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LI’s $100M wine industry navigates erratic weather

Anthony Sannino of Sannino Vineyard in Peconic, checks

Anthony Sannino of Sannino Vineyard in Peconic, checks grapes during the harvest. Oct 12, 2016 Photo Credit: Newsday / Mark Harrington

Long Island’s $100 million a year wine industry is navigating through a challenging year because of erratic weather conditions.

Late-season rain after a hot, dry summer complicated the fall harvest of the grape crop. Winemakers say they compensated for generally lower sugar levels by allowing fruit to hang on vines for longer than normal. Higher sugar levels typically result in higher alcohol levels.

September started the fall harvest season for Long Island’s 60 vineyards, which produce around 500,000 cases of wine a year, according to the Long Island Wine Council. Whites, including chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling, are the first to be picked.

But after record heat and generally dry conditions through most of the summer, vineyard managers found themselves dealing with precipitation as the fall set in. For some, particularly vineyards without irrigation, the rain provided a late-season boost to the leafy canopies that collect sun and sweeten the grapes. Too much water, however, can dilute flavors that were concentrated by the long summer heat and drought.

Vintners who have begun the months- and years-long process of turning this year’s grapes into coming years’ wine say that despite the slightly lower sugars and some challenges in the fields, 2016 wine will shape up to be a respectable vintage, with decent yields and good flavors, though not on the level of their best recent year, the vintage of 2014.

Long Island wine plays a significant role in the local tourism economy, particularly on the East End. The vineyards not only sell $100 million a year in wine, but also draw 1.3 million visitors a year, who generate an additional $90 million to $120 million in spending, according to the wine council.

The wine industry operates on thin margins. Long Island’s largely family-owned wineries range from single owners who hire a small number of workers, to family dynasties such as Pindar Vineyards in Peconic that have large warehouses for wine storage and employ dozens of workers.

Good vintages help profits by leading to better yields and larger volumes. In the long run, they help the region’s improving reputation for wine, which leads to higher prices.

Navigating the ups and downs of the season has become one of the hallmarks of the Island’s best winemakers. A tour of Long Island wine country in mid-October found few vintners concerned that the season was lost — even though it rained as much as 2 inches on the weekend of Oct. 8-9, smack in the middle of harvest season.

Some moved into action the week before.

“We got to pick all the whites before the rain,” said Miguel Martin, winemaker at Palmer Vineyards in Riverhead, which normally picks whites a full two weeks earlier than it did this year. “An hour after we finished, it rained like crazy.”

Martin spent the following week in the wine cellar, adding yeast by the bucket to 2,000-gallon stainless-steel tanks that will keep the wine at 55 degrees as it ferments through the fall and early winter.

“I’m really excited,” he said. “We’ve got some good flavors.”

The late rain makes the harvest challenging on a number of scores. Rain and even high humidity can increase mold and fungus, which can wither leaves and destroy the grapes. The crops require more maintenance and spraying of fungicides to keep them in check. It’s not just the grapes that can be affected — damage to the vines’ leafy canopy can impact the ability to pump sugar into the grapes.

Nearly all winemakers said they were dealing with lower levels of sugar this year, down from banner years like 2014, when overall production and wine quality was considered at its peak.

“Sugars are a little lower, similar to 2012,” said Anthony Sannino, winemaker and co-owner of Sannino Vineyard in Peconic and Cutchogue. “Toward the end there was a little disease pressure. But I found the fruit to be sound, and the timing of the rain in August to be perfect.”

A crew of 10 workers, including two full-timers, was at work on the leased Sannino farm in mid-October. It’s back-straining work that requires bending to the grape clusters, which sit about 3 feet off the ground.

For those vineyards that pick by hand, the labor is an intense and precise art. Workers select only the best grape clusters from each fruit-bearing branch, or cane. Sannino said while these shoots typically bear three clusters, the top often ripens last and is discarded. They also cut out any grapes affected by disease or rot.

A typical worker can pick around a half-ton of fruit a day, he said. Bigger operations, like Pindar, use manned harvesting machines that shake the vines to remove the fruit. Grapes are checked on sorting tables to ensure quality before they are crushed for juice.

‘A strange year’

Vineyard owners and managers have become adept at adjusting to the Long Island climate, which has been riddled by spot storms dumping inches of rain, long dry spells and heat that can be more typical of mid-Atlantic states.

Russ McCall, owner of McCall Wines in Cutchogue, called 2016 “a strange year,” due to a general “mugginess” after the dry summer.

“This year, the big problem for growers was powdery mildew,” he said, including on the top layer of leaves, which can also destroy the grapes. That led McCall’s vineyard crews to work the farm intensely to keep the problem from spreading. “You have to catch it early.”

McCall’s workers had picked all but the merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon grapes by mid-October, and he expected the balance to be picked by month’s end. “It could be a very good year if we have very dry weather for the last two weeks,” he said.

Geography can play a part in how soon the grapes ripen and when they are picked. Eastern vineyards such as Kontokosta Winery in Greenport get steadier winds and cooler temperatures, and expect to pick grapes a little later than up-Island vineyards.

“We’re farther east, so we push it a little later,” said co-owner and vineyard manager Michael Kontokosta. This year the harvest was a full two weeks later, with reds such as merlot, cabernet franc and syrah pushed to October’s end and into November.

‘Like a puzzle’

Kontokosta has seen good and bad years, with the banner years such as 2014 making up for disastrous years such as 2011, when grapes were so poor that “we made no wine.”

“Big years like 2014 are godsends in subsequent years if you get a catastrophic weather event,” he said.

Kontokosta, who studied viticulture and farming under Long Island wine pioneer Ray Blum, described the constant adjustments of grape growing as “like a puzzle, where all the shapes are always changing.” Learning to adapt to conditions is what keeps the best vineyards going.

Waters Crest Winery owner Jim Waters also has seen the variations; he makes wine in his Cutchogue winery from grapes grown on nine vineyards that he helps manage throughout the North Fork all the way to Orient.

“It was a pretty good, hot season for most of it, but we’re catching a little weather toward the end,” he said. “We’ve gotten good flavors, nice acids. The challenge is losing the tail end of ripening.” His white wine grapes are normally in by Sept. 18. This year they were harvested by Oct. 7.

“It’s been a little challenging,” he said. “If you were on your game this year, pulling leaves to get the fruit exposed to the nice sunshine, you did OK.”

‘The humbling part’

Ros Baiz, whose family owns the Old Field Vineyard on the Peconic Bay in Southold, described 2016 as an “interesting season.”

“We started out with a cool spring,” before the dry summer set in. And in early October she found herself in the sun-drenched vineyard, just days before the soaking remnants of Hurricane Matthew found their way to Long Island. “We need sun but we haven’t had any,” she said at the time. The balance of the month has been drier.

Like most wineries, Old Field had a good harvest of grapes for rosé wines, which are made from red grapes such as merlot but fermented with less exposure to the dark purple grape skins. “There’s a lot of rosé harvesting going on,” she said. “You’ll see a lot of rosé from this season.”

For all the work and intuition and adapting that is required to manage a good crop, Baiz noted that there is a certain element that no farmer can control, particularly at season’s end.

“Now, it’s all in God’s hands,” she said of the remaining month of harvest. “This is where the humbling part comes.”


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