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Clovis Point Carves Out Some Sharp Wines

A Queens businessman has hunted down a piece of Long Island terroir
Limiting yields is an important part of the viticultural philosophy at Clovis Point.
Photo by: James Molesworth
Limiting yields is an important part of the viticultural philosophy at Clovis Point.

Posted: Jun 27, 2016 3:00pm ET

Not one of the bigger names on Long Island, Clovis Point has nonetheless managed to carve out a sharp profile—bright, nicely delineated whites and reds that have an extra shade of fruit and depth.

Founded in 2000, the idea of farming grapes was the lure for Nasrallah Misk, a Queens, N.Y.-based businessman. Today his son Mark also plays a role. 2004 was the first commercial vintage for the winery, and winemaker John Leo has been at the helm since the beginning.

Leo, 57, gave up on a journalism career after traveling the world and falling for wine. (Should I be taking a cue here?)

"Italian grandfather, making wine in the basement," says Leo of his wine background. He earned his skills with on-the-job training, making stops at Rivendell in the Hudson Valley, as well as Wölffer and Pellgrini on Long Island. Eventually he earned his way on to the team at Premium Wine Group, the production facility being run by Lieb Cellars' Russell Hearn, where he is in now charge of the Clovis Point wines.

Drawing on 9 acres of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, plus a little purchased fruit, Leo manages to keep production around 2,000 cases annually, with everything sold out of the tasting room. Leo is willing to declassify fruit from year to year, so the portfolio of wines isn't the same vintage to vintage. Instead Leo is focused on quality first, with fresh, direct varietal bottlings that capture the breezy, acid-driven elegance of Long Island wines. An occasional reserve-level bottling is produced in years that merit it.

"We give him what he needs," says Mark. "And we let him do his thing."

The narrowed focus at Clovis Point may be helping them excel among their Long Island peers, who more often than not take a little-bit-of-everything approach to their wine portfolios.

"The idea is just get it done in the vineyard," says Leo. "From there you build confidence with the fruit you're bringing in. Focus on what does best here, so Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, and then don't screw it up in the winery."

The vineyard is situated on the typical local Haven loam, with a more pronounced majority of sand over clay, situated on a slight, southward facing slope (Long Island is often considered flat, but there is undulation). The vines are healthy, well-manicured and seem to be in ideal balance.

"At first, it was hard to get more than 2 tons an acre around here, because the plantings were often virused, bad material, etc. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, that had been fixed and suddenly everyone jumped to 5 or 6 tons an acre, and then you saw it in the wines, as they had quality problems. The yields were too high. People quickly learned the 3 ton per acre range is where you need to be for quality wine production in this area," says Leo.

To get those lower yields, Leo has the vineyard cropped to one cluster per shoot and the canopy is open and airy to maximize sun and airflow in the humid, cool, breezy climate.

The '15 Sauvignon Blanc is brisk, with lime pith and verbena notes. The '14 Chardonnay is a steel-fermented version that offers pretty pear and yellow apple flavors. The '14 Black Label Chardonnay pulls in 30 percent barrel-fermented juice, but keeps the corresponding piecrust note judicious throughout, relying on pear and melon flavors. The '13 Cabernet Franc is focused and fresh, with bright black cherry flavors inlaid with a characteristic tobacco note. The '13 Archeology, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Syrah (the blend changes based on the vintage, the wine is not made every year) is an eye opener, offering a bolt of dark cherry and plum fruit, bright acidity and an extra graphite edge that sets it apart from the typical Long Island red.

Clovis Point is at a tipping point—stay small and local, or go to the next level in terms of production and distribution. It's a question that a number of Long Island wineries now face. Wölffer went to the next level with its rosé; others are choosing to stay where they are.

"We're in a sweet spot right now," says Mark. "There's demand and we sell out everything. It's definitely more than a hobby now, but is it a next career for the family? We're not so sure. We do love what we're doing though."

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

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