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Lieb Cellars Branches Out on Long Island

How a fortuitously misplanted vineyard grew into one of the North Fork's most innovative wineries
Intentional or not, Pinot Blanc proved a smart planting on Long Island.
Photo by: James Molesworth
Intentional or not, Pinot Blanc proved a smart planting on Long Island.

Posted: Jun 21, 2016 12:00pm ET

Lieb Cellars' Russell Hearn is another of Long Island's longstanding winemakers. The Aussie has managed to keep a little Down Under twang despite making wine on the North Fork since the early 1990s. Hearn was actually working in Virginia when he made his first trip to Long Island, part of a symposium of winemakers exploring what the nascent industry here was up to.

With a strong contingent of Bordeaux-based winemakers in attendance, including the late Paul Pontallier, the group was visiting a vineyard that was supposedly Chardonnay. A French ampelographer in the group asserted, as Hearn tells it, something to the effect of "That ain't Chardonnay," insisting (correctly) that it was actually Pinot Blanc.

"A for-sale sign went up the next day on the vineyard," Hearn says, since at the time Pinot Blanc had zero pedigree compared to Chardonnay. In came Marc Lieb to buy the property, and Lieb Family winery was born in 1992. Hearn eventually made his way to Long Island, working for Pellegrini, where he wound up buying fruit from Lieb's vineyards. As for the Pinot Blanc, it became one of Long Island's best and breeziest whites; the 2013 Reserve bottling earned 89 points last year

Lieb eventually sold the property to a private equity firm in 2013, which quickly sold it to the Premium Wine Group, a company set up in part by Hearn in 2000. The name was tweaked to Lieb Cellars.

Today Hearn has 84 acres at his disposal, including the original 14 acres of Pinot Blanc which he claims is the largest single-owned planting of the grape in the U.S. Half of the 84-acre vineyard base goes to Lieb, which is run as an estate-grown operation. A new tasting room has opened next door to the vineyard on Oregon Road in Cutchogue. The other half of the 84 acres are leased vineyards which go to Lieb's Bridge Lane Cellars, a value-priced line. Lieb Cellars produces around 5,000 cases annually, and Bridge Lane accounts for about 9,000 more. Creating a value-priced line was a new angle for Hearn and his colleagues.

"That's in part to push back against the perception—and truth, in many parts—that Long Island wines are expensive," says Ami Opisso, general manager who was brought in by Hearn as part of a brand new team. The idea being to push out from the traditional insulated model of many Long Island wineries. With all of Lieb's still wines bottled under screwcap, and Bridge Lane Cellars available in keg and bag-in-box format as well as in bottle, Hearn and Opisso are looking ahead. They're seeing success too, getting distribution into six new states, relatively unheard of for a Long Island winery. On top of that, Premium Wine Group's facility leases space and winemaking expertise to producers in the region. Eighteen other brands now make their wines in the warehouse space, where barrels are stacked on moveable racks from floor to ceiling.

Back in the vineyards, Hearn is starting to focus on a few varieties, pulling back from the shotgun spread that many Long Island wineries still adhere to.

"We know we grow Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay well. And of course Pinot Blanc, too," he says. "I think there's a little bit of a retraction coming in the wines being made, and so they're getting better. Look, we get really good Cabernet Sauvignon two or three years out of 10, but even then we're not going to bottle a Cabernet by itself, because even when it's really good I don't think it's good enough to stand by itself. We have to focus on what we do best most consistently."

In addition to narrowing the varietal scope, Hearn has learned to manage the vineyards for the particularly cool spot his vines occupy on the narrow strip of Haven loam in Cutchogue.

"This is one of the narrowest points along the North Fork," explains Hearn, noting Long Island Sound is less than a half-mile to the north, Peconic Bay 2 miles to the south. "When things were started here, folks did a lot of what was done in the Finger Lakes, another cool climate. But over time we realized the needs up there are not the needs here. Winters aren't as severe, of course, and we can do different things here that they can't, and vice versa. We've moved to keeping the canopy tight and well-aerated. We need to maximize sun, so row spacing is done to eliminate shade from one row to the next. This was all done during the mid-'90s, and then we got a string of good vintages, and so we saw right away what we could really do. Since then, it's been getting things focused in the winery as well. I think Long Island has always brought in good fruit since then, but now I think we're more confident and mature about how we're putting it into the bottle."

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

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