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
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,"
Rethinking the possibilities of Long Island
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. (Click
here for more on that study, or here
for a profile of another participating viticulturist, Phil
Roth.) 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
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
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.
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
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.
Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.