Saturday, October 6, 2007

Day 63 - Making Wine in Queens!

New York State’s latest experiment in viticulture is, right here, in New York City. That’s right. Long Island’s merlots have been gaining a grudging respect for their trademark oaky flavor. And the upstate Finger Lakes region is known for its award-worthy Rieslings. The next region to become well-known? How about Queens? As in New York City.

The Queens County Farm Museum is a 47-acre farm, the last one in New York City. And though it’s just blocks from the Nassau County border, it’s New York City, alright. The Q79 bus stops right out in front. It’s been a working farm since 1697 and open as a museum and educational institution since 1975. The museum helps to interpret the site and to teach the public about the City’s agricultural history. There are sheep and pumpkins and goats and hogs and corn and, says Gary Mitchell, the farm's operations manager, “We also have planted in 2004 an acre-and-a-half of vinifera—French wine grapes on American root stock. And we have 4 varieties here on the farm: We have chardonnay, merlot, cab franc, and cab sauvignon.

“Our first harvest in 2006 which we’d taken to our wine maker at Premium Wine Group in Mattituck, and from that we have a merlot and possibly a red blend will come out of that first vintage. The second vintage is in the middle of harvesting now. We took a chardonnay and a merlot in. So our second 2007 vintage will be a white and a red.”

In theory, it shouldn’t be that hard to grow grapes in Queens. Climatically speaking this area gets basically the same weather as the vineyards 100 or so miles east on the end of Long Island. But there’s something about the notion of growing wine grapes in New York City that still seems to defy nature—or at least the odds.

“Obviously, no one had planted grapes on the farm before," says Gary. "So there was a little bit of a mystery about whether the grapes would grow and flourish, but they have.”

Gary, in his 50s, is a theater actor turned farm manager and non-profit winemaker. And he sports the straw hat and reddened neck to prove it. He was showing me around his vineyard a few weekends ago. The farm decided to grow wine grapes as an experiment to see what was possible—and as a way of creating more programs that would appeal to adults.

Hence, winemaking. Or wine-growing, really. The grapes are grown here. But modern-day winemaking requires specialized equipment like automated grape presses, large fermentation tanks, and a bottling facility. The Queens County Farm Museum has none of this. It doesn’t even really have enough grapes to get a sufficient volume of wine for modern day equipment. So Gary spoke to a fellow wine maker out east on Long Island.

“And his suggestion," Gary continued, was that because of minimum size of fermenting tanks and because of the amount of wine we actually wanted to make—which is by far the smallest quantity anyone makes with him, about 350 cases—it was decided very early on that we would have to source grapes from other LI growers. Any one variety here wouldn’t sufficient to make enough wine because it is only about an acre-and-a-half to two acres.

“Once we saw that we had some quality fruit. We’ve purchased some grapes and mixed ours in there so there’ll be a nice heavy percentage of our own grapes in the bottle, and make wine under the name Queens Farm Vineyards.”

Alice Wise of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Suffolk County has been conducting viticulture research for the past 20 years. She says she is pleased with what the Queens experiment will mean for raising awareness among City residents of the importance agriculture retains in the region. Besides, she says, “New York City is probably the most important wine market in the world. Why wouldn’t we want to have some examples of local wines here?”

Back on the farm, a couple of Gary Mitchell's farmhands were snipping some examples of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon grapes in order to introduce a dubious public to Queens’ possible future as a winegrowing region. The dozen or so rows of vines are all covered with netting that protects the precious grapes from birds, including the farm’s own Guinea hens which had raided a couple of rows a couple of weeks earlier. Underneath one was Carmen Ortiz, a baby-faced 29-year old father of three from Spanish Harlem who makes the hour-and-a-half trip out here to help out on the farm. Gary hired him earlier this summer after Carmen had come out here with his kids on a day trip to visit the farm.

Throngs of parents pushing strollers with rambunctious children in tow, some weighed down with bagfuls of apples, made their way up the farm’s main drive, from the entrance, past the hog pens and the sheep corrals. Some branched off for the obligatory corn maze. But an increasing number gathered around Gary and his assistant Carol Nicolini-McCauley as they handed out some samples from bins of wine grapes. Gary and Carol described the process of growing and harvesting wine grapes.

The vines receive as many as five prunings throughout the season. The prunings ensure that only the best grapes remain during the months when their fermentable sugar is concentrating in the fruit. Pruning also ensures that air can circulate around the grapes. This reduces the likelihood that a scourge of wine grapes in this region--powdery mildew—will take hold and ruin the crop.

Deciding when wine grapes are harvested is determined by several factors. Most are scientific, the most important being the sugar content in the grapes which increases throughout the season to a peak point before the grapes begin to raisin on the vine. Close to picking, the sugar can change by the day, and part of the art of the vintner is finding the exact moment to harvest.

But there are also practical challenges, such as when a non-profit farm museum can locate enough labor to pick an acre or so of grapes by hand. Or if Gary’s pickup truck has enough payload capacity to haul all the grapes to the winemaker.

Carmen lugged up a couple of crates of clipped grapes and Gary asked the assembling crowed who wanted to crush some grapes. A chorus of "MEEEE!"s went up--largely from the adults.

Nancy Santiago took her shoes off and stepped into a steel vat about twice the size of a bathtub and filled up to her ankels with cabernet sauvignon grapes. "This is weird. It's like stepping on bubble wrap!"

Last month, the farm harvested their chardonnay grapes, followed by the merlot a week later. This year’s chardonnay which, as a white wine, requires less time to ferment, should be ready at roughly the same time that last year’s merlot vintage will be ready: early next summer. Orders for the few hundred cases will taken by the Queens County Farm Museum soon.

When one dubious visitor asked if the wine that was being made was any good, Gary offered a honest appraisal:

“Drinkable. Really nice. We’re not going to make an award-winning wine. But we’ll make a decent tasting wine that you can take home for dinner and not be embarrassed.”

No comments: