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Alice Wise at Cornell Cooperative Extention’s research vineyard. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

By the time Alice Wise finished her M.S. in viticulture at Cornell University in 1987, she figured she’d eventually have to make her way west to California, the hotbed of the American wine industry, to put her degree to use.

Until she found herself on the North Fork of Long Island.

“My boss said ‘Go to Long Island, you know, just go get your feet wet,’ ” Wise recalled recently.

Fifteen years earlier, Louisa and Alex Hargrave took an enormous risk by planting the first Vitis vinifera vines on the North Fork — the inciting moment that paved the way for a new domestic winemaking region now celebrating its 50th anniversary. 

Today, the region is home to nearly 50 wineries and more than 3,000 acres of grape vines — the overwhelming majority of rows still planted with vinifera varieties — the types of grapes grown throughout Europe and the Old World that become the wines you’ve likely tasted or at least heard of: merlot, cabernet franc, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and so on.

Today, on a small plot of land set back between Sound and Horton avenues in Riverhead, Wise toils away in a vineyard planted with relatively little-known grapes.

The “research vineyard,” as it’s referred to, is where Wise explores, uncovers and pushes the limits to what grape growing means on Long Island.

Upon her arrival to the area, Wise, 63, began working for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County before stepping away from the organization in 1990 to work in the local grape industry under the tutelage of vineyard manager Sam McCullough. 

“It was really terrific, because he taught me the nuts and bolts of farming — the day to day stuff: drive a tractor, operate equipment,” Wise said. “I don’t know that I would have had the confidence really to go forward here with a vineyard had I not worked with him.” 

When she returned to CCE Suffolk the following year, she was charged with conducting viticulture research, and the research vineyard was born.

“Based on an industry survey as well as having meetings with growers, it was decided that a variety trial would be of most value, to see how various varieties did in an eastern maritime climate with sandy soils,” Wise explained.

Grafting began in 1992 and the first vines went into the ground in ’93. “It took a few years to fully plant the vineyard as it was done on a lean budget, complemented by donations from [the] industry,” Wise said.

The 2-acre site has since evolved into a living laboratory that works in symbiosis with the broader wine industry. 

While half of the vineyard is dedicated to vinifera varieties, the second acre consists of hybrid varieties: crosses between U.S. grape species and European vinifera. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Some of the most mature vines in the vineyard are vinifera varieties; clones of the noble grapes that are the most widely grown on the North Fork alongside some less-common vinifera too.

At Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich led the charge to plant auxerrois and verdejo, both lesser-known white grapes that were tested at CCE Suffolk. After success during a trial, vines went into the ground at Bedell in 2018 and the first vintages of each were released in 2020. So far, Olsen-Harbich is pleased with the results.

“It shows the importance of how strong a research program can be to a region,” he said. “It’s always interesting to see what the boundaries of our terroir are — what is possible, and what is not. It’s important to have that framework for the future that’s been established through Alice’s work.”

Wise’s research is a critical resource when it comes to vineyard decision-making. After all, most vineyard managers aren’t planting large volumes of anything unless they’ve got a decent idea that it’ll work, especially when factoring in the huge economic risk.

Today, it can cost between $20,000 and $30,000 to plant just one acre of vinifera vines — and that doesn’t factor in the hugely expensive price of land on the North Fork, where farmland can sell for upwards of $30,000 per acre. 

Fortunately, it’s easier today to learn from past mistakes of others and 50 years of trial-and-error than it was in 1973.

“Time is the great educator when it comes to learning about a wine region,” Olsen-Harbich said. “One of the best things about the research vineyard is that it’s shown us things we shouldn’t do very clearly, and has established some baselines.”

Like any science experiment, some vinifera trials have been successful, while others have produced less-than-ideal results.

“We’ve had vines that have come infected with virus. We’ve had challenges with that,” said Wise. “And some varieties that haven’t done well. I grew grenache. It basically just couldn’t ripen. And it was the same deal with nebbiolo. It just wasn’t warm enough — they thrive in California.”

While vinifera grapes produce the best wines in the world, a full acre of Wise’s research vineyard is dedicated to hybrid varieties: crosses between U.S. grape species and European vinifera, which tend to be less cold-hardy than native grapes and are more susceptible to pests and diseases. Phylloxera, insects that can destroy grapevines by attacking their roots, as well as powdery mildew and downy mildew are among the top challenges faced by vineyard managers — not to be confused, of course, with beneficial fungi like Botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot, which help turn the infected grapes into prized sweet wines.

In addition to disease and pest resistance, hybrids can be less costly to grow and lead to higher yields. But there are catches, too, from concerns over quality to employing different trellising and shoot positioning methods.

“The goal was to have the fine wine qualities of the vinifera and the hardiness — and some of the disease resistance — of the American parent,” Wise said. “There have been a lot of variable results over the years.”

