The evolution of Long Island winemaking

From left to right: winemakers Kareem Massoud, Rich Olsen-Harbich, Eric Fry and Roman Roth. (Credit: David Benthal)

“There wasn’t any guidebook to make wine on Long Island.” 

That’s a quote from Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars, referring to  when he started making wine locally in the 1980s. 

In those days, most of the textbooks and how-to focused on California winemaking — or were in French or German. The handful of local winemakers here at the time had to kind of figure things out as they went along. Many of the decisions they made weren’t entirely their own. 

“Back then the most popular style of chardonnay was the big, sweet and oaky versions coming out of the West,” Olsen-Harbich said. Some of us tried to make wines like those. That was what the market wanted.”

Even the modern technology so common at every winery today was unavailable or unattainable a few decades ago. Those jacketed stainless steel tanks that afford winemakers complete control over the temperature? Olsen-Harbich didn’t have one at the now-defunct winery he first worked at on the South Fork. 

“All my wines were cooled during fermentation through the use of cool well water, which I used by wrapping soaker hoses around stainless tanks,” he said. “It sounds quaint now and many natural wine producers eschew the use of refrigeration today — but at the time, it was just what I had to do.”

The vines at Corey Creek Vineyards in Southold. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

The netting that every Long Island grape grower uses in late summer through harvest to keep birds from eating the ripening grapes also wasn’t around yet. As such, decisions about when to pick your grapes sometimes came down to simply getting your crop in before the birds devoured it — which means you probably picked before the grapes were as ripe as you’d like them to be.

A lot has changed in the 40-plus years since Alex and Louisa Hargrave planted and founded Long Island’s first commercial vineyard and winery in 1973. The region has fought hard, vintage by vintage, to earn its reputation for producing distinctive, delicious wines. 

Something as simple as bird netting has made a big difference. Generally, grapes that are allowed to ripen, fully lead to superior wines. 

Beyond netting, vineyard techniques have been honed to razor precision to not only ripen grapes fully, but also mitigate the risks of humidity-related vineyard maladies. 

“Twenty years ago we did not practice the rigorous leaf removal around the cluster zone so those early reds had a high amount of pyrazines,” said Wölffer Estate principal and winemaker Roman Roth, as he thought back to his entry into Long Island wine in the 1990s. “Now we do very early and thorough leaf removals and the resulting wines are much riper and lusher, yet still elegant and vibrant. Climate change has (also) pushed harvest dates forward by 2 to 3 weeks. This has generally resulted in harvesting riper grapes.”

It’s not just how the grapes are being grown differently that has improved wine quality. It’s also what is being grown. 

“One of — if not the most — important developments has been the understanding and planting of new clone/rootstock combinations in the vineyard,” says Olsen-Harbich. “We know a lot more about these now and also where to plant them. The original plantings on Long Island were not always the best clones or rootstocks. This development, along with more finesse in the cellar have led to the uptick in quality.”

Advances in technology — and the investments needed to make them — have also been important. 

“Over the last 20 years, we have seen a strong commitment by several winery owners to give their teams everything they need to succeed,” said Paumanok Vineyards’ Kareem Massoud, Long Island’s first second-generation winemaker. Of course, the senior partner — Mother Nature — must be on board as well, as she was in several vintages over the past 20 years. In our case, we have made significant investments in equipment for both the vineyard and the cellar that have allowed us to get to the next level.”

Though every winemaker interviewed for this story focused heavily on the improvements their grape-growing colleagues have made in the vineyard, changes in the cellar have made a big difference too.

From left: Tom Spotteck, Anthony Nappa, Robin Epperson-McCarthy, Kelly Koch and Dean Babiar. (Credit: David Benthal)

One of the North Fork’s newest winemakers, Jamesport Vineyards’ Dean Babiar, said in just his few years here he’s seeing that winemakers are “realizing less is more, less systematic.” 

“I think the wines have a little more soul,” he said.

Kelly Koch, a California native who serves as head winemaker at Macari Vineyards, agreed with that sentiment.

“Winemakers are listening to the fruit more and showing more restraint in the cellar,” she said.

Olsen-Harbich has seen this shift too, particularly with how much less new oak is used today.

“The terroir was also not as well understood then as it is today,” he added. “Different lots of the same fruit from different vineyards were often blended together by variety and not kept separate by site. This separation was not as common then and is an extremely important aspect of winemaking today.”

Veteran winemakers like Olsen-Harbich, Roth and Lenz Winery’s Eric Fry have worked for years to make Long Island wine what it is today — a premier wine-growing region in North America. But the next generation, people like Babiar, Koch, Raphael’s Anthony Nappa, Saltbird Cellars’ Robin Epperson-McCarthy and Lenz assistant winemaker Tom Spotteck — who is taking over for the retiring Fry — will write the region’s next chapter. 

“Growing up local and then working with several talented winemakers on Long Island gave me the understanding and appreciation for the wonderful wines being produced here,” said Epperson-McCarthy, who has also made wine in New Zealand, Australia and California. “Traveling beyond the known philosophy to other regions to experience other wine cultures enabled me to discover my own style and explore what Saltbird Cellars wines can be within the context of the North Fork AVA (American Viticulture Area).”

Koch, who now serves as head winemaker at Macari Vineyards after previously working at Bedell Cellars exemplifies what Long Island needs to continue its growth. She grew up in California wine country, went to school there and then gained experience elsewhere before she got here. She’s taking all of that experience and building upon what was already here. 

Lenz Winery merlot harvest

Vineyard workers harvest merlot at The Lenz Winery in Peconic. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

“I came here with my own experiences from other regions, and was able to observe, take everything in and learn for a bit before I was in a head winemaker role,” she said. “Kip Bedell’s mentorship during that period and beyond was invaluable to me both from a personal and professional standpoint.” 

It’s important to remember that wine — even wine that continues to improve — isn’t made in a vacuum. As Long Island wine has evolved, so too has the surrounding wine culture — including the people buying these local wines. 

“People are getting better at drinking wine. Their tastes are more sophisticated and minds are more open,” Babiar said. “People aren’t scared to try new things. This lets us push everything a little further.”

Massoud, who straddles the two distinct generations of winemaker on the East End, having taken over the winemaking duties from his father in the early 2000s, has seen changes in and out of the cellar first-hand — and expects them to continue well into the future. 

“We will continue to experiment with different methods in the vineyard and in the cellar,” he said. “What will guide our path forward, above all, is deliciousness.”

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  • This article is a must-read for anyone who is seriously interested in the wines of Long Island. The historical perspective that it provides is important to understanding how Long Island wines evolved to where they are today: world-class wines of unique distinction.