08/26/11 10:53am
08/26/2011 10:53 AM

When wine grapes were first planted on Long Island in the 1970s and ’80s, most growers chose to plant the most important grape varieties of France, including chardonnay and pinot noir. The chardonnay was universally successful as a variety that consistently produced high quality fruit on plants that were easy to tend, but pinot noir proved to be far more challenging, and many acres of this grape were ripped out, replanted to merlot, cabernet franc or more chardonnay.

Experience here proved pinot noir’s reputation as the “heartbreak grape.” Even in Burgundy, where the medieval monks who cultivated the Cote d’Or selected, bred and celebrated pinot noir as their finest red wine grape, the variety is difficult to ripen and even more difficult to make into great wine.

The viticultural problem with pinot is that berries in its clusters are tightly packed, so that if one single berry is damaged by insects, birds or fungus, the entire cluster will quickly rot. It also ripens sooner than most varieties, which should be an advantage, except that it’s the first to attract marauding pests like finches, robins, raccoons and bees. Given a choice between ripe pinot noir and slightly unripe anything else, you can guess where the pests will go. This applies to people, too; pinot noir fruit is exquisitely delicious, and a vineyard planted along a road where pilgrims stroll will be soon denuded, as happened along the route to Santiago de Compostela in medieval times.

When pinot noir succeeds as wine, there is nothing to compare with its aromatic allure, its finesse, subtlety, complexity, silken mouthfeel and nuanced finish. Unfortunately, these qualities do not come easily or automatically as the fruit, even undamaged fruit, is transformed by fermentation into wine. In many ways, it is highly unstable, and the techniques that might be used to stabilize one desirable quality may harm another desirable one.

The deep blue-black color of pinot noir fruit is a cruel ruse because the pigments (anthocyanins) that give it this gorgeous hue exist in equilibrium with a colorless version of the same pigment. Pinot noir is different from most other black or red vitis vinifera wine grapes in that it lacks amylated (stabilized) anthocyanins. I’ve seen a tank of pinot wine that was pitch black when it was first crushed but transformed into the equivalent color of cranberry juice after six months’ aging.

To add insult to injury, pinot’s tannins (astringent particles derived from skins and seeds) have shorter molecular chains than most wine grapes, and are bitter. Many winemakers cold soak pinot noir fruit before fermenting it, in order to extract softer tannins. But in reality, heat and alcohol are needed to maximize color, and the extra time in cold soak also gives the fruit extra time in contact with its seeds, which are the bitterest part.

Most pinot noir is encouraged to complete a secondary fermentation, transforming its sharp malic acid into buttery lactic acid. This effectively softens the wine, but also raises the pH, which further damages its hue. Barrel aging smooths out the edges and adds the flavors and aromas of oak to the wine; it also steals some of the delicate fruit aromas, and accentuates harsh tannins, thus requiring more time in the bottle to soften again.

Despite these challenges, or maybe because of them, the temptation to make great pinot noir has obsessed many winemakers, myself included. After trying for 27 years, with a few years of triumph and many of settling for a blanc de noir or Beaujolais style, I am still obsessed with how to make what every pinot fancier wants — that “iron fist in a velvet glove.”

On Long Island, a few wineries (including Borghese, Laurel Lake, Jamesport and Osprey’s Dominion) persist in producing pinot. The Old Field, Lenz and Sparkling Pointe grow it for rosé and sparkling wines.

In Cutchogue, Russell McCall has 11 acres of mature pinot noir, planted 15 years ago. He believes that the cluster stems must be brown before he harvests so he waits, anxiously, while birds and botrytis threaten his crop. He sorts berries for soundness and ferments in small containers, with punch-down of skins also done by hand. Following the methods used by Burgundian monks in the 13th century has, for him, proved to be the best way to create wines that are subtle, meriting meditation.

What better way to explore one of the world’s most compelling wines?

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

06/17/11 11:33am
06/17/2011 11:33 AM

Last year, Americans spent $2,026,986,920 in retail shops on chardonnay, making it by far the most popular white wine variety on the market. The dollar value of the next leading white variety, pinot grigio, was $751,972,054, followed by sauvignon blanc at $412,531,384.

