Meet Your Winemaker: Kelly Urbanik Koch of Macari Vineyards

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Kelly Urbanik Koch moved to Long Island to make wine in 2006.

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Kelly Urbanik Koch moved to Long Island to make wine in 2006.

Every winemaker goes into hyper mode as harvest approaches. Who wouldn’t? The success of the entire year rests upon decisions made in a few weeks of frenzied activity.

For Kelly Urbanik Koch, the winemaker at Macari Vineyards in Mattituck, Vintage 2013 was the culmination of far more than a year’s tending of grapes and readying equipment for the crush. She and her fiancé, Rob Koch, chose Sept. 7 as their wedding day.

Kelly and Rob are careful, deliberate people. They wanted to marry in autumn, their favorite season on the North Fork. And they wanted her brother and sister-in-law, who had a baby in the summer, to be able to attend. So they chose a date two weeks before the historic start of picking. The spring started out cold and wet, and it looked like harvest might not begin until almost October. But August turned the season around, radically, with warm, dry days that accelerated ripening alarmingly. “It was the perfect late summer,” Kelly explained. Perfect, except that as her friends and family began to assemble from far and wide, Kelly decided that the picking of chardonnay for Macari’s popular “Early Wine” could not wait through the weekend.

TRY KELLY’S WINE

So on the morning of her wedding day, Kelly was at the winery, shepherding fruit into the press. No Bridezilla, Kelly laughed as she described the activity. “It was good for me,” she said. “It took my mind away. I didn’t have to stress … it went too fast!”

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Ms. Koch joined the staff at Macari in 2010.

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Kelly joined the staff at Macari in 2010.

Fortunately, Macari has a seasoned crew in the vineyard and cellar. They completed the day’s pressing while Kelly and Rob exchanged their vows and celebrated their big day—right there at Macari Vineyards. The wines served were all made at Macari by Kelly, with the addition of special bottles brought by friends and family from Kelly’s home in the Napa Valley.

That’s right; Kelly is a California native, born and bred in Napa wine country. Her ties to wine are both familial and professional, as she grew up helping out in her grandfather’s small vineyard, then studied viticulture and enology at California’s renowned UC/Davis. Wine wasn’t her only interest; she was a competitive volleyball player, too. When sports schedules conflicted with required lab studies, she elected to take an extra year, adding French as a minor. “It would have made more sense to study Spanish,” she explained, “but my best friend was Canadian and elected French because it was easy for her. I went along with her, though it was not easy for me!”

Kelly’s French studies paid off when she won an internship offered by the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin in Burgundy, which allowed her to work the 2003 harvest at Maison Louis Jadot. “2003 was the hottest vintage ever in Burgundy,” she recalls. “It was more like California than France. The French didn’t know what to do with their fruit … it came in as raisins and they turned to me and said, ‘What do we do with this?’ ”

Back in Napa in 2004, Kelly became assistant winemaker at Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros (Napa Valley). She enjoyed her work there, but her experience in France had given her a touch of wanderlust. In 2006 she answered a blind ad on winejobs.com for “assistant winemaker: Must be willing to relocate.”

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Ms. Koch grew up around wine in California's Napa Valley.

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Kelly grew up around wine in California’s Napa Valley.

The ad didn’t say where the job was; Kelly guessed it was probably in Oregon. But when Bedell Cellars’ current winemaker, Jon Levenberg (also a California native and Davis grad), called her back and then flew her to Long Island for an interview, Kelly had to wrestle with the idea of moving to what was, to her and her friends, an unknown wine region. Her dad encouraged her, saying, “Just do it. You’ll regret it if you don’t, and you can always come back.”

Figuring she’d try Long Island for a couple of years, Kelly made friends here by joining the “Rec League” volleyball team, where she met her future husband, Rob. A North Fork native, Rob was also friends with Kip Bedell’s sons. “The day after I met Rob,” Kelly said, ”I mentioned him to Kip at work. Kip said, ‘Rob’s a great guy. He saved my son’s life when he was swept into the sea at Orient Point.’ ”

At Bedell, Kelly took on the lead winemaker position in 2008 when Jon Levenberg left, then moved in 2010 to Macari, where she found the “hands-on” winemaking experience she enjoys most. “In California, winemakers are often on the road, selling wine, wishing they could be in the cellar,” she said. “Here, the winery is so small, we all work together on everything.”

Her experiences in California couldn’t prepare her for many of the differences in how fruit ripens here. Long Island’s humid climate puts more disease pressure on the grapes; yields are lower but the fruit satisfies her No. 1 goal: balance. She has the opportunity to explore different styles of wine at Macari and appreciates that the fruit is “not too flabby or acidic; not too tannic.” She also likes the vintage variations, saying, “I wouldn’t want to match a wine from vintage to vintage as big wineries do for marketing. Here, being distinctive, each wine evokes different memories.”

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | How many of these Macari wines have you tried?

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | How many of these Macari wines have you tried?

When Kelly first introduced her Napa winemaking friends to Long Island wines at a Sacramento conference, they were “totally impressed.” Some of them now make a yearly pilgrimage here and are interested in relocating.  “They love the wineries; they love the beaches—they had no idea!” she said.

At 12,000 cases a year, Macari is small enough to encourage experiments. The Macari family has followed biodynamic practices for many years, treating the vineyard and winery as part of a unified organic cycle following natural patterns. They encourage ideas from their international crew, who have brought experiences from South Africa, Austria, Germany, Chile, Argentina, Poland, Italy, Guatemala, Austria, France — and California. Their flags decorate Macari’s fermentation cellar.

For harvest 2013, Kelly is excited to have cutting-edge cement “egg” fermenters, new stainless steel tanks, a new basket press and 500-liter barrels. “Joe [Macari] keeps us happy,” Kelly said. “It’s a good fit for me.”

One of these days, maybe this winter, she and Rob will take a honeymoon.

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Macari is producing about 12,000 cases per year.

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Kelly and Macari are producing about 12,000 cases per year.