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'You can't make red wine on Long Island' - Shinn Estate Vineyards, making local wine in a global world

Posted by Torsten 15 Oct 2010

'How much alcohol do you think this one has?' With a cheeky smile David hides the label from us, just having poured an intensely coloured red wine. We swirl. We sniff. We taste. Towards 14%, we guess. David turns the bottle around and triumphantly declares '15.4%. But it does not feel that heavy, because of the acidity.' He reconsiders. 'You will still feel it the next morning though.'

While I take a second sip of the lovely Cabernet, I look back over a line of open bottles. Just a few minutes earlier David Page had mentioned that he had once been told: 'You can't make red wine on Long Island.' I swirl another wine around the glass, smell the blackberry and earthy aromas of 87% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec, and I do not even need to look up to see David smile, and to know he has reason to. For the wines he makes together with his wife Barbara Shinn are proof that you can - make red wine on Long Island.

Shinn vineyard on Long Island, New York StateShinn vineyard on Long Island, New York State

And that is not the only thing we discovered during our visit to Shinn Estate Vineyards, a visit that turned into a study on local winemaking in a global world. And a bit with a dog...

Shinn Estate Vineyards, making local wine in a global world

Following my visit to New York City last year I had decided to return soon - to see more of the Big Apple, but also to visit New York State and its wine country. So I was delighted when my Brooklyn-based friend Sarah offered to drive me to Long Island, for a visit to Shinn Estate Vineyards.

Having taken the ferry from New London, we approach Shinn from the north, driving along in the most beautiful sunshine. There is something about the light, the landscape and trees that gives the area an almost Mediterranean appeal. Climate and soil conditions, I learn later, are not too dissimilar from Bordeaux (they are on the same latitude). Now more road signs come up, pointing to local vineyards. According to Uncork New York, there are 43 wineries on Long Island, producing some 4,000 tons of grapes on 1,930 acres of land. Eventually, a flag shows us the way to Shinn.

welcome to Shinnwelcome to Shinn

Near the village of Matituck, Barbara Shinn and David Page grow Merlot, Cabernet Franc/Sauvignon and Malbec as well as Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Soon after planting the first vines in 2000, the couple started to make the transition to organic farming, replacing chemical fertilizers and herbicides with natural alternatives. Barbara and David learned how to organically control insects, fungi and weed, and they are now in the process to have the vineyard certified not only as organic, but as biodynamic.

I knew about Shinn's organic focus and that they also make cider, but I had never tasted their wines, nor any other wine from Long Island, for that matter. Long Island wine is not exactly well known in the UK or Germany, so I was both very curious and not entirely sure what to expect. What I certainly did not expect was (no, not the Spanish Inquisition, but) that the second I got out of the car I would be literally jumped by Shinn's two resident guardians.

Panda & Beckett (and the Wine Rambler)Panda & Beckett (and the Wine Rambler)

Luckily for me, they instantly recognise me as a dog lover and potential play thing. For the next ten minutes or so I am busy throwing a stick, and when we eventually move to the tasting room, the dogs follow us. In the tasting room, a glass of pear cider greets us. The fresh, off-dry cider is a blend of Gorham, Comice, and Bosc pears from the Wickham Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, fermented on the skin. It made for such a refreshing aperitif that after returning to London I bought my first pear in years. Sarah recently published an article about American cider, if you want to know more about the topic.

While we are enjoying the cider, Beckett keeps watch over the winery, and Panda works hard on convincing me that she is way more interesting than a glass of wine. When Panda's master appears though (boxer Beckett, it turns out, is the dog of Anthony Nappa, Shinn's winemaker), the dogs realise that now the serious business is about to start, and leave to wrestle in the vineyard.

Beckett, Shinn tasting roomBeckett, Shinn tasting room

Describing a wine tasting with David Page as 'serious business' would give the wrong impression. While he is serious about his work, David is also an entertainer. At Shinn, the humour even shows on the labels. Apparently, David at tastings sometimes likes to play a joke on would-be wine experts, serving them his own Bordeaux, a blend of 40% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Malbec, 15% Petit Verdot, and 5% Cabernet Franc.

a different kind of 'Bordeaux'a different kind of 'Bordeaux'

Looking beyond the pun, we find the Wild Boar Doe to be a lovely wine, aromatic and fruity, with spicy red pepper, good body and fresh acidity, a wine that almost begs for food to go with it. This kick-starts David, who together with his wife Barbara owned a restaurant in New York City, in a short rant about a certain type of wine critic who uses 'food friendly' as a derogatory term.

The Shinn wines clearly are food friendly though, which I see as a compliment. Acidity plays a key role here, and David aims for a fresh and lively style that makes the wines very attractive. If you have read the Wine Rambler for a while, you will know that we are a bit sceptical if it comes to high alcohol wines - too often the balance is not right. I still prefer lower alcohol, but drinking some of the stronger Shinn wines demonstrates that you can make heavy reds that are fresh and balanced enough never to taste alcoholic or to feel too heavy.

David PageDavid Page

Don't make the mistake to think that Shinn are about heavy wine though. For instance, one of my favourite wines was an un-oaked Chardonnay, selling at $19. It is very light and elegant and would easily have found its place in a flight of Chablis I tasted earlier this year. While I have had Chablis with slightly more pronounced minerality, the balance was really good (and the minerality not bad at all). I regretted not having room in my luggage to carry home a bottle or two.

More interesting than to focus on individual wines though would be to speak about the Shinn concept of local wine. At some point between tasting Shinn's basic red wine blend and the estate Merlot (both really good value at $14/$24 respectively), David explains what in his view makes Shinn different from other estates, a philosophy that is much about being local. This includes the overused concept of 'terroir' - a word that David only uses once or twice, and then somewhat hesitantly - but David's explanation begins with the market place.

