The view from inside Mark Snyder's new winery in Red Hook, Brooklyn
By Sasha Smith, New York City Correspondent
Technically, Brooklyn is part of Long Island, so it’s fair to call Red Hook home to one of Long Island’s newest wineries. The as-yet-unnamed winery is a joint project between distributor Mark Snyder, Napa winemakers Robert Foley and Abe Schoener, Michael Cinque from Amagansett Wines and Max Loubiere, a long-time friend of Snyder’s and Billy Joel’s tour director. (Snyder is a veteran of the music industry.) The project sources fruit from a number of Long Island growers/vineyards, including Macari Vineyards, Jamesport Vineayrds, Split Rock Vineyard, Ackerly Pond Vineyards and Anderson Vineyard.
Snyder kindly invited me to the winery last month where we tasted through the wines, still in barrel, and he told me about the philosophy behind the winery. He said that he had largely been disappointed with the quality of Long Island wines he had tasted, citing a “lack of style” for the entire region. For Snyder, Long Island producers too often try to emulate a particular style – taking either a typically New World or Bordeaux approach – rather than letting the vineyard speak for itself. Snyder also believes that because it’s relatively easy for wineries to sell most of their product straight from the cellar door, there’s little incentive to improve and try to compete in the global marketplace.
The winery’s goal is to bring some serious ambition to the region, largely at the hands of consulting winemakers Bob Foley and Abe Schoener. (On-site winemaker Christopher Nicolson, formerly of Littorai in Sonoma, does the day-to-day heavy lifting.) Foley, the former winemaker at Pride Mountain and now at his own eponymous winery, specializes in powerful reds, particularly those made with cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Schoener is the philosopher/winemaker behind The Scholium Project, a collection of iconoclastic wines (eg, Sauvignon Blanc fermented on its skins).
Snyder characterizes Foley as a fairly traditional, “clean” winemaker, whereas Schoener takes a more experimental approach – intentional oxidation of some whites, leaving the wine on its lees until bottling, and minimal use of sulfites. Working with the same batch of fruit, Foley and Schoener create two very different wines.
For example, in Foley’s hands, merlot from Bruce Schneider’s Anderson vineyard is coffee bean, smoke, chocolate and black fruit, whereas Abe Schoener’s interpretation has much more pronounced tannins and red fruit characteristics. When these wines are bottled, beginning this spring for the whites, they’ll provide an edifying experience for anyone who wants to understand how winemaking techniques affect the characteristics of the final product.
As for the work in the vineyard, the team advocates what Snyder calls “extreme farming.” They scouted promising plots and worked with the growers/producers to ensure that they’d have a big say in farming decisions. Most notably, they insisted on extensive hang time, in some cases picking long after most everyone else on Long Island. In the poor, rain-plagued 2008 vintage, this decision was not for the faint of heart. One of their blocks at Macari, which usually yields anywhere between 8-10 tons of fruit, ended up producing 1.1 tons of fruit after the rains (and birds) took their share.
It helps that apparently no one involved in this project is out to make big bucks. In fact, no one is in this to make bucks at all. According to Snyder, the partners went in on the project understanding that there might not be any financial return, which allows them to make risky decisions and think of quality first. Or, as he puts, it, “we can dismiss the easy temptation associated with having to make a profit.”
And the wines? Pretty eclectic. The Abe Schoener merlot and cabernet franc-based wines were very good, tasting recognizably Long Island to me, with clear and focused fruit. The Bob Foley chardonnays, sourced from several Jamesport plots, had a pretty lemon/melon/apple crispness to them. Schoener’s intensely aromatic botrytised/fermented dry Riesling, also from Jamesport fruit, was experimental winemaking at its best, while a Schoener sauvignon blanc, fermented on its skins over seven weeks, was off-putting and oddly medicinal.
Neither winemaker’s interpretation of gewurztraminer, sourced from Martha Clara Vineyards, had any of the typical characteristics associated with this incredibly distinctive varietal. Foley’s cabernet franc wines are fine, extracted and plush, but have little cab franc character. (Not particularly surprising, as Snyder says that Foley isn’t a big fan of the variety. Which makes him a bit of an odd choice for the project, if you ask me, despite his big name.)
They haven’t decided on pricing yet, but Snyder figures they will range from $30-$80. Given the decisions that went into making these wines, the people involved, and the scale – right now they’re sitting on about 500 cases worth of wine, but through evaporation and being selective, they’ll ultimately release even less – those numbers aren’t surprising. Also up in the air is the branding/marketing of the wine. Snyder says they’re thinking about releasing them under separate labels, one for each winemaker.
Which brings me to some of my issues with the enterprise. In short, too much attention on the winemakers, too little focus on the fruit. Call me old-fashioned, call me Eurocentric, but I think the way to greatness always runs through the vineyard. You can argue that Long Island may or may not have distinctive wine styles or has a ways to go before reaching its full potential, but I think that’s more a function of the region’s viticultural challenges – achieving ripeness and avoiding rot – than any deficiencies, real or perceived, in the skills and training of its winemakers.
Sure, if Foley and Schoener’s “extreme farming” (and let’s hope they come up with a better name for it) can encourage some growers to experiment with longer hang time for more ripeness in a way that’s economically feasible for them, that would be a huge plus for the region.
But even if one accepts the premise that Long Island needs more talented winemakers above all, are Foley and Schoener the guys to do it? I don’t doubt for a second Foley and Schoener’s talent or creativity. However, both of them work in and around Napa, where the climate, soil, and altitude bear little resemblance to those of Long Island. Why not team up with winemakers who have more experience working with cool climate fruit?
I asked Snyder for his thoughts on the issue and he provided an interesting analogy. As a student of classic guitar, he was struggling with a technically difficult piece. While his guitar instructor cut him some slack, knowing first-hand how tricky the piece was, Snyder’s mentor, a violinist, was much more demanding and pushed him to master the music. Snyder suggested that as outsiders used to working with warm climate fruit, Foley and Schoener can help push beyond the commonly accepted limitations.
It’s a fair point, although there are plenty of winemakers from more temperate regions (Burgundy and Bordeaux spring to mind) with more relevant skill sets who could help Long Island winemakers transcend their limits. I’m all for cross-pollination and I’ve got nothing against Napa – I visited Pride Mountain, Bob Foley’s alma mater, this summer and fell in love with a few of its wines. However, whether this group can help Long Island remedy its “lack of style” (or define its terroir, as I like to think of it) is an open question.