Spivak On Wine

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North Fork of Long island

Posted Date: 07/02/2010

I am not a wine professional---I’m just a guy with a hobby that’s a bit out of control. In fact, I spent almost my entire career at IBM. While working my way up I became friendly with a peer manager named Charles Massoud. Charles was an excellent technical manager, a valuable commodity in our business. One day in 1992 Charles walked into work and resigned. Everyone was stunned. After realizing that he was not, in fact, going to a competitor we were even more stunned. He was leaving a very promising and secure career at IBM to make wine, and make it on the North Fork of Long Island of all places! Even I, who was really starting to appreciate wine at the time, didn’t get it.

It turn out Charles had been leading a double life for years. In the late ‘70s he began making small amounts of wine at home. It was fun and he thought it would be a good retirement gig eventually. However, in 1980 he read in the New York Times about people starting to plant wine grapes on the North Fork. He and his wife Ursula visited Alec and Louisa Hargrave, who had planted the first vineyard on Long Island in 1973 and bottled their first wine in 1975. The visit inspired and excited them. They thought about making wine for the next three years, but also visited France, California and Germany with a serious focus. In 1983 he bought a potato farm not far from the Hargraves and figured that at worst he had acquired a vacation / retirement home. He began clearing fields and planting Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot on weekends.

It turned out that the North Fork was a good place to grow wine. It’s a spit of land at the Eastern end of Long Island surrounded by water, Peconic Bay on one side, the Long Island Sound on the other. This moderates the temperature variations. (Incidentally, the South Fork is between Peconic Bay and the ocean and is where the Hamptons and Montauk are located. It’s less than a half hour away.) The soil is reminiscent of Graves in Bordeaux. There are pebbles left from ancient glaciers about two feet under the soil, and sand under that. It drains well. The summers are semi-tropical and the winters are cold. To grow grapes you need 180 frost free days. On average Charles gets 220. A degree day is a measure of heating or cooling. Between April 30 and September 30 the North Fork gets roughly 3,000 degree days, in the same range as Bordeaux, making it a cool growing region, more like France than California. This tends to give you wines with high acidity, not high alcohol, which are very food friendly. The temptation is definitely to grow Bordeaux varieties; however the North Fork grows about 30 varieties of grapes, but only a little of many of them. 

Thinking that “Massoud Vineyards” didn’t have the right ring to it Charles named his place Paumanok, the Indian name for Long Island that was used by Walt Whitman in his poetry about the area. Realizing that he lacked knowledge of wine making he asked his wife’s uncle, who was a vintner in Germany, to come and help. He showed Charles how to space the vines 4 feet apart (twice as dense as Charles was planting) and how to start plants low and train them upright. All vineyards on the North Fork now plant this way. He also brought in a consultant from Bordeaux. Gradually he learned to become attuned to the local environment. He has irrigation but uses it only during droughts. He really tries to make the wine in the field and use what nature gives him, however he has learned some manipulations that are good for his environment. He removes leaves that hide the grapes helping to ventilate them and exposing them to more sunlight. This is a good idea on Long Island. It may not be as wise in sunnier areas like California or Australia. He has also learned to cut higher second growths off his vines and to only allow two clusters per plant to give more intensity and ripeness to the clusters that are left. This technique is now known as Green Harvest. Charles was doing it before it had a name. He is always trying to tune into the environment and always learning. 

In the winery the focus is just to not mess anything up. He doesn’t like the term “winemaker”. He considers himself the custodian of a process and a junior partner with nature. His contribution is the manipulations described above, but ultimately the wine happens naturally. He was not going to make it on quantity so the emphasis has always been on quality, and the quality has been such that the business is a great success. It has not even been affected much by the current economic climate. Charles’ three sons are now taking over and it will support all of them. Going from a pioneer on the North Fork to the award winning operation they have today is an amazing feat. My friend took a big chance and won.

 

PAUMANOK VINEYARDS

2008 Festival Chardonnay is an unoaked, simple but very good Chardonnay with melon and apple flavors and a dry finish. It is clean and direct. It’s a very good wine for dishes like flounder or Salad Nicoise. It comes in a screw cap as do all of Pamanok’s whites. It retails for $14.99 and when I questioned that price in today’s environment Charles told me that it sells out every year so he believes the price is fine. 