What she is referring to is the end product; the grape juice that turns, fingers crossed, into a fine wine.

Among winemakers, particularly in Old World regions, there has been some hesitation to embrace hybrids — the new kids on the vineyard block. Some of that is for good reason. For a long time, they were not producing very good wines.

Through their trials, Wise and several winemakers on Long Island have set out to change that perception.

“[In Europe,] they’re the ones who think it’s vinifera or nothing else. And then there are [winemakers] who are saying ‘Look, we can grow these more profitably, they have some disease resistance, so we don’t have to spray for things like powdery mildew, or [spray] as much’,” said Wise. “I don’t think [hybrids] will ever replace vinifera here, but I’m hopeful that someone at some point will say, ‘I’m going to plant a block of this.’ ”

Alice Wise’s research is a critical resource when it comes to vineyard decision-making. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Earlier this year, Suhru Wines in Cutchogue made history by releasing La Crescent, a refreshing, citrusy white wine made from a blend of the eponymous hybrid grape along with golden muscatel, riesling and chardonnay.

The grapes were sourced from a vineyard off of Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes.

Suhru general manager Shelby Hearn agrees that hybrid varieties may never overtake vinifera in the North Fork vineyards — thus far, no one has planted them outside of Cornell’s property.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Hearn said. “ I am not aware of anyone who has them planted at the moment, but I could easily see that change in the future as grape mix on the island continues to diversify.”

In the face of climate change, hardier hybrids are appealing since they often require fewer pesticides to stave off disease.

Fortunately, there’s strong industry support and buy-in from local growers themselves, along with organizations such as the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, which helps match funds contributed to the research program.

“The project would have died a long time ago,” Wise said. ”I’m very lucky that they’ve been willing and able to support this.” 

You might be wondering how Wise, grape growers and winemakers evaluate the success of these trial varieties. Because, at the end of the day, what good is an experiment without analyzing the results?

Much of the fruit — anywhere from 100 to 300 pounds — harvested from the research vineyard is distributed to winemakers who are equally interested in innovation. 

Robin Epperson-McCarthy of Chronicle Wines and Saltbird Cellars took a share of last year’s harvest, using the grapes to create five unique, small-batch wines for the sake of science — and some lucky wine club members.

The wines were first tasted at an event dubbed “Wine Geeks” held at their Peconic tasting room in April. Four of them — fleurtai, soreli, arneis and petit manseng — were hybrid varieties, fermented in five-gallon carboys in a hands-off approach to winemaking.

“The research Alice does … could be the vines we grow in 10 years,” Epperson-McCarthy explained during the tasting, adding a caveat that the wine industry typically doesn’t chase trends due to the high investment of time and money it takes to plant a vineyard.

She acknowledges the lingering stubbornness, both from producers and consumers, when it comes to embracing hybrids. “The wine industry rarely breaks from tradition,” she said. “Hybrids have new flavor profiles that often break from traditional taste profiles and it requires a lot of education to introduce a new variety to a market.”

But Hearn — and many others — have begun to see a shift in consumer habits.

“Gone are the days of exclusively chardonnay drinkers or those who only drink [cabernet]. We are seeing a shift to a much more adventurous wine drinker who is eager to try something new,” she said.

Events like the Wine Geeks lecture are also important as they bring the CCE vineyard’s research together with a tasting to educate the public.

Ultimately, it isn’t up to Wise to decide whether these experimental varieties will be planted here. But her findings are an important resource for the industry in considering viable options.

Throughout the growing season, she compiles her research and weather data to keep winemakers abreast of conditions and helps compile a weekly e-newsletter each fall entitled the “Veraison to Harvest Report,” that encompasses wine regions statewide.

“This is mandatory reading during harvest to keep ourselves informed on what is going on beyond our own wine cellars,” Epperson-McCarthy said.

Though tasting wine is a great perk, Wise’s research covers far more ground than simply testing the viability of new vines.

You can look back centuries ago and find a 15th-century monk talking about literally the same things that we go out and discuss. There’s a commonality no matter where grapes are grown, to how you need to nurture and care and bring them to ripeness.

Alice Wise

She studies everything from fertilizers to nitrogen pollution, companion planting, soil health and pH levels, vine shoot positioning and a slew of other topics.

In early April, Wise and her team were preparing to plant a proprietary species of bluegrass bred in the western U.S. beneath the rows of vines.

“Soil health is a huge theme now. We’ve been looking at various cover crops that can be grown undervine,” Wise said. “It’s kind of a tall order, because there’s shade under there, number one; and number two, you want it to be competitive enough to keep weeds to a minimum but not too competitive with the vines.”

