There is a trend for artisanal food producers in Long Island Wine Country, a region once dominated by vegetable farms now giving way to small-batch coffee roasters, a U-shuck oyster shack and an antique fire engine-turned-pizza truck.
Young people tired of waiting for the perfect job in their industry or second homeowners looking to live on the North Fork full time are forging their own career paths. They’re betting that they can build a brand around a niche concept or create a new take on a familiar product.
Robin Epperson-McCarthy, who has spent more than a decade working in viticulture both on the North Fork and abroad, is the latest entrepreneur to make that wager
Epperson-McCarthy, 34, recently launched her own wine label, Saltbird Cellars, releasing 300 cases of stainless steel-fermented sauvignon blanc, barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc and stainless steel-fermented chardonnay.
“It’s a very liberating process after waiting for a winemaking job after all these years,” said Epperson-McCarthy, who makes her wine at Premium Wine Group in Mattituck. “It’s very exciting, for sure.”
For Epperson-McCarthy, who is also director of education and senior sommelier for Roanoke Vineyards, the label’s moniker was nearly as important as its taste.
“I knew I didn’t want to call it ‘Robin’s Cellars,’” she said.
Instead, she selected Saltbird, a nod to her love of the water she was raised near (she’s been an avid sailor for years), as well as a play on her name’s aviary connotation.
One of Saltbird’s first wines, a barrel-fermented 2014 sauvignon blanc, goes by the name Miagratus.
“It means to migrate, but it also means to return,” she said. “It means to go away, but have been changed.”
The name refers to Epperson-McCarthy’s own meandering journey. She has worked harvests in Australia, New Zealand and California as well as stints at Martha Clara Vineyards and Shinn Estate Vineyards. She also served as lab director for Premium Wine Group for nine years.
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Miagratus was fermented in a neutral oak, making the woody taste almost imperceptible.
“The point wasn’t to give it that oak flavor,” she said. Instead, the semi-permeable wood allows for some of the liquid to evaporate — a process known as the angel’s share — producing a more concentrated wine, among other benefits. The end result is a yeasty wine with hints of lemon and a big mouthful of acidity.
The grapes for Miagratus were sourced from Macari Vineyards’ Bergen Road vineyard in Mattituck. The bountiful harvest of 2014 meant even a first-time buyer like Epperson-McCarthy had access to quality grapes — that is if they have connections and a little bit of luck.
“I got some very good fruit from some very good friends,” she said.
As for the other two wines, the stainless steel fermented sauvignon blanc is an elegant white with flavors of lemon, lime, the New Zealand fruit feijoa and a hint of grass. Those grapes were sourced from Mudd Vineyards.
The third wine, a stainless steel-fermented chardonnay with hints of beeswax and lemon cookie, was sourced from a site managed by Mudd Vineyards in Southold.
Its style is very different than a heavily oaked California chardonnay that many American wine drinkers might be accustomed to.
“Long Island wine, when it’s done in this style, is so great with food,” she said.
If there is a common thread among these wines, it is that they express the best characteristics of those Long Island grapes.
Two hundred cases of a fourth wine, a merlot cabernet sauvignon blend by the name of Harbinger, will be released next year.
“Robins are messengers of things to come,” Epperson McCarthy said. “That’s from my father-in-law [Andrew McCarthy], who is a scrabble master.”
Epperson-McCarthy thanks her husband, Andrew McCarthy, and close friend Alie Shaper, president and winemaker at Brooklyn Oenology, for their encouragement in her new venture.
“I have the best support network,” she said.
Saltbird Cellars is available at saltbirdcellars.com, Browder’s Birds located at 405 Soundview Avenue in Mattituck, Brooklyn Oenology located at 209 Wythe Ave. in Brooklyn and The Winemaker Studio located at 2885 Peconic Lane in Peconic. It will also be available at the North Fork Crush event on June 27.