Thomas Spotteck is settling in as head winemaker at Lenz

Thomas Spotteck is helming the winemaking process at Lenz in Peconic. (Credit: David Benthal)

The year 2018 was one of celebration and transition at The Lenz Winery in Peconic.

In its 40th year, the winery said goodbye to longtime winemaker Eric Fry, who helped the company establish itself as a respected producer of meticulously made estate-grown varietals.

In his final two years at Lenz, Fry, who was easily identifiable through his trademark long hair, beard and overalls, worked closely with assistant winemaker Thomas Spotteck, a 30-year-old Marine Corps veteran he groomed to take over the operation.

In 29 years at Lenz, Fry had become a stalwart in the local industry. And he was going to be replaced by a young man who wasn’t even born when his mentor began making wine in California and the Finger Lakes before arriving on the North Fork.

Still, there was much support for Spotteck from Fry and other longtime Lenz staffers.

“When Eric said he was retiring and said that Tom was the person for the job, we had an upper management powwow and decided it would be great to have him on board as our head winemaker,” recalled Lenz vineyard manager Sam McCullough, who worked alongside Fry for 29 years. “It is a new world and it is a good one.”

Spotteck was uniquely positioned to not only step in for Fry, but to evolve the winemaking process at Lenz. The two first met in 2011 when a 22-year-old Spotteck arrived on Shelter Island after serving two tours with the Marines. A Navy brat, Spotteck moved around often in his childhood but was drawn to Shelter Island, where his family was from originally.

Spotteck is experimenting with new varieties and blends. (Credit: David Benthal)

His love of fishing and an inherent interest in winemaking — his father is now a viticulturist in Virginia — made the East End an ideal place to lay down roots. He took a job at Lenz shortly after moving here and learned the ropes of the wine industry with Fry’s help.

“I started at the bottom of the totem pole here,” he said. “I have done pretty much everything: vineyard work, cellar work, working in the tasting room — I completely fell in love with it.”

Spotteck left Long Island in 2013 to attend Washington State University. He earned a degree in viticulture and oenology, later working at wineries in the Columbia Valley wine region in Washington State and under pioneering American vintner Zelma Long in the Stellenbosch region of South Africa.

“Eric and I kept in touch throughout that entire process. I was his longest intern,” Spotteck said with a laugh. “He was my personal mentor and even when I was elsewhere I would always consult with him about what I was doing.”

Fry — who was already considering retirement — offered Spotteck the assistant winemaker position in June 2016, slowly readying him for the transition into head winemaker.

“Our deal was that the first year I was here I would follow him around and the second year he would follow me around to make sure I didn’t mess anything up,” Spotteck said. “In July 2017, he went down to part time and worked two or three days a week. There is a lot of pressure because Eric Fry is one of the most respected winemakers on the East Coast. But I know I can do it because I studied under him.”

Lenz wine drinkers can expect changes in the vineyard’s 2019 releases and beyond. Spotteck’s passion for fishing — and his fiancée’s penchant for cooking — has inspired a rewrite of the winery’s chardonnay program. Lenz White and Gold label chardonnays will no longer be produced. These will be replaced by the Estate Selection label that Spotteck describes as a fruit-forward, less-oaky interpretation with brighter acidity.

“The [White and Gold label chardonnays] are by no means bad or wrong, they are just not the chardonnays I would necessarily go out and drink,” he explained. “I wanted to create the perfect wine to pair with fish or meals that you’d get on Long Island.”

The vintages at Lenz. (Credit: David Benthal)

Spotteck’s other pet projects include experimenting with malbec and syrah grapes. Sauvignon blanc, which Spotteck believes has the potential to be a showcase of the Long Island wine region, is another focus in the changing wine program.

“The pioneers have done a really great job of developing this region, but now it is time to hone in on the region and make it shine on its own,” Spotteck said. “In the past you’d hear about Bordeaux-style reds; I don’t want to make Bordeaux-like wines. I want to make Long Island wines.”

In the fall, McCullough and Spotteck worked together to identify the grapes that would be fermented and blended into the next vintage. The abysmally wet 2018 season presented its own brand of challenges, McCullough said. The grapes were slow to ripen due to the lack of sun and drenching rain, but Spotteck, McCullough pointed out, was quick to adapt the winemaking process: Hand sorting the red grapes to extract only the highest-quality fruit, for instance.

“It paid off in dividends,” McCullough said. “We got some really nice flavors in the red wines, better than we could have expected based on the weather. He was a little bummed because it was his first year and he thought [because of the weather impact on the crop] that people would say, ‘Tom came around and now the wine sucks.’ I told him to take it as an opportunity to learn and he really took off with it.”

The blending and experimenting are at the heart of Spotteck’s work, but they’re not the only aspects of the job he has embraced to the fullest. His goal is to be on a first-name basis with regulars and wine club members.

“You can just tell when you’re talking to him that he is really passionate about the wines and what’s to come,” said Jerol Bailey, the director of sales at Lenz. “That gives something for everyone to look forward to.”

czaweski@timesreview.com