Eric Fry, who has made wine for The Lenz Winery in Peconic for the past 25 years, entered the business by being in the right place at the right time.
After earning a dual degree in microbiology and psychology from the University of Indiana, he fled the Midwest for California in 1976, as Bob Dylan would say, “no direction home.” He wasn’t particularly interested in wine, but needed a job that would use his training, so he made up a list of Napa Valley wineries and went knocking on doors.
The first winery he tried was the Robert Mondavi Winery, founded 10 years earlier by Napa’s most forward-thinking vintner.
“When I knocked on the door and said I was a microbiologist looking for work, the woman who opened it freaked out,” he said. “‘Wait right here,’ she told me. A few minutes later, Mondavi hired me. That very morning, the winery’s board had met to discuss a problem they were having with brettanomyces [a spoilage yeast]. They needed help, fast.”
In the five years Fry worked in Mondavi’s lab, he analyzed wines and recorded data.
“I was a purist then,” he explains. “I’d swear to everyone that I’d never be a winemaker because it’s b******t. I’d see the wishy-washy winemakers debating about some blend and think, ‘That’s not science!’”
Fry began to think differently about winemaking when he took a year off to explore Europe, working his way from the Pyrenees to the Alps. In Archachon, on the Atlantic coast of Bordeaux, he took a job gathering oysters. While waiting for the tides to change, he fed himself on the bivalves he had gathered, and gained two things that informed the rest of his career: patience and a love of briny, tangy flavors.
A harvest stint at the Moulin des Costes winery in Provence took him out of the lab and into the less analytic realm of the cellar, while the late harvest in
Cognac saw him analyzing alcohol samples again.
While in France, he woke up one morning and, as he tells it, “had a revelation.” He could think in French. He could keep up with the winemakers. And flavor, aroma, mouthfeel — those were more important than analytic data.
When harvest ended in France, Fry went skiing in the Alps until his money ran out. Back in California, he took a job at Jordan, part time in the lab, and part time in the cellar. Now, he wanted something new. He wanted to make wine. And he wanted to be in charge.
In 1985, luck was with Fry once again. Jordan’s wine consultant was André Tchelistcheff, a Russian-born, Czech and French-trained enologist who, in Napa since 1939, had introduced most of the innovations that brought real quality to California wine since Prohibition, including cold fermentation, French oak barrels, and controlled malo-lactic fermentation. Tchelistcheff enjoyed his role as mentor and suggested Fry
go east to work with Dr. Konstantin Frank, one of Tchelistcheff’s fellow-Russian colleagues.
Dr. Frank had succeeded in growing European wine grapes (vitis vinifera) in the Finger Lakes, in the face of centuries of failed attempts by others to grow these cold-sensitive varieties. Charming in a stubbornly cranky way, Dr. Frank was archrival to the grape specialists at Cornell. Now ready to retire, he welcomed Eric Fry as a young winemaker — untainted by the politics of upstate viticulture — who might continue his mission to make fine European-style wines in the face of entrenched nay-sayers.
Fry found the independence he sought while working at Dr. Frank’s. Then, in 1989, after four years in the Finger Lakes, he got a call from Peter Carroll, a New York businessman who had bought the Lenz Winery in Peconic after the Lenzes themselves moved to California.
“Peter Carroll needed a winemaker,” Fry recalls. “When he asked for advice for someone, I thought about it, and I recommended myself.
“I knew a little about Long Island, but I hadn’t been there. When I visited, I liked what I saw and tasted, and thought, this works for me.”
Fast forward 25 years and winemaking at Lenz still works for Fry. He, vineyard manager Sam McCollough, and sales manager Tom Morgan have worked together for so long they respect each others’ domains and share the same goal of making delicious wines. It’s an unusual partnership in which the Carroll family has permitted his team to reduce yields, hold wines in inventory for aging, and niche-market them at affordable prices — all decisions that increase the quality of the wines.
“We protect the concept of quality wine,” Fry said. “At Lenz, if at the end of the season a wine doesn’t come up to par, I just declassify it — make it less expensive.”
As a winemaker, Fry has fully evolved away from scientific data to relying instead on his intuition, taste and experience.
“I haven’t checked [total acidity] in 20-plus years,” he says. “If you get a number and it says everything is right, but the wine tastes wrong, what do you do? I ignore the number and fix the wine.”
At Lenz, all of Fry’s wines are varietal, meaning that they bear the name of the grape they are made from, with some leeway for traditional Bordeaux blending, but no branded blends. While other wineries have moved toward blends, Fry says, “I prefer varietal wines. I think merlot is wonderful. And I enjoy that little constraint of keeping to the nature of the grape itself.”
With his years of experience, Fry has learned, “You have to make wine you like. Don’t try to please the masses. You can’t please everyone.”
“We are here to please people that actually care,” he said. “Those who come back to Lenz are those we want to please. Other wineries here are building loyal clientele in the same way.”
Fry has bought a sheep farm in upstate New York, but he’s not ready to retire yet. He enjoys making wine at Lenz and continues to fine-tune his style there. When asked what he sees in the future for Long Island wine, he laughs.
“I’m positive and amused, in a good way, by the antics of the young new whippersnappers making wine here,” he said. “These guys are passionate the way we were 20 years ago. Old farts like me — the old guard — are entrenched. They have to break out of those trenches and make bizarre things, like orange wine.
“Me, I’m not as nuts as I used to be.”
This profile was originally published in the summer 2014 edition of the northforker Long Island Wine Press