Russell Hearn is a whirlwind, a dynamo, a mover and a shaker in the Long Island wine industry — in his own easygoing way.
Hearn began making wine in his native Australia, but came to America in 1990 in happy pursuit of an American woman (now his wife, Sue) he met in New Zealand during an internship. Finding work first in Virginia, then at Le Rêve Winery in Southampton, Hearn established his reputation as winemaker for Pellegrini Vineyards in Cutchogue from 1991 to 2012. He moved on to co-own and manage Long Island’s first custom crush facility, Mattituck’s Premium Wine Group (PWG) in 2000. Since 2007, he has also been co-owner of T’Jara Vineyards in Mattituck and in 2008 he and Sue began their own family brand, Suhru. Since 2012, he has also been the official winemaker for Lieb Family Cellars, his partners in Premium Wine Group.
Wine Spectator magazine has rewarded five of his Pellegrini Vineyards wines with a score of more than 90 points. Hugh Johnson, the influential British wine critic, called his winemaking there “inspired.”
“Pellegrini’s Merlot is opulent, its chardonnay stylish, and its cabernet sauvignon Bordeaux-like,” he wrote.
As important as Hearn is to Long Island’s wine industry, his garrulous, laid-back personality gives the impression that he’d just as soon chat all day about wine as mastermind a field. He is open and generous toward his colleagues in wine and has to be coaxed to crow about his own efforts. But don’t be fooled by this relaxed Aussie. He is fiercely organized and keeps several projects going at all times. Glitz and glory just don’t impress him.
Maybe that’s because Hearn was virtually born and bred in a winery. His mother worked for Australia’s second-largest winery (Sandalford Wines, est. 1852) and he grew up working summers there. Wineries are his comfort zone. First mentored in winemaking by John Reynolds and Bill Hardy at Houghton Wines (one of western Australia’s oldest wineries, with vines documented from 1835), Hearn has worked “exchange harvests” at wineries in Burgundy, New Zealand and the U.S. He pays tribute to the experience he gained in these disparate parts of the globe by continuing to mentor new winemakers here. He also travels widely, consulting and lecturing at trade conferences along the East Coast.
Hearn’s personal approach to wine is as no-nonsense as the man: fresh, clean and without artifice.
“Although I am a technical winemaker, I try to show off the quality of the fruit, not the winemaker. The riper the fruit, the more complexity the wine can handle, so I will adjust up and down my winemaker impact when the vintage allows,” he said. “I do not like fruit bomb, high alcohol wines and hate heavily oaked wines.”
At PWG, Hearn orchestrates the winemaking efforts of 18 independent wine brands, allocating time and equipment to each wine as needed. He says he finds satisfaction and pleasure in “the balance of the agricultural aspect in the vineyard and the science/art in the winery.”
“Everything that happens in the vineyard is to grow ‘wine,’ not grapes,” he said. “If that is achieved, then the potential is at its highest once it arrives at the winery.”
When PWG began 15 years ago, Hearn said the winemakers didn’t plan their efforts in advance. He compared the process to choreographing a ballet. And if a piece of equipment gets jammed up, or somebody isn’t ready to use the equipment when it’s ready, the dancers fall all over one another, so to speak.
“They didn’t think enough ahead to coordinate. Now they are more proactive; they see the flow,” he said. “What you do and how you do it is critical; when you do it is more important.”
Sharing its investment with many wine brands, PWG has state-of-the-art equipment, including temperature-controlled tanks, cross-flow filtration, reverse osmosis and pumps.
“[The pumps] are gentle enough to pump goldfish,” he said.
Hearn believes his custom crush facility allows small producers to make great wines.
“The benefits are huge. People can start a wine business without owning either vines or a winery,” he said.
In the midst of this year’s unusually bountiful harvest, “the tsunami of 2014,” as Hearn called it — he is surprised by how much he and his staff were able to accomplish. His management is about flexibility, he said. With a carefully planned layout, three stemmers and two presses, the winery can easily multitask the winemaking process.
Looking back at the changes that have occurred since he came to Long Island in 1990, Hearn applauds new vineyard practices that have yielded better fruit, including VSP [vertical shoot positioning], irrigation, leaf removal, new plantings at a closer density and varietal clones and rootstock more suited to the region. These improvements will lead to better wine quality as these vines age.
As much as he acknowledges that wine quality begins in the vineyard, Hearn is not impressed by “natural” wines that are fermented spontaneously by indigenous yeast.
“Natural wines are the best chance for failure; that is a fad right now,” he said. “The wines I consistently enjoy as a consumer give me consistency of style that I can depend on with my wallet, not the wild variability that comes from these wines. They are made by lazy winemakers looking for a story.”
As a region, Long Island’s potential is tied to the influence of the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay, with well-drained soils making it possible to grow premium vinifera varieties. To Hearn, merlot is the king of the North Fork, but he also favors cabernet franc and shiraz (aka syrah).
Recalling his years at Pellegrini Vineyards, Hearn is thankful for owner Bob Pellegrini’s “commitment to quality.” Looking to the future success of Long Island wines, Hearn applauds the region’s quality winemakers, singling out Roman Roth (Wölffer Estate), Eric Fry (The Lenz Winery) and Gilles Martin (Sparkling Pointe). As much as our quality has been proven, he emphatically believes we need “honest pricing” for Long Island wines to be more competitive in the marketplace.
What does he mean by that?
“It’s not one-upmanship,” he said. “In Napa, people have iconic pricing. They look at their neighbors’ prices and escalate from there. We need to relate our wines to cost of production and brand recognition. In the wholesale market, you’re up against the world.”
When Hearn decided to make his own brands, Suhru (a contraction of “Sue” and “Russ,”) and T’Jara, he deliberately styled them for easy drinking — and he prices them accessibly, too.
“To gain traction, we’ll take less to make friends,” he said.
With all his activities in the wine world, Hearn has plenty of friends. When asked where he gets the energy to make his own brands while managing PWG, he said it’s about expressing himself.
“T’Jara and Suhru maintain my creative side. I believe in the area and the ultimate expression of this commitment is to make my own wines,” he said. “It complicates my life, but it is my life. Why not?”
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.