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The starter culture at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

At Bedell Cellars, every cellar employee has a hand — or more specifically, a flower petal, leaf or sea shell — in making the wines each harvest.

That’s because winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich has started a tradition that increases the types of natural yeast used in the fermentation process by incorporating North Fork plants and minerals foraged by the staff.

At Bedell, the entire lineup of wines is fermented without adding commercial yeast, a process known as wild fermentation. Grapes already contain yeast, which eat the sugar in the grapes and turn it into alcohol, but many winemakers use commercially grown yeast for consistency in the finished product (among other reasons).

To increase the varieties of wild yeast used, Olsen-Harbich and Bedell staffers contribute a piece of North Fork flora, maybe a blade of grass or a foraged beach plum, and add it to some fresh pressed grape juice. About five gallons of this mixture are added to every 1,000 gallons of wine.

The starter culture at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

As the mixture is poured into the tanks and barrels, more fresh grape juice is added.

“When you take some out [of the mixture,] you need to add some fresh juice back in to keep it going,” Olsen-Harbich explained. “Its kind of like a sourdough starter.”

Adding this starter to the wines is not necessary for fermentation, but the culture does help kickstart the process, he said.

And using indigenous yeast, in Olsen-Harbich’s opinion, also helps make wine that is a truer expression of North Fork terroir.

“I think there’s a taste as well as a textural difference,” he said. “Native yeast tends to leave a little bit more mouth feel and little bit more complex aromatics. Maybe a little more earth, a little more reflective of where the fruit was actually grown.”