Long Island, the label states proudlyLong Island, the label states proudly

Shinn see themselves as local, and that means selling local. While other wineries may only sell a smaller proportion of their wine directly to customers, Shinn distribute way over two thirds in this way. They know many of their customers personally, through the tasting room. After all, Long Island is very popular with tourists, and the ratio of visitors to wineries is much more favourable than it would for instance be in California. Being close to New York City gives Shinn easy access to millions of customers in one of the wealthiest parts of the US. It is also an area where people seem to care about wine and love the idea of buying local produce. The latter trend, it seems to me, is maybe fuelled as much by life-style choice as by an ecological conscience.

Cutting out the middle-man through their direct relationship to customers means that Shinn can be profitable without expansion into new markets. Staying local allows Barbara and David to make wine in the way they want to, without having to look for outside capital to finance an expansion which they feel may have negative impact on their work. 'People often say to me, why don't we see your wines in the best restaurants all over the world?', David says and pauses. Then he shrugs and goes on: 'They are in the best restaurants of New York, and we sell our wine, so why should I care for that?' Pride aside, it seems, there is not much reason for Shinn to 'go global' - and being local, knowing his customers personally, clearly is a source of pride for David.

2010 Merlot awaiting the harvest2010 Merlot awaiting the harvest

Being local also has a strong impact on how David and Barbara work the vineyard - Barbara is the viticulturist at Shinn Estate Vineyards: a labour intensive process that works with and not against weather, soil and local biodiversity. David takes us to a biodynamic calendar in the tasting room. For a moment I fear we will now be given a lecture on root days, fruit days and the lunar calendar - biodynamic, I find, for some people means preaching like a good religious zealot. However, when David explains the progress of this year's harvest at Shinn it becomes clear that while he takes inspiration from the calendar, eventually grapes and weather determine when the harvest starts.

Despite not being dogmatic with regards to the calendar, it is obvious how serious David is about working the vineyard organically. Speaking about mushrooms that now grow between the vines is just one example of an ever expanding biodiversity in the vineyard that makes him very happy. When Barbara and David considered the move to biodynamic farming, local winemakers and experts warned them that this could not be done successfully on Long Island, or that it would impact on the quality of the wine. However, David is clearly very happy with the outcome, and a little proud. He also feels that the growing biodiversity in the vineyard helps to control infestations. For instance, blackbirds are now visiting the vineyard - to feed on Japanese beetles that would otherwise be a menace to the grapevines.

Moving onto the topic of yeast, David points towards the vineyard. With way over a hundred indigenous yeast strains living out there, he emphasises, employing them in natural fermentation gives the wine its local character. When we bring up the issue of cultured yeasts that are said to be more reliable for controlling the fermentation process, David gets very serious. 'For us', he emphasises, 'indigenous yeasts are much more reliable.' Fermentation might take longer, but why replace the unique character of a vineyard with industrialised yeasts?

When he speaks about cultured yeast in winemaking, David seems almost angry about an industry trying to influence winemaking teaching programmes and about the misinformation he feels they spread regarding cultured versus indigenous yeast. Twice he uses the term 'good science' - 'there is good science to show that they are wrong', is his response to cultured yeast evangelists.

David does not explicitly say it, but by this time it is obvious that indigenous vs cultured yeast is another facet of the philosophy of making local wine in a global world. It is a philosophy that I quite like. Leaving all ideology aside, the wines are proof that it works.

Shinn winery and vinesShinn winery and vines

On our way out, we stroll along the vines, in the most beautiful sunshine, with Panda keeping us company (in fact, she was waiting outside the tasting room with a stick for me to throw). Barbara Shinn greets us from afar, busy in the vineyard. As so far we have only heard David's voice, I leave the last* word to her (video by 'The People Who Feed Us'; it seems for my next visit I'd also have to speak to winemaker Anthony Nappa):

* reviews of Shinn wines to follow, of course...

Great Job!

Awesome post! Great Job Torsten! Reminded me of my own trip to Long Island a couple of years ago. It is so nice at this time of the year with the so-called Indian summer.

Re: Great Job!

Thank you, Alex. Very pleased to hear that you enjoyed it. They are really lovely people at Shinn, and you are right about the season too!

food friendly

Thanks from me as well, Torsten, on behalf of the sorry bunch of us who had to stay home and sip their wine in the october chill of old europe.
What's that about food friendliness being sneered at by critics? I always wonder what the gobs-of-fruit-98pts- people are doing with their wine, other than drinking it with food. Eating it out of their glasses with spoons? Anyway, if Shinn wines are anything like they come across, they are the kind where the last glass out of the bottle tastes best - Wine Rambler wines.

Once again I really enjoyed

Once again I really enjoyed reading the wine rambler. Thanks. Did you ever
heard of flattr? It would give me the chance to give you a little fee.
Looking forward to the next story

Re: once again i really enjoyed

Arne, thanks so much for this, really happy to hear it. I have to admit that we have never considered including a facility that would allow our readers to send money to us. Obviously, we spent quite a bit of time on the site and we also pay for pretty much 99% of all the wine we drink. In that sense, a contribution would be welcome. Whether other readers would want to support us in this way I don't know though. Still, something to talk about at the next Wine Rambler committee meeting.

Thanks again,

Long Island

I also visited Long Island and wrote about the Long Island wines here

Re: Long Island

Thanks for sharing that link, Christian. Glad to read that you had fun on Long Island too. Hope I can visit again sometime soon!

Long Island

Torsten, with your German background I would recommend Woelffer Estate next time. Cheers. Christian

Long Island

Thank, Christian. I have added them to my (virtual) list - sounds as if they are very interesting! Torsten