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.
These AVAs were vital because they give an enormous amount of credibility to a wine region, Olsen-Harbich said. Without it, producers can source fruit from elsewhere and still use the region’s name.
“I saw that as an unacceptable option to allow on Long Island,” he said.
In 1993, when its soggy land got the best of Bridgehampton Winery, he moved back to the North Fork and the vineyard was later sold to The Lenz Winery in Peconic.
Olsen-Harbich spent the next few years as winemaker and consultant for many other wineries, including (my own) Hargrave Vineyard, Jamesport Vineyards, Peconic Bay Winery, Schneider Vineyards, Broadfields Wine Cellars, Sherwood House Vineyards and Raphael.
When Raphael’s impressive new winery building in Peconic was completed in 1997, Olsen-Harbich became full-time winemaker there, working in concert with Raphael’s consultant, Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux. The focus at Raphael was on merlot and Bordeaux-style blends. Working there for 13 years, Olsen-Harbich’s confidence in the quality of his terroir led him to intervene less in the winery and increase attention to the vineyard.
“Back then, it was rare for a vineyard to hedge or trim their canopies,” he said. “Few people were doing leaf-pulling or using catch-wires. Bird-netting wasn’t a common practice until the late ’80s and early ’90s which made a huge difference in when we picked. We know so much more today about how to grow quality wine grapes.”
Having experimented with different degrees of oak aging and controlled or indigenous yeast fermentation, Olsen-Harbich likes to see the fruit speak for itself in the wine.
“The overriding trait to me is a saline minerality which is a subtle and beautiful attribute in most all of our wines,” he said. “Our terroir gives us everything we need. The result is wines that are moderate in alcohol with crisp acidity and great balance. This is what we do best and what so many other New World regions are desperately trying to achieve right now.”
In 2010, Olsen-Harbich became winemaker at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue. Here, he makes a range of wines, both varietal and blended.
“Varietals wines are dedicated to preserving all the positive characteristics of a single grape from a particular site, kind of like a solo piano or guitarist. It’s beautiful all on its own,” he said. “Making a blended wine is more like writing a symphony or piece of music for an entire orchestra. It has base notes and treble notes and lots of subtle and intricate details. It’s the accumulation of all you have in your cellar in order to make something more beautiful than the individual pieces on their own.”
What does he consider his greatest wine at Bedell? Right now, he says, it’s the 2010 Musée.
“It’s from the best vintage I’ve experienced on Long Island and it took dozens of blending trials and many months of work to finally complete,” he said. “It’s a real tour-de-force. A timeless legacy.”
Olsen-Harbich points to the next generation of Long Island winemakers — people like Kareem Massoud, Ed Harbes, Regan Meador and Gabriella Purita — and is happy that the legacy he helped establish will continue.
“The artistic side of winemaking to me is the most satisfying. The experience of blending and seeing a wine grow and develop before your eyes is very rewarding,” Olsen-Harbich said, “It’s also really satisfying to see people enjoying my wines, celebrating life, special occasions and getting happiness out of them. That’s really what it’s all about isn’t it?”
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.
This story was originally published in the fall 2014 edition of northforker Long Island Wine Press