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A Camp For Wine: The Making of an Oenophile

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The Lenz Winery tasting room—snuggly nestled into a flat backdrop of 70 acres of endless rows of perfectly symmetrical vines—is a wide-open space with a long wooden table, silver spitting vessels and a patient sommelier, ready to serve.  Like many tasting rooms, the space itself is non-descript; but the adjectives it invokes more than make up for it.

Apples, apricots, bananas, grapefruit, lemon, tannins, PH, tobacco, butter, toast. The colorful words that bounce around these walls are as random and disparate as a Shakespearean potion.  Perhaps you too have found yourself wondering where these seemingly ridiculous terms actually come from.

Homing in on the answer to this question is, in part, the impetus behind Wine Camp, a four-day journey through some of the vineyards of the North Fork.  With carefully mapped-out itineraries in hand, “campers” are exposed to all aspects of viticulture, from grapevine history, to climatology, grape juice chemistry, vineyard management, the difference between wood and steel barrels, the art of blending, and even vine clipping.

“I had this vision of hands-on learning,” said Darolyn Augusta, who founded the camp seven years ago with her husband, Christopher, with whom she also runs a bed and breakfast in Peconic called The Harvest Inn.  The idea sprang forth after Darolyn took a course on winemaking through the Long Island Wine Council.  While the class was informative, she said, the information didn’t readily sink in.  “What I wanted was a learning experience.”  So, after talking to several of the North Fork winemakers themselves, she arranged for a camp that would give people an intimate look at the whole process.

In fact, Darolyn has taken me to the winery today to give me a sense of what a wine camper might do.  After sipping a fine 2004 Cuvée in the tasting room—Darolyn’s choice; as someone whose palette developed over bottles of “Two Buck Chuck,” my ability to select and assess wine is remedial at best—we were greeted by Eric Fry.  And then the real tasting began.

Fry, a large man with long, white hair and Nordic bone-structure (he would have made a great Viking), led us through a wooden door in the far corner of the tasting room.  We deftly descending a couple rickety steps and circumvented various objects until we were standing on a concrete floor in a room that smelled mildly of cold dirt.  We were surrounded by about a dozen stainless steel vats each about the size of a bedroom in Tribeca.  This was The Cellar.

Fry went over to one of the containers and opened a spigot, which released a small stream of clear liquid that flowed into the plastic beaker he held below it.  He divvied-up its contents amongst our glasses.  After encouraging us to take a sip and—just as brash as it sounds—spit the liquid straight onto the concrete floor, he asked: “What do you taste?”

This question is always paralyzing for one so clearly out of her league.  I scanned my brain for all the colorful adjectives seasoned tasters typically toss out at this point in the wine-tasting process.  But, which obscure flavor was this? Cherry? Oak? Toast? Tobacco?  I went with what I thought to be a conservative choice.

“Um… Raspberry?”

Fry didn’t readily respond.  “Ok.  There is no wrong answer, but that was wrong,” he said, politely releasing a short fit of laughter, easing any tension that might have formed in the wake of my obvious naiveté.  “But it’s really close,” he reassured me, saying that what I was really tasting was sour: more like green apples and lemons.  (Fry would later explain that it takes practice to put what you taste into words.  Apparently, there’s some sort of neurological connection lacking between the part of the brain that recognizes taste and the part that processes speech, so verbalizing wine for a novice like myself is exactly the way it feels: near impossible.) “What else?  Anything.”

I was spent after raspberry, but tried my hand at another flavor, attempting this time not to labor over my response.  “Vinegar?”

Fry made a comical sound of disgust, like he had just squashed a bug.  “How about sour cherry?” he offered instead.  “It’s screaming sour cherry.”

He was right.  And it began to make sense when he explained why.  This was the flat beginnings of the bubbly we had sampled just moments before in the tasting room, he said.

“I want it to be delicate, clean, really fresh and really simple, because with bubbly, the flavor comes from the time on the yeast, [which is what gives it] all those sort of toasty, caramel, honey characters,” he explained.  Fry uses a yeast called Prise de Mousse, which he adds to the bottled liquid, caps it off with a beer-bottle top and places it in the basement for at least five years before its finally disgorged.

“If you’ve got a really strong apple character, or a really strong fruit character, it becomes spumanti,” he added.  “I don’t want that.  I want a really delicate flavor now with lots of acidity.  It’s too sour to drink now, but you’re going to put it on the yeast and leave it in a bottle for five years, so you need to have that low PH for stability, for integrity, so that it doesn’t spoil. “

As we continued tasting, Fry further explained that the flavor from white wine grapes, like Chardonnay, will differ depending on when the grapes are picked.  (Premature and they’re sour apple; late in the season and they’re juicy, ripe pear.)  Wine campers learn how to distinguish these flavors with Fry, ultimately blending samples themselves to create their own liquid “fruit salad,” made to taste.

With more knowledge of how these flavors come about, I was ready for another blend.  Fry poured a bit of Pinot Gris.

“Tell me any impression you get,” Fry began.  “But, also tell me how this wine differs from the last wine.”

“Ok…  It has more of a bite.  It’s not as sour.”

“Not as sour!  Correct.  That means, less acid,” he said.  (I was proud.)  “Now name a fruit,” he continued.

I ventured a guess: “Kind of, maybe like apple, but not granny smith apple… ?”

“Perfect,” Fry responded.  “It’s smoother, it’s richer, it is not sweet, but it is not as acidic.”  (His explanation was a bit more articulate.)  “It’s creamier and richer because there’s more glycerol, there’s more diacetyl.  The first wine saw almost no barrels; this one saw barrels and malolactic in the second fermentation.”

Sure, I still wasn’t really sure what all that meant, but knew I knew a lot more than when I walked through the door.  In all, we tasted about 10 different varieties of wine, both whites and reds; and still, it was only a miniscule version of what actual wine campers can expect.

Darolyn said she and her husband usually entertain about 20 to 24 guests during a wine camp weekend, and they’ve seen couples from all walks of life: those who sign-up for the experience because they’re thinking of opening a vineyard themselves, and those who, Darolyn said, come in saying “I know what I like, but I don’t know why.”  When it comes down to it, she continued, “Wine Camp helps them understand why.”

Wine Camp dates for 2012 are already available for reservations.  For a full list of events and participating vineyards, visit the Wine Camp website www.harvestinnbandb.com/winecamp or call Harvest Inn at 765-9412.