While chardonnay’s appeal is broad and deep, there is a small backlash, the “ABC” (anything but chardonnay) movement. Chardonnay today is not the same as chardonnay was 40 years ago; some of this trend can be understood by looking at how this grape has grown in popularity while changing in style.

Before the 1970s, chardonnay was the predominant white grape of Burgundy, not planted to any great extent in other wine regions and not identified on any wine labels. Few people knew that their favorite French chablis or Montrachet was made from chardonnay. But when California wine had its post-Prohibition, post-war resurgence in the ’70s and ’80s, winemakers like Robert Mondavi transitioned away from jug chablis (which, coming from American appellations, could be a blend of anything, including apple wine, and rarely had any chardonnay in it) in favor of finer varietal wines, with the grape variety stated on the label to distinguish them.

Although chardonnay is considered a “noble” grape (along with sauvignon blanc and riesling, among white grapes), genetically it is related to a noble red grape, pinot noir, and a less-than-noble white grape, gouais blanc. “Gouais” means “peasant”; this grape was grown in the Middle Ages on inferior sites by peasants (as opposed to monks or nobles, who controlled the best land) in France. It was easy to grow and had high yields, but its wine was so coarse that it was banned several times.

Then, the peasant grape had a romantic liaison with the nobler pinot, yielding the bastard chardonnay, which was taken in and raised like a knight in shining armor by French monks and nobles. Sometimes, still, the gouais emerges, making for thin, sour and vile chardonnay.

Chardonnay grown on France’s Côte d’Or is traditionally fermented in small oak barrels, which were readily available and easy to transport by water before roads and rails were built. Burgundy is a cold region, and its vines rarely yield fruit with enough sugar to make more than 12 percent alcohol. There, chardonnay’s high acidity is naturally reduced in a secondary, malolactic fermentation, changing the apple-scented malic acid to softer lactic acid and creating buttery diacetyl (think of artificially flavored popcorn) along the way. The toasty vanilla aromas of these barrels augment the subtle citrus-pear qualities of chardonnay to make truly exquisite white burgundies.

In California, as chardonnay became more widely planted, the best winemakers tried to adapt Burgundian techniques to their own fruit. However, California chardonnay typically ripens with far more sugar and less acidity than in Burgundy. These wines therefore are more alcoholic, and are usually made with the addition of tartaric acid, which is sharper but more stable than malic acid.

After one harvest at California’s Kendall Jackson Vineyards, when there was so much sugar that it failed to ferment completely, the resulting sweet chardonnay caused a massive boost in sales to that brand; other producers began deliberately making slightly sweet, heavily oaky chardonnay with over 13 percent alcohol. This new style suited the barbecue-oriented American palate and has come to define chardonnay, though it has none of the subtlety and few of the refreshing qualities that originally made white Burgundies popular.

The backlash against big, fat chardonnay has led some winemakers, who don’t want to lose their customers or pull out their vines, to alter their approach to this variety. On Long Island (climatically more similar to Burgundy than to California), the grape is versatile, ripening well with a fine natural balance. Many Long Island winemakers are producing a range of chardonnay styles to satisfy different tastes.

Although oak-aged chardonnays are usually priced to reflect the high cost of barrels ($900 for a 60-gallon barrique), at Peconic Bay Winery in Cutchogue the consumer can choose either unoaked or “La Barrique” at the same price. There, manager Jim Silver wants to validate the taste preference of his customers, rather than signify that one chard is better than another by giving it a higher price.

At the Lenz winery in Peconic, winemaker Eric Fry has backed off oak aging; though his top-priced Gold Label Chardonnay still has the most oak, his own preference is for the less woody “Old Vines” labeled wine.

If you don’t like caramel custard chardonnay, try one of these lighter, fresher styles before you go ABC.

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

06/13/11 8:02am
06/13/2011 8:02 AM

Remember that wine you enjoyed last weekend but couldn’t find a tasting room for?

Well, soon it could be available at the Winemakers Studio on Peconic Lane in Peconic, a cooperative tasting room made for individual winemakers who previously did not have a concrete location to feature their varietals.

This central North Fork locale is a wine-lover’s destination for previously disregarded bottles that have long been searched for, but seldom found.

