From table to farm


By Laura Sayre
Originally posted on August 25, 2004

Every time you buy a bottle of wine from Shinn Estate Vineyard, you get a free field map.

That’s because when Barbara Shinn and David Page developed their wine label, they incorporated a field plan of their 22-acre vineyard into the design. It’s a fitting emblem for the couple’s open approach toward their customers and visitors, and for their open-mindedness about new and more sustainable vineyard management strategies. At most vineyards, you are invited into the tasting room—and that’s about as far as you get. At Shinn Estate Vineyards, visitors are invited out into the fields.

Those fields are densely complex. With 15 acres planted, Shinn Estate Vineyard has 10 acres of Merlot (including six different cultivars), a half-acre of Malbec, one and a half acres each of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, an acre of Cabernet Sauvignon, a half-acre of Petit Verdot, and 150 vines of Sémillon. In between blocks, Shinn and Page have established small ‘prairies,’ plots seeded to perennial grasses and forbs and left unmown to serve as habitat for beneficial insects and other wildlife. As they guide you through the rows of vines, the couple explain their belief that promoting biodiversity helps protect the vineyard from disease and pest outbreaks—and promises richer, more flavorful wines.

The results have been getting rave reviews. Their first wine, a 2002 “young vines” Merlot, was released this spring and is rapidly gaining admirers. Although just 310 cases were produced, and the wine is available only at the vineyard, through a handful of select New York wine shops, and at Shinn and Page’s Greenwich Village restaurant, Home, it’s getting a lot of people excited about the potential for sustainable wine-grape growing on Long Island’s North Fork.

Out of the kitchen… and into the field
Originally from the Midwest, Barbara Shinn and David Page came to wine-grape growing without extensive agronomic experience, although Page worked on a few farms in his teens. The couple moved east after working in restaurants in San Francisco for several years, and they arrived in New York City in the early 1990s steeped in the Bay Area culinary ideology of regional, seasonal cuisine. When they opened Home Restaurant in Greenwich Village in 1993, they were determined to seek out local foods.

“Some people think that they’re following the European way by opening a French restaurant,” says Page. “But really, following the European way is to eat locally.” Shinn and Page began combing eastern Long Island, the Hudson Valley, and the Finger Lakes district for farmers, cheesemakers, and winemakers whose products they could feature at Home. The restaurant may have been the first in New York City to draw up a wine list restricted to East Coast vintages.

By 1996, they’d paid off David’s student loans, managed to save some money, and begun to think about their next step. They’d been working with the Lenz Winery in Peconic, a few miles further out on the North Fork, to develop custom-blended and -labeled wines for Home Restaurant, and that experience—combined with meeting regional farmers and growers—got them interested in the possibility of starting a vineyard of their own.

Initially, they imagined they would employ a vineyard manager to make day-to-day decisions, go visit on the weekends, serve the wine in the restaurant, and that would be that. At the time, they had launched into a second restaurant, a takeout store, and a catering company, and were developing plans for another takeout store and possibly a hotel and restaurant out on the North Fork.

Then one day, Page recalls, “I was on the phone in the basement office of the restaurant, with no air conditioning, back by the garbage cans,” talking to the person they were thinking of hiring to run the vineyard. “And I thought, I’m not going to pay someone else to be out there on the tractor—I want to be out there myself.”

So they scaled back the restaurant expansion plans and shouldered the responsibility of managing the vineyard themselves. “It’s given us the opportunity to make of lot of our own decisions,” Shinn says.

Rethinking the possibilities of Long Island agriculture
The farm they settled on for the vineyard formerly belonged to the Tuthills, one of the original farming families of the North Fork, and the first thing Shinn and Page did after the purchase was to preserve the land for agricultural use. Next they began renovating the farm’s outbuildings, keeping to the existing footprints when they needed to rebuild the tasting room and future wine-making facility structures. The 1999 season was devoted to orchestrating the necessary nursery work in California to get the varieties they had chosen grafted on to rootstocks suitable for their soils. They planted their first vines in the spring of 2000.

From day one, the couple has been researching and networking, seeking to learn all they can about sustainable and organic wine-grape growing. While visiting with vineyard managers out in Oregon, they heard about the work of Elaine Ingham and the Soil Foodweb, Inc (SFI). When Shinn learned that SFI maintains a lab at Port Jefferson, New York, just 30 miles west of Mattituck, she couldn’t believe their luck. Before long, she had made contact with the staff there and set up a regional growers’ workshop with SFI speakers, to be held at Shinn Vineyards. Ingham herself came and gave a presentation.

In addition to their own ongoing consultations, the Soil Foodweb team put Shinn and Page in touch with Rodale Institute researchers Matt Ryan and Dave Wilson, which led to Shinn Vineyards becoming a collaborating farm in TRI’s two-year compost tea study funded by the Northeast SARE. The couple has also helped form a vineyard technical group, through which Long Island growers work together to keep abreast of the latest viticultural research and share practical applications.

Shinn and Page abandoned herbicides almost immediately, choosing instead to mechanically cultivate the area under the vines. Now they’re switching to a mown system, thanks to a friend who designed an in-row mower to fit their narrow vine spacing.

Unlike some practitioners of sustainable viticulture, Shinn and Page don’t use compost at all in direct applications, because their soil is high in phosphorous and compost would add more. But neither do they use synthetic fertilizers; instead they rely on ‘fertigation’ with compost tea. Using a recipe that includes liquid fish hydrolysate, humic acid, and kelp, they brew 50 gallons at a time once a week and apply it through the drip irrigation system.

