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Wine wonk-fest yields good tips for East Coast vintners

By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 9:49 AM

East Coast winemakers love to distinguish their wines from California's by saying that we have a European climate here and that Bordeaux is the more appropriate model than Napa.

But that doesn't stop them from flocking to learn how things are done on the West Coast.

Winemakers from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia gathered this month at Waltz Vineyards in Lancaster County, Pa., for an oenological wonk-fest of trade secrets and viticulture tips. Their instructors were two California luminaries: Jeff Newton, a leading vineyard manager in Santa Barbara County, and Andy Erickson, of Favia Erickson Winegrowers in Napa and most famous as the winemaker of the exclusive cult cabernet Screaming Eagle. The event was organized by Mark Chien, viticulturist at the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Lancaster.

As Newton and Erickson described their techniques in the vineyard and winery in helping craft some of this country's most sought-after wines, the listening vintners peppered them with questions about rootstocks, canopy management, green harvesting, sulfur dioxide use, extended maceration, tannin extraction and other minutiae that can mean the world to a winemaker.

At one point, Erickson exhaled heavily and said, "I had no idea the questions would be so technical."

Some East-West differences were apparent. "I was struck by how concerned they were with controlling sunlight on the grapes and avoiding sunburn," said Sarah O'Herron of Black Ankle Vineyards in Mount Airy. Because the sunlight on the East Coast is less intense than California's, "that's not a problem we worry much about," she said.

The Californians also focused on irrigation as a means of ensuring that their vines had enough water. Here in the East, vintners are more worried about summer rains, humidity and even hurricanes. The dilemma is how to limit water intake by their vines.

Yet there was much discussion of techniques to make better wine, anywhere. Newton described four models of vineyard management offered by his firm, Coastal Vineyard Care Associates of Solvang, Calif. The basic model was for those wines to be priced ultimately at $5 to $15 per bottle, with vineyard care primarily by machines at a cost of about $2,500 per acre for up to six tons of grapes. Moving up the scale meant increasingly intensive and expensive labor with the goal of reducing yields and increasing quality.

"Model D," the luxury option, would typically cost a vineyard owner up to $10,000 per acre during the season to produce one or two tons of grapes.

For this consumer-focused observer, it was an eye-opener. No wonder the resulting wines would cost $40 to $100 per bottle. For the local vintners interested in achieving high quality, it was reassuring.

"We're doing pretty much everything in Model D, so it's good to know we're on the right track," said Phineas DeFord, vineyard manager at his family's Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, Md. Boordy is in the middle of an ambitious program to replant up to 50 acres of vineyard with high-density, low-yielding vines in order to boost the quality of its estate wines. "The only thing we don't have is the bottle price," DeFord said.

After the seminars, the winemakers did what you'd expect: They sat down for a tasting of 16 wines from the East Coast and California. The Eastern wines impressed, especially two 2005 reds from Pellegrini Vineyards and Wolffer Estate in Long Island that showed particular skill; the region had been hit by 20 inches of rain over eight days in the middle of harvest.

Then the group tasted two of Erickson's wines from his Favia label: a cabernet sauvignon and a cabernet franc-cabernet sauvignon blend from 2007. Granted, those wines cost $120 each, more than three times the price of any of the eastern wines. But the room fell silent as the winemakers experienced seamless texture and seemingly unending flavor.

"These wines are indescribably delicious," someone muttered.

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