Anthony Nappa, the winemaker for Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck and the owner of Anthony Nappa Wines, along with his fiancé, Sarah Evans, who is a chef at North Fork Table and Inn, took over the building earlier this month and aim to open it before Fourth of July weekend.

The Winemakers Studio will kick off by featuring wines from four different cellar masters.  Anthony Nappa Wines will have its popular white pinot noir, dubbed “Anomaly,” as well as Suhru Wines’ pinot grigio and syrah from Russell Hearn of Pellegrini Vineyards and Premium Wine Group, several bottles by the Grapes of Roth from Roman Roth of Wolffer Estate Vineyard and also the Leo Family from John Leo of Clovis Point.

They also plan to headline a rotating group of wines from other local wineries.

Tasting room manager Chris Fanjul expects to have local and tourist-heavy clientelle.

“When you come to the North Fork you are constantly looking for wines that will blow your mind,” Fanjul said.  “We will have them here at the Winemakers Studio.  No doubt about that.”

The Winemakers Studio is set to open upon the arrival of a satellite retail license, which they hope to have in place by the end of June. It is expected to open before the 4th of July weekend and regularly from Monday through Friday until late summer, when service will expand to seven days a week.

“I think this place is going to be a hit for experienced wine drinkers,” said Amanda Falcone of Aquebogue.  “I’ll definitely be coming here to find a wine out of the ordinary.”

Grapes of Roth

JANE STARWOOD PHOTO | Winemaker Roman Roth poured his Grapes of Roth label at The Winemaker Studio preview event.

06/06/11 1:19pm
06/06/2011 1:19 PM

The photo of the little vine planted in a protective grow tube is pinot meunier.

In my last column, I wrote about Champagne vigneron Philippe Brun and his ironic take on being a “pirate” farmer. On a drive around his grand cru vine plots, Brun also instructed me in Champagne’s least-understood grape, pinot meunier.

Pinot meunier, a black grape with green pulp, is one of only three grape varieties (including pinot noir and chardonnay) permitted in Champagne’s wines. “Meunier” means “miller”; Brun described the downy new leaves of the variety as “farine” (wheat) because they appear to be dusted with flour. From that moment on, I could identify the vineyards planted in meunier as we drove past them; they looked distinctly whitish-green.

When I asked Brun what meunier does for champagne, he said, “It’s everything! We all talk about chardonnay and pinot noir because these are also grown in Burgundy [and all over the world]. But pinot meunier is the most characteristic grape of Champagne. In the 1800s, Champagne grew mostly meunier. It’s easy to grow, it gives immediate fruit, it’s round, it can age.”

Another Champagne vintner, Bertrand Lhopital of J. de Telmont, explained the importance of meunier, saying, “It is the garçon difficile [difficult boy] of Champagne, but we find it essential. It does diplomacy between chardonnay and pinot noir [in a blend]. Chardonnay can be shy; pinot noir is full-bodied, powerful, explosive.”

Champagne is at the farthest northern limits of viticulture, and pinot meunier makes up 40 percent of the region’s plantings, especially on the coldest slopes. Meunier bud break comes later (avoiding the risk of frost) than chardonnay or pinot, but it ripens earlier. It can also be found in Germany (usually known as schwarzriesling, müllerrebe and müller-traube). Other parts of the world that make sparkling wines in the Champagne style but don’t have the limiting climate conditions of northern France or Germany seldom bother with meunier, considering pinot noir and chardonnay to be more “noble” grapes.

On Long Island, where several wineries produce sparkling wines in the Champagne method (naturally fermented a second time in bottles), one producer, Pindar Vineyards, has pioneered pinot meunier, followed only this year by Sparkling Pointe’s new plantings. Pindar’s “Cuvée Rare 2009” is made from 100 percent pinot meunier. Any Champenois producer would be proud of this beautifully crafted, elegant and subtle wine. Owner Herodotus “Dan” Damianos made the decision to plant meunier in 1984, on the advice of wine guru Dimitri Tchelistcheff, who also recommended fermenting it in oak and bottling it as a single varietal. Rich Kundee, the California viticultural specialist who grafted the plants for Opus One, supplied the vines. The Damianos family’s second winery, Duck Walk, makes an unusual red wine from this grape, styled more like the German version, as a light, barbecue-friendly red.

