When Roman Roth enters a room, everyone smiles — his joie de vivre is contagious.
As winemaker at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, Roth wants you to enjoy what he enjoys. His generosity runs deep. And his wines reflect that happy depth of character.
Roth was born into the world of wine. In the village of Villingendorf in Rottweil, Germany, his father, Remigius Roth, was a cooper, winemaker and distiller who also ran a wine merchant business along with his mother, Rosa. Wine tastings and winery visits were part of family life.
“Good wine was cherished and discussed on a daily basis,” he said.
With their energy, spirit, and love of life, business and pleasure were one for the Roth family.
Determined to make his own career in wine, Roth left home in 1982 at the age of 16 to work as an apprentice in Oberrotweil, in southwest Germany (near Alsace). There, he said, wines are “rich and concentrated.”
Life as an apprentice was rugged. He recalls waking at 3 a.m. to pick frozen grapes for ice wine. But it was how he learned that great wine is made by guarding quality to the last drop. Constant vigilance with attention to detail were not optional.
With characteristic humility, Roth credits his boss, Manfred Bear, for guiding him through his German apprenticeship. By the time he was 20 in 1986, Roth followed his yearning to explore the outer reaches of the wine world and went to California, where he explored Napa and Sonoma and served a stint at the then-fledgling Saintsbury vineyard in the Carneros region. Although today Saintsbury is a well-established, highly regarded winery, in 1986 it was a new business begun by two men who had been buddies at University of California, Davis. Carneros only became an American Viticultural Area (AVA) — a designated wine grape growing region — in 1983; the Saintsbury “home vineyard” was planted the year Roth arrived.
“The energy and the adventurous attitude toward winemaking were very different to the traditional methods I knew, and appealed to me very much,” Roth said. “I realized that anything was possible, that old rules could be broken, and that the search for the right philosophy and style is the key to success in the new world.”
In 1988, Roth traveled from California to the other side of the planet, arriving at Australia’s Rosemount Estate. A mecca for aspiring international winemakers, many are drawn there by the gregarious openness of Rosemount’s winemaker, Philip Shaw. At Shaw’s Sunday suppers, where all the local winemakers spent hours debating the merits of wines, Roth recognized that “good food, good wine, good company and friendship” form the true basis for the culture of wine. More than any winemaking technique, this was a lesson he has carried and shared in his lifelong career.
When he returned to Germany after the Australian harvest of 1988, Roth continued refining his technical skills, working in Winzerkeller Wiesloch in Baden and, in 1992, finalizing his formal Master Winemaker and Cellarmaster credentials at Weinsberg. Having honed his knowledge of chemistry and biology and broadened his understanding of wines with both quality and longevity, he looked for a new arena in which he could challenge and further express himself. When Christian Wolffer, a German entrepreneur who had bought a 174-acre potato farm in Sagaponack as a speculative investment, offered Roth a chance to start a new vineyard and winery there, he jumped on it. Although he knew nothing about the region (“Long Island? What island?” was his initial reaction), Roth instinctively knew that Wolffer’s offer would give him an entrée into the American Dream. Here, he could translate his winemaking skills, with perfect freedom, into something that reflected his personal understanding of wine culture as a life of generous camaraderie.
It was more than a chance to make great wine. It was a chance to shape a region.
At Saintsbury, Roth had seen the beginning of Carneros as a distinctive viticultural area, with inspired winemakers adapting to unique conditions. The Hamptons was also a new AVA (established by Richard Olsen-Harbich, then winemaker at the Bridgehampton Winery, in 1984). Roth was excited to adapt his experience to Long Island.
“Being on the same latitude as Madrid or Naples, much farther south than the German or French vineyards and yet having the moderating cooling breeze from the Atlantic, is providing us with an amazing setup to aim for high-quality wines,” he said. “Our Bridgehampton Loam is an exceptional soil that has great drainage and a mineral quality that makes for very special wines.”
Initially, Wolffer developed his farm as an elite riding stable. When Roth arrived in Sagaponack the new vineyard, then called “Sag Pond,” was almost an afterthought. Roth made his first wines in a converted Quonset hut on a tiny, experimental scale. But once Wolffer understood the strength of Roth’s skill and vision, the two designed a state-of-the art winery.
It was the birth of Wölffer Estate, now one of Long Island’s leading showcases for premium wine.
At first, Wölffer’s “vineyards were young and the pH/acidity balance forced us to pick fruit much earlier compared to now,” Roth recalled. He credits “the great working relationship and the joint ambition that Christian Wolffer, vineyard manager Richie Pisacano and I have” to achieving “a constant raising of the bar.” Roth is also winemaker at Pisacano’s Roanoke Vineyards in Riverhead, which is also considered to be among the top echelon of Long Island wine producers.
He also credits his friendships with other Long Island vintners, especially those who befriended him in his earliest days (including Russell Hearn, Eric Fry, Rich Olsen-Harbich and the Massoud family). Roth, who serves as president of the Long Island Merlot Alliance, enjoys spearheading Long Island wine’s special events.
“Working together is the key to achieving great things. The Long Island Wine Council and the Long Island Merlot Alliance, as well as the Harvest East End event … all organize and amplify our message of quality,” he said. “By volunteering my time in these organizations I have learned a lot over the years and I think my colleagues have, too. Not doing so would be selfish and short-sighted.”
In his own winemaking, Roth has three major goals. They are to A) make food-friendly wine; B) make wines with character that are authentic to our region; and C) make wines with longevity.
“The key is to find a good balance and truth for each wine,” he said. “This is handcrafting the wines and very different to the standard commercial wines.”
With this vision, Roth has clearly established a reputation for producing top wines that can be judged against the highest standards. After visits to top producers in Burgundy, Bordeaux, and, again, California, he realized that he already had the quality he needed—the rest was marketing. In 2000, he released Long Island’s first $100 bottle, the 2000 Wölffer Premier Cru, to rave reviews. In 2006, he released his “garagiste” wines under his own label, The Grapes of Roth. His 2002 Merlot garnered 92 points, the highest score for a New York wine in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. In 2014, Wölffer’s new “Summer in a Bottle Rosé” sold out in less than a month.
Always at the forefront of the industry, Roth is excited by how consumers “increasingly focus on what they drink and want to experiment. Interest in locally made craft products gives us a chance to tell our story and show our unique wines that are much more interesting than mass-marketed producers.”
Since Christian Wolffer’s death in 2009, Roth has worked with Wolffer’s son Marc, daughter Joey, and her husband, Max Rohn (now Wölffer’s general manager) to expand and diversify the brand to typify the “esprit and elegance of the Hamptons season.” They have added sparkling cider, a petit verdot from Marc Wolffer’s farm in Mallorca, and, soon, the Hamptons’ first gin and brandy. He has also added a riesling to The Grapes of Roth, styling it after his beloved “concentrated/intense” Rheingau rieslings.
In 2013, Roth became a partner at Wölffer Estate and this year he looks forward to celebrating his 25th anniversary at the vineyard. For all the glamour and success of his wines, he still looks to simple pleasures.
What motivates Roth?
“At the end of a long day at harvest, to walk through the clean cellar and hear the bubbling (fermenting locks) of the barrel fermenting chardonnay is a great moment,” he said. “To hold in my hands a wine that has just been bottled and labeled, fresh from the line is a great feeling of achievement. To host a winemaker dinner at a great restaurant, sharing stories about the winery and each particular wine and interacting with the guests is a lot of fun.”
This story was originally published in the spring 2015 edition of The Long Island Wine Press