by Hans Baldauf
Sustainable food culture has long been an influence on BCV’s work. We find inspiration in the terroir of our project locations, and in celebrating the interconnectedness of a place and its food shed – the 150-200 mile area around a metropolitan center that has traditionally provided that city’s food.
Megacities such as New York present a unique problem of understanding what constitutes their food shed, and what it means to eat locally. We began to explore this idea when designing Hudson Eats at Brookfield Place in Lower Manhattan.
We explored the notions of the larger New York food shed:
and studied the centuries-old system of public markets that have served the city – vestiges of which (such as Essex Street Market) remained after the city moved its food distribution to Hunts Point in the 1960s.
But what of the agricultural land in close proximity to the city? Having opened our office in New York, the opportunity to further explore this question was brought into focus in a conversation with Karen Karp of Karen Karp & Partners. We talked of the disappearance of Long Island potato farms and the birth of its wine industry, particularly on the North Fork over the past 30 years. The phenomenon of a region preserving its agricultural identity through the creation of a value-added product has been pursued for the past fifty years in the Sonoma and Napa Valleys – so it seemed only natural for us to go explore the region.
It might seem slightly crazy to have planned our visit for the week after a major blizzard, but it provided the perfect opportunity to meet with growers and vintners at the quietest time of year, and begin to understand this complex area where sound, land and sea meet and serious wine is made.
Prior to leaving the city we visited Brooklyn Winery and met with founders Brian Leventhal and John Stires, as well as winemaker Conor McCormack. The winery, housed in an old industrial building in Williamsburg, provides about five thousand cases a year. The project was born out of a trip to a New Jersey vineyard where over the course of a year you could make a barrel of wine. Former tech workers Brian and John were hooked, and they found Connor (previously of Crush Pad in San Francisco) to be their wine maker. Their initial vision was of a Crush Pad type project where individuals could make their own wine; they have since abandoned this strategy in favor of creating wine under their Brooklyn label.
Conor sources grapes not only from Long Island (Merlot) and upstate New York, but also from California and Washington. Grapes arrive by truck and are off-loaded into a sky-lit courtyard: here they crush. This courtyard opens onto a tank room and a barrel room completes the picture. At the center of it all is a dynamic urban wine bar that was packed on the Tuesday evening we visited. While sampling their wine we talked about various challenges, including the high cost of Long Island grapes due to high land and labor costs. Yet these regional grapes remain an important part of the identity of Brooklyn Winery as a New York project. We also learned of their upcoming project at the Washington Navy Yard. Similar to many wineries, the event business is an important source of publicity and revenue.
As this exploration is just beginning, what follows is a series of notes on visits we had. It is certainly premature to offer any sweeping assessments. We are so appreciative of the time we were so generously given.
Our first stop was to meet Russell Hearn of the Premium Wine Group. Premium is a custom crush facility that provides the winery infrastructure for its producers. Some local wineries such as Sparking Pointe began at Premium and graduated to their own production. Russell is a no-nonsense Aussie who realized the importance of providing custom crush to allow small producers lacking the scale for a full facility a means to enter the market. He requires each winery to have its own winemaker in charge, thus maintaining his role as purely infrastructural. Russell walked us through a primer on the challenges of local zoning and licensing of wineries including New York wine production law – too complicated to relate here, but fascinating nonetheless.
One of the most interesting aspects of local land development is the program by which Suffolk County and the state will buy development rights from land owners as a way to preserve agricultural land. We were to hear a great deal about this program over the two days – both the benefit in preserving the agricultural character of the North Point along with the challenges of wineries to maintain their operations on land that no longer has development rights.
One of the extraordinary projects ongoing is the creation of a series of standards and goals for sustainable wine growing by Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing (LISW). One of the early advocates of the project was Barbara Shinn, whose bed and breakfast at Shinn Estate Vineyards we were fortunate to get to stay at during our visit. When we drove down the drive into the winery we were greeted by the whap whap of a huge windmill. As we checked in Barbara apologized for the noise, attributing it to a tension cable that she needed to fix. She was more annoyed by the lost generating capacity than the noise.
Barbara and her husband David Page came to the North Fork after having run two restaurants in Manhattan that celebrated local produce. Much of that came from the Hudson Valley, but they fell in love with the combination of the sea and land on the North Fork. One gets the sense that Shinn Estate has been crafted from the land – land that has been restored to health by Barbara and David’s uncompromising tending – much like the barn structures that serve as winery and tasting room.
