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.
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
Christian Wölffer, a real estate entrepreneur, bought the 14 acres of potato fields known as Sagpond Farms in 1978. Enchanted by the idea of a vineyard of his own after tasting a Chardonnay planted by a Sagaponack neighbor, in 1988 he asked David Mudd to plant fifteen acres of vines. It has since grown to 55 acres, with ten parcels of vines with sub-parcels. The vine rows were planted running North to South and East to West, depending on the best orientation to the sun based on the terrain. By 1996 he had assembled 168 acres, which he devoted mostly to grazing land for his horses. His first release, a Chardonnay, was in 1991.
Roman Roth and Richard Pisacano are the team that together produces some of the finest wine made in Long Island. Roman, of course, is the winemaker (and now partner) at Wölffer, and Richie—as he’s known to his friends and colleagues—is the winegrower. One is, as it were, the right hand and the other the left. So close are they that Richie’s own wine brand, Roanoke Vineyards, is made by Roman. Roman himself has his own label, Grapes of Roth, which, since he became partner this year, will be sold in Wölffer’s tasting room.
Roman has been with Wölffer Estate as winemaker since 1992, Richie came to the Estate in 1997. Both of them had years of experience in the wine trade before coming to Wölffer’s.
Roman & full-time vineyard crew at lunch
Roman comes from southern Germany and learned about vineyards, varieties, and vinification there, as his was a winemaking family. He travelled and worked at wineries in California and Australia before returning home. In 1992 Roman received his Master Winemaker and Cellar Master degrees from the College for Oenology and Viticulture in Weinsberg. Soon after, he accepted the position of winemaker at Sagpond Vineyards, a new winery in the Hamptons. This was a winemaker’s dream—to be part of a new and growing wine region with the chance to create something new, to leave a footprint at the foundational level.
Over the next several years, Roth managed the expansion of Sagpond Vineyards into “Wölffer Estate,” now a 55-acre vineyard with a state-of-the-art winery producing a wide range of award-winning wines, all nestled in a 175-acre property with horses, paddocks, stables, and riding trails. Under Roth’s meticulous direction, Wölffer has become a Hampton’s destination, producing wines of excellent caliber and reputation.
In April 2003, Roman received the award of “Winemaker of the Year” presented by the East End Food & Wine Awards (judged by the American Sommelier Society). This reflected the excellence of the wines he produced as winemaker and as a consultant, and was recognition of his contribution to quality winemaking on Long Island as a whole. After Christian Wölffer’s untimely death in a swimming accident, the Estate was in the hands of his children, Joey and Marc. At that time Roman was made a partner in the firm and basically runs it. In December 2015 he was elected as President of the Long Island Wine Council to serve for two years.
Rich started his career with greenhouse plant propagation, then worked for Mudd Vineyards (the first Vineyard Consulting Management firm in Long Island) in 1977, while still in high school. He went on the design and maintain vineyards for Cutchogue Vineyards (now Macari South), Pindar, Palmer, Island (now Pellegrini), Jamesport, and others before he came to Wölffer. He was invited by Roman to come to Wölffer to help “rescue” the vineyard, to help bring the Estate to the next level and further improve the quality and reputation. When he arrived he brought along with him the ideas of sustainable viticulture and in fact followed the precepts of Cornell’s VineBalance program for the last ten years.
The first fifteen acres of Wölffer vines were planted by David Mudd in 1988, and it has since grown to 50 acres, with ten parcels of vines with sub-parcels. The vine rows were planted running North to South and East to West.
Wölffer’s terroir, given its location on a hill, varies considerably, much more so than the vineyards on the North Fork. The Estate has two types of soil, Bridgehampton loam and Haven.The Bridgehampton soils are mostly the flatter ground and the hillside soils, which are lighter, are mostly Haven. [i] Where the two converge one overlaps the other with interesting effects on the micro-terroir of individual vines. Both soils offer good drainage and the way that the vineyard slopes allows the cold air to flow out of the vineyard across to the Montauk Highway. With its undulating topography and overlapping soils, it makes for an especially interesting terroir, particularly so for Long Island. Rich refers to it as a “unique setting.”
