New Yorkers live in one of the greatest winemaking states of our nation, yet we lack the close bond to our local wine market that, say, San Franciscans have with Sonoma or Napa. In an effort to start a dialogue with the winemakers of our backyard and spotlight the delicious juice being made only a few hours’ drive away, we are pursuing a series of interviews with fellow resident vintners.
Every summer, I carve out a weekend or two to spend in the North Fork of Long Island. The once homegrown wine community has transformed into a world class region over the last fifteen years. Where former potato farms have been converted into vineyards, and barns into tasting rooms, this slender, picturesque extension of the island into the sea now boasts 56 producers. Recognition of Long Island’s success extends far beyond New York or the East Coast; just last week, a notable California winemaker confessed to coveting the North Fork’s climate, ripening window, and water resources, illustrating that our grass may actually be greener.
I chatted about Long Island wine with Russell Hearn, chief winemaker for Lieb Cellars and a former Australian, lured to the Eastern seaboard decades ago by a girl.
Hearn has spent the last 24 years on the North Fork earning accolades for his winemaking efforts principally at Pellegrini Vineyards, while also consulting for Lieb Cellars. He eventually switched hats to make Lieb’s wine full-time and consult for Pelligrini (his consultancy for Pellegrini ended in 2012). Hearn is also a founding partner and director of winemaking at Premium Wine Group (PWG), the only custom-crush facility on the East Coast, and produces a personal label with his wife Sue (that same woman that brought him East) called Suhru.
Why did you decide to plant yourself in Long Island after traveling and working in vineyards around the world, especially after growing up in Australia?
I did an exchange working harvests in Burgundy, New Zealand, and the USA to gain additional experience outside of Australian conditions. During my exchange in New Zealand, I met an American girl and came to visit her the following year. She has been my wife for 29 years. She’s from Massachusetts, so our preference was to work on the East Coast. After two years in Virginia, we moved to Long Island where we have been ever since.
What did you learn from the winemaking community in Australia?
Australian wines are all about showing off fruit intensity and vibrancy, not heavy-handed winemaking, and Australian winemakers seek to establish a style of wine and repeat this style consistently; I believe I emulate that in all the wines I make.
What do you see as the great potential of Long Island? What has been realized and what still needs work?
The North Fork is the pre-eminent wine region of the East Coast. Due to its maritime climate we are able to fully ripen the selection of vinifera grapes that flourish here. The water’s influence moderates the cold winters and tempers the humidity of the east. Momentum from the last two decades especially needs to continue and vine maturity in the coming years alone will continue to drive improved quality.
What are the positives and pitfalls of working in the region, e.g., weather, disease pressures, cost of land, etc.?
The maritime influences and the well-drained light textured soils are critical. Land pricing and costs to do business on Long Island are challenging; however, our proximity to such a huge wine-consuming market is also a tremendous plus. East Coast humidity, even next to the ocean, is a constant challenge, one that drives so many of our viticultural practices; however, this is a positive as it greatly improves our fruit quality.
What do you think is the region’s signature grape? Why does this variety do so well in the North Fork?
Merlot is our signature grape. Many grapes flourish and are made by the 56 wineries of Long Island; however, the one grape that is universally suited to all vineyards and is produced very well by most wineries is Merlot. Merlot does not grow to the highest quality in many regions around the world, which also brings attention to our region.
Are there other varieties you think show promise there but haven’t yet been explored extensively?
There are small plantings of other varieties, like our Cabernet Franc, which is ripening beautifully. Chardonnay is a main stay, Pinot Blanc should be more widely planted, and Sauvignon Blanc is developing very nicely. Malbec, as a blending variety, should be more widely planted. Tannat would interest me greatly.
Are there sub-regions of the North Fork?
What is the dominant soil type?
We have two types: haven loam, which is slightly heavier and has a higher water-holding capacity than riverhead sandy loam. Both soils lay over a bed of stratified sand and gravel, are well-drained, and have low natural fertility. Both are a mix of sand, silt, and clay.
Winemaking takes all forms: From non-intervention, hands-off winemaking, to running highly technical analyses of the wine’s development and perceived needs and deficiencies, from vineyard to bottle. Where does your style fall in the spectrum and why?
Although I am very much a technician, my goal is to allow the vineyard variations and varietal purity to stand out and ‘be the wine.’ So, I am an interventionist but with a light touch or influence. I am squeaky clean, however; you won’t find ‘funk’ in my wines.
How old are the regions’ vines? Do you think they are still young, just now showing potential, or in a stage of maturity?
There are several vineyards with 30 to 35-year-old vines; however, an equally large amount of acreage is in the 12 to 18 year range. More of the better grapes (especially red grapes) are in these younger vineyards as a wider selection of clones were made available during the era of their planting. Additionally, knowledge of which rootstocks to use and what vine density worked best, were utilized in the middle 1990s and onwards.
What kind of experimenting in the winery are you doing, if any?
I am always looking at different yeast strains, the use of pre-fermentation cold soaking on our red grapes, trialing different barrels. All of these are ongoing experiments.
Are you working on any new projects?
In 2014, we started a recyclable keg program for three wines, and also began packaging wines in a three-liter bag-n-box.
Do you feel the wine regions of New York are as connected to NYC, for example, as those of California are to San Fran? If not, why do you believe this disconnect exists and persists?
No. Several wineries in our region are very well connected; however, as a larger group, some lethargy persists within the industry. Size is a factor; most are small and we all wear too many hats. Growing and making the wines consumes the largest chunk of time, so the marketing and outreach works gets missed.
What excites you most about the Long Island/North Fork wine industry right now?
The depth of quality has never been stronger and is getting stronger every year.
What do you drink at home when not drinking NY wine?
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Alto Adige whites (more Pinot Grigio), Margaret River Bordeaux blends, and Shiraz. And I do like Zinfandel (but not the high alcohol, fruit bombs) from regions like El Dorado Foothills.
What do you do in your free time, assuming you have any?
Sailing, tennis, downhill skiing, and I am a gardener.
If you could be traveling anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
I just got back last week from two weeks in Italy: one in Tuscany and one in the Alto Adige/Dolomites region. Both were spectacular, and I would love to explore them again.
Give one surprising fact about yourself.
I don’t like drinking Chardonnay even though I believe I make very good Chardonnay. In my wine cellar at home, out of the 1,000+ bottles I own, there is not one bottle of Chardonnay.