The growing season on Eastern Long Island is typically short due to the threat of fall storms (Hurricane Sandy a perfect example of this hazard), and as a result the region favors early ripening varietals. Merlot is the favored red. Cabernet is grown, but success is not guaranteed.
In addition to Barbara, we met with two others who are deeply involved with LISW: Alice Wise of the Cornell University Agricultural Extension in Riverhead, and Trent Preszler, CEO of Bedell Cellars. Alice acted as an advisor to the project and the vintners built on earlier work that she had done for a statewide program. Alice also acknowledges a debt to the program’s Lodi rules and Oregon LIVE. Alice related that one of the best things was that the growers debated the issues among themselves and had to agree on a common set of standards. These standards are not just about working toward being organic but also procedures regarding habitat and social responsibility. One of the frustrating realities of farming on Eastern Long Island is the presence of Downey Mildew and Black Rot for which no known organic fungicides are available. Alice mentioned that copper (which is “organic”) has been used in France, but then suspended when overly high levels remained present in the soil. It is clear that this inability to be fully organic rankles people who are so committed to farming in a sustainable manner, but as Alice said it is not realistic to gamble with an entire year’s crop. Another issue is the management of animals and birds who decimate unprotected vines. This requires deer fences and bird netting. Alice observed that once the agricultural experimentation stations’ neighbor put up deer fencing, they had to as well.
One hears repeatedly of Alice’s contribution to the North Fork Wine culture. She is also sensitive to the challenge that an evolving agricultural world poses to the old time farmers. Here at the Cornell Program you see in action the power of agricultural universities and how they provide on the ground help. Alice talks of her tests of other varietals – she is enthusiastic about the prospects for Albariño.
After lunch in Mattituck on Wednesday, we went to see Macari Vineyards and Winery. We were able to meet Joseph Macari Jr. and his wife Alexandra who run the winery, as well as Kelly Urbanik Koch, their winemaker. Walking in from a steady rain we were asked by a gentleman if he could help us and would we like a glass of wine. We were immediately taken into the passionate enthusiasm of the Macari world. A banner behind the tasting bar above the window that overlooks the wine tanks proclaims Macari’s honor of being 2014 New York State winery of the year.
Macari has over 200 acres and is by North Fork standards a large winery. It is very much a family operation and to get the tag team tour from both Joe and Alex was a real treat. Early on the Macari’s adopted biodynamic farming and they were the first on the North Fork to adopt concrete tanks with which they make a very nice sauvignon Blanc. Their son is currently apprenticing in a restaurant in Florence, and Joe is getting pigs so that he can make charcutterie. We visited their new stone walled barrel room with 25’ long sycamore tables that are mounted on steel fins with a hinging mechanism that collapses the tables so you can easily move barrels. The Macaris are an inventive family that seem to take endless joy from being able to be on the land and finding new ways to celebrate the land. Winemaker Kelly grew up in Saint Helena and is considered a star by many. One of the interesting things about the wine industry is the cross-pollination of individuals from all over the world. In some respects this must be a challenge for the old order of agriculture.
After visiting Macari we headed East toward the end of the North Fork to Sparkling Pointe, the creation of Cynthia and Tom Rosicki. We were intrigued by the choice of doing a sparkling-wine only winery. Again the international connections abound. Winemaker Gilles Martin was brought up and studied in France, then spent six years at Roederer in the Anderson Valley. The Rosickis love champagne and their vineyard consultant convinced them to go with their passion as the varietals that are traditionally used in champagne: chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier – Martin makes a Long line of sparkling wines to pair with many foods and occasions. The international theme has an added twist at Sparkling Pointe: the Rosickis are avid fans of Brasilian Carnival and the winery is a shrine to Brasil. Like all of the larger wineries, Sparkling Pointe is designed as an event venue, and one can see the sense in pairing weddings with champagne.
Many of the wineries of the North Fork – like those in Napa – are found close to the two main roads, Route 25 and 48. Kontokosta, one of the newer wineries (LEED Gold) and one of the Easternmost, eschews this and its siting at the back of their vineyards with a view of Long Island Sound, bringing the special qualities of the North Fork into focus. The simple barn building is elegant in its scale and simplicity, but like many of the Long Island wineries it seems designed for a mass of visitors and large events and less for wine education. The Eastern tip of Long Island is magical even in the depths of winter – a kaleidoscope of water, sand, and salt air.