2007 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, ($18.99), has a deeper color and is much more complex and Burgundian in style. During fermentation, yeast cells settle at the bottom of the barrel. The wine is occasionally stirred to get them off the bottom and to introduce some air. This is a technique called Batonnage. It cuts down the oaky taste and makes the wine a little less buttery. The result is a medium-bodied wine that’s not too fat, not too alcoholic, with very evident fruit. The tastes again are melon and apple with, perhaps, a little butterscotch. This is a very good wine at a good price for the quality which will stand up to much more expensive competition. 

2008 Chenin Blanc ($28) is the only Chenin made on the East Coast of the US and is a unique wine. Words like fresh, crisp, bracing came to mind as well as grapefruit and pineapple.   The Massouds serve this on weekends with oysters and I suspect that’s a great combination. The wine has remarkable acidity which makes it very compatible with food and restaurants like the Grammercy Tavern in NYC feature it. 

2007 Dry Riesling is 12 ½ % alcohol, which is a lot for a Riesling. This is from one of the first blocks planted at Paumanok, a single vineyard wine. It has a very green character with tastes of lime, green apple and a hint of ginger. It is unusual, exotic and not typical of Rieslings, but not completely different either. I really liked this one and would love it with Asian food. It’s worth every dime of the $22 price.

2007 Festival Red, ($18), is a Bordeaux blend with red and black fruit flavors, literally a festival of flavors and colors. It would be very good with almost any kind of meat. It was young and had only 2 months of bottle age. I suspect it will get really interesting in time, but it was pretty darn good now. DBGB, a popular new Daniel Boulud restaurant in Manhattan, serves it by the glass. Festival Red, and all of Paumanok’s reds, come in either a cork or a screwtop. Going to screwtop was not an economic decision, it costs more. It was done because they feel it’s good for the wine. 

2006 Cabernet Franc is a steal at $22. It tastes of red berries and a little of the signature bell pepper of this varietal, but also of figs and spices. There’s a lot going on in this wine which I really liked. It reminded me of a Cab Franc from the Loire Valley. Charles agreed but said in some years it’s more like one from St Emilion. (Temperature variations in the North Fork make it very hard to reproduce wines year to year, so vintage matters here.) It’s a very good wine from a varietal that seems to do very well in this area. 

The winery makes a Grand Vintage line which are more expensive special occasion wines. They are uniformly impressive and, when compared to other special occasion wines, are a great value for the money. 2004 Merlot Grand Vintage, ($36) was very French. This was not by design; it just reflects the Bordeaux-like terroir. It’s a complex and lovely wine that is only made in good years. 2005 Assemblage ($40) is a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot. This is a big scorer in competitions that is good now but will improve over the next 10 years. 

The standout of the Grand Vintage line is the 2005 Petit Verdot ($60). This varietal, which is not usually sold by itself, was planted as a blending wine. It turned out so well that they bottled it. It is an inky black wine with concentrated black fruit flavors and some spice. It stands out because it’s more like a Northern Italian or a Rhone wine than a Bordeaux. It’s a wonderful wine that speaks volumes about what is possible in the North Fork.

 

ROANOAKE VINEYARDS

If I was going to describe Roanoke Vineyards in one word it would be “class.” Your first impression on driving in is the meticulously manicured vineyard, one of the most strikingly beautiful I have ever seen. I did not have to be told that nothing mechanical ever touched these vines. Clearly someone is lavishing a lot of care and love on each and every vine, and that someone is Richard Pisacano. Rich is a native of Long Island, originally from Huntington, who has been growing grapes on the Island for 30 years and has worked in several vineyards on the North Fork. In 1997 he became the vineyard manager at Wolffer Estates, one of the prestigious vineyards on Long Island, and also began a partnership with winemaker Roman Roth (of the famous Grapes of Roth) that is still going strong at both Roanoke and Wolffer. 

Rich is still working at Wolffer but started his own vineyard to concentrate on a few varietals. The tasting room at Roanoke opened in 2004. Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are planted on 10 acres. Other grapes are purchased but are checked carefully because the microclimates on Long Island can be very different depending on your proximity to the water. The resulting wines are all very European in style, unfined, unfiltered, aged in French Oak and are made for longevity and food friendliness. 