It’s risky to plant less familiar (or less noble) grapes like pinot meunier in regions like ours, where agricultural costs are high and marketing is challenging. However, some wine consumers and sommeliers are bored with the ubiquitous chardonnay, merlot, cabernet and sauvignon varietal wines, and the door has been opened to those who dare innovate. Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue is the only Long Island grower of chenin blanc (and almost ripped it out years ago, to plant more merlot), but it has gained a cult following. I’m surprised that others have not planted it here, considering how lusciously fresh and juicy the Paumanok wine is.

At Palmer Vineyard, Spanish-born winemaker Miguel Martin has bet on albariño, the aromatic white grape of northern Spain’s Rias Baixas region, which has a maritime climate like Long Island. His first vintage, from 2010, has zingy minerality, attractive floral aromas and an intriguing point-counterpoint dynamic. Those who find sauvignon blanc too herbaceous, and chardonnay too chicken soupy, will adore this super-refreshing wine.

At Channing Daughters, the team of Larry Perrine and Christopher Tracy has proved to be compellingly innovative, going full tilt with some grape varieties like tocai friulano, muscat ottonel, dornfelder and blaufränkisch, found in no other commercial vineyards on Long Island, but common in northern Italy and Austria.

The Palmer and Channing teams owe their willingness to take extensive risks with unusual varieties to the experimental planting begun in 1993 on Cornell’s Riverhead research farm by grape specialist Alice Wise. Along with other vintners on Wise’s advisory board, Perrine has worked with Wise to choose the varieties most promising for Long Island. With close analysis of productivity, disease resistance and quality in 36 varieties, Wise’s studies have eliminated dolcetto and muscat blanc, while validating Palmer’s and Channing’s latest plantings. New varieties on trial are zweigelt, marquette, gruner veltliner, auxerrois and petit manseng.

Look out, chardonnay!

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

05/26/11 5:58am
05/26/2011 5:58 AM

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Jim Waters with the label-less wine bottles.

Vintners spends months, if not years, perfecting the wines they bottle and sell, and somewhere near the end of that process, they attach a label to let the public know what’s so special about what’s inside.

Though that piece of paper might seem a small thing, several North Fork winemakers find themselves caught up in the federal budget crunch this spring, when staffing reductions at the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau left the agency with just a few employees to approve new wine labels.

As a result, winemaker Jim Waters of Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue has 100 cases of 2010 rosé that lack labels and so can’t be sold.

“It used to be a 48-hour turnaround online, and I’ve been waiting for about six months,” Mr. Waters said during an informal discussion between Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and members of the Long island Wine Council at Macari Vineyards last Friday afternoon.

Mr. Waters said that winemakers do not need approval from the TTB if they simply change the year on the label or the alcohol content. But any other design changes need approval from federal regulators.

In his case, the new labels he’s requesting are for a bottle that is shaped differently from those he’s used in the past. He also planned to add the word “dry” to the wine description.

Mr. Waters isn’t the only North Fork winemaker regulators have over a barrel.

Long Island Wine Council president Ron Goerler, who owns Jamesport Vineyards, just this week received labels for two 2007 reserve wines — Jubilant, a cabernet franc blend, and a Syrah — after applying for them in February.

“You’re looking at a four-month backlog,” he said. “It used to be if you submitted them, they’d look at the graphics and wording and send you back an email within a couple of days. The whole process normally would take a couple of weeks.”

Mr. Goerler said that after the labels are approved, the TTB assigns each wine a number used to identify each when pricing information is sent to the State Liquor Authority, further complicating the headache of the federal approval backlog.

Mr. Bishop, unaware of the problem until it was brought up by the winemakers, said that he hopes to involve his Washington staff in interceding with the TTB on a case-by-case basis on behalf of local winemakers.

Jon Schneider, the congressman’s district director, said Wednesday that the office is working with the wine council to develop a list of labels wine council members are waiting for.

“We are going to set up a meeting in Washington with TTB to address those issues within the next few weeks,” he said, adding that Mr. Bishop plans to appoint a member of his Washington staff to work on expediting wine label approvals.

