Things are pretty weird at Southold Farm and Cellar‘s makeshift winemaking facility in Peconic.
But the Southold-based vineyard — one of Long Island’s newest wine producers with a promise to grow “weird” Italian grapes not common on the East End — has never been one for convention.
For one, the ad hoc operation is held under a sideless tent behind The Lenz Winery and there are no paid employees helping out.
And then there is the fact that winemaker Regan Meador and his father-in-law Steve O’Connor (who owns a stake in the venture) are standing knee-deep in wooden apple-picking bins filled with fermenting cabernet franc grapes, turning the clusters into juice with their feet.
Meador, who owns the business with his wife Carey, is performing “whole cluster fermentation” where grapes along with their pedicels and rachis (commonly referred to as stems) are fermented together. Grapes are typically mechanically de-stemmed and crushed before fermentation.
While whole cluster fermentation and foot stomping (also known as pigeage à pied) are common winemaking techniques in places like Burgundy and the Loire Valley, they are decidedly less so on the North Fork.
Whole cluster fermentation, Meador says, allows for some of the berries to ferment while they are still inside the skin. And foot stomping is gentler on the grapes than machinery, so there is less tannin extraction.
“That’s why we do this, otherwise we couldn’t get everything crushed the way we wanted to,” Meador said. “We’ll do this [stomping] once a day for three days.”
But don’t worry about the cleanliness of Meador’s toes, he said. Bacteria is killed by alcohol and the grapes are likely dirtier than feet anyway.
It is the first homestead harvest for the nearly three-year-old vineyard. The Meadors’ maturing vines have yielded goldmuskateller, a white grape which has never been commercially grown on the East End before, as well as uncommon Long Island red varieties like lagrien, teroldego and syrah. They also purchase cabernet franc grapes grown at Rex Farr’s organic vineyard The Farrm in Calverton.
Once the cabernet franc grapes O’Connor is currently stomping are ready, destemmed and non-destemmed grapes are placed in a bin. Carbon dioxide released from the fermenting juice begins to ferment the rest of the batch. This process, known as semi-carbonic maceration, yields a rounder fruit and more approachable tannin than traditional cab franc.
“I like the profile of the wine a little bit better,” Meador said. “You get a more fruit forwardness with the carbonic effect. It gives the wine a different dimension that I think works very well with the variety.”
Lenz winemaker Eric Fry, wearing his trademark denim overalls and long white ponytail, walks by and ribs Meador for undertaking the time intensive process. It’s not something he would choose to do himself.
“I’m actually in the 21st century,” the veteran winemaker said.
About a dozen wooden crates lined with plastic stand under the tent. Each box contains about three quarters of a ton of grapes all turning from grape juice to very young vino at their own pace.
“Each one of these I have to monitor for fermentation,” Meador said of the crates. “That’s why Eric keeps walking past and laughing.”
Though Meador doesn’t have anyone on the payroll to help with the stomping, a few friends and family members have been know to stop by.
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On a recent afternoon, North Fork Roasting Co. co-owner Jess Dunne and her friend Tracy Weiss, author of the blog northforkd.com, dropped in to lend a hand, or rather, foot. Even the Meadors’ 2-year-old daughter, Coralai, and seven-month-old son, Sawyer, have gotten in the bins to stomp.
While Meador acknowledges that the improvised facility is less than ideal — he is currently working with Southold Town to build a permanent facility on his 23-acre Southold property — it is a working solution for the 2015 harvest.
He plans to also make some of his wine traditionally with de-stemmed as well as using partially de-stemmed clusters.
It is not clear how many different types of wine will be bottled — Meador will blend these results and see what he comes up with — though he expects to release about 1,500 cases from the 2015 vintage. He will not release any varietal whites this year as the white vines took a hit in the winter. He said it would be very difficult to make a white wine under the tent. He will, however, release a goldmuskateller and syrah blend.
“I’m kinda letting [the wine] lead the way,” he said.