If wine is truly made in the vineyard — and any quality-focused winemaker will tell you that it is — Long Island wine is being made in one messy kitchen by one crazy chef this year. That chef being mother nature of course.
In many ways, Long Island is the perfect place to grow classy, world-class wines… but there are challenges too. Hungry migratory birds and resident deer can decimate crops in short order. The same bodies of water that delay the first winter frosts also mean high humidity levels that can bring disease and rot. The threat of a hurricane that roams further north than usual is a nightmare scenario for any East End vineyard manager.
A recent burst of strong storms — the ones that have brought tornadoes and bursts of hail to the Island (this is a picture Nena took of the hail that ravaged our gardens) — are yet another challenge for local wineries. For many, the hail is a first. Something they’ve never had to deal with before. Ben Sisson, vineyard manager at McCall Vineyard in Cutchogue said in an email “I do not recall a year with so many thunderstorms of such intensity since I've been growing grapes.”
Rich Pisacano, co-owner of Roanoke Vineyards and another industry veteran agrees, telling me that the hail was a “first experience for us.” Luckily, the damage to his Riverhead vineyard wasn’t wide spread. “There was very little foliar damage, but strangely (we have) some damaged berries that are already drying on the vine and are falling off,” he said. That means a smaller crop, but it shouldn’t affect quality.
Alice Wise, who maintains a research vineyard at Cornell’s Cooperative Extension in Riverhead, had a similar experience in her vineyard after only three minutes of pea-size hail. “It didn't seem to affect the canopy at all. It did cause a little slice on an occasional exposed berry. It was not as bad as I expected not having experienced hail before. The danger of course is that any wound can invite in rot organisms such as Botrytis. We're all watching that closely.”
It could have been much worse. According to Adam Suprenant, winemaker at Osprey’s Dominion Winery, hail can lead to “total shredding of the vine canopy, especially leaves. Breakage of shoots as well as bruising of the fruit if it is soft. Severe damage may affect crop level the following year.”
For now, it seems as though Long Island grape growers have literally weathered the storms, but the season isn’t over yet. Comparing the growing season to baseball, Richard Olsen-Harbich from Raphael told me “We have a slight lead right now in the 7th inning and hope our bullpen can close the door and get the save. But you have to get the last three outs to finish the game, so we'll see.”
Hopefully Long Island’s viticultural bullpen is better than that of his beloved Mets.
Still, growers and winemakers are optimistic — but cautiously so. With 10 weeks or so left before harvest, a lot can happen. In an ideal world, Sisson says that “All the birds to fly to another state, carrying the deer, raccoons and groundhogs with them. And the days are bright and sunny with temperatures in the mid-80s with low humidity.”
Pisacano, who has been growing grapes on Long Island since high school, speaks more about the weather and less about the local fauna, wishing for “great sun, warm days, cool nights and soft dry winds. We're not asking for much.”
(A version of this story appears in the 8/22 issue of Dan's Papers)