Wineries require the talents of many different individuals: vineyard managers, winemakers, educators, hospitality directors. Forging all of these personalities into a cohesive team requires a great talent, and it is impressive when you meet such a person. Trent Preszler of Bedell Cellars grew up on a large cattle ranch in the middle of the country and eventually found himself at Cornell, where he became increasingly engrossed with the wine industry. His master’s thesis won a prize that allowed him to send it to every winery in New York. At Bedell, Trent champions the innovative wine making of Richard Olsen-Harbich who uses national yeast and works to coax the essence of the North Fork from Bedell’s wines. Olsen-Harbich is quoted by Eileen M. Duffey about his thirty plus years of making Long Island wines: “We were compared to the West Coast, so people thought the wines fell short instead of appreciating them for what they were: elegant, with natural acidity. The kind of wines that made Bordeaux and Burgundy famous.”
Bedell’s current incarnation is certainly one of the most cerebral and beautiful of the North Fork wine projects – ranging from the detailed analysis of soil conditions and cross-section explaining this to the renowned artists who design Bedell’s labels which include Barbara Kruger. The quality of the wines are consistent with all of this, a fact made clear by the choice of the Merlot to be served at president Obama’s inaugural lunch.
But back to Trent: several years ago he took a leave of absence to do a PHD at Cornell in enology – studying the taste impacts of increased yield and (in his words) debunking the myth that you had to reduce yield for taste. His is an analytic scientific mind which also appreciates the art of wine-making. We talked of the profound importance of family-owned or individual-owned wineries in the creation of true wine culture. We talked of the challenges of generational succession. We talked about the challenge that the high real estate prices are putting on the North Fork. It is no accident that Trent is currently Chairman of the Board of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation and Vice Chairman of WineAmerica: Trent sees the big picture and all the details.
The vast majority of eastern Long Island wineries are on the North Fork. The soil of the South Fork is sandier and the South Fork has more direct exposure to the ocean. We travelled by Shelter Island to get from Greenport to Sag Harbor. Shelter Island is the classic New England coastal island – hauntingly beautiful in winter with its centuries-old houses that speak both to its maritime past and role as an idyllic summer getaway.
Even in the rain the difference between the North Fork and South Fork is immediately evident. Here the landscape is not one of farms and wineries, but of large estates. The few wineries are not out of place – rather they are part of a different environment.
Channing Daughters’s winemaker Larry Perrine has been involved in eastern Long Island winemaking for thirty years and has collaborated on projects with many of the area’s luminaries, including Olsen-Harbich. The hallmark of Channing Daughters are their many small-batch wines. It would be impossible to accurately describe them all. We enjoyed two remaining roses (they make a total of seven), yet perhaps the most exciting (and unique) thing we tasted at Channing was their “Pet-Nat” (Petillant Naturel) sparklings. The wines clearly evidence Perrine’s joy of experimentation and exploration of variations.
The South Fork is known as a social place so perhaps it was not surprising that we had our most social visit at Channing Daughters, where we met Taylor Rose Berry and her husband Michael. A Long Island native, Taylor owns the bookstore (Harbor Books), in Sag Harbor. A community which as she says is passionate about reading. She is a huge fan of Channing and acted as our second wine educator while offering opinions on books and life. Our convivial afternoon caused us to miss going into Herzog & DeMeuron’s Parrish Museum – fortunately it can be enjoyed as a piece of architecture from the exterior – in both its restraint and sophistication.
Our last winery visit was to Wolffer Estate, which is perhaps the most grand of the Long Island wineries. We arrived in the dark, and it is certainly a far cry from the North Fork wineries – existing more at the scale of Mondavi in Napa Valley. Going through the winery out onto their large covered porch, our eyes were caught by a dramatic winter lighting of the vines, which is an art piece in itself. We decided to wait to have some of the Wolffer wines with dinner at their restaurant in Sag Harbor.
Taylor had insisted we stop by the American Hotel in Sag Harbor. It was as if we walked into a New Yorker Cover – a perfect expression. Wolffer Kitchen opened last summer, and our prix fixe meal was excellent. The main – a chicken saltimbocca that was crispy, salty, and juicy all at the same time – was accompanied by the Wolffer red, and was a treat. Impressive for a winery to take on a project like this, showing that wineries continue to understand the evolving importance of hospitality in building their brand.
Our memorable dinner concluded a fabulous trip to the East End. This first dive into Long Island wine opened our eyes to the region’s richness and complexity, while affording us an introduction to its impressive cast of characters. We thank all who made our trip such a great success, and look forward to many future returns!