Roman Roth loves us too
By Jim Marquardt
We were pleased to learn that Ben Franklin endorsed our appreciation of wine when he stated, “Wine is proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy.” At the same time we’ve too often been intimidated by snobs who pontificate remarks like, “It’s a naïve domestic Burgundy, without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”
Roman Roth, winemaker and technical director at Wölffer Estates, has no patience with wine snobs and is definitely on the side of Old Ben. While more than able to discuss the science and art of his trade, his number one aim is to make wines that are “food friendly,” graceful complements of good dining.
The handsome and personable Roth has a passion for his work and wouldn’t think of trading it for any other pursuit; but when questioned, he points out the many pitfalls in the path of producing good wine, year after year. Roth presides over 50 acres of vineyard in Sagaponack and 25 more acres on the North Fork growing grapes for roses, chardonnays, sparkling wines, merlots and Rieslings that are highly respected, not only by grape lovers but also by experts in the sophisticated world of wine.
He explains that Wölffer is a “traditional” winery in the sense that he isn’t required to meet a marketing idea of what will be an easy sell, but is free to follow the dictates of the vines, using his knowledge and intuition to achieve the best wine from a particular plot. Roth says roses are exploding in popularity, with Wolffer’s popular dry version helping to make it trendy and fun to drink. He predicts that Wölffer Chardonnay, closer to Burgundy-style than California, will give that wine a new boost in popularity.
“Normally you would have to pick earlier to emulate European producers,” he said, “but Long Island’s climate enables us to pick later for more ripeness and character.” He claims their White Horse Label Chardonnays are the equal of the best in the world.
Probably few people in the business have accumulated Roth’s depth of training and experience. He grew up in a winemaking family in Rottweil, Germany, and in 1982, as a teenager, began a three-year, hands-on apprenticeship in the Oberrotweil Wine Cooperative, combined with book study at Berufsfachschule in Heilbron. In 1986 he traveled to Carneros, California, to work at Saintsbury Estate, known for its pinot noirs and Chardonnays. The next stop in his world-wide wine education was at Australia’s Rosemount Estate. He then returned to Germany to Winzerkeller Wieslock in Baden where the winery won awards for Rieslings, pinot noirs and Methode Champagnoises. In 1992 Roth received his Master Winemaker and Cellar Master degrees from the College of Oenology and Viticulture in Weinsberg, a town that has produced wine since the 13th century, so they probably know something about the grape.
The dream of the young winemaker came true when he joined the start-up Sagpond Vineyards in the Hamptons, later renamed Wölffer Estates, and played an important role in the emerging Long Island wine region. In 2003, the East End Food and Wine Awards, judged by the American Sommelier Society, named him Winemaker of the Year in recognition of the “excellence of his wines and his contribution to quality winemaking on the Island.” Along the way, Christian Wölffer, who founded the business, allowed Roth to create his own label which enjoys the inevitable brand name, The Grapes of Roth, and has become highly respected.
The woes that can beset a vineyard are near biblical proportions. Before you even plant, you must mull over soil type and chemistry, fertility and drainage, topography, sun exposure and aeration. Of course you can’t control the weather and each weather condition affects vineyards in different ways. The winemaker and the vineyard manager who tends the vines must adjust constantly to achieve consistent quality in both good and bad weather years. The leaf canopy of the vines must be closely controlled to welcome sun and air and retard fungus. Roth says quality winemaking requires close teamwork, especially with his Vineyard Manager Richie Pisacano whom he describes as a perfectionist.
The devil is in the details at every stage of winemaking. The command decision of when to pick, the “crossroad,” is crucial, a scientific and instinctive judgment of ripeness, sugar content, acidity, berry taste and tannins. During the fermentation stage, Roth follows an old tradition of letting the wine lie in barrels with “fine lees” (yeast and cells of grape skins) for up to eight months, rather than taking the lees away too soon and losing enhancement of the final product. Timing the separation is another crucial and intuitive decision. Balance is a word Roth uses frequently. Besides his goal of food friendliness, Roth aims for graceful ageing and authenticity, meaning a wine that reflects the best characteristics of its region in an elegant balance of structure, flavor and body.
In the classic reference, The Taste of Wine, Emile Peynaud and Jacque Blouin describe the challenge of harmoniously blending some 20 different flavor constituents “present in quantities measured in grams or fractions of grams per liter. They constitute the bricks and mortar of a wine, its framework…” No wonder there are so many bad wines on the market, yet even more wonder that there are many bottles of high quality.
Roth expects 2011 wines to turn out well. The warm weather pushed ripening and growth, expanding the window for sugar accumulation and final ripening and the opportunity to decide on the perfect time to harvest. The future looks promising for Roth and Wölffer which is now starting to make malbecs in Mendoza, Argentina.
Next time you dream of owning a vineyard, getting away from the daily push and pull of business, sitting peacefully and gazing over the grapes ripening in the sun, think it over. Hidden in that sunny vineyard lurk dozens of complicated problems you can’t begin to imagine. Better to kick back, uncork a chardonnay or merlot and let Roman Roth worry about the vicissitudes of winemaking.