Mr. Goerler said that he’d like to go to Washington to help make the wine council’s case, but for now he’s just relieved to have received his labels.

“I have 400 to 500 cases waiting, and you want to be able to get wine into the market,” he said. “Now that the summer’s here, we’re good to go.”

[email protected]

05/24/11 5:01am
05/24/2011 5:01 AM

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | The tasting room at One Woman.

She tends acres of vines, makes sure the tasting room is fully stocked, raises chickens, ducks and goats and nurtures tomatoes and eggplants “that I grow in my spare time.”

Last week she hosted and catered the Southold High School prom. She even finds a few hours for a little flower gardening.

It’s kind of hard to believe that one woman is responsible for all of this — until you meet the one woman in question: Claudia Purita, proprietor of One Woman Wines and Vineyards.

After growing up on the family farm in Calabria, Italy, and following that with many years in the restaurant business on Long Island, Ms. Purita is certainly no stranger to hard work. She insists, though, that One Woman Wines started out as a three-acre hobby that just grew.

The first vines were planted in 2004, she said, “and then we just planted more and more.” Now the operation comprises 16 acres.
One Woman Wines and Vineyards lies just off Old North Road in Southold and is accessed via a gravel driveway that leads directly to a tiny red-painted tasting room.

Ms. Purita would be the first to admit that the former toolshed is not the grandest structure on the North Fork. But it works.
Inside, the rough wood walls are home to hanging baskets of dried flowers and the bar consists of a wooden cupboard formerly used to stow tools. The pine floor was once the walls of a potato barn.

Outside, patrons can sit at picnic tables embossed with the One Woman swirl logo and sip Ms. Purita’s wines: merlot, rosé, chardonnay, gewürztraminer and, the pride of the vineyard, a rare (for the North Fork) grüner produced from three acres of Austrian grüner veltliner grapes.

“On summer nights we have tastings under the stars with tapas plates and a live band,” said Ms. Purita’s daughter, Gabriella, who helps out in the tasting room. “We set up telescopes. We have no streetlights for miles out here and people from the city are amazed how clearly they can see the stars.”

One Woman has also started hosting private events, thanks to the availability of a large former potato barn located just to the west of the vines.

“It’s from the late 1920s,” said Ms. Purita, leading the way down a tiki torch-lined pathway that bisects a couple of well-tended flowerbeds, one planted with a spruce tree that shelters clumps of English bluebells and the other decorated with an unidentifiable antique farm machine.

Inside the red-shingled barn, Ms. Purita has removed the loft originally used to store potatoes to showcase the construction and reveal the steep gabled ceiling.

Except for a new set of sliding glass doors — which last week led to a large white tent set up by the high school prom committee to provide extra covered space for last Friday’s bash — the barn is otherwise pretty much in its original state.

The structure offers three distinct spaces for a party. A large entrance hall is flanked by two windowed areas. In the room to the left, the students decorated a dance space to house a DJ and red lighting, said Ms. Purita’s daughter.

A step down to the right leads to an expansive white painted annex, “a later addition,” said Ms. Purita, where dinner tables awaited the students, who had embellished the room with white paper lanterns and mobiles.

Ms. Purita has labored long and experienced some setbacks along the way.

“In 2009, we were one of the places badly hit by hailstones and lost quite a bit of our crop,” she said.

Despite some heartbreak, and the fact that she has only one full-time helper, Ms. Purita is mulling over the idea of leasing extra acreage in the not-too-distant future.

Her next big project is to move the farm stand currently located on the far side of her fields to a more convenient spot close to the tasting room. She thinks she’ll expand the stand’s offerings to include homemade goat cheese.

But first things first. Ms. Purita said she was sorry to end the interview but she had to run.

The reason? Apparently some finishing touches were urgently required before she served that sumptuous feast to 128 hungry high school students.

05/23/11 1:18pm
05/23/2011 1:18 PM

Philippe Brun from Champagne Roger Brun in Ay, France.

