(This story appeared originally in the 07/01/05 issue of Dan's Papers)
Garagiste, translated from the French, means “garage owner,” not something usually associated with wine country. But it’s a term often used in regions like Bordeaux to describe a winemaker who produces small lots of high-quality, handcrafted wines – sometimes right in his or her own garage.
Harold Watts, Ternhaven Cellars’ owner and winemaker, also started out at home, but instead of making wine in his garage, Watts made wine in his Manhattan apartment. Today, with an unintentional though amusing nod to the European description, Watts literally is a garagiste: his winery and tasting room are in a renovated service station, a former garage, on Front Street in Greenport.
In 1994, Watts, a retired economics professor who taught at Yale and Columbia Universities, bought five acres of land on Alvah’s Lane in Cutchogue. He initially leased the land a local potato farmer but eventually planted merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc grapes himself. In 1997, Ternhaven Cellars was born when Watts’ tasting room opened.
When asked about the origins of his winery’s name, Watts replied with a chuckle. “I enjoy watching terns at work catching fish here on the East End. I know they nest around here, and the name sounds sort of warm and fuzzy and maybe a bit ‘green.’ So I just grabbed it out of the air and it ‘terned’ out to be registerable.”
While his winery and production levels are small, fewer than 1000 cases per year, Watts’ wines are not. Last summer, at the New York Wine & Food Classic, he won a double gold for his 2000 Merlot, a silver for his 2000 Claret D’Alvah and a second silver for his 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Watts makes his wine in traditional Bordeaux style, doing primary fermentation in shallow open tanks, basket pressing to closed steel for secondary fermentation, racking off gross lees to barrels at or near the end of ML (malolactic) fermentation. He doesn’t filter or cold stabilize his wines. Despite his nod to Bordeaux, Watts uses mostly American oak of varying age because the barrels are more affordable and because “the difference for reds is marginal. And (using French Oak is) not always for the best in my limited experience.”
The Ternhaven Cellars 2000 Merlot ($15) is a medium, uniformly crimson wine with plumy, meaty aromas with hints of vanilla, oak and both savory and sweet spice. On the palate, I found it to be medium-to-full bodied with medium, slightly astringent tannins right out of the bottle. With time to breath, the tannins smoothed out, resulting in a full-flavored though not overly complex wine. The pleasant finish is highlighted by sweet fruit and oak flavors. Watts recommends this wine with Coq au Vin or a really good hamburger.
If you prefer juicier, berry-driven wines with less obvious oak influence, the Ternhaven Cellars 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon ($18) is the choice here. Nicely extracted with a deep ruby color, it’s extremely aromatic. It filled my nose with raspberry and blueberry aromas long before my nose even reached the glass. The palate is full-flavored and juicy with raspberry preserves dominating. The oak and tannins are a bit more integrated and the finish offers sweet oak and cedar. The perfect match? “The Cabernet is great with ripe gorgonzola,” said Watts.
Of the three wines I tasted, I liked the Ternhaven Cellars 2000 Claret D’Alvah ($19) the best. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, it’s a deep, semi-opaque crimson in the glass with a thin, slightly lighter rim. The nose is filled with black plums, blackberries and black cherries with cedar, cocoa and faint green olive aromas. This is a hefty wine with dusty, softly gripping tannins that give it a superior mouthfeel. Refined black fruit flavors are joined by pencil shavings and some background acidity. This wine is very “Old World” and is a great food wine. It’s Watts’ favorite of his 2000s and he enjoys it with “an almost rare rack of lamb.”
Watts has just bottled his 2001 vintage, much later than most, and he thinks the wines will be “rich and meaty reds, but perhaps short of the 2000s in terms of freshness.”
For more information, call 477-8737. Better yet, visit the Greenport Garagiste at his tasting room, which he dubs “The Last Winery Before France,” as you head east.