Both Richie and Roman agree that “The vineyard comes first,” and “we focus on what we can do in the vineyard, then we can make wine from that.”
The California model is not a good one to follow in LI; Wölffer has healthy low vigor/well balanced vineyards. With respect to viticulture, Rich’s is a balanced approach, with individual attention to the vines. Indeed, given his 30-years of experience, they call him “the grape-whisperer.” As Rich pointed out, in his straightforward but modest way, “given time, one develops an intuition.”
For Rich, rule number one for a vineyard manager is to throw out the personal calendar and appointment book—the vineyard has precedence over all matters personal. The Manager is like a doctor on call, always ready to respond to an emergency. Or, as Rich puts it, “Sometimes I’m not a vineyard manager as much as I am vineyard-managed.”
For example, in 2011, despite the terrible weather, including Hurricane Irene’s contribution, Wölffer had no crop loss whatsoever thanks to the adequate manpower that was available to manage the problems engendered by the weather. Wölffer managed to harvest 2.79 tons per acre, which was right at the 20-year average for their harvests. The biggest challenge of the season was the sudden changes in the weather, and that requires a very nimble and highly attentive manager.
The symbiotic relationship between vineyard manager and vintner was demonstrated in the 2005 vintage, which had been a very good season until 20 inches of rain were dumped on LI in the space of a week just at harvest time, with the result that grapes were so swollen with water that the sugar levels were diluted to as low as 16 degrees Brix. Some growers went ahead and picked the swollen grapes immediately after the rain, others abandoned entire parcels of fruit. Roman, however, saw the potential for patience rewarded and had Rich leave the grapes alone for a few days. Three days of dry weather led to the grapes shrinking back to normal size and reaching 23 Brix, and by the fifth day the sugar level had reached 25 Brix, which was unheard of in terms of sugar levels that increased so dramatically in so brief a time. At that point some of the crop began to shrivel and raisin, so a 35-person crew was sent out to pick what were now very ripe grapes. Some other vineyards had been watching what was going on at Wölffer Estate and held off as well, but none had the resources that the Estate enjoyed, so as soon as the grapes were brought in the crew was sent out to help harvest the grapes at the other vineyards as well. As a result, some very good wine was made that year, although at much smaller yields than usual. This is part of what Rich calls Roman’s “wine-rescue program.”
The fact of the matter is that Richie and Roman “get energy from one another.”
Wölffer now has seven varieties planted, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Trebbiano and Vignoles—of which there is a half-acre. Chardonnay needs to be picked at full ripeness. In the mid-1990s the significance of proper clonal selection became better appreciated, so that optimal results can be obtained in the vineyard. Presently there are three Chardonnay clones planted: Davis 3+4 Dijon 76, and Clone 96. Dijon, which is a Burgundy clone, tends to offer comparatively low acidity by comparison with Davis 3+4, which was developed for the warmer climate of California. Merlot clones include 181 (from France), 3 (from U. of C. at Davis), and 6 (from Argentina).
Wölffer planted Trebbiano Toscano [aka Ugni Blanc] in 2010, the only Long Island vineyard to do so. The vines were productive by the 2nd year, yielding 3.5 tons / acre and by the 3rd year, 8 tons of good fruit. Given the large and experienced vineyard crew that the Estate can call on at harvest time, it was possible to harvest by hand 6 to 8 tons per hour, or about 40 tons at the end of a 7-hour day. In fact, many of the crew are people with other jobs but who have helped harvest the crop by hand for as long as ten years or more. They know what they are doing and are very efficient. According to Rich, the best of all the pickers are invariably women, who are more careful and attentive than are most of the men.
