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Harvest Q&A: New York's North Fork

Pellegrini Vineyards winemaker Russell Hearn talks about the challenges of a cool, wet year on Long Island

Mitch Frank
Posted: November 10, 2006

After 15 harvests as a winemaker on Long Island, Russell Hearn is one of the area's respected veterans. But the appellation is only 3 decades old, and he's still learning something new every vintage. Hearn began his winemaking career in his native Australia as a 16-year-old apprentice. After he left the Southern Hemisphere, he worked in Virginia, and later became Pellegrini's first employee when the North Fork winery started up in 1991. With 70 acres of vines, Pellegrini currently makes between 10,000 and 12,000 cases a year. Two-thirds of that is red--Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Encore, a Bordeaux-style blend of those three varieties plus Petit Verdot. Chardonnay is the leading white, and the winery also makes a dessert wine called Finale from Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc. Hearn also works as managing partner at Premium Wine Group, a custom-crush facility in nearby Mattituck, where he helps out as winemaking consultant for more than a dozen younger wineries. He spoke with Wine Spectator on Nov. 7, a day after he harvested his last grapes of the season.

Wine Spectator: How was this year's season?
Russell Hearn: We had some rain during bloom, in mid-June, which created a mild amount of shatter in our red varieties, particularly Merlot. We had lighter clusters and lower yields. This was the most extreme year for shatter I've seen. But it's proved to be a blessing because it's been a mild year, with a cool September and October, and the lower yields were still able to ripen. Harvest was a few days later than normal. We did have an early frost, on Nov. 4--normally we don't see frost until 3 weeks after harvest. About 80 percent of reds were in already and we were able to bring in the rest.

WS: How do you think the finished wines will be?
RH: Quality should be nice--though it's a little early to tell about the reds. I really like our Merlots; our Cabernet Francs are all really nice. The Merlots stand out. In hot years, all the reds are strong. In cool years like 2006, the earlier-ripening varieties excel. Also, Merlot is really showing well because it was the most affected by shatter. Typically we average 3 tons an acre, this year it was closer to 2 tons. Typically you might have 130 berries a cluster; most this year were 60 to 70 on loose scraggly clusters, but they ripened well.

WS: Will you treat any variety or vineyard block differently in the winery?
RH: Cabernet Sauvignon--I'm happy with it, but it's not a showy wine. 2005 was a hot, dry year, and you knew the Cab Sauv was good before you picked it. This year they've got nice varietal flavor, but it's not clear yet how intense that flavor is going to be. I'm going to shorten the maceration time--I don't think I'm not going to try to extract as heavily this year because of the possibility of seeds that are not fully ripe. They're not green--seeds go from green to neutral tasting to nutshell-flavored. They taste kind of like walnut shells as they're beginning to get ripe. And then you get that toasted, roasted coffee flavor. These seeds didn't quite get there. There's no astringency, but I'm not going to work the wine too hard.

WS: What was you biggest challenge in 2006?
RH: Too much rain. We did have a lot of rain.

WS: Some North Fork vineyards appeared to have rot issues.
RH: Yeah, you always have to keep up with your spray schedules out here, but this was an expensive spray season. You'd spray, then spray again five days later because of rain. You have to spray proactively, not reactively. If you weren't prepared to do that you'd suffer from rot. Normally we might spray 10 to 12 times a year. The better vineyards were sprayed 16 times this year.

WS: What's the most exciting thing about harvest?
RH: Everything is rapid-fire. This profession can actually be relatively slow, but during harvest you're making decisions quickly and running on adrenaline. And you're putting in place everything that happens for the rest of the process. The rest of the year you can only make tweaks. I'm not a big coffee drinker or anything. The mental stimulation keeps me going.

WS: What's the scariest thing about it?
RH: Things can go wrong in a hurry.

WS: What would make your job easier?
RH: The first thing on our improvement list is new equipment. After 15 years, you have to reevaluate if a piece of equipment was the right choice. I'm definitely looking into a new crusher for next season. The destemming-crushing technology has improved. Ours is our original--15 years old. We used a new harvesting machine this year and that was an improvement.

WS: What makes a North Fork harvest unique?
RH: There's no average year. The first five years I was working here, I kept asking more experienced people what an average year was like. After 15 years, people are starting to ask me, and there's no answer. It's a challenge. You could say it's frustrating, but I see it as challenging.

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