comfortable with the height for pruning the vines and picking the grapes. The Latinos are prepared to do work that American workers disdain because it’s too hard. They have a strong family values—there’s a network of them—and a very sound work ethic. As Ron pointed out, one of the biggest issues this country faces is immigration. (The immigrants from south of the border are an important labor pool for American agriculture; stop them from coming and agriculture would face a huge crisis.)
Ron is not only the vineyard manager but also the winemaker—a hat he claimed when his last winemaker departed. I asked him how he’s been affected by being “chief cook and bottle washer” and his quick reply was, “I’ve lost a lot of weight.” While he was president of the LIWC (Long Island Wine Council) he was so busy with issues that he couldn’t effectively focus on his business at the winery, but now that he’s left the position he has the time he needs to really think about it. He travels to in search of new blood and new ideas. In his opinion, if one doesn’t keep on the lookout, not just for ideas but also the people to implement them, one isn’t going to be successful.
He said, “For example, some years ago a vineyard specialist was here from California and he taught me one thing, it’s all about balance. The fruit will tell you when it’s exactly where it should be (i.e., sugars, acidity, phenolic ripeness), because that’s the kind of fruit that will then yield balanced wines. It’s the work done in the vineyard that does that.” That’s Ron’s philosophy—it’s “balance here and balance there.”
Ron tends to pick the grapes when they’re on the ripe side—something that Eric Fry taught him years ago. Back when they began in Long Island they all picked early because of the birds, no netting to protect the vines, the then-prevailing technology, and so on. Ron went on to say that, “It was Eric who watched us as we were picking in September instead of October, and he pointed out to me that it was better to wait for the acidity to come around, the fruit, the phenolic ripeness. Years ago most LI grapes were picked early and the wines were green. There was a joke then that one knew when the grapes had reached 18 Brix because Alex Hargrave would be picking and the birds would be eating. Alex didn’t believe in netting.”
With respect to sustainable winegrowing, while Jamesport has not yet joined the LI Sustainable Winegrowing Council, it will do so this year. Ron was unable to join when it was first established in 2010 given how busy he was as President of the LI Wine Council. Ron had worked with Alice Wise of the Cornell NYAES (New York Agriculture Extension Station) in Riverhead 15 years ago to help revise the NY State VineBalance guidelines for sustainable growing to more closely reflect viticulture in Long Island. At present Jamesport uses IPM (Integrated Pest Management), grows cover crops, does not employ herbicides, and has set up weather stations in the vineyard to better monitor issues like growing disease pressure, “anything that we can do to minimize impact in the field we do, to protect the quality of the product.”
“We never can be an organic-producing region here in LI, there’s too much humidity here,” he pointed out. Even though Rex Farr is growing certified organic produce, including wine grapes, the question remains, how consistently can organics be produced year after year? That’s the challenge, because the disease pressures are so high. In fact, Ron doesn’t even like the word “organic,” given how much it is abused and misused. “Sustainable is a great word because it means that you’re trying to be profitable, you’re trying to minimize the impacts in the field, having respect for the land. When we bought this land it had been orchards and row crops; the soil had to be replenished and that takes years to make the land [viable for sustainable production].”
Holding on to wine inventory is another serious issue for small wineries (every single winery in Long Island is small—even Pindar, which is the largest producer at about 70,000 cases (840,000 bottles). Ideally, a wine is released when it’s ready to be consumed, which is easy enough for whites, most of which aren’t destined for aging but are meant to be drunk young. Red wines are another matter. Again, most reds are also meant to be enjoyed early on after being bottled, but a small percentage are deliberately made for aging, which means that these wines age in oak barrels for a long time and then need further aging in bottle. It is best if such wines can stay on premises at the winery until they are ready for release, say in two or three years, when they are more ready to drink. The problem is that it ties up money because there is no income from wines in inventory. In other words, it costs the winery cash flow. What peeves Ron is that the average tasting room visitor cannot understand that, which can matter if the price has to be set at a point that returns that cost back to the winery’s coffers. So most aged wine has to be more costly to the consumer for that reason along with other important ones, such as highly-selected quality fruit, careful attention in the winery, and time in costly oak barrels. Given the costs involved and the resulting quality, the prices for fine red wines are well justified.
