I’ve been hitting the ground running lately. And by ground, I mean the dirt ground of some of New York’s finest vineyards. I’m preparing to teach an upcoming webinar on the New York wine industry for the Society of Wine Educators on May 14th. The webinar, titled I’m in a New York State of Wine, has led me to visits with some of the pillars of the state’s wine industry. This is the second in a blog series on those founders and innovators.
Sometimes industry makes the man, sometimes the man makes the industry. Every now and again, the man and the industry grow together. Such is the case for Richard Olsen-Harbich, veteran winemaker and author of AVAs, whose career has established and refined the Long Island wine region. I recently met with Olsen-Harbich in his winery office at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue to discuss the story of Long Island wine.
A Big Red Start
Olsen-Harbich’s resume spans some of Long Islands most famous wineries and wineries long since closed. Before that first bottle, however, he was an agronomy student at The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. It’s prestigious viticulture and enology program was not yet established and Olsen-Harbich puzzled pieced together a study of wine, complete with an internship with Hermann Wiemer himself in the nearby Finger Lakes region. As an alum, he has been instrumental in consulting on the curriculum for the now world famous program.
Long Island’s Early Days
After graduation, Olsen-Harbich landed a job as winemaker and general manager at the new Bridgehampton Winery, then the only winery on the South Fork. He fondly remembers his first wine: a Pinot Noir wild ferment Rosé. While Long Island is today a leading New York state producer, 1983 was a different matter.
“There was no guidebook to making Long Island wine,” Olsen-Harbich shared with me, remembering the early vintages. European texts and materials weren’t readily translated and printed… hard to imagine given the bounty of wine materials available today. The nearest model was California, whose big, buttery, overoaked Chardonnays seemed to be what consumers wanted. Olsen-Harbich admitted, one of their early mistakes was trying to make California wines on Long Island. Success would eventually unfold with the understanding of Long Island’s unique terroir and identity.
Olsen-Harbich remembered pounding the pavement, frequently traveling to Manhattan to place his winery’s offerings on the city’s restaurant wine lists. As late as the 1970s, however, expert opinion held that the eastern seaboard was no place to successfully grow Vitis vinifera, European grape varieties. Some Long Island Vitis vinifera plantings in the mid 70s had seen success, and Olsen-Harbich was starting his career in the 80s during this very slow shift in public attitude. Just a novice in the wine industry, he likely couldn’t predict his hand in establishing Long Island’s brand, in the form of an AVA.
Authoring the AVAs
An American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a designated grape-growing region with distinguishable geographic features, a delineated boundary and a name. An AVA is crucial for regional branding, and allows wineries and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographic origin. Napa Valley and Willamette Valley are just a few of the 200+ in existence.
In the early 1980s, Long Island wines were labeled “New York”, which was seen as an improvement after winning a fight with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to no longer label “New York State”. Several members of the Long Island Grape Growers Association (now the Long Island Wine Council) were proceeding in applying for North Fork AVA; this would exclude Bridgehampton Winery and Richard Olsen-Harbich.
Bridgehampton Winery owner Lyle Greenfield and Olsen-Harbich decided to go for their own AVA. Olsen-Harbich embarked on six months of grueling research and paperwork. He had to prove location existence, vine cultivation history, economic impact, climatic and geological uniqueness, reviewing soil surveys, weather data… some going back to the 1700s. His work paid off: in 1984 The Hamptons, Long Island AVA was the first approved AVA in the region.
Now adept at authoring an AVA, he stepped in six months later to complete the North Fork application, which was stalling. With the soil and temperature differences between the Forks, it made sense for two unique AVAs, and in 1985, the North Fork of Long Island AVA was born. It wouldn’t be until 15 years later that Olsen-Harbich would sit down at a desk again to author the final AVA in the region. At this point at Raphael in Peconic, owner Jack Petrocelli would give him time off author the all-encompassing Long Island AVA. Approved in 2001, this AVA allows wineries to create blends from different areas on the island, promotes wines outside the two original AVA regions, and establishes consumer protection of the Long Island name.
A Living Encyclopedia
With three AVAs, numerous wineries and three plus decades under his belt, Olsen-Harbich is a living encyclopedia for the region. He’s currently at Bedell Cellars, founded in 1980, which he joined in 2010. I’ve always found their wines to be some of the most refined and elegant bottles in the region, even when I visited the region as a tourist before my career in wine.
“We don’t have a lot of topography here, but its in play,” explained Olsen-Harbich, when I asked him to discuss regional characteristics. He stated that the best vineyard sites are like “upside down bowls”, where water and cool air can drain from the growing sites. Biking daily to work, he observes both minor and annual changes. He’d recently seen a low area in one neighboring vineyard where the vines had been completely cut back, likely having suffered from cold air sinking in and staying, damaging the vines.
Since the 1990s, Olsen-Harbich has observed climate changes. Harvests start earlier and earlier… Petit Verdot is a particularly good barometer of this climate change, which he calls the “canary in the coal mine.” The number of rainfall days has decreased, but they are more extreme precipitation events. This creates more water stress, and thus, better wines. Where California is sometimes overripe and they have to back dilute, Long Island harvests and sugar, tannin and flavors are all in sync.
So here was a living encyclopedia for the region, and I had to ask: which wines are Long’s Island best foot forward? As Olsen-Harbich tasted me on Bedell’s line-up in their stylish tasting room, he answered my question. Merlot, crisp, lean, savory. Sauvignon Blanc, acidic and saline. Cabernet Franc, the most hardy and consistent. And Chardonnay, best with little oak, saline, a variety that you have to handle to make well. Olsen-Harbich stated that Chardonnay, “really wants to be told what to do.”
With all of these great wines, it’s easy to forget 1983, when a young grad arrived to nascent industry, both waiting to grow.
A very big thank to Richard Olsen-Harbich and Bedell Cellars!