The wine comes in some of the most beautiful bottles ever. Inspired by Mouton Rothschild’s use of artist paintings on their labels, Roanoke has linked up with Scott Sandell, an artist whose work can be found in museums, private collections and US embassies. Scott has a passion for creating works of art for use on wine labels that reflect the wine, so there is passion in the bottle and on the bottle. After seeing the vineyards and then the bottles you really want to taste the wines.

2005 Merlot ($45) is 100% Merlot from a one acre lot. It is big, complex, exceptionally fruity with sweet tannins and a flowery bouquet. Plum and coffee flavors predominate. It is almost like a Zinfandel in its power and fruitiness.   Even people who don’t like Merlot could love this. 

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) is made from an early ripening clone and is blended with 9% Cabernet Franc and 3% Merlot. It is a smooth, classic cab with black current flavors. It was a big smoky, all around excellent cab.

2006 was the first vintage for Cabernet Franc and it sold out fast. The 2007 Cabernet Franc ($30) was bottled about 6 months before I tasted it. It was delicious but I suspect will be even better in a year or two. There is a big range of ripeness for this grape and Roanoke goes for as ripe as possible. This gives a very floral wine with some spice and raspberry tastes and a nice finish. 

Roanoke makes two negociant wines that I did not taste, a Chardonnay that’s a unique tank and barrel blend, and a dry rose'. The wines are all made to a very high standard. Roanoke has no intention of expanding. They want to remain a limited production vineyard producing hand crafted, full-flavored, premium artisanal wines. The wines can only be purchased at the vineyard or online.

 

SHINN ESTATE VINEYARDS

As you get to the end of Elijah’s Lane there is a hand painted sign on a piece of wood that directs you to turn left on Oregon Road to Shinn Estate. It’s your first clue that everything is different there.

Barbara Shinn and David Page, who is a chef, came to New York from California in the early 90’s and opened Home Restaurant in Greenwich Village in 1996. They were interested in local cuisine which they saw as both local foods and local wine. Their restaurant was known for serving only New York wines. (It was also known for producing a cookbook that won a James Beard award.) They began experimenting with wine and produced a custom blend at Jamesport Winery on the North Fork that was bottled under the Home Restaurant name. However, to get what they wanted, which was a wine made using biodynamic, sustainable methods, they had to build their own winery which they did starting in 1998. In 2007 David stopped commuting and they sold their interest in Home Restaurant to focus completely on the winery and a small bed and breakfast next to it. 

At Shinn, Barbara is the manager and she has broad experience in organic viticulture. Shinn is moving as close as possible to organic farming. The 20 acres of vineyard are not tilled and no herbicides are applied. Cover crops make the vineyard look like a meadow. They attract bugs that eat bad vineyard bugs and other nuisances. Drip irrigation is used to spread compost. Grapes are handpicked. The stemming machine is run very slowly to keep the fruit whole, one cluster at a time. They are thinking of hand stemming. They try to use indigenous yeasts, and spontaneous fermentation is used as much as possible. No enzymes, tannin additions or additives of any kind are used. The wine is left on the skins three times as long as most wine in the area. There are no seeds in the wine to prevent unwanted tannins. There is no must pump. Everything is done by gravity. Different types of oak are used creatively. It is all very labor and time intensive. 

Shinn is not organic and some say that the damp climate which promotes mold and mildew may make it impossible to be organic. But they are headed in that direction. What they do have is very meticulously made wine that was good from the start. The first wine was a 2002 Merlot that got 3 stars from Eric Asimov of the New York Times and was picked as the best Long Island wine. The 2003 Merlot was given 3 ½ stars from Asimov’s panel in a tasting of Thanksgiving reds. Not too shabby.

2006 Ultra Brut ($35) is an all Chardonnay sparkling wine that is very crisp and has great acidity. It was excellent.

2008 Coalescence ($14) is a white blend of four grapes that tastes of grapefruit, peach and strawberry. It’s a good value for a clean, vibrant summer wine.

2008 Anomaly ($18) is well named. It’s a white wine, very full bodied, no oak, with cherry and strawberry tastes. It turned out to be a pinot noir that had no skin contact, therefore no color. It’s a unique wine and a steal for the price. By contrast, 2007 Nemesis ($32) is an intensely flavored pinot noir with a great nose and elegant taste.

