Ask winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich about his career and he will liken creating a fine vintage to improvising a jazz melody.
“You can play the classic songs over and over the same way if you want to – but that gets boring and it’s uncreative,” said Olsen-Harbich, who has been making Long Island wine for 30 years, currently for Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue. “It’s way more interesting to play them differently every time. Adding your own riffs and developing your own style along the way.”
The depth of Olsen-Harbich’s experience on Long Island has given him the confidence to be an intuitive winemaker — his colleagues call him “the architect” for his persistent efforts to define and refine our region’s wines. Although he didn’t grow up in a winery, both of his parents come from wine producing regions: his father from Moravia, Austria (now part of the Czech Republic), and his mother from the Nahe region in the Rheinland, Germany. But it wasn’t until Olsen-Harbich went to Cornell University to study agriculture in the early 1980s that he became excited by the wines made by Hermann Wiemer in the nearby Finger Lakes region.
“I saw what he was doing and tasted his wines and it just hit me that this is what I wanted to do,” he said. “I think it was in my genetic code waiting for the right moment to appear.”
In 1983, that genetic code was called into action when Olsen-Harbich landed a job as winemaker and general manager at a new vineyard called Bridgehampton Winery. The winery was owned by Lyle Greenfield, an enterprising jingle writer whose marketing savvy led him to choose property for his vineyard on the South Fork, to be close to his wealthy target customers. His property, in a low spot along the Sag Harbor-Bridgehampton Turnpike, had a water table unsuitably close to the surface for grapes.
When Olsen-Harbich took on the job of vintner at Bridgehampton, he had to wrangle a crop out of the damp land while simultaneously making and marketing its wines.
“We had to buy a lot of fruit from the North Fork as the vineyard was marginal. I learned a great deal about different sites and the varieties that were being planted,” he said. “It was where I learned how to make wine. It was less about style at that time and more about making ripe, clean and solid wines. The style part came later on as we learned more about techniques in the vineyard and cellar.
“The main thing I saw was that some wines just made themselves,” he continued. “Wines like merlot and chardonnay which needed no help whatsoever in the cellar and were beautiful almost every year. That was a revelation at the time.”
Olsen-Harbich is especially proud of the 1988 barrel-fermented Chardonnay he made for Bridgehampton, using fruit from Gristina Vineyards in Cutchogue. And he should be — that wine won a place on the 1990 Wine Spectator Top 100 list.
While at Bridgehampton in 1984, he also took the lead in establishing the Hamptons and later the North Fork as federally recognized American Viticultural Areas. The application for each AVA required analyzing and documenting climate and soil data and presenting historical facts that prove the unique qualities of each AVA, he learned.
“Bottom line was The Hamptons and North Fork have two completely different soils created by two separate glacial events. The climate on the North Fork is also warmer with a slightly longer growing season,” he said.