Wine Column: Influence that shaped Osprey’s success

05/09/2011 8:52 AM |

Few are aware of the global scope of East End resident Peter M.F. Sichel’s influence on the wine world, but it extends from local winemakers here to captains of the wine industry in France, Germany and beyond.

Sichel was born into his family’s wine business, H. Sichel Söhne, in Mainz, Germany, in 1922. In 1939 he apprenticed with his French cousins in Bordeaux, then fled from Hitler’s Gestapo over the Pyrenees and on to America, where he joined the U.S. Army and Foreign Service. He was with U.S. military when it liberated his hometown and, after a stint with the CIA in Hong Kong, Sichel reinvigorated H. Sichel Sohne, making an international success of its Blue Nun brand.

Remember Blue Nun? If you started drinking wine between the ’60s and ’80s, Blue Nun was your starter wine. With only about 9 percent alcohol, and semi-sweet, Blue Nun was the mother’s milk of wine.

Sichel has been president of the Society of Wine Educators, maître of the Commanderie de Bordeaux in New York, president of the International Wine and Spirit Competition Ltd. and U.S. delegate to the Office International de la Vigne et du Vin. Enough of a public figure to comment on wine on national TV, and to be featured on a Beastie Boys record, most of his influence has been under the radar, as confidential consultant or personal mentor (as befits a former spy). Having known him myself as a friend and mentee since 1977, I personally have enjoyed his generous wisdom and unaffected humor.

Adam Suprenant, winemaker at Osprey’s Dominion in Peconic since 2001, has also been helped by Sichel; their mutual loyalty has contributed to a real success story.

Adam is a hands-on vintner with a jocular modesty that belies his long experience with wine. He first became interested in wine through his father, who became friends with Sichel via the International Wine Society. Adam recently told me, “My father and Sichel taught me about wine, though I had a taste for beer — like most winemakers, I haven’t lost it.”

While Adam jokes about his affection for beer, his sophistication in wine increased exponentially as he learned the wine business. Beginning at Cornell, Adam worked in both production and wine sales at several benchmark locations on Long Island and New York, including Villa Banfi, La Petite Ferme restaurant and Sherry Lehmann, and distributors of fine wines like Marques de Riscal and the original “Calvin” wine cooler (“Wine is fine but Calvin is cooler”).

In 1992, Adam moved to California to study wine at U.C./Davis while working at Trefethen and Piper Sonoma. After landing an internship at Bordeaux’s Premier Grand Cru Chateau Lafitte with Sichel’s help, he discovered that Davis’ scientific orientation toward oenology was limiting. At Lafitte, he learned, “There’s an experiential component to winemaking that’s more important than science.”

Thirty-five days of working pump-overs at Lafitte without leaving the estate left Adam’s hands stained black until the following January. In 1998, he became winemaker at Gristina Vineyards in Cutchogue, where, despite his experience in France and his upbringing in New York, other winemakers considered him the “California wine guy.”

Since 2001, Adam has been making over 20 wines a year for Osprey’s portfolio. Osprey’s owners have been “investing for now and the future,” he said, replanting over 25 percent of the vineyard, expanding the facilities and “quietly going green.” Osprey’s was the first vineyard to use biodiesel fuel, first to erect a power-generating windmill and exemplary in its use of organic materials.

Looking at metrics alone, Osprey’s Dominion comes out in the top tier of Long Island wine. They have won the Wine Spectator’s highest points for a Long Island red (2007 Reserve Merlot), been named Winery of the Year at the New York Wine and Food Classic and garnered stacks of awards. Somehow, the winery rarely gets the recognition it deserves in the media. Some see its broad range of wines, including flavored and semi-dry sippers, to be oriented toward entry-level drinkers — more like Blue Nun than Lafitte.

From his perspective, Adam says, “Wine is not a vanity issue. I want to emphasize value to quality.”

While still at Osprey’s, Adam has produced his own brand, Coffee Pot Cellars, named for the Coffee Pot Lighthouse off Orient Point. First released this month, his wines will be fresh, clean and approachable, and priced under $20.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.