Vines’ vigor affects wine character. For that reason, there are rows of Cabernet Franc and Merlot that are reserved for making rosé that run down a slope, with Bridgehampton Loam eight feet thick at the top that is overlaid with Bridgehampton Loam as one goes down the slope, until the Haven is only eight inches thick. The Bridgehampton soils are mostly the flatter ground and the hillside soils, which are lighter, are mostly Haven. This represents ever-changing terror, which is to say that each vine in a row has a micro-terroir of its own. Indeed, thanks to drainage and soil changes along the rows, the vigor of the vines changes along the length of the slope. Consequently, in order to “harmonize” that vineyard parcel, Rich has leaf-pulling and green harvesting done along the rows at graduated intervals, with the vines furthest downslope getting the most attention, and those at the top less. Thus, the vines mature and are ready for harvest at nearly the same time. This is the work of a ‘grape-whisperer.’
Roman & crew at soccer. Goal!
Wölffer always has an adequate vineyard crew—for one thing, the Estate make harvesting fun and treats the harvest as a celebration. They feed the workers very well, with much coffee and snacks available throughout the workday. Because of so much attention in the vineyard throughout the season, there is mostly clean fruit at harvest time, which makes it easier and faster to hand-pick. In fact, a good crew can pick [clean fruit] by hand faster than a mechanical harvester is able to do. Naturally, by harvest time there are an abundance of workers available due to the fact that the tourist season has come to an end and many of the workers had been in the hospitality industry for the summer season.
Wölffer has already joined the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers program, which leads to certification in sustainable farming. They had, as mentioned above, been growing their vines responsibly since the mid-90s, so the transition to the LISW program was actually very easy, as they’d been following the VineBalance guidelines that are the basis for the LISW ones, but modified to better fit the conditions of Long Island, rather than for the whole state of New York. For example, they do not use pre-emergent herbicides or added nitrogen to the soil—the use of nitrogen-fixing cover crops takes care of that. Periodically, given the high acidity of the Long Island soil, about 1½ tons of lime per acre is added to raise the pH level of the soil to make it more amenable for the vines. By May of 2013, the vineyard had succeeded in meeting all 200 requirements of the LISW and obtained its certification for sustainable winegrowing.
The winery is large and sophisticated, enjoying excess capacity such that not only does Wölffer buy grapes from five other vineyards, including Mudd’s vineyard, Dick Pfeiffer’s, and Surry Lane’s to make Long-Island appellation wines under the Wölffer label. Roman gets to use the winery facilities to make his own Grapes of Roth and Richie’s own Roanoke Vineyards wines. He also uses the facilities to make wine for clients Scarola Vineyards and Gramercy Vineyards as well. Indeed, in 2009 an extremely selective picking of botrytised Riesling grapes took place in Jamesport Vineyards, allowing Roman to make a TBA under his Grapes of Roth label. Not too many TBAs are made anywhere in the US of A; the very first one was a feat of the late, great Konstantin Frank, in 1965, of Finger Lakes fruit, of course, not LI. That one made headlines—in 2015 Roman’s two latest efforts with botrytised wines have earned him the highest scores ever awarded for Long Island wines.
In fact, given that Roman makes three rosés, eight whites, thirteen different reds, three award-wining dessert wines, two sparkling wines, and two apple ciders (a total of 29 different wines alone for Wölffer’s, not to speak of the wines he makes for Roanoke Vineyards), the question arises. How does he do it? Well, as he explained, working at the Karlschüle in South Germany he dealt with a wide variety of reds and whites. There he learned that close attention to detail mattered: every tank had to be topped up, every bung properly place, etc. He also gave credit to the excellent wine-growing climate of Long Island, which shares the same latitude and Madrid and Naples and gets the most sun of all of New York State. So, in early August they begin picking the grapes for sparkling wine, when they’re not fully ripe, then grapes for the rosés, which also don’t need full ripeness, and on to the whites, then the reds, which need more ripeness, and at the end of October, the late-harvest grapes. It means he has time to deal with the winemaking over a period of as much as three months. He gives as much attention to a basic white as he does to a Christian Cuvée red, because he can, all because of the enabling climate and soil.
