As a man in his 40s who commutes to work in a car, I don’t find myself on buses often. And as someone just over 6-foot-3 who probably weighs more than he should, I’m thankful for that.
But when Scott Sandell, creative director for Roanoke Vineyards, invited me to ride a bus with 20 or so wine club members to visit Red Hook Winery in — you guessed it — Red Hook, I jumped at the chance. Folding myself in half to fit into a bus seat is a small price to pay to visit one of New York’s more exciting producers.
I’m not a New York native, so I haven’t explored Brooklyn much in my life. This was my first visit to Red Hook and — wow. What a beautiful-but-still-a-little-gritty enclave.
From in front of the winery and tasting room, you can see New Jersey across the water. Out back, you can see Governor’s Island and the Statue of Liberty. But that doesn’t matter if the wines aren’t any good, right?
That’s not an issue. Though Red Hook Winery doesn’t have any vineyards of its own, but has long-standing relationships with North Fork vineyards you’ll recognize, like Macari, Jamesport, Palmer and Sannino Bella Vita. They’ve also purchased fruit from upstate in the past as well as other Long Island growers.
What’s most fascinating for someone like me — someone who is always looking to explore and learn more about Long Island’s terroir — is that Red Hook Winery is a single winery with three winemakers.
Those winemakers — Robert Foley, Abe Schoener and Christopher Nicolson — all work with the same fruit that comes in, but the resulting wines are decidedly different.
Foley and Schoener are well-known California winemakers. Both are well-regarded for their winemaking talent, though in diametrically opposing styles.
Foley, who has worked with labels like Markham, Pride Mountain Vineyards, Switchback Ridge, Hourglass, Paloma, School House, Engel Family, Dos Lagos, Padis and his own Robert Foley Vineyards brand, makes very “classic California” wines. He uses commercial yeasts to control fermentation. New oak is common in his wines. And when you taste his Red Hook wines, they almost taste like California wines painted with a Long Island brush. That’s most apparent in his Red Hook Winery 2014 Sannino Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
I assure you that you’ve never tasted Long Island cabernet expressed this way. It’s very forward and plush, with ripe fruit flavors. Tasted blind, I would probably say it was left coast, but it does have a certain balanced intensity and litheness instead of over-the-top extraction.
Schoener, a former philosophy professor, doesn’t use commercial yeasts and falls under the “new California” umbrella, working with different grapes and winemaking techniques for his own label, Scholium Project. He mostly uses older, neutral oak barrels, uses extended lees aging and skin contact for added texture and aromatics and pushes the envelope with nearly every wine he makes. I really enjoyed his Red Hook Winery 2013 Palmer Vineyards Steinertal, a blend of sauvignon blanc and pinot blanc, part of which was fermented on its skins in an orange wine style. It has a gently buttery edge, but is very bright and aromatic. Tropical and tree-fruit flavors are made more interesting by a beautiful white pepper note — all wrapped up in a texturally beautiful wine with just a little tannic grip.
Because Foley and Schoener live in California, Red Hook needed an on-site winemaker to tend to their wines day-to-day. That is Nicolson’s job, and he’s also making wines of his own as well. A fifth-generation Alaskan sockeye salmon fisherman, Nicolson brings yet another point of view to the operation. His wines seem to fall somewhere in between Foley’s and Schoener’s on the style continuum. He favors ambient yeast fermentation, but not as edgy as Schoener’s. The wines have a wonderful purity and transparency.
With his Red Hook Winery 2014 Macari Vineyards Cabernet Franc, Nicolson has made a lighter-bodied cabernet franc with lovely floral and faint herbal notes. Bright and fresh, it’s fruity but not jammy, with nice savory notes around the edges. It was made with 20 percent whole clusters, which adds a bit of complexity and woodsy spice even though the wine spent only 10 months in oak barrels before being bottled.
As we piled into the bus to head back east, I couldn’t help but think about the overused cliché that “great wine is made in the vineyard.” It’s true, of course, that without healthy, ripe fruit you can’t make great wine. But the winemaker matters more than is sometimes let on. Red Hook’s wines are all made from the same fruit, divided among the winemakers, and the wines couldn’t be more different. Maybe we need to change the cliché to something like “great wine starts in the vineyard.”