Editor's Note: This is the second of three trip reports following a recent visit to Long Island. Portions of the story on Sam Argetsinger are excerpted from my upcoming book.
For just a moment, amidst the hum of harvest, we're going to depart from building brix and acid trips and first crushes. We're going to focus on the vineyard. And there, underneath the science of wine, lies a kind of viticultural spirituality that manifests in two of the most impressive sites in New York.
If it doesn't impress you yet, it will -- when the 2009 vintage is released, and the challenge of the weather shows up in some bottles but somehow not others. This is a grower's year, and there are some very special growers on the sand-based soils of Long Island and on the steep hillsides peering down over the Finger Lakes.
Owners Barbara Shinn and David Page don't need a glowing review from me. They've earned stellar press from a variety of publications in recent months, so I simply wanted to get a feel for the Shinn operation.
There are a wide variety of nature-based wine marketing campaigns afoot across the globe, and much of it is nothing more than a PR director's concoction. Spending time in the vineyard can instantly distill the meaning behind the rhetoric: authentic or catch-phrase?
When David Page (pictured at right with me) describes his winery's efforts to produce sustainable wines reflective of the land, it is perfectly genuine. The easiest way to tell is to talk to Page about how difficult 2009 has been. Many operations that claim to be moving in an organic or biodynamic direction will lament their sacrifices in a vague attempt to earn some kind of martyr status.
Page isn't that guy.
"What we're doing is ultimately better for the land and it's going to make it easier to deal with years like this, not the other way around," he said on a crisp fall afternoon. "Take a look for yourself. We're going to have outstanding wines this year."
It's hard to think he could be wrong. The various varieties, cropped painstakingly low this year, looked gorgeous in early October. Far from showing the tumescence of a water-logged season, the berries were tight and explosive with flavor.
"We're not looking for sympathy," Page said with a laugh while we checked out his cabernet franc. He's positively fun as hell when it comes to talking wine. Equal parts recalcitrant and jocular, he pours wines from the 2007 vintage with quiet but unmistakable enthusiasm. There is a significant amount of science that courses through the fruit and the vineyard floor at Shinn, but Page speaks of the simple rewards offered by wines crafted by more natural methods.
With his longer hair, Page reminds me of Sam Argetsinger -- only I'm reasonably certain that Page does not speak fluent Iroquois.
In touch with the land in one of the Finger Lake's most prized vineyards
Sam Argetsinger ducked into his barn while I surveyed his property on the southeast side of Seneca Lake. The land was steeper than any other vineyard I had seen, which is a tremendous asset for grapes – it allows more direct exposure to the moderating effects of the lake.
But this land had a lot more than grapevines. A small plot of sweet corn stood just a few feet from us, which bordered a patch of potatoes. Peach and apple trees dotted the perimeter of the rows of vines above us, while various trees and plants were interspersed with the vines that sprawled below.
“What do you think?” Sam asked eagerly as he emerged from the barn. He flipped me a can of Milwaukee’s Best.
“It’s steep,” I said clumsily. “I don’t think I’ve seen another site like this around here.”
“You haven’t,” Sam said. His narrow, intense eyes – surrounded by a day’s worth of dirt – lit up as he looked toward the top of his 40 acres. “I’m going to take you right to the best. Let’s go see our riesling.”
It occurred to me that I couldn’t tell if Sam was simply American – a hybrid of many nationalities like most of us – or if he was, in fact, native American. His name conveyed old-world European, but everything else screamed Iroquois, and he sprinkled his sentences with Iroquois words.
We started the climb and Sam’s dogs circled us, barking playfully. Occasionally one would notice an intruding critter somewhere in the distance and barrel off. As we walked I tried to get a stronger sense of this man. I couldn’t help but feel a strangely numinous quality to the land.
He explained, “I asked my mother how I could find out more about the Indians, and she said, ‘Why don’t you go meet them?’ I first met the Onandagans and the Senecans up by Syracuse when I was a young man. Must have been forty years ago. And they said, ‘We’d like to talk to you, but you should speak our language.’ And they were right, of course. It’s always polite to speak someone’s language. And so that’s how I got to learn it. I listened and I spoke.
“There are so many myths and half-truths from our side about them, and I found that it doesn’t really bother them. I always felt it bothered me more than it bothered them. I grew up a farmer, a peace-keeper. I come from a tradition of using legal strategies to resolve conflict. And it’s so crazy that we don’t really know the Indians’ true story. Instead, we rely on stereotypes and we tend toward war.”
He paused again, distracted by one of the clusters on the pinot noir vines. The grapes in Sam’s vineyard were more densely bunched, deeper in color, and I wanted to grab a cluster to taste them. The fruit offered a distinct balance with the rest of the vineyard: the vineyard was wild and the grapes were orderly. There was all manner of grasses and, occasionally, weeds growing freely in all directions, but the grapes seemed focused and controlled. After plucking a light-colored berry from one of the bunches, Sam turned his focus back to the Indians. He was remarkably detailed in describing Iroquois culture, and I did not for a moment find him to be a contrived character. I found myself wrapped up in what he was saying.
“This land draws, brother. This land loans gifts to Man, and it draws the best from far away. That’s how we got Morten Hallgren here. This land just brought him here. How else could we get that guy here? The land did it cause She needs him. And we need to get to this next evolution where the farmer and the grower and this beautiful land remove barriers and work together. Eliminate conflict. If She wants Morten here, and She wants me to work with Morten, who am I to make other demands? We all listen to ne gawanutneh.”
“We listen to what?” I asked.
“Ne gawanutneh. It’s ‘the voice that rises.’ All living things speak this language. We’re all so happy to be alive, and we just say, ‘Wow!’ And we speak in unison. Ne gawanutneh. We speak in the voice that rises. But you must remember that the land takes in all that is around Her. The grapes, the apples, the corn – it’s not just speaking, it’s listening.”
I'll be listening, too, when the 2009 wines sourced from Sam's vineyard are released. He primarily works with Morten Hallgren of Ravines Wine Cellars, though Sam has worked with other winemakers as well. The challenging weather of 2009 has not done much to quiet the voice that rises from this vineyard.
It's a grower's vintage.
Fortunately for us, there are more than just Shinn and Argetsinger vineyards that have handled the adversity. But when the wines of 2009 come out, it will be worth the time to ask what each wine producer is doing in the vineyards. The answers will go a long way toward predicting the quality in the bottle.