In 1978 Robert Entenmann—of the Entenmann’s Bakery family—purchased a potato farm in Riverhead and transformed it into a Thoroughbred horse farm, once breeding up to two hundred mares. Apparently he was eager to do something new and different after a time, so he converted the farm into what is now Martha Clara Vineyards—named after his mother—in 1995. The vineyard, comprising 113 contiguous acres out of a total of 205 that compose the Big E farm, is now planted with fourteen varieties of grapes, including Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Semillon, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Malbec. Because so much was invested in creating a first-class vineyard with its equipment and facilities, a planned winery was never built. Meanwhile, Clydesdale draft horses for the weekend carriage rides available to visitors still graze in a paddock, and there is a small zoo with Baby-Doll sheep, Scottish Highland cattle, goats, a donkey, a llama, and other farm animals for the entertainment of children. Martha Clara has a family-oriented visitor’s center, and there is a very spacious tasting room where there are twenty-five wines to choose from, including several quaffable versions, some of them rather sweet.
However, in April 2018 the property was sold by the Entenmann family for $15 million to the Rivero-González family. This would appear to be a major step in the family’s ambition for international recognition. The property had been on the market since 2014.
The Rivero-González family said in a release that it owns an eponymous winery and vineyard in Parras, Coahuila, Mexico. It has “15 years [of] experience in the Mexican wine industry and is excited about this acquisition, which will help the members of this family expand their interests beyond Mexico.” María Rivero will run the family’s wine operations at Martha Clara. The Vineyard Website says that “the Riveros are willing to work with the local community in order to encourage and enhance the legacy of the former owners of Martha Clara Winery in a successful way.” Further plans have not been announced as yet.
This makes it the second wine-producer on the East End to be owned by Latin-Americans; the other is Laurel Lake, which is in Chilean hands.
At present all the wines are made at Premium Wine Group under the watchful direction of the new winemaker, María Rivero. The word is that a winery will eventually be built on the Martha Clara property.
Jim Thompson came to Martha Clara from Michigan as Vineyard Manager in 2009. Steve Mudd told Jim, at the time of his first interview with Martha Clara, that in the North Fork the vineyard will be soaked with moisture every morning, but of course the grapes and vines need to be dry in order to develop healthily. This is because Long Island vineyards are on very flat land, so that there is no natural circulation of air unless a breeze comes up.
Originally, the vines were planted in rows that were treated with herbicides to such an extent that they were as smooth and clean as a billiard ball, but, since coming on board, Jim prevailed on Mr. Entenmann to reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides (he liked a trim, clean look in his fields) and allow cover crops to grow, such that now even toads have returned to the vineyard—a particularly good sign, given that toads are especially vulnerable to toxins, which they can absorb through the skin. The cover crops are white clover and low mow grass which is a combination of shorter growing fescues and a combination of the two.
Given the very flat, horizontal terrain of the property, Jim said that 7-foot spacing between rows is too narrow for tall vines that may reach 7 feet in height or more, because it means that when the sun is at its zenith of about 45° in the summertime, a shadow is still cast across the edge of a row immediately adjacent of another row, thus reducing solar exposure under the vines themselves, making it difficult to dry the soil adequately. It means that there is good sun from, say, 10:00am to 2:00pm, whereas a spacing of 8 feet could mean that the soil could enjoy the effects of the sun from 9:00am to 4:00pm. Presently, the spacing is 5′ x 7′ except for twenty acres that are 4′ x 7.’
He also remarked that, “It is a very different thing to sustain 15 acres versus 100. It is one thing to scout 15 acres and another to do so with 14 varieties on 100 acres. At Martha Clara, each variety is planted in at least two separate, non-contiguous blocks, so with 14 varieties we would have at least 24 blocks to scout, but it is more likely as many as 40. Clearly, with this many varieties in that many blocks it is difficult to manage. Scouting is time-consuming and needs to be done on a pretty regular basis to catch infestations before they can spread and do serious damage.”
“Fortunately, he went on, “Martha Clara is well laid-out for a right-brain mentality, with very straight rows which are perfect for mechanical harvesting, which is essential for a vineyard of this size. After all, it would take 20 to 30 people in the vineyard to pick enough grapes to fill one stainless-steel fermentation tank, whereas the harvester can do so in a matter of an hour or so.”
Martha Clara is “a vineyard in a box” according to Jim, for its 101 acres of planted vines are hemmed in on all sides by neighboring structures. It is also one of the four properties that forms the core group of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowers certification program. In preparation for that, Jim says that , “I have narrowed my herbicide strip to 1/3 the total row width or less, I am doing some bud thinning which I anticipate/expect will reduce pesticide requirements. We have hired an intern whom I expect to be scouting for diseases and insects on a regular basis. I am reading related materials and articles.”