Among the challenges that LI wineries have to face is their relationship to the community. For example, while Ron was President of the LIWC, the council “has been doing battle with the town of Southold for three years; they’re trying to define what agriculture is out here, what a farm winery represents, by writing laws that [the State] already on the books which define what a farm winery is, what the [winery] license should be. It’s when you have a group of individuals and they have “power control” and they look out the window and they see the landscape change and it’s all changed and they don’t like it because they don’t see us as farmers but think of us as winery owners—they don’t even call us farmers—who don’t work the land and they think that we’re all rich. And all the old farmers that sit on the board there say ‘you’re never going to make it.’ It’s a known fact that you’re never going to make money growing grapes, that’s true all over the world now (unless you’re a Grand Cru that someone wants to pay a thousand dollars for a pound of grapes), the reality is that you have to turn it into wine. And that means developing infrastructure: tasting rooms, sell it wholesale, develop markets, and that’s basically what the last forty years have been—developing a market in Long Island. There are [State] laws that regulate what you can do as a grower, a producer, there are all kinds of laws. The problem is that the town wants to have its own laws.”
“We had a problem with Vineyard 48, which did something that really blew up and got the neighbors really upset. We have a next-door neighbor who used to work this land way back when, and he sits out on his veranda smoking his cigar and we do work here all the time and whenever I see him I go over and see him and ask him how things are and given him a bottle of wine, and he’s cool about [the work that we do in the vineyard or when people come to our tasting room]. But when his kids come home they’re not so cool about it because they just come up for the weekend. Unfortunately, when do we make money out here? On the weekends. The thing that the town wrestles with is the traffic. We have a single road for the traffic that comes in and out of here. So the question becomes, are they behind the region or not? And many of them want to keep it just the way it [was], just a Peyton Place, sleepy, quiet . . . . The idea is to make it so difficult for us to conduct business that we’ll be forced out in the long run.”
The reality is that many of the small businesses in the towns are dependent on the tourist traffic that comes here. When it was just potato farms the season lasted from Memorial Day to Labor Day and that was it. Back in the 80s, when interest rates were up to 19% farmers couldn’t get the loans they needed to keep going and they turned belly up because they had already taken loans before this and couldn’t continue to make the payments. They’d been hoping that the next crop would get them back in the black. But it’s the same with grapes: you have to have a good crop, but you have a year like 2011 and suddenly you have a lot of empty bottles that you can’t fill.
Another reason the potato farmers went bust was that they couldn’t see how to convert potatoes to another more profitable product. (It’s only recently that one farmer, on the advice of his children, turned his spuds into chips—which are selling really well all over the Island—while others are having the potatoes turned into spirits at a new distillery, Long Island Spirits, as LiV Vodka. In fact, if a wine doesn’t turn out as it should, it can be taken there and made into a grape brandy.
Indeed, Ron has been experimenting with making brandy from his grapes and at present he has a barrel of 180 proof spirit—that’s 90% abv—which he’s thinking of making into schnapps, adding different kinds of different local fruit such as strawberries, raspberries, apple, and so on.
There are other issues of concern to Ron. Just a week before our interview, he had returned to LI from a trip to Champagne with Steve Bate, Executive Director of the LI Wine Council , and winemaker Jim Waters, under the auspices of Protect Place (see Edible East End), an organization founded in Napa with the signing of The Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin in 2005, which LIWC signed and joined in 2010. Protect Place, the signatories of which also include Rioja, Jerez/Xeres/Sherry, Oporto, Chianti Classico, Bordeaux, and Tokaj among others, is primarily devoted to ensuring that participants do not use terms like Sherry, Chablis, Port, Champagne, etc. as terms for wines not originating in those regions. In fact, Ron said, there remain a few producers on Long Island that still use terms like Champagne (or Méthode Champenoise) and Port. That has to change, but people are resistant to doing that, as they’ve been using such terms for many years. Another issue that is being addressed by Protect Place and many of its members is that of the new .vin and .wine domain names that have been proposed by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers). Protect Place is firmly opposed to their implementation, on the grounds that these new domains will confuse the public and allow widespread abuse. The 48 member wineries of the LIWC are united in that opposition.
