Robin Epperson-McCarthy and Alie Shaper named their company, Chronicle Wines, for the story behind every bottle. They get energy from the individual expression of each grape, the one-on-one exchange with customers in their storefront tasting room and the personal meaning behind each of the labels under the Chronicle umbrella, including Epperson-McCarthy’s Saltbird Cellars; Shaper’s As If Wines, Brooklyn Oenology and Haywater Cove; and the Chronicle wine and line of CANette spritzers they create together.
But 2020 was a whole new drama.
“I just can’t believe how many times we’ve had to reinvent this business in one year,” said Shaper, who was in Australia from February to August 2020 with her husband, an Aussie winemaker whose growing season happens during our winter. “Here it is early March and things are falling apart. How do we reinvent when one of the partners is on the other side of the world?”
In some ways, Chronicle’s unique set-up gave them a head start. “Thankfully we had already been transitioning the business online when the tasting rooms got shut down,” said Epperson-McCarthy. “The pandemic forced our customers to make that shift with us.” Because Shaper works remotely part of the year, their business was already in the cloud. A former manufacturing engineer, she had built a second online store by the end of March 2020 that allowed Chronicle to sell wine in many more states. Epperson-McCarthy took her daughter out of preschool and brought her to work. (“A few boxes may have gone out with custom artwork drawn on them,” she said.)
Adding wine tastings over Instagram Live and Zoom felt natural too, because conversation is core to their brand. Customers can often find one or both women — or another knowledgeable wine geek — behind the counter at Chronicle Wines at the Peconic Cellar Door, their newly reopened tasting room housed in a former market on Peconic Lane.
“Especially during COVID, I don’t know how people did it without a business partner,” said Epperson-McCarthy. On days when one of the pair was feeling burned out, the other stepped up. With existential business decisions happening daily, there was always someone with whom to talk things through. “Sometimes you just need a sounding board,” said Shaper. “We are good friends too, literally work wives, so you have to pick what is important and you have to have open discussion constantly, constantly, constantly.”
The pair has a natural, frank rapport. They’re both attuned to the casual sexism of being underestimated; despite their success, people still ask who actually makes their wine. They work passionately to help women up the ladder behind them, but also look forward to a day when they are asked more about being winemakers than they are about being women.
Mostly, their partnership endures because it improves the wine. Shaper founded Brooklyn Oenology in 2006, and in 2014 Saltbird started under the BOE label. “Originally the intention was to split, “but the more we worked together, the stronger we became,” said Epperson-McCarthy. So in 2019 they renamed the company Chronicle Wines and brought their brands under one umbrella. “The wines become better because we are tasting each other’s wines and we are learning from each other,” she said. “It’s combination of experience out here, education and also working overseas and coming back with that knowledge and applying it locally.”
For Epperson-McCarthy, time in New Zealand — as well as 11 years in Long Island, more than six of them running the Premium Wine Group Lab in Mattituck — has informed her mastery of sauvignon blanc. She’s especially excited about the new 2019 Saltbird sauvignon blanc, which is not a grassy New Zealand–style wine, but something a little fatter and fruitier that reflects the North Fork’s maritime climate.
Shaper, meanwhile, has a way with rosé. In 2015, she was hired as winemaker at Croteaux Vineyards in Southold based on the strength of her BOE rosé — made from one of her favorite grapes, cabernet franc. The following year, she took a trip to the south of France to study with the world’s only master of wine who specializes in rosé. Her time in Provence led to the epiphany that its seaside terroir is not so very different from our own.
Her newest release is Spark, a red blend under the As If label that is a nod to the North Fork winemakers who came before her. “A spark is a genesis. And it’s a point at which you realize a destiny,” she said. “It’s a classic blend of merlot and cabernet franc, the two hero red grapes that have defined the East End. It provided the foundation for this region to grow, because we needed something successful to make our mark on this world.”
It’s also a wine that has Shaper reflecting on the start of her own story — and how far she and her partner have come. “I remember tasting my first merlot-cabernet franc blend before I was a local winemaker here,” she said. “It was one of the many little moments in my personal history that said, ‘Hmm, maybe this is what I want to do for the rest of it.’ So that was the spark. And here I am. The company will be 15 years old this summer. All it takes is one little spark to send you in a direction that generates possibilities and aspirations of all kinds.”