As summer turns to fall, the focus at local wineries is on the harvest. For some larger operations, that means maybe a dozen workers manning the vineyards, gathering the bounty of the current vintage.
But for smaller producers, it might mean only a handful of people functioning together like a well-oiled machine to make for the best season.
That’s certainly the case at Mattebella Vineyards, a 15-acre family winery tucked away down a dirt driveway off Main Road in Southold.
At Mattebella, farming has always come first. In fact, it’s all the Tobin family initially planned to do when they purchased the property in 2005. Christine Tobin, who man- ages the vineyard, and her husband, Mark, who makes the wine, planned to grow their grapes for wholesale while they continued to learn about winemaking and raise their two children, Matt and Isabella, for whom the winery is named, at their home in Miami.
Their path to becoming a producer accelerated, however, when friend Ron Goerler Jr. of Jamesport Vineyards convinced the couple to make some of their own wine from the fruit of their labors. Mark, an eminent domain attorney in Miami who first learned to make wine with his wife’s family at their home in Westhampton, produced an Old World blend in his first go-round and has been at it ever since.
The couple would end up committing to their craft much earlier than they’d planned — their kids were still in grade school — and they opened the tasting room in 2011, when Christine moved to Long Island full time.
A change in plans, it turns out, is good training for harvest season, when you’re always battling the elements and the occasional mechanical hiccup.
Over the years, the experienced harvest crew, led by Christine, has learned it has to be ready for everything. There’s no such thing as a typical day during harvest, when bad weather is always a possibility.
“We’re always looking at the Doppler,” Christine laughed. “The biggest deter- rent is you can’t pick when it rains.”
Sometimes, that means making a judgment call on whether to pick fruit she’s not 100 percent sure is ready. The decision is always made the night before.
“If it looks like it’s going to pour for three days, you may decide to pick because you don’t want to put it through three days of rain and then you have to have a recovery period for three days,” she explained, add- ing that they are constantly tasting grapes to assess their readiness. “We’re always weighing quality issues relative to weather. Will we have better fruit after this rain?”
The one constant to a harvest is that efficiency is always the goal.
On the day of the pick, Christine will arrive at 9:30 a.m. with coffee and doughnuts in hand and one of many pairs of Hunter boots on her feet.
“If the grass is wet, your feet will get soaking wet,” she said. “[Hunter boots] are the only fashion statements I can possibly make.”
Like the Yankees of the late 1990s, Christine’s main crew is known as the “Core Four,” and includes one person who lived at the vineyard when they first purchased it and two more who joined the staff soon after.
Mark may hold the title of winemaker, but he knows what happens between the vines will ultimately determine what winds up on patrons’ tables in the following months and years.
“Great wine is made in the vineyard,” he said. “It’s mine to screw up. My wife drops stunning fruit on the crush pads … our staff cares as if every grape is theirs. When we do that, we’re able to make beautiful wine during extremely challenging years, and that’s rewarding.”
On days that require excessive picking, Christine will bring in a few extra hands. Harvest typically lasts six weeks, starting in mid-September and ending in October. The season used to last a bit longer, and Christine attributes the earlier ripening of the grapes to climate change.
The team typically picks grapes for rosé and white wine during the first three weeks, followed by the reds. After the fruit has been picked, the staff takes it to the garage on the property and sorts everything by hand again to be sure. Then the grapes go into the crusher/de-stem- mer before fermentation.
At that point in the process, Mark determines which grapes will age in oak.
“It just depends on the quality of the fruit, the fruit itself, whether or not it would warrant being fermented in oak,” Christine said.
Though Mark and Christine are always in communication, there’s a clear separation of church and state.
“Mark leaves the picking decisions to me,” Christine said. “I will decide when something is ready, and what the quality of the fruit is and he’ll make the decision on anything that has to do with the winemaking. I don’t get involved.”
On an easy day, Christine and the Core Four can wrap up around 1 p.m. For a larger pick, they might be out in the vineyards until closing time at the tasting room.
For this reason, the team often eats lunch or dinner together. One staff member will whip up chicken, rice, beans and a salad. Christine needs to get out of her work clothes ASAP so she “doesn’t have to go home sticky.” She’ll then head home to Westhampton, take a shower and sit down with some wine. Like harvest, what’s in her glass depends on the weather — rosés and white sparkling wines when it’s warm, reds when it’s cooler.
Once harvest ends in October, Christine is still a couple of months from being able to kick up her feet — the end of pumpkin-picking season brings large crowds to the tasting room, which she oversees, and the holidays are busy. She finally relaxes a bit in December with a sense of relief that the last batch of grapes is now fermenting.
“It’s a very gratifying feeling to have everything in safe,” she said. “There’s no more worrying or decision-making as far as picking is concerned.”
For Mark, the process will continue as fermentation carries on until the wines are ready to be bottled and served. The rosé hits the tasting room menu and shelves the following summer. Sparkling wines are available after about 18 months, while reserves take two years. The Old World blends are released five years after harvest.
When customers sip and savor, the Tobins want them to feel as if they are a part of the process. They, too, are family and the Tobins enjoy sharing the experience with them.
“We are dead serious about our wines, but it’s a passion, and we’re not elitist about it,” Mark said. “We learn from each other.”
Mattebella Vineyards is located at 46845 Main Road, Southold