For Roman, to make good wine demands a very scrupulous attention to detail. Not only are the grapes all hand-picked at the proper time, but when the fruit arrives at the winery they have as many as 56 hands at work at the sorting table, so no bad fruit goes into the must. Few wineries have the resources to bring more than a dozen hands to that task. When the must is fermenting in the tanks they do pumpovers three times a day, where most wineries do it only twice or even once. Of course, it helps to be able to afford a cellar team that can give this kind of time to such matters. It also helps to have had one fabulous vintage after another since 2010—2011 being the exception—and it may be true for 2015 as well.
To Roman, the great untold story about Long Island wines is their longevity: a 20-year-old Chardonnay still drinking well, for instance, and red wines that can mature and hold up for 25 to 30 years. The word has not yet gotten out to collectors that the wines of the region can be laid down and over time they will increase in value—not yet like great Bordeaux, perhaps, but as rarity and demand increase, even that is a possibility.
Roman introduced a dry rosé to the Long Island wine repertoire in 1992, within a year of his arrival at the winery—he was quite bullish in his pursuit to make Wölffer rosé a respected and fashionable wine. The 2011 is made with 54% Merlot and 21% Chardonnay, 9% Pinot Noir, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8%Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2012 consists of 69% Merlot, 16.5% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Noir, 4.5% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. The blend, as one can see, varies considerably from year to year, depending on the results of the harvest. Whatever the blend, Wölffer calls it “Summer in a Bottle.”
Along with its wide range of varietal wines, including Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Trebbiano, and so on, Roman also makes a non-alcoholic verjus that is a low-acid alternative to vinegar (used in a salad make the salad much more wine-friendly), but it is also an eminently quaffable beverage that is its own “Summer in a glass.” Perfect for those friends who can’t or don’t drink wine, yet almost as enjoyable.
And I cannot omit mention of the time that I stopped by at Wölffer’s tasting room to try a glass of the 2000 Merlot, which at a $100 a bottle had caused a sensation. The glass of wine cost only $25, and I sipped it slowly for over an hour, observing how it evolved with time and exposure to air. Slightly closed at first, it wasn’t long before it was offering notes of plum and black berries, and then hints of cedar and clove, becoming brighter and deeper in bouquet and flavor, and lingering long on the palate. An extraordinary wine. I knew then that Long Island wine had arrived on the world stage. I had become hooked.
More recently, an article on the North Forker website of July 6, 2015, “Long Island wines receive record-breaking reviews in The Wine Advocate” stated that the critic, Mark Squires, of the Advocate had awarded two Wölffer Estate Vineyard wines — the Descencia Botrytis Chardonnay and Diosa Late Harvest — the highest scores ever received in the region, each earning 94 points.
“If I had to name a ‘short list’ of top wineries in the region, this would have to be on it, without requiring any thought,” Squires wrote in his review. “Under winemaker/partner Roman Roth and Vineyard Manager Rich Pisacano (who also owns Roanoke, at which Roth is also the winemaker), this winery excels in making age-worthy, structured wines.”
Further to that, in the Nov. 16 issue of Wine Spectator Wölffer’s Grapes of Roth 2010 Merlot one of the top 100 wines of the year 2015. No other Long Island winery has ever achieved that accolade. Tom Matthews wrote: “A polished texture carries balanced flavors of tart cherry, pomegranate, toasted hazelnut and espresso in this expressive red. Features firm, well-integrated tannins and lively acidity. Elegant. Drink now through 2022. 2,592 cases made.”
139 Sagg Road, PO Box 900. Sagaponack, NY 11962. Phone 631-537-5106
[i] According to the LISW Climate & Soil Web page, “Bridgehampton-Haven Association: These soils are deep and excessively drained and have a medium texture. It is its depth, good drainage and moderate to high available water-holding capacity that make this soil well-suited to farming.”