It is often difficult to find good vineyard workers to hire, according to Jim. Not long ago he had an applicant come to him who stood at the door to his office, leaning his right side against the door frame. Jim asked the man about his qualifications and then inquired about his work experience with the hoe. “It is not a problem,” averred the applicant. A day later, when Jim went to see the new crew at work, he found that the new “hoe worker” had no right arm. It was not a problem because he had gotten others to do the work.
Given all that, there are varieties that are easier to grow and maintain than others. Some vinifera varieties are especially difficult to deal with in the LI area, including Pinot Noir, Semillon, Syrah, and Viognier. For Martha Clara, the Pinot Noir is problematic because it can begin well and seem promising, but in the end produces unexciting wine. Semillon, Syrah, and Viognier have promise, but Juan pointed out that “Syrah may come up short on sugar, but flavors are beautiful in our Syrah in warmer years; in cooler years they tend to show more intense notes of black pepper. As for Viognier, it makes beautiful, well-rounded wines, but Jim [did comment on the] difficulty in handling it in the vineyard.”
The vinifera varieties that do best in this climate are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Riesling. In fact, Jim would like to expand the Riesling planting, but first would need to research the available clones for their appropriateness in the North Fork soil. (Clone selection, as a matter of fact, is as vital to the success of a varietal as the choice of terroir for the vineyard, or, to put in another way, it’s vital to select a clone that will thrive in a given terroir.) He has also added two acres of Malbec (a French variety that often associated with Argentina), using three different clones, and will see how those do here. The one vinifera variety that Jim would also like to plant, once he knows more about it, is Torrontés (the aromatic grape from Argentina). Were he to do so, it would be the first planting of that variety in the Eastern US.
However, because vinifera vines are so susceptible to fungal disease in the LI climate—given its high humidity and volatility—Jim and Juan have planted three experimental plots of hybrid varieties: Marquette (a U. of Minn. red hybrid with Pinot Noir in its sap along with excellent cold hardiness and good disease resistance), La Crescent (another Minn. hybrid), and NY 95.301.01 (also known as “No-spray 301,” a Cornell hybrid that needs minimal inputs against mildews and fungi) to determine if these could handle the climate and terroir better than some of the vinifera vines. Juan explained that, “this has been done more out of curiosity as we have one row of each vine type. There is not enough for commercial production.” It is enough, however, to explore vines with the very traits that are lacking in virtually all vinifera varieties: resistance to cold and mildew—the bête noir of humid-climate vineyards.
A visit to the tasting room proved especially interesting, not only because of the range of wines offered, but because Martha Clara is promoting the use of kegs for dispensing wine by the glass. To them, kegs offer several advantages: 1. they help preserve wine better than do opened bottles; 2. they eliminate bottles altogether, thus reducing the amount of materials and energy required to make bottles; 3. they reduce the cost of shipping and storage, which can be expensive in the case of bottles; 4. they can be reused for up to fifteen to twenty years. There seems to even be a difference in the character of the wine from the keg compared to that from a bottle. The Pinot Grigio served from a keg had a tad more fruit than that which was poured from a bottle. Consequently, the winery would also like to sell wine in kegs to restaurants and tasting bars.
In tasting six of the wines on offer, it was apparent that the fine wines can be very fine indeed, with a pronounced house style. The Syrah from the 2009 vintage was nearly mature and manifested the typical traits of a Syrah that had been barrel-aged for thirteen months—black fruit and cigar-box notes with an unusually forward expression of cracked peppercorns. It had been fermented with 3% Viognier blended in—as is the case in Côte Rotie. The strong spiciness appears to be the result of a cool vintage, though I suspect terroir and style also played a role here. In fact, the 2009 Viognier varietal (with its characteristic aromatics of spice and ripe white peaches with floral notes also had a strong spiciness on the palate—pronounced lemongrass, or was it white pepper? Both wines had a firm acid backbone to give them structure. I liked them both for their unusual spiciness, which makes them suitable for Indian, Thai, and Mexican cuisine or any well-seasoned food. The 2009 Cabernet Franc, made from hand-picked fruit, unfined and unfiltered, was also very nice, with herbal & chocolate notes on the nose & palate, integrated tannins and firm acidity, now ready to drink but still to benefit from some cellar aging. Terrific for accompanying barbecued steak, for example.
Because Martha Clara had spent so much money on developing its vineyard it was decided not to build a winery, given its enormous cost, and to contract its wine assemblage to Premium Wine Group. A visit to PWG, where Juan now works, allowed an opportunity for some barrel tasting. Several wines were sampled, including the 2011 Viognier—developed on its lees in steel, and the 2010 Syrah—which will be blended with 3% Viognier in the Côte Rotie style—which, tasted from the barrel, showed a more demur peppery flavor given the cooler vintage than that of 2007.
based on interviews with Jim Thompson & Juan Micieli-Martínez
3 February & 29 March 2012; updated 30 April 2018
as well as online & printed sources
6025 sound avenue
riverhead, ny 11901
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