by sylvie bigar | July 26, 2013 | Food & Drink
The famous Hamptons light gets translated into intense and unique flavors.
Wölffer Estate current partners Roman Roth, Joey Wolffer, and Marc Wölffer.
Oak barrels lend their special magic to the aging process.
The vineyard has become a destination with tastings and tours available daily.
The stony and sandy soil of the South Fork features some of the same qualities as the Bordeaux area.
Row after row, the Wölffer vines are monitored daily, each plant maximized for best sun exposure.
Taking ownership of the winery was a way to cultivate his legacy—“to remember him,” says Joey Wölffer, who this past January took the helm of Sagaponack’s Wölffer Estate Vineyard with her half-brother Marc, just in time to celebrate its 25th anniversary. She is talking about her father, of course, Hamburg-born Christian Wölffer, a larger-than-life entrepreneur/investor/vintner, who passed away tragically in late 2008.
When he first landed on the East End, the landscape was quite different from what you see today. In 1988, led by his passion and vision, Christian bought potato fields, planted vines, and launched a start-up winery then called Sag Pond Vineyards. As time went on, he understood the vineyard needed to evolve, but he also knew what would remain constant: the Hamptons light and with it, the piercing sun, the cool breeze from the ocean just a few miles away, and the rich and sandy soil.
What Christian couldn’t have predicted though, was the massive impact of the locavore movement, which has translated into the world of grapes and made local Long Island wine a prized drink, particularly in a resort area. It doesn’t hurt, either, that after 25 years of hard work poured into the soil, the vineyard is now producing wines that can be found in numerous multi-starred restaurants.
“As a first-generation immigrant,” says Joey, “I felt that purchasing the property (71 acres, of which 50 are planted vineyards) allowed me to literally dig my own roots in that soil.” A fashion-marketing veteran, she now oversees new products and branding, particularly the “Summer in a Bottle” ad campaign that heralds the vineyard’s renowned wines. In homage to the bohemian, artistic atmosphere of the Hamptons circa 1960, Joey is curating a series of art exhibits within the main house.
Whereas Marc, who has worked in the hospitality industry for the past 20 years, always knew he wanted to be a part of the winery, Joey realized how attached she was to the land only after her father died. “It was our father’s wish that one of us take over the vineyard,” says Marc. “But in truth, the team in place now feels like extended family.”
Today, with its manicured vines stretching toward the horizon, feathery cypress trees, and the subtle ochre tint of the winery and tasting room, the estate feels more Tuscan than American. But Roman Roth, winemaker at Wölffer Estate since 1992 (who was made a partner in 2013), says, “One of our first missions was to find our particular regional identity.”
Reflecting on the past years, he explains, “It takes a long time to find a voice, meaning a wine integrity, and to achieve this, there are thousands of small decisions that need to take place throughout the year.” Seen from the viewpoint of an oenophile, the work of a vintner seems half science, half sorcery, since the final taste is so dependent on the weather. “At the beginning we often had roller-coaster years,” says Roth, but today, working very closely with Vineyard Manager Richie Pisacano, they strive to “make great wine even when we have a bad year.”
Tradition plays an important part in any family-owned vineyard, and one key value has clearly been passed down: a commitment to sustainable winemaking practices. Although not organic, the grapes are carefully tended, using sustainable vitaculture farming practices. The vineyards now produce approximately 25,000 cases annually, with a wide range of grape varietals, including whites made from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and, just released this year, trebbiano grapes; reds produced from cabernet, cabernet franc, pinot noir, and Merlot; and a mélange of rosés and late-harvest dessert wines.
“The vineyard tells us what we will make,” Roth says. “Ideally, you want two inches of rain every two weeks.” He adds, laughing; “2010 and 2012 were dream years and produced fabulous wines.”
Depending on the weather and the resulting harvest—bountiful or meager—the task of grape selection plays a pivotal role. In excellent years with the right balance of rain and sun (grapes love cool nights and hot sunny days), there is plenty of ripe fruit to choose from. But even then, the grapes are scrutinized, and knowledgeable workers hand-pick and sort the grapes—a process in which, at the Wölffer Estate, up to 30 percent of the crop can be rejected to allow the best fruit to develop and end up in the final bottling.
All this attention to the grapes is what distinguishes fine winemaking in the modern era, and the quality of the fruit that goes into the bottle determines the majority of the result. The clean-tasting Perle Chardonnay 2010, for example, feels particularly light and citrusy, and Roth affirms it will age easily for 15 years. Just released and made with 2010 grapes, the White Mischief is named for the theme of a party Christian Wölffer used to throw every year. It is aged 70 percent in stainless steel and 30 percent in new French oak, and expresses a flowery, peachy undertone. The White Horse “Reserve” labels have good longevity and, according to Roth, can be enjoyed young but will improve with age. “In the past, gourmands wanted French wines to complement celebrations,” says Roth, “but today the trend is toward lighter wines.”
A crop of noteworthy wines released this year boast Italian-and Spanish-style monikers, derived from the names of some of Christian’s horses. These include a 2012 rosé named Grandioso, an Amarone-style wine called Claletto from 2010, and two late-harvest dessert wines from 2012: a chardonnay and a Merlot, named Descencia and Fabiana. These sweet wines use grapes in which a form of “botrytis” (often called “noble rot”) has set in, meaning that the grapes are left on the vines past normal ripening, creating higher sugar levels in the grapes, which become intensely sweet and concentrated. The result is delicious dessert wines, in which crisp acidity is balanced and in harmony with these sugars. These Late Harvest wines can pair beautifully with a cheese course or dessert.
Long Island red wines are gaining ground and achieving some notoriety, and the Wölffer Estate is most proud of its Christian’s Cuvée—named, of course, for the founder. This wine is 100 percent Merlot, and the 2010 bottling is being released on the occasion of the 25th anniversary.
All this work and dedication seems to be showing results, since in each of the past three years, the vineyard has sold more wine than the prior year, as demand has grown steadily, and prompting Roth to offer selections from among his library bottles of past vintages. Says Daniel Johnnes, wine director for Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group, “This Long Island winery is leading the pack and affirming the world- class stature of these wines grown and made so close to New York City.”
What does the future hold? “Our father was passionate about Argentina,” says Marc. “Not only its wines but the people and the country, so we now own 40 acres of Malbec in the Mendoza region.” The family is also investing in more land on the North Fork, thereby extending its local roots for decades to come. Wölffer Estate Vineyard, 139 Sagg Road, Sagaponack, 537- 5106
photography by doug young; eugene gologursky (group shot)