The Viticulturist’s Handbook: Bringing Advanced Techniques to the Craft of Winemaking

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Wölffer Vineyards Vineyard Manager Rich Pisacano walks the rows of Merlot grapes. Michael Heller photo

In the past 40-odd years, Long Island wine has become something of a phenomenon. Where wine is concerned, the New World (read: regions that exist outside of the European purview) are often regarded with some skepticism among aficionados. How can a wine region no older than a Gen X-er compare, for instance, with one that has been producing reliable bottles since Thomas Jefferson was collecting?

Still, in recent years, Long Island has earned its pedigree, and, to hear Rich Pisacano — vineyard manager at Wölffer Estate Vineyard and owner of Roanoke Vineyard, who began his East End wine career in the 1970s at Mudd Vineyards — tell it, that’s not without cause. “One thing I think that the public is not aware of us that, even though it’s a young region, there [have] always been super advanced viticultural techniques being practiced on Long Island,” he said. “There’s one thing for sure: The techniques have been really advanced.” Which begs the question: What goes into the practice of farming when it comes to raising grapes?

Viticulture can be grueling, laborious, and technically complex, which is one reason that wine culture has felt, for so long, to be the provenance of the élite. It is easy, after all, to feel put off by the lofty language, the extraneous adjectives used to describe one’s palate, the agricultural nomenclature specific to this one set of crops. But a resounding interest in wine persists, one that spans demographic and generation. Ultimately, no expertise is required to drink and love wine. But farming the grapes? That’s another matter entirely.

Grapes are delicate beasts, susceptible to more than just weather. In the 1800s, phylloxera — a microscopic louse that attacks grape vines — all but decimated the European wine crop, forcing winemakers to re-envision their practice. The result of trial-and-error in the fields identified an interesting discovery. Non-native European rootstock, or vitis vinifera, from which we get wine grapes, was appealing to the bug, but American rootstock (a different type of stock, vitis labrusca, from which table grapes are grown) was not. Vintners began grafting vitis viniferaonto American roots in order to stave off infestation.

Today, phylloxera remains an enemy of the seasoned winemaker. “It’s still debatable as to whether it’s an issue here [on Long Island],” Mr. Pisacano said, “so planting vines on their own roots is thought to be risky.” He began the practice of grafting vines on the East End in 1982, starting a business that specialized in supplying grape vines to Long Island winemakers.” [It] proved to be more difficult than I had thought,” he said. “So then I planted my own vineyard with vines that I had grafted in 1983.”

George Unc calculates adding enzymes to a wine batch as Winemaker Roman Roth tests sugar levels at Wölffer Vinyards. Michael Heller photo

At 21, Pisacano planted a vineyard in Jamesport and, for 17 years, he supplied surrounding wineries like Pellegrini, Palmer, and Lenz with grapes for their wines. In 1994, Mr. Pisacano began selling grapes to Wölffer Estate. Two years later, he was brought on as the winery’s vineyard manager. Precision, he will tell you, is the secret to good farming practice when it comes to grapes. “The way we adjust crops, the way we de-leaf, the way we are very precise about how we go about ripening fruit,” he said. “Even Petrus only started doing it in the 1970s … When you see the vines are manicured, it’s not for aesthetics. It’s out of necessity. First and foremost, especially in a [hot and humid] year like this, we need the vines to have airflow and the fruit zones to have airflow. It’s an organic way of fighting disease. If you allowed a vine to grow the way it wants to grow, it would not make it to harvest.”

On Long Island, as in other major wine producing regions of the world, there is an x-factor, which has, of late, changed both viticultural practices and results. That factor — deniers notwithstanding — is climate change. The 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998, and even incremental change can prove staggering in the vineyards. In some notoriously cool regions, where grape growing has always been a specifically challenging battle against nature, winemakers have embraced warmer seasons. But Rich Pisacano has a different take. “I think I’m one of a few that are not giddy about climate change as it pertains to Long Island growing,” he said. “What’s important to us is that, this time of year, we don’t have warm nights, that it starts to dry out, and what I’ve seen, since I’ve started, is these warmer evenings lasting longer into the ripening period, and that’s kind of a detriment to grape integrity.”

