Editor’s note: This story will be published in the fall 2014 northforker Long Island Wine Press. The issue hits newsstands October 8.
Before David Page makes a farm-to-table breakfast for guests staying at Shinn Estate Vineyards & Farmhouse Bed and Breakfast, he and his wife, Barbara Shinn, take an early-morning stroll through their ripening vineyard. It’s a daily — and important — ritual for the pair, as they stop to sample the golden sauvignon blanc grapes and inspect the white yeast coating the fleshy fruit.
“We’re sort of in a holding pattern,” Shinn said while touring the vines on a cloudless September morning as the couple’s border collie, Panda, followed. “I feel like I’m in a plane circling JFK.”
There are still 10 days left before they’ll gather up the sav blanc that will soon be made into Shinn Estate Vineyards wines, like the tangy white blend Coalescence. And there are still nearly two months until merlot and cabernet franc can be harvested.
It will be the 13th harvest for the Mattituck vineyard, which is a member of Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, of which Shinn is a founder. And they will produce about 6,000 cases of vino.
Using the lunar calendar as a compass, as is preferred under the biodynamic farming method, Shinn and Page are waiting for the perfect time to reap the varietals.
There are tools like refractometers and hydrometers to gauge sugar content, but of higher importance in judging ripeness are clues determined by the senses. That includes factors like whether the grape makes a clean break from the pedicle, the color of its seeds and how easily those seeds separate from the pulp in one’s mouth.
“The seeds will turn from green to this beautiful chestnut brown,” Shinn said as she compared the green, pliable seeds of an unripened petit verdot grape with those of a hard, dark, almost-ready-to-pick sauvignon blanc. “If you’re crunching on a green seed, it’s going to be very astringent. Like a tea that’s too strong.”
Work in the vineyard, from when the bud sprouts its first pea-like grape in July to when the fruit is picked in the fall, sets the stage for the quality of the finished product. Page, who will work with the vineyard’s winemaker, Patrick Caserta, to turn the fruit into the winery’s award-winning wines, noted that the grapes should taste as good on the vine as they do in the glass.
“Wine is not made. It is grown,” he said.
Page refuses to compare 2014 grapes with the harvest of years’ past and doesn’t give thought to whether the season is running later compared to other years.
“I have given up on quantifying the quality of the vintage,” he said. “I can give you all kinds of reasons why 2010 is not a perfect vintage. I can give you reasons why it is. What it is, though, is the 2010 vintage.”
The taste of the berry evolves over the season, Page said. A merlot grape might change from a white plum taste, to red plum, to dark plum, while a sauvignon blanc grape moves from the citrusy, tart flavor of a lemon or lime to that of a ripe pear.
The scent of the vineyard can also hint at grape quality.
“The vineyard should always smell like autumn [during harvest],” Shinn said. “It should smell like dried leaves. Like a natural ecological system. I want to make sure I’m not smelling fermentation or decay.”
Another clue that harvest is approaching: dozens of starlings perched on the electric line with their eyes fixed on the grapes. On this particular day, Shinn takes out a small pistol and blasts a screeching flare in their direction, exciting Panda and scattering the birds away.
Shinn Estate Vineyards is a biodynamic farm, meaning Shinn and Page practice a holistic approach, letting the ground cover grow naturally and fostering a beneficial bug habitat (insect-eating bugs chow down on plant-eating bugs).
They are waiting to harvest under an ascending moon, which Shinn said can affect the mineral content of the fruit. They also take constellations into account, which Page said was a common practice for farmers of his grandfather’s generation.
“We love to harvest our wines under a fire constellation so the fruit has much more energy to it,” Shinn said.
While she admitted the lunar cycle might not necessarily make an impact on the wine’s taste, the effect can be felt in its spirit.
“If a wine has that life force that Barbara is describing, you are not likely to spit it out,” Page said.