Deep in the rows of vines at Palmer Vineyards in Riverhead, a small team works vigorously to open the canopy of leaves so the grape bunches can have as much access as possible to the sun. They must remove the leaves, reposition every cluster of grapes and thin out the crop by cutting the right grape bunches before they ripen — and then repeat the task for each and every vine. In any year, it’s a job that requires precision and determination. But this year, special care has been taken: The workers are wearing masks and staying in their own rows, socially distanced from each other, with hand sanitizer readily available and used often when there is a reason to remove one’s gloves.
Like many industries, the wine business is finding itself in difficult, unstable times; some wine producers are doing well in the era of COVID-19 while others are barely surviving.
Well-known wine regions have experienced a major disruption in 2020, with sales in Champagne, for example, experiencing a one-third plummet in sales. Americans are buying plenty of wine in retail stores but significantly less in restaurants. Kristen Reitzell, VP of public relations for Jackson Family Wines, noted that she has seen an increase in trusted brand names such as Kendall-Jackson, because COVID-19 makes it difficult to hand-sell a smaller producer in many U.S. markets. Wineries that host weddings have seen that business evaporate with an unclear date for its return.
When it comes to making the harvest safe for the workers at Long Island wineries, Kareem Massoud, president of Long Island Wine Country and the winemaker of Palmer and Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue, said that the “big change over prior years is that everyone will be required to wear a mask at all times.” On the South Fork, many of the same protocols have been put in place at Wölffer Estate, says partner and winemaker Roman Roth. The winery is prepared to tighten protocols even further if needed.
We cannot afford to have work stop during harvest. When the grapes are ripe, they need to be picked.Roman Roth
Gabriella Macari, who runs various aspects of Macari Vineyards & Winery in Mattituck, brought to light a surprising challenge: housing for the winery’s interns. As more people in New York City are finding themselves working from home and living outside of the city, there has been a “massive increase in rental demand in the North Fork,” she said.
Wineries are going the extra mile to be safe in the cellar as well. Massoud explained that just as in the vineyards, the handful of cellar workers are required to wear masks and gloves at all times. The cellar is already very well ventilated due to the carbon dioxide created during fermentation, which can be dangerous in an enclosed space.
Wine producers have always sanitized equipment before and after use. “We’re a type of business that typically works very clean anyways,” noted Richard Olsen-Harbich, one of the founders of the North Fork AVA established in 1985 and the winemaker at Bedell Cellars. A clean environment equals high-quality wines.
Winemakers are superstitious about making predictions before the grapes are picked. That said, when we spoke in mid-August, Olsen-Harbich of Bedell Cellars indicated that it was looking “very promising” as the weather had been hot and very dry. Massoud, too, could not help but express his cautiously positive anticipation for a high quality 2020 vintage.
In a typical, wetter growing season, the Long Island area is ideal for low-alcohol whites, rosé, and light reds, wines with intense aromatics and freshness with overall elegance. But the climate can be challenging for bigger red wines. Many like to compare the climate of Long Island vineyards to those in the Bordeaux region of France, and they have the same positives and negatives. The cool climate region in the East End of Long Island can have challenges with ripening big, robust red varieties such as cabernet sauvignon; that’s why it makes sense for the area’s winemakers to produce Bordeaux-style blends, using grapes like merlot to give their cool-climate cabernets more fruit and weight to the body.
In a hot, dry vintage, the cabernet sauvignon can achieve enough ripeness of the flesh, seeds and skins of the grapes to make big, red wines with intense concentration and silky tannins. There’s more warmth, sunlight hours and less disease pressure, such as mildew, due to the drier weather. Macari was excited to share that because of the “outstanding weather” they are planning on making their “top Bordeaux-style red blends.” And when one thinks of the recent great vintages of Bordeaux, they have always involved having a hotter, drier season.
The South Fork, which is typically more humid than the North Fork, greatly benefited from a drier season. Said Roth of Wölffer Estate: “We hope that we will be blessed with another ten weeks of dry and sunny weather and may have a chance to even top 2019” — which he proclaimed the best vintage he has worked since 1992.
A healthy, generous crop combined with lesser demand might raise questions about sales, especially with many New York restaurants just scraping by and some already closing their doors. But Massoud said
his sales targets had “more or less” been hit, thanks in part to a healthier restaurant scene locally and a series of weekly flash sales, and so he welcomes the upcoming 2020 vintage.
Olsen-Harbich said that they still have plenty of demand for their wines from those customers who feel a personal connection to the winery. Macari and Roth agreed, both saying their winery’s strong and loyal following, including wine club members, has helped to balance out their loss in restaurant sales.”
All of the producers said they could not be more grateful for the tireless work of their teams and the support from their fans stepping up to buy more local wine. They’ve also found new purpose as essential businesses. “Our wines have brought a bit of cheer to our customers during these worrisome days,” said Roth, “and as a result, we feel very lucky.”
For Massoud, the word of this harvest is resilience. “As an agricultural community, resilience is a great word because there’s few adjectives that define a farmer better than resilient,” he said. The accumulated wisdom in the wine community has never been broader or deeper, he argued, and the area itself is booming. “People who used to come out to the North Fork from time to time are moving here, because they recognize that this is a very special place where people want to live and raise a family, and that’s exciting for the wine industry. There is tragedy and a sense of despair and suffering that we’ve seen in 2020, but there is also hope and excitement about what’s happening.”