How a Sweet, Singing German Helped Turn Long Island Wine from Joke to Jewel

EMAN 1 final32Roman Roth likes it when things go wrong.

It’s not that he loves misery—far from it. The congenial winemaker and former choir tenor, who has been at the helm of Wölffer Estate for 16 years, is more likely to burst into song or crack a joke than complain about the world with a decanterhalf- empty viewpoint. It’s just that Roth has always had a way of turning bad situations into happy accidents since the day he set foot on this Sagaponack vineyard, two hours east of Manhattan.

It all started in 1992, his first year at Christian Wölffer’s now 55-acre winery. “I came during the worst vintage in Long Island history,” remembers Roth. That challenging year proved his abilities as a winemaker who would play a vital role in transforming the reputation of Long Island wine from little-known to lauded. “We made excellent wines that year. Gourmet put us in the top five of Long Island.”

Fast-forward to the near-devastating rains of 2005. Torrential downpours in what should have been a great season left many vineyard managers and winemakers scrambling to salvage what they could. “It was the best year ever—we had 23½ brix three weeks earlier than we’d ever gotten at such a stage!” he explains, referring to the measure of a grape’s sugar content sometimes used to gauge ripeness. “Then came the rain.”

Twenty inches fell over eight days, literally washing away that lovely, ripe natural sugar. “Richie [Pisacano, vineyard manager] wanted to commit suicide!” But Roth found a way to make lemonade from lemons—or, more accurately, Amarone from raisins. “It was dry and windy, and by the time we started picking, we had gone from 13 brix to 25. Unheard of!”

“The last we picked was the cabernet sauvignon grapes. By then we were at 28 brix, just mindboggling for here. This region is not about that; it’s about long hang time and elegance. Richie said, ‘I don’t know if I can pick this, it looks like raisins.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know—it looks like an amarone