Other experiments have included using resin bags to study nitrate leaching and examining mycorrhizae, fungal roots that form beneficial relationships with many plants, including grapevines, and can help vines optimize nutrient absorption, increase growth and quality of yields.

There are a host of factors impacting the local wine industry, most of which are far from the minds of tasting room guests who swirl and sip.

Temperatures continue to warm and weather patterns shift, the threat of rising sea levels looms and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent as costs continue to rise and the region tackles crises that span housing, inflation and labor.

Mitigating the impact on the land and sea is at the top of Wise’s mind.

“The vineyard’s [test] wells have come up very clean. There’s never been an issue,” Wise said, explaining that testing across multiple vineyard sites has revealed low nitrates.

“There’s a very strong desire, both on the part of government and in the industry, to make sure that we maintain that. The biggest contributor to nitrates in groundwater are cesspools and septic systems. But we also need to do our part in agriculture.”

Sustainability is at the heart of Wise’s mission and her work has coincided with the efforts of Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, a not-for-profit organization that has worked to educate and codify sustainable practices for local growers since 2012.

At its founding it was the first-of-its-kind certified sustainable viticulture program on the East Coast and currently has about 20 members.

This year’s bud break was the second- or third-earliest Alice Wise can recall offhand in 31 years. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Among them is Bedell Cellars, and Olsen-Harbich has been on the forefront of sustainable practices in his over 40 years making wine in the region.

One of the things he’s most passionate about is preserving and embracing the unique terroir of the region. 

“[We’ve] got nothing in common with the West Coast whatsoever,” he said. “In terms of viticulture, it’s a completely different world.”

That interest and passion will be the subject of a forthcoming book entitled “Sun, Sea, Soil and Wine” that Olsen-Harbich is set to publish early next year.

Just-right microclimate conditions — warm and temperate with refreshing Atlantic winds and a lengthy growing season — have made the North Fork an optimal location for grapevines to thrive.

But winemakers, intrinsically in tune with changes in weather patterns and climate, have serious concerns about the industry’s viability in the face of a changing climate.

By mid-April this year, the vines in Wise’s test vineyard, across Long Island and even up into the Hudson Valley, appeared as if they would burst open at any moment, catapulting the 2023 season into full swing.

Throughout the region, bud break was officially recorded by the third week of April, the second- or third-earliest Wise can recall offhand in 31 years. 

Most agree that a potentially expanded growing season is one hypothetical short-term benefit of warming temperatures. “The ability to maybe ripen things that we’ve never ripened before,” Wise said, suggesting that the grenache and nebbiolo trialed two decades ago would perhaps fare better today.

“But that is paired with the fact that now, we get these freaky storms. That’s potentially devastating to the entire industry,” she said. “There’s a small amount of optimism and a huge amount of worry.”

From the 2022 research harvest, Olsen-Harbich made two batches of hybrid wines from regent grapes and Itasca, a white variety developed by the University of Minnesota, just like La Crescent.

Because hybrids can ripen earlier than vinifera, a huge amount of risk is alleviated during harvest — an exciting but nail-biting time in the vineyard due to unpredictable weather, birds and other factors.

“We’re looking at what can be grown here with the most sustainable practices possible,” he said. “With the least amount of chemical inputs, disease control, fertilization, irrigation — and still produce world-class wines.”

Olsen-Harbich describes both test wines as “pretty tasty.” (The empty test bottles in Wise’s office attest to that.) “But the jury’s still out on all of these things, qualitatively.”

As the region reaches its golden anniversary, there will be many reflections and celebrations on all that has been accomplished, and rightly so. But many are also looking ahead.

“At 50, we are a baby in the greater, global winegrowing community,” Epperson-McCarthy said. “But we are very well educated thanks to teachers like Alice.”

When speaking about her work in the vineyard, Wise is quick to dismiss any romanticized notions of tending to the vines.

In reality, it’s dirty, difficult, time consuming and labor intensive.

But those attributes — and how wine has evolved in tandem with civilization itself — have kept Wise invested in the work.

“You can look back centuries ago and find a 15th-century monk talking about literally the same things that we go out and discuss,” she said. “There’s a commonality no matter where grapes are grown, to how you need to nurture and care and bring them to ripeness.”

Wise has no firm plans to retire but is candid about the physical toll vineyard work can take.

As she reflects on her career so far, she jokes that she didn’t really intend to stay on Long Island very long.

Love is what ultimately kept her here — she married a vineyard manager, the late Ben Sisson, for whom Ben’s Blend at McCall Wines is named for even today — and the rest is history.

At one point, maneuvering a golf cart on a dirt path leading to her vineyard, Wise implied that it may be time to let the research site rest, particularly the oldest vinifera vines that have more than proved their worthiness on the North Fork. Then, her inevitable successor will have a blank slate; a tilled vineyard, and the next chapter to write.