By Annette Hinkle
The marriage of fine wine with great food is practically an art form in some circles. So with talk of Valentine’s Day still ringing in the air, it’s somewhat apropos that The American Hotel recently kicked off a three part dinner series that focuses on pairings.
But this isn’t a series about how food melds with wine — rather it offers an inside look at the way in which local winemakers pursue collaboration to explore the endless wine making possibilities on the East End.
Roman Roth, the winemaker at Wölffer Estate Vineyards in Sagaponack, and Richie Pisacano, owner of Roanoke Vineyards on the North Fork, took part in the first dinner last Thursday evening. Besides making wines for Wölffer (where he’s been the winemaker since 1992), like many winemakers in the region Roth also makes wine under his own label — The Grapes of Roth. Roth is also the consulting winemaker for Roanoke Vineyards and conversely, Pisacano works as Wölffer’s vineyard manager. The two have worked side by side for years and more than 60 guests joined the winemakers at the hotel last week to sample their special vintages and hear how their collective knowledge furthers each of their winemaking experiences.
The name of the dinner series is “Partners in Living Local” (two more evenings are planned in March and April) and it is the brainchild of Sag Harbor winemaker John Leo.
“The wine dinner is a new thing,” he explains. “A lot of wineries will promote themselves at a dinner, but my thought was there are so many interesting collaborations and if we use that as a theme to promote the wines we can promote ourselves individually as well.”
In the case of Roman Roth and Richie Pisacano, Leo explains how the two work together to further their collective efforts.
“Richie takes his grapes and brings them to Wölffer and Roman is his winemaker,” explains Leo. “Richie tells Roman what he’s aiming for — the style, whether it’s as ripe as possible, as gentle as possible, something that expresses his vineyard — and Roman goes with those ideas. He’ll say let’s not use packaged yeast, but natural spontaneous yeast to start fermentation. He’ll make wine in a style that’s different than The Grapes of Roth, and different than Wölffer.”
Though Leo notes there are only a certain number of variables that winemakers have at their disposal — things like fermentation, the type of barrel wine is aged in and grape selection — when it comes to results, the possibilities are endless.
“They know each other well,” adds Leo. “It’s a very trusting relationship.”
Leo should know. He’s a winemaker at Premium Wine Group on the North Fork, a contract facility which produces wine for a number of vineyards on the East End that have grapes, but no production equipment of their own. In 2004, he became the consulting winemaker for Clovis Point in Jamesport, one of Premium Wine Group’s clients. He also grows his own grapes to make wine under his personal label, Leo Family.
When it comes to the East End wine industry, people may be surprised to learn just how much collaboration there is. After all, in most industries, trade secrets are held close to the vest and sharing details of methodology and process is generally considered a business 101 no-no.
But Leo points out that the business of winemaking has a different flavor to it, so to speak, and he explains that when information is shared and winemakers branch out, things grow.
“I consult for Clovis Point and have my own label as well,” says Leo. “It’s not really a conflict, it helps them to be able to say, ‘Our winemaker has his own project.”
“Over the years, everything we do is a partnership,” he adds. “It’s not just the winemaker, it’s also the sales person and the owner funding it. We’re working together because of the collaborative aspect of the whole business — and then even opening a bottle of wine, you share it.”
“I wanted to focus on those partnerships. There are these spider webs of connections,” says Leo whose first job on the East End was with Roman Roth in 1994.
To that end, Leo explains that the collaborative nature offered in each of the three “Partners in Living Local” dinners will be a variation on the theme. While the first partnership focused on two winemakers, Roth and Pisacano, who have collaborated over the years, the next dinner, on March 22, will feature winemaking team Russell Hearn and his wife Sue.
Hearn, a native of Australia who has been involved in winemaking since the 1970s, is a partner in Premium Wine Group (where Leo now works) and began B&H Vineyard with friends in 2001. Now, after having built a successful marriage and raising children, Hearn and his wife Sue, a physical therapist by trade, have joined forces and in their talk at the hotel, they will share the story of starting their Suhuru line of wines and T’Jara, vintages bottled using grapes from B&H.
The third dinner in the series on April 26 will feature Hal Ginsburg, owner of Clovis Point, and Leo himself talking about Clovis Point vintages as well as the 2007 Leo Family Red, the first and so far, only, bottled vintage Leo has created under his label.
While collaboration has become fairly commonplace in winemaking on the East End, Leo remembers a time when it wasn’t quite so encouraged.
“Early on, in the ‘90s, it felt there was much more of a competitive edge among the owners, though not so much with the winemakers and vineyard managers,” recalls Leo whose first job on the East End was with Roman Roth in 1994. “The owners were proprietary about what they were doing, and most came from a successful business career in the city with the competitive spirit and saying I’m going to show the world I’m going to do better.”
“But we’re learning that we all benefit when we collaborate,” says Leo. “We could be competitive and keep secrets but it doesn’t benefit the region. There is a lot more collaboration today.”
While the first phase of wine growers on the North Fork with names like Hargrave, Bedell and Pindar got things going here in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Leo explains that a second wave of investment, represented by vineyards like Pellegrini, Paumanok and Gristina, built on those early successes by adding new grape varieties to see what the region could produce.
Though the future looks fairly bright these days, when winemaking first began on the East End, Leo concedes that it wasn’t certain this would be the next great growing region.
“There were some doubts then and there still are,” says Leo who notes that when it comes to comparison, the East End climate and growing conditions are most similar to Bordeaux. “The percentage for making great wine is very high. We’re learning what varieties work then choosing specific root stock and clones — vineyard things you have to do right. In the previous 10 to 15 years a lot of mistakes had been made.”
One important detail to emerge from all the trial and error over the years, notes Leo, is the success the region has had with merlot — it’s the grape that has really put the East End on the wine map.
“We were able to sell a lot of merlot when it became trendy for a while,” says Leo. “And then when it wasn’t, we looked at each other and said it’s still the best grape we grow out here, so forget the national trend and let’s make it our grape.”
“Every vineyard grows merlot out here,” he adds. “For Clovis Point and myself, 100 percent merlot is not as interesting as blended wines. Variety is something we’ve realized can make us a better region. Those wineries with tasting rooms just selling chardonnay and merlot are not as popular as those with cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and others. The Bordeaux red varieties can do well out here.”
And as the East End’s wine industry continues to grow and mature, Leo feels strongly that collaboration is going to continue to be a major force in shaping its future and establishing a heritage.
“The collaboration isn’t just winemaking and vineyard management,” says Leo. “Richie’s father works in the field every day in his ‘80s. His wife manages the tasting room and [Sag Harbor’s] Scott Sandell is Roanoke Vineyards’ marketing person.”
“It’s always challenging us to do better, all is a collaboration,” says Leo. “It’s people working in the field or the tasting room who are being curious. It’s doing something with passion that you feel good about doing. It does feel that way to me to. It’s never static.”
The next “Partners in Living Local” dinner at The American Hotel is Thursday, March 22 with Russell and Sue Hearn. The event on Thursday, April 26 will feature Hal Ginsburg of Clovis Point and John Leo. The four course dinners begin at 7 p.m. and are $70. To reserve. Call the hotel at 725-3535 or contact John Leo at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 466-2223.
Top: A selection of wines by Roman Roth and Richie Pisacano waiting to be shared. (Michael Heller photo).