2008 Rose' ($15) is a Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend that is harvested early and has contact with the skins for 24 hours. Strawberry and watermelon flavors make it a great wine for the beach.

2006 Nine Barrels Reserve Merlot ($45) is made from the best 9 barrels of the vintage and was clean, refreshing, with great acidity. Elegant flavors of blackberry and plum came flying through.

I also tasted a number of Bordeaux blends at various price points. Not a clunker in the lot.

 

MACARI VINEYARDS

You’ve just been confirmed as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States!! What are you going to do now???

Well, if you’re Sonia Sotomayor you go to Macari Vineyards and buy a celebratory case of their outstanding Cabernet Franc, a very good first decision.

The Macari winery was established in 1995, although the family has owned the land for almost 50 years. It is on a 500 acre estate of prime waterfront property with about 180 acres planted with vines and other fields dedicated to compost, farmland and animals. They are also one of the leaders in the use of organic, biodynamic methods on the North Fork. They use fish, kelp and seaweed as fertilizers to increase the diversity in the soil and use very low levels of sprays.   The intent is to have a safe environment for their kids and to make premium wines. The property is well set up for tourism and has a large and very attractive tasting room that also sells gifts.

Macari has been a success from the start when they sold out their first vintages. They are particularly known for their Sauvignon Blanc which has scored as high as a 97 from the New York Times and recently won a silver medal at the 2009 International Wine and Spirits Competition in London. (Their Block E Chardonnay dessert wine won a gold.) They pick the grapes for the Sauvignon Blanc early because they love acid.

A taste of the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc ($23) quickly confirms what they’re talking about.   A complex mixture of tropical fruits, grass and minerals hit you immediately. It is a very crisp and satisfying wine that I thought was just outstanding.

The 2007 Chardonnay Estate ($19) is fermented in stainless steel and is very reminiscent of a Chablis. It should be a very good food wine. The 2007 Chardonnay Reserve ($23) is aged in French oak for 12 months and is completely different. This is lush with flavors of vanilla, honey, butter and toast. It’s known around the winery as “Hilary’s Wine” because she served it several times at the White House. It’s very good.

The 2008 Rose' ($15) is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Malbec, the first year they have used that many varietals in the blend. Think strawberries. I thought it was wonderful but it was just about sold out.

Sette ($17) is a blend of half Merlot and half Cabernet Franc which I found very interesting and a great buy for the price. The food recommendation was Indian cuisine.

The 2004 Cabernet Franc ($27), which will doubtless be known as “Sonia’s Wine”, was a big, vibrant red but still smooth, lovely and with little of the green pepper taste that I usually associate with this wine. The North Fork Cabernet Francs are quite distinctive and this was a very good one.

The 2005 Block E Chardonnay Dessert Wine ($40) was the gold medal winner in London and with me. Deep aromas of cantaloupe and tropical fruit got me from the start. You taste apricot, peach and honey on the palate. It had a very long finish. I just loved it.

 

The North Fork is an interesting place and well worth a visit. It’s an easy drive from New York provided you don’t try it during the rush hour or when the Hamptons crowd is leaving Manhattan on Friday. You’ll find quaint shops, recreational activities, fine restaurants, and of course wineries. Most of the wineries are family owned. They are profiting from the fact that it’s become a tourist area and because they are close to the Hamptons and New York. Their challenges include high costs of labor, taxes and energy but they seem to be doing very well by focusing on quality. Most of the wine is sold right out of tasting rooms and in well chosen retail outlets in New York. Interest is high among aficionados in New York, the Wine Press loves them, and the wines sell. 

Although the terroir has some resemblance to Bordeaux, the flat, sandy soil and the proximity to the sea make it a somewhat unique region that has difficulty learning from other regions. But they are figuring out their environment in a hurry. Several of the winemakers I spoke to said that the morning fog made it easier to grow white wine grapes than red.  That’s not a bad thing in an area that’s known for seafood. But I think the most interesting wine here is Cabernet Franc and that the region could become known for it. My business instincts kicked in and I discussed this with several winemakers. They informed me that I was not the first Marketing genius to come up with this idea, and that they were not the least bit interested in it. They have a great place to make many different wines and they want to be known for making great wines – period. So be it. I think that’s going to happen.


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