At its core, wine — at least the kind of wine made here on Long Island — is an agricultural product. The gross oversimplification of how wine is made is: You grow grapes. You crush those grapes. Yeast turns the resulting juice into wine. It may not seem like a creative endeavor and to some it’s not. There are as many different approaches to winemaking as there are winemakers.
For Bedell Cellars winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich and assistant winemaker Marin Brennan, winemaking is a balancing act of agriculture, science and art. “Take one of these factors away and quality is greatly reduced,” said Olsen-Harbich, adding, “In the cellar, creativity and exploration often go hand in hand.”
Winemakers make a lot of decisions in their cellars. How and when do you press the grapes? Do you use ambient yeasts to ferment the juice or do you use commercially propagated yeast? Where do you ferment the wine — in stainless steel? French or American oak? New oak or older oak?
Each one of those decisions is part of the creative — and scientific — process of winemaking.
“We aren’t modern artists who are trying to reimagine reality,” said Olsen-Harbich. “We’re more like classical realists who are trying to capture a moment and a place in time. At other times we’re like jazz musicians who are trying to get the best out of a certain moment — in our case, a region where vintage conditions change every single year. The biggest thing to remember is that Mother Nature is the ultimate creative director so we need to take what she has given us and nurture it as best we can until it goes into the bottle.”
Bedell Cellars offers excellent examples of North Fork staples like merlot, cabernet franc, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and rosé. But the winery’s sister tasting room, Corey Creek Tap Room, offers the winemaking even more opportunity to try new things and explore what Long Island wine can be. “The Tap Room has really allowed us to spread our creative wings,” said Olsen-Harbich. “Because all of the wines are served on tap and in small batches, we can afford to take more chances and push the envelope on what our region can do.”
Brennan, who has been working with Olsen-Harbich for more than a decade now, is the driving force behind many of the Tap Room’s more unique offerings. “Rich is my sounding board that I bounce all of my creative ideas off of,” Brennan said. “He’ll ask me to talk through my thought process with questions along the way, offer advice if needed and then say, ‘Go for it!’ ”
In 2020, Brennan made a series of rosés made from 100% syrah, 100% cabernet sauvignon and 100% malbec, as well as a white cabernet franc that, by looking at it, you’d never guess was made from red wine grapes. She also made a fresh, bright red wine entirely from malbec by employing a technique called carbonic maceration — a method that involves filling a sealed vessel with carbon dioxide and then adding whole grape bunches. In this environment, the berries begin to ferment from the inside before they are crushed.
Brennan also made what might be the most unique wine I’ve tasted in more than a decade writing about Long Island wine: Tap Room Tea.
“I was running wine analysis in the lab and was boiling water for afternoon tea and decided to try a fruit tea instead of green tea,” Brennan said. “The aromatics filled the room and I immediately thought this tea should be mixed with rosé.”
The base is 100% cabernet franc rosé, fermented with ambient yeasts in stainless steel. “I used the base wine in trials with different brands of tea, looking to complement the wine and not compete with it. The tea that I found to work the best in my trials was a premium British fruit-flavored herbal tea that has berry botanicals and hibiscus flowers,” said Brennan.
From there, she ran some trials involving different amounts of tea and different steeping times to find the right balance between the wine and the tea’s aromatics and tannin. “[The] steeping time was quick as I wanted to extract the tea aromatics with as little tannin as possible. I had Rich taste it blind and [he] was impressed when I revealed that I added tea to rosé. The result is a completely unique creation and a whole new take on local rosé.”
Such an “out there” idea wouldn’t fly at most wineries, but Olsen-Harbich encourages his team to try new things. “Marin is so dedicated and passionate about winemaking and she really wants to push the envelope on style and creativity,” said Olsen-Harbich. “She represents the future of the Long Island wine industry and I’m quite confident she will help take our region to the next level in the years to come.”