Human intervention in the vineyards, of course, can help mitigate disaster (leaf- and crop-thinning are two methods that help with grape intensity and air circulation), but eventually, the world will need to adjust. In Pisacano’s estimation, this means planting varietals that are better suited for warmer climates. Climate change will also impact the types of diseases that affect Northeastern vines. Winegrowers can expect, as weather trends march toward the warm end of the spectrum, the appearance of diseases now relegated to the mid-Atlantic and west coast. “Global warming,” Mr. Pisacano said, “is not going to do well for the long term of Long Island wine. In this humid climate, I fear for warmer weather.” As the world changes, one degree at a time, so, too, does the farming tradition that defines Long Island viticulture.

Ultimately, though, Long Island grape farming practices remain constant — and continue to be executed in good faith. During his tenure at Wölffer, Pisacano has not yet replaced any of his vines. “The need to replace a vineyard is directly related to the health of the vine, and that can vary, so if you’re gentle on your vines and they’re healthy and you don’t over-crop them, they can go forever,” he said. The mark of a steady-handed winemaker lies all in the ability to trim crop, actually. An overly prolific vine will yield lackluster fruit. A vine should struggle, but not unnecessarily so. In the end, it’s a dance, between the inescapable hand of Mother Nature, the prudent work taking place in the field, and the gentle guidance of a concerted winemaker. Farming? It’s an extension of the creative process, a fundamental dedication to discipline. Follow the rules, pay your dues in the field, and your crop will pay dividends.

This, Long Island vintners want you to know, is how fine wine is produced.

Rage Against the (Bugs and) Disease

What diseases impact—and will impact—Long Island winemakers? Here are a few.

Phylloxera

This microscopic sap-sucking aphid feed on the roots and leaves of native European rootstocks. Some estimate that this pest, which is still seen in most regions of the world, is responsible for two-thirds of all European vineyard destruction in the late 1800s. Hybridization and grafting have largely solved the problem of phylloxera, but many winemakers—Rich Pisacano included—lament that grafting vines disturbs the true integrity of the grape.

Pierce’s Disease

Seen most frequently on the United States’ west coast, this disease is spread by the glassy-winged sharpshooter (a leaf-hopping insect). An old adage remains: If you have Pierce’s Disease, move. Very little can be done to treat vines afflicted with Pierce’s. Entire vineyards are typically uprooted and replanted. As climate change becomes a reality, Pierce’s Disease very well may be the disease of the Northeastern future.

Botrytis

Known among oenophiles as “noble rot,” botrytis cinereais a fungus that thrives in humid climates, causing grapes to shrivel and concentrate. Grapes afflicted with botrytis can be hand-harvested and pressed, yielding costly, concentrated juice that is most typically vinified into dessert wines (Sauternes is the most famous example). But for everyday winemaking, this rot can prove detrimental, destroying an entire season’s work in mere days.

Spotted Wing Drosophila

A fruit fly that was first discovered in Japan in the early 1900s, the spotted wing drosophila may be the pest of the future. The fly lays eggs under the skin of still-ripening soft fruit, both destroying the crop and producing hundreds more fruit flies. The flies prefer humid environments, making them particularly dangerous in a region like Long Island, which is known for its persistent late summer and early fall humidity.

A Vintner’s Handbook

Some helpful terminology used by winemakers around the world. 

 Over-cropping

Exhausting the fertility of the vine by growing too many grapes on it. Overcropping will result, inevitably, in both diminished yield and diminished quality.

 Leaf-Thinning

Removing the leaves from grape vines so that they are more susceptible to sun exposure and air flow. Leaf-thinning prior to harvest also ensures that no leaves end up in the harvested fruit.

 Crop-Thinning

This term is used to describe the removal of excess grape clusters on the vine. In order for fruit to ripen properly — and for grapes to achieve maximum concentration — grape crops must be restricted on individual vines. Ultimately, this practice improves the quality of the remaining grapes.

 Grafting

A horticultural technique that involves splicing one vine onto the roots of another vine in order to combine the desirable characteristics of the top vine with the stability, strength, and disease-resistance of the rootstock.

Pruning

The practice of cutting and shaping grape vines — during their dormancy, in winter — in order to encourage the growth of new wood, where fruit is produced. Winemakers use numerous styles of pruning, designed to maximize burgeoning fruit’s exposure to the sun while minimizing its susceptibility to disease and other factors.

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