The 2002 season—their first year working with Soil Foodweb—was fabulous, say Shinn and Page. It was a droughty year, fairly easy on the disease pressure front, and they reduced their chemical use by 80 to 90 percent. Even in the soggy 2003 season, they were able to reduce chemical use by around 40 percent.

In addition to compost tea, Shinn and Page use a number of other organic-approved materials, including Organic JMS Stylet-Oil (an OMRI-listed high-purity mineral oil) for powdery mildew. Next on the list are so-called ‘soft’ chemicals like phosphorous acid and sulfur.

Even when using soft chemical interventions, however, Shinn and Page have learned to exercise restraint, and in part it is their work with compost tea that has taught them this lesson. They showed me some downy mildew in the two year-old vines, and explained that they were trying to decide whether or not to treat it with phosphorous acid. “It’s hard to reinoculate [with compost tea] after you spray, even with something low impact. It changes the pH on the surface of the leaves,” says Shinn. In another part of the vineyard, they pointed out some leaf hoppers and Japanese beetles, but said they were not convinced the insects were doing enough damage to require spraying. “With young plants, [insect damage] can be a problem,” Page observes. “With older plants, it’s not going to have an impact.”

A question of balance
Today, Shinn and Page split their work week between Manhattan and the North Fork, making the two-hour commute each way once a week and spending Saturday through Wednesday morning at the vineyard and Wednesday afternoon through Friday night in the city. At first, they say, the split-week, split-life schedule was difficult—restaurateurs often stay up until 2 and 3 in the morning, after all, whereas farmers frequently get out bed at 4 or 5. Now Shinn and Page make a point of ending their working days at Home Restaurant by 8 or 9 p.m., which helps keep the two sides of their life in balance.

“There’s an intensive, eight-week period at the heart of the season, with lots of handwork,” notes Page. After fruit set they thin to one cluster per shoot, coaxing the vines into emphasizing quality over quantity. Usually, one of them is on the tractor while the other works with and supervises one or two local laborers. At harvest, they hire 19 or 20 workers to bring in the grapes. They do all the winter pruning themselves.

Shinn Estate Vineyards harvested 16 tons of grapes in 2002 and 18 tons in 2003, trading about 6 tons each year in exchange for winemaking by Eric Fry at Lenz Winery. One hundred fifty cases of 2002 reserve Merlot will be released next spring; eventually, they plan to bottle one blended white wine and two or three reds per season. This year they hope to bring in 25 tons, enough to make 1500 cases. By 2006, if all goes well, they will have expanded to 2000 cases a year and be making their own wines on-site.

While they have no current plans to get their vineyard certified organic, Shinn and Page are confident that sustainable, organic wine-grape growing can be done here. Earlier this summer, the couple attended a seminar and wine tasting in Manhattan hosted by French biodynamic viticulture guru Nicolas Joly and featuring wines from 70 biodynamic and organic vineyards in ten countries, including Australia, Chile, France, Italy, Slovenia, and the United States. Nine French wine-growing regions were represented, including Bordeaux, which as Page pointed out, is—like the Eastern United States—a humid region with challenging conditions for organic production.

Growing organically in areas like these is just a matter of time, dedication, and hard work, say Shinn and Page. “The science is catching up,” Page declares; their work with Rodale Institute and Soil Foodweb researchers is a case in point. “Ultimately, I think we’re going to get the point where you use different compost tea recipes for different situations—brew them more fungal, or more bacterial, for specific problems.” “There’s so much soil work to do here” to repair the legacy of decades of conventional potato growing, he adds.

So how is their approach viewed by other vineyard managers on the North Fork? Shinn and Page say that their neighbors and colleagues have been very supportive, but for the most part they’re inclined to wait and see how Shinn Estate fares before changing their own practices. “We get support, yes—participation, no,” says Shinn. “People are really receptive,” adds Page, “but they’re like, you guys let us know when it’s easy.” Organic wine-grape growing may not be easy any time soon, but Shinn and Page are showing that it’s definitely worth the effort.

Farming on the North Fork

Eastern Long Island has been farm country since the 18th century. One of the advantages of the area is its maritime climate: sandwiched between Long Island Sound and the Peconic Bay, North Fork farmers enjoy long growing seasons tempered by the ocean’s moderating influence—slow, cool springs and first frosts as late as mid-November. Winters on eastern Long Island also tend to be relatively mild, with temperatures rarely falling below 0°F. (Last winter was exceptional, with the first frost arriving on October 23 and several below-zero days later on.)

For whatever combination of reasons, however, Long Island farmers have been slow—much slower than their Hudson Valley counterparts, for instance—to develop relationships with high-value NYC retail and restaurant markets. As David Page puts it, “There’s still a lot of potential for organic and direct marketing out here.” There are traditional farmstands all along routes 25 and 48, but most Long Island produce still goes to Hunt’s Point, New York City’s massive wholesale produce market in the South Bronx.

The Long Island wine business—which does do a lot of direct marketing—got started in the early 1970s and has grown to include some 50 vineyards and 30 wineries, producing a half-million cases a year from 3000 acres of vines. The region’s long growing season means growers can plant Vitis vinifera, varieties developed from the oldest of the cultivated grape species, with the best flavor and wine-making qualities, but less hardy than American species and French and American hybrids.

One of the biggest challenges for Long Island wine-grape growers is losses to birds. The North Fork lies in the path of the Atlantic Flyway, the East Coast’s major bird migration route, and each fall as harvest approaches the vineyards attract tens of thousands of birds. Shinn and Page say that non-native Starlings are the chief culprit. To minimize damage, they must attach netting to each row of vines as the fruit matures.

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