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On Long Island, Renovating Raphael

Winemaker Anthony Nappa takes the helm with a long to-do list
At Raphael, winemaker Anthony Nappa is overseeing new plantings and graftings.
Photo by: James Molesworth
At Raphael, winemaker Anthony Nappa is overseeing new plantings and graftings.

Posted: Jun 29, 2016 11:40am ET

Raphael winery on Long Island's North Fork was part of the wave of expansion that came in at the turn of the century, pushing Long Island from merely a cottage industry to a more legitimate, burgeoning wine region.

Started by John Petrocelli, Raphael's vineyard was first planted in 1998; the winery was releasing wines by 2000 with winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich at the helm (the late Paul Pontallier, a family friend, consulted along the way).

Olsen-Harbich left for Bedell in 2010 and things began to slide, both in the cellar and the vineyard. The Petrocelli family made a change, bringing in young Anthony Nappa in 2013. The now 39-year-old winemaker had worked previously at Shinn Estate and also had his own small label (which he has maintained). Before Nappa could even start fulfilling the property's potential, he had to get Raphael back to where it was.

The good news is that the large 70-acre property includes a showpiece winery and banquet facility that does a brisk business, so the bottom line remains solid. That gives Nappa the means to get to work elsewhere, with first priority the wines. Annual production tops out around 15,000 cases.

"When I got here, I went through all the lots in the cellar. What wasn't up to snuff we bulked out, and I took a hard line. Look, you could see it in the wines," says Nappa frankly of the fall off in quality following Olsen-Harbich's departure. "After getting that sorted, it was time to attack the vineyard."

"When it was first planted, it was Bordeaux varieties only and just one wine," he says as we tour the vineyard that spreads south behind the winery. "But as the owners are Italian, they wanted a connection with that heritage, so in some spots we've grafted Merlot over to Pinot Gris," he notes, pointing to a section of vines still sporting their version of a Band-Aid to protect the recent grafts.

"Part of the problem is logistical," explains Nappa. "I want to manage ripeness from the outside in, rather than having blocks of Merlot for example in different areas. This helps me fend of pressures from birds and deer, who could be attacking one area of ripening Merlot while we're on the other side of the vineyard picking a different block of ripening Merlot. But this Pinot Gris graft is just 3 acres. There's lots in transition right now."

Among other problems Nappa has been tackling are varying low spots in the gently undulating vineyard, where cold winter air settles, resulting in stunted and sometimes dead vines. Figuring out which varieties do well in these spots is part of a longer-term process. Right now, Nappa is trying to get as much of the vineyard into prime production as he can. It's been fits and starts as he gets to know the site.

"When I came here the vineyard looked like it had been nuked, and I stopped all the sprays right away," he says. "But in this area, I thought there was a nutrient problem in the soil, so that led me to compost a lot to bring the vines back up. In doing so, that brought in a fair amount of weed seed, so now we have to tackle the weed problem," he says.

After an initial spray of herbicide to beat back the problem quickly, Nappa intends to start cultivating the soil under the vines more, to take a more sustainable approach to the issue. Seeding a tractor spraying weedkiller might cause most wine lovers to cringe, and Nappa knows this. "I like working non-interventionist," he says. "But I'm not afraid of technology and I'll do what I have to."

"The bottom line is, we have all the ingredients we need in the vineyard. From there it's not messing up what the vineyard gave you, and in that I like to work as hands-off as possible," says Nappa. "I do all indigenous yeast fermentations. I never add anything. I'll use Petit Verdot to fix the acidity in a red wine rather than opening a bag of tartaric acid, and so on."

The to-do list at Raphael is long: Nappa says he has maybe 20 of the vineyard's 60 acres currently in transition. And Nappa is taking the long view.

"Looking ahead, the weather trends seem to be for more extremes, warmer summers and colder winters. So we need to address that going forward. But I have to go slow and do a few acres here and there at a time," he says.

"The stars have to align—right winemaker, right vineyard manager, right terroir, right varietals, right clones, right rootstock," says Nappa with a bit of a philosophical air. "How long is that going to take to figure out? I don't know. But what I have here is what I have to work with. And we are working on it, that I can say for sure."

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

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