Kareem Massoud on Man, Nature, Wine and Learning to Trust His Instincts

EMAN5-LoRes38It was during the rollercoaster ride that marked the endgame of Long Island’s 2005 vintage that winemaker Kareem Massoud learned to trust his instincts.

It’s becoming the stuff of local legends, a cinematic tale rich with all the rising action (Gorgeous weather— what could go wrong?), story conflict (Man v. Nature!) and happy denouement (Eureka, a stellar vintage!) that make any good story worth getting lost in.

For the Massouds of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue—as for all farmers on Long Island—the summer of ’05 was glorious: bright, sunny days; uncharacteristically dry weather; and the kind of uninterrupted, über grape-ripening that makes a Northeastern winemaker giddy. That is, until it started raining and didn’t let up for eight days straight.

“No one could have forecast all that rain,” says Massoud on a perfect sunny morning, not unlike those that marked most of summer 2005. “The gut reaction was to be depressed, but I was cautiously optimistic because that’s the reason we planted these Bordeaux varieties: Their skins are more rot-resistant and hardy. I knew we had a great year up until then and my instinct was if we can make it through the rain without developing rot, we’d be OK .”

When the rain finally stopped, Massoud assessed the wicked week’s damage. “We were very lucky as far as the amount of loss we sustained,” he says. “I think it had a lot to do with the fact that when the rains came, our vineyard wasn’t in a very vegetative state anymore. The vines weren’t taking up a lot of water. Had it occurred a month earlier, there might have been issues of grapes bursting. But the cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot were in good shape overall.”

Cabernet sauvignon needs more hang time than the merlots and cabernet francs that also grow in relative abundance on Long Island. So Massoud had but one fermenting tank open when it came time to harvest the cab, which happened to be the largest tank at the winery, with a 3,000 gallon capacity. The cabernet barely filled half when all was crushed and done.

“It’s our widest tank,” says Massoud, “and the reason that’s significant is the ratio of the surface area to the depth—it was basically wider than it was deep. During red wine fermentation, if you don’t do anything it’s going to form a cap that will rise to the top due to all the CO2 being created. That’s why winemakers employ all these methods to homogenize the skins with the fermenting juice.”

But Massoud noticed something different. “Quite often we have whole [grapes] coming out of the crusher, and in this case a lot of the skins were already separating, some almost mushy looking—I didn’t know what to make of it. It was very exciting, though, because we already had a nice, dark, purplish color. Every day it was gaining in color and complexity and tannin extraction,” the process by which the lip-puckering natural preservative compounds that dwell in the grape skins, seeds and stems are drawn into the juice. “It was a really beautiful fermentation.”

So beautiful, in fact, that he and his father decided this was the first time in 10 years Paumanok would make an estate-bottled cab from a single, standout block from the Tuthills Lane vineyard—351 cases, to be precise.

We sampled it together in the Aquebogue tasting room one recent afternoon. A general buzz of controlled chaos hovered around the winery: A loud group of tourists
filed in, the Massouds were busy readying themselves for a public radio event that evening, and Kareem was running experiments with sulfur in the lab. The wine, though,
snapped my senses into steady focus. It’s lush, full of ripe blackberry and currant and then something gently minty around the edges. It has a long, pretty finish and, although the tannins are a little racy still (as one might expect), time will be kind to this wine, allowing it to blossom as the years roll on (in Massoud’s mind, give it five to 10).

Paumanok 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Tuthills Lane Vineyard is available at Astor Wines & Spirits, 399 Lafayette St., and Union Square Wines & Spirits, 140 Fourth Ave.

Photograph courtesy of Paumanok Vineyards.