Ask one of the most influential winemakers on Long Island what inspired his most well-known wine, and he tells you about a party.A
fter more than 25 years of making wine on Long Island, Roman Roth, who got his start in some of the top wine-making regions in the world—his native Germany, in Napa’s Carneros region and Australia before becoming Wölffer Estate‘s first winemaker—is one of the staunchest supporters of the capacity for Long Island soils to produce world-class wine grapes. As much as he can rhapsodize about the soils and climate of the East End, and how that translates to top-quality wine—which Wölffer’s rosés most assuredly are—it’s fun times that got those now legendary rosés their start.
“I came in ‘92 to Long Island and to work with Christian Wölffer,” Roth recalled, “Christian always had big parties you know, and he was quite an entertainer. A larger-than-life guy. At that first party, it was Labor Day weekend, we went to his house and there was Provence rosé flowing by the barrel and coming out by the bucket.” Everybody was having a good time.
Roth took notice and suggested to Christian straight off that the winery should make a rosé. “He was on board with that right away,” Roth said. “And so from 1992 on, the first year, we started making rosé and kept on it and kept on pushing and pushing and pushing and finally it clicked.”
We were not French and we were not fat.
But the first of several waves of rosé revival had not yet crested, and outside of Christian Wölffer’s somewhat sophisticated circle of party guests, the thirst for pale pink wines was more muted. “In the beginning, it was hard,” Roth admitted. To appeal to most American wine drinkers at the time, rosé “had to be either sweet and fat or it had to be French. We were not French and we were not fat, so it was difficult.”
Things picked up gradually over 20 years and Roth kept making rosé, learning about the soils and grapes and climate as he went and the wines began to develop a bit of a following. In the beginning, they were making only 1,000 cases of Wölffer’s dry, salmon-colored wine. “If you’re only making 1,000 cases, you just don’t reach that many people,” Roth said. “Even if they love it, it just doesn’t go anywhere.”
That began to change—first production went to 5,000 then 10,000 cases. Then it really took off. Roth pinpoints the turning point to several years ago, “Unfortunately just after Christian passed away 8 years ago, that’s when it really started to explode.”
Demand Meets Supply
Wölffer Estate now produces four still rosé wines and one sparkling rosé from blends of six or seven different grape varieties, but Merlot is the workhorse, usually comprising 40 to 50 percent of the mix. Unlike many rosés out there, the ones Roth makes are intentional rosés, this means the grapes are grown only to make rosé, unlike many producers who make pink (often sickly sweet wines) as a byproduct of red wine production.
“Picking at the right moment is very crucial for rosé,” Roth said. “There’s nothing worse than a mealy apple or an overripe tomato, and the same is with grapes. You want to catch the grapes when they are fresh and vibrant and very fruit-driven and not overripe for rosé. You want that sweet spot, where it’s fresh and lively. There is that moment that is the perfect moment, and so we try to catch that.”
And who wants a flabby affair?
Once the grapes are picked, Roth approaches making rosé like a white wine striving for freshness, vibrancy, balance and elegance. This means after picking in the sweet spot when the grapes are ripe for rosé, no to minimal skin contact (to produce that lovely pale salmon hue), and no saignee (or bleeding) from other red wine production. “If you’re making a red wine and using saignee, [basically the bleed-off from the beginning of the press or crush of red wine] you have no acidity and high pH, and that’s how the rosé tastes,” Roth said. “It’s a flabby affair. And who wants a flabby affair?”
It’s pretty much the same things that make the East End a popular place to visit that make it an interesting, and at times, rewarding, place to grow grapes.
“You have a great moderating ocean influence that gives this lovely natural acidity, and I think that’s what is so nice about the Long Island wines in general,” Roth explained. “We have this uniqueness that we are surrounded by water, so there’s a cooling effect, with cooler nights, but we are the same latitude as Madrid and Naples, so the sun is intense. You get ripe seeds, ripe skin, ripe flavors, yet wines are fresh and vibrant and elegant. To me, that combination is what makes the region so special.”
Wölffer Rosé became so popular on the East End that there was a pink wine panic in 2014 when the local supply ran out.
Those elements came together in a way that was easily understandable and accessible for a lot of people—like really a lot of people—in Wölffer Rosé, which became so popular on the East End that there was a crisis in 2014 when the local supply ran out and a pink wine panic ensued.
“We couldn’t make enough,” Roth lamented. Now Wölffer makes 35,000 cases of its “Summer in a Bottle” rosé, a wine that people will text pictures to Roth of it completely filling their refrigerator from top to bottom.
Sunlight Into Wine
Long Island’s agricultural history was in potatoes, not grapes. As a wine region, it’s relatively young, getting its start only in the 1970s, and then trying, with poor results to emulate California, rather than doing its own thing, only more recently finding its way.
“You have to be true to your region,” Roth said. “You have to love your own region and not just imitate, in this case as they did California, because that wouldn’t work for our region.” It may be young in terms of grape growing, but in learning what works here, Long Island is also at the forefront of what’s being done at the top vineyards in the world.
Roth cites incredible advances in Long Island grape growing in the past 20-some-odd years. He’d put Long Island’s intense viticulture practices, demanded by the climate, up there with the world’s top estates. Growing grapes in Long Island is an intensive process. It is not the Central Coast of California where big, robust clusters lie on top of one another covered by the umbrella shade of grape leaves and ripen to obscene sugar levels.
In Long Island, the wet and humid weather is one challenge. “You have to have absolute perfect cluster position. Every shoot position has to be right,” Roth said. “There are no huge fat canopies that create shade, and then you have these moisture traps where you can have fungus pressure, and then you have to spray. Instead, you have these very light and open canopies. Sunlight into wine, basically. You need open canopies that dry quickly with our lovely sea breeze.”
So it’s not just Summer in a Bottle that strives to capture the Long Island sea and sun in grapes and translate it into your glass, but all the wines to some extent. The level of attention to detail to achieve this is remarkable though. “Most people in Long Island do 100-percent leaf removal in the fruit zone so that every cluster gets exposed to sunlight. We don’t have to worry about sunburn like in California,” he said. “At Wölffer for our top reds, there’s no cluster touching another cluster, every cluster gets sunlight from four sides. I mean, the work that goes into this…” he marveled.
Grape growers here do this because they have to. The Long Island climate can be unforgiving. Merlot, which is an adaptable wine grape, does quite well here, often producing beautiful wines. Pinot noir, on the other hand, is a difficult, thin-skinned grape, that is prone to splitting and fungus. Roth calls it a “heartbreak grape.”
But when things go right, and the weather cooperates, the pinot from Long Island can be transcendent, as is the case with 1995 and the recently released 2015, which Roth holds up as one of the best wines he’s ever made.
“Not many vineyards in the world do what we do on Long Island. You have to go really to the top, top Bordeaux chateaus. So that’s really quite unique.”
That approach has been paying off. Not just in the rosé panic of 2014, but in wider acclaim. Wölffer wines have even been served eight or nine times in the White House over the past 15 years. “Not lately,” Roth says, then adds, “luckily.”