In a current television ad for Ocean Spray cranberry juice, a young man standing in a cranberry bog in rubber waders plays out the stereotype of a hick farmer as he witlessly dumps a bag of sugar into the “sugarless” cranberries. Images like this of farmers as nitwits has rankled me since, in 1973, I began growing grapes and someone asked me, “Now that you’re a farmer, what will you do with your mind?”

Even as I took on the chores of planting, tending and harvesting a large vineyard, I myself worried that those hours of hoeing weeds and tying vines might limit me. Wasn’t I wasting all those years spent in college, learning chemistry, history and foreign languages, while I toiled through mud, sleet or broiling sun just to get a silent vine to push out a few clusters of recalcitrant grapes?

Over the next 27 years, as I trudged out into the field or down into the cellar (usually in the company of a bounding dog), I came to realize that farming is as challenging to the intellect as it is to the body.

Still, the stereotype of the dumb peasant farmer persists. It is not limited to the United States, as I learned on a recent jaunt to the Champagne region of France. There I stayed for three nights in the village of Aÿ, in a B&B called “Le Logis des Pressureurs” (lodging for press workers) owned by Philippe and Sophie Brun. Philippe is a burly, outspoken vigneron, easily mistaken for a village peasant, though his family owns several grand cru vineyards, and the wines he makes, Champagne Roger Brun, have won accolades including Best Sparkling Wine in Decanter Magazine.

Philippe gave me an insider’s view of his family’s vineyards, pointing out nearby plots owned by the likes of Roederer, Bollinger and Krug. Speaking with irony of the trend to “go bio,” he said, “I farm organically 355 days a year. The other 10 days, I’m spraying.”

Pointing out a horse pulling a plow in an adjacent plot, he said, “Using a horse respects the soil, but not the horse. It may maintain tradition, but the soil here is too hard for the poor horse.”

At a tasting of six vintages of his spectacular champagne, Philippe told me of his own path back to making wine after initially leaving the family business to work as an engineer: “I’ve made plastic windows, ski clothes and rockets, but now I make wine. What I like is the uncertainty, the surprises, the discoveries, the changes over time.”

Brun described playing the part of the local peasant for the British TV crews that come to film the beginning of harvest every year: “The crews who want an aristocrat find the manager from Taittinger, who has never had dust on his shoes, and stands next to the vineyard in his yellow tie with bubbles on it, talking about magic. For the crews who want the pirate — that’s me. I go out in my beret, with four days’ growth of beard, spitting, and say the same thing.”

Here on Long Island, similar scenes play out as visitors seeking atmosphere prod the local vintners to go yokel. I’ll never forget the network newscaster who visited my winery and, looking at the immaculate cellar with stainless steel fermenters, cried, “Where are the cobwebs? Where is the romance?”

At Harbes Family Vineyard, the association with the farm is clearly emphasized, and the wines bear images of the family’s historic barns and equipment, explicitly intended to bear witness to this family’s 12 generations in farming. As much as the conversation about wine today emphasizes “terroir,” Ed Harbes points out that “a sophisticated customer is reluctant to associate wine with agriculture.”

The fact of the matter is, whether in Champagne, Napa or New York, wine is an agricultural product. But grape farmers — however much they may have dirt under their nails (or wine-stained hands), whether they wear silk ties or berets — need to be sophisticated businesspeople, too. Besides dealing with the unpredictable factors of weather, they must grow their crops, make their wines, market both wholesale and retail, and greet visitors as peasants or aristocrats, as the situation requires.

When Philippe Brun demonstrated how he doffs his beret to the TV crews while pouring me a second (OK, fifth) taste of Champagne Roger Brun “La Pelle Extra Brut,” alongside a slice of Sophie Brun’s homemade foie gras (served on gold-rimmed bone china), the image of the “dumb farmer” forever vanished.

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

05/15/11 4:19pm
05/15/2011 4:19 PM

Jim Waters, 22-year winemaker and owner of Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue, demonstrates in this video how to make two and a half cases of red wine in your own home.

Mr. Waters teaches a two-day Vine University class on home wine making and provides a kit with the necessary ingredients and equipment. The next class, which is packaged with a two-night say at a North Fork Bed & Breakfast, is June 18.

Fore more information on Vine University, call (800) 551-0654 or go to vineuniversity.com.

[email protected]

SAMANTHA BRIX PHOTO | Jim Waters, owner of Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue, demonstrates how to make red wine at home using a starter kit.

05/09/11 8:52am
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.

05/05/11 5:20am
05/05/2011 5:20 AM

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Joe Gergela (left), executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, and Long Island Wine Council president Ron Goerler at last Thursday’s State Liquor Authority forum.

The New York State Liquor Authority is planning to revamp licensing rules made at about the time when anyone producing alcohol was considered a criminal, and that’s heartening news for North Fork vintners, who have long said the process is cumbersome.

State Liquor Authority chairman Dennis Rosen and legal counsel Tom Donohue shared the message about planned changes with local winemakers at a briefing last Thursday morning at Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead.

“One thing you’ve got to understand is that you’re part of a larger industry, whether you like it or not,” Mr. Rosen told the crowd of about 50 winemakers.

Mr. Rosen said that the Alcoholic Beverages Control (ABC) laws in New York were drafted in 1934, just after the end of Prohibition.

“The idea at that time was that they were regulating criminals,” he said. “That tone is still there in the statute. Where many of you see yourself as farmers, there’s a big difference between making wine and raising vegetables.”

Mr. Rosen took office two years ago after a long career in the state attorney general’s office, where he prosecuted many cases involving pay-to-play practices in the liquor industry and investigated “gray market” alcohol that was mislabeled or made false claims about its alcohol content.

He told the crowd Thursday that it’s his mission to reduce the department’s backlog of liquor license requests and to revamp ABC laws to make the process less onerous for winery owners.

But even with the backing of the industry, he said, other attempts to make the process easier for small wineries through the Agriculture & Markets law have failed to win legislative support in Albany.

“You should vigorously advocate for legislation for your industry,” he told the winemakers. “A lot of times that we say no to an activity your industry is engaging in, we have to because the statute says no.”

For example, he said, the Liquor Authority recently received a request from a man for a tasting room upstairs in a barn because his wife’s art studio was on the ground floor. But the ABC law requires the entrance to an establishment that sells alcohol be level with the street, a throwback to the original intent of preventing the proliferation of speakeasies.

He said it would be much better for the liquor authority to promote domestic peace by allowing the winemaker’s wife to keep her studio.

Mr. Donohue said that the Liquor Authority has taken very few actions against winemakers, but the various types of permits required by winemakers are dizzyingly complex.

Winemakers can receive a liquor license as a regular farm winery, as a microwinery, as a wholesaler or as a special winery or special farm winery, all of which allow different activities to take place on the premises. In addition, those who transport wine for wineries need to have a separate solicitor’s license, and wineries conducting off-site tastings need special approvals.

In addition, he said, winery owners who donate wine to charities for fundraisers need to make sure that the charities either have liquor licenses or must give the wine directly to caterers with liquor licenses. While that’s a technical reading of the law, “I’m much more interested in underage drinking than I am in prosecuting a charity raffling off a basket that has a bottle of wine in it,” said Mr. Rosen.

And there’s also nothing in the code that defines a farm. Mr. Donohue said that the Liquor Authority once issued a farm winery license to allow the owner of a house in a Long Island subdivision where the only productive soil was the dirt in a flower box.

The liquor authority allows different types of wineries to distribute wine from their manufacturing facilities in different fashions, at a time when the agency was trying to thwart efforts to consume alcohol at production facilities, said Mr. Donohue.

For example, a winery needs a separate license to sell wine by the glass at its manufacturing facility, and a farm winery cannot sell wine by the glass at any of its satellite stores. But the farm winery can offer a “taste” at a satellite store, and since there’s no restriction on the size of a “taste,” it’s easy to get around that section of the law.

Mr. Donohue and Mr. Rosen said they hope their attempts at a complete overhaul of the ABC law will address many of these inconsistencies, but both they and industry advocates said that change won’t come easily.

“You have no idea how hard it is to get something through the Legislature,” said Long Island Farm Bureau Executive Director Joe Gergela, who with The Long Island Wine Council helped organize Thursday’s event. He added that the state’s strong anti-liquor and wholesale lobbies could easily squash ABC law reform efforts.

“Everybody in the world is looking at this through the microscope,” he said.

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