Jamesport currently makes six reds and six whites, plus a rosé and a late harvest dessert wine. They offer two ranks of wine, the “crowd-pleasing” East End wines, which include Cinq (a blend of five red varieties) Cinq Blanc (a blend of five white varieties), Chardonnay, and Rosé. The Estate wines include four whites: a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling “Trocken” and Riesling Late Harvest; the Estate reds include Cabernet Franc, Mélange de Trois ( a blend of three varieties dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon), Jubilant Reserve (a blend that is primarily Cab Franc), Sidor Reserve (a Syrah-dominated blend), and a Petit Verdot Reserve. Plus a verjus—a non-alcoholic kind of vinegar here made with unripe Riesling grapes. (Old Jamesport Cab Sauvs may still be found, and some Pinot Noir is still around).
Cabernet Franc, which Jamestown makes in three styles, is its premier red wine, while Cab Sauv can only be made on warm years because it ripens late, such as in ‘05, ‘07, and ’10. The earlier two vintages which are nearly all sold out, but the’10 is just now on the market. However, Ron wants, in the end, to focus on just three wines: Sauv Blanc, Cab Franc, and Merlot—the most widely planted grape in the region. (They pulled all their Pinot Noir because after twenty years of effort they just weren’t getting the return in quality fruit. In fact, it was costing about $15,000 to work the plot of Pinot, but too often disease would ruin the crop; in the end there was no alternative.) The reason that he currently produces twenty different wines at two different price ranges is to please the crowds that come to the tasting room as well as figure out what they want.
The Cab Franc Estate wine typically is aged for 18 months. The 2007 spent nearly two years in oak, and that was the one we tasted. It has about 5% Merlot in the blend. It made me think of a Right Bank Bordeaux—specifically, St. Emilion. The 2007 Jubillant blend was tasting beautifully, made of 68% Cab Franc, 18% Cab Sauv, 18% Merlot, 2.5% Syrah, and 2.5% Petit Verdot—a kind of Bordeaux blend in the 19th-Century style, with the addition of some Syrah. It was softer, with well-knit tannins—a very flavorful, well-balanced wine.
We also tasted a 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from a cool vintage, which gave it a grassy flavor and herbal notes, with firm acidity; as Ron says, “a real crowd-pleaser.” He likes to ferment his Sauv Blancs in puncheons so that they get some wood flavoring but not as much as would be imparted by barrels. The 2012, however, was not done in puncheons because of the conditions of that year, so it was done in barrels. The 2013 reserve is sitting in puncheons right now, and will take that classic fumé style that comes from the wood. Ron likes using the puncheons because they don’t impart so much oak, instead allowing the maturing wine to absorb the complexing tones of the wood.
A Riesling was poured, and it had a firm acid backbone, bone-dry with plenty of mineral and slate tones to it. This is a wine that is not traditionally seen in Long Island, but there are four acres of it in the vineyard. Ron sees the acidity as holding the wine together as well as balancing it to pair with food. With respect to high-acid wines, Ron said that he’s experimenting with Albariño, of which he as an acre planted that will be ready for next year. This was inspired by Miguel Martín, who was the first to plant the variety in Long Island at Palmer Vineyards, where he’s now had several years of success with it. Ron likes it because it also is an aromatic grape, somewhere between Riesling and Sauv Blanc. A bonus of this variety is that if the crop doesn’t result in a quality varietal wine it can also be used for blending.
The point is clear. Jamesport Vineyards is serious about making quality wine and, as a top-rated winery in Long Island it succeeds in doing exactly that. The wines are as honest as the winemaker, Ron Goerler, Jr. That’s very honest indeed.
Since the interview in April 2014 Ron has hired a new winemaker, Dean Barbiar, a very talented oenologist who earned his wine education at the University of Maryland and has experience making wine in many corners of the world. Ron is now free to work in the vineyard more given that it’s his true passion. He has also been succeeded as President of the LIWC by Sal Diliberto. Now he can really focus on the business of running a winery.
Main Road (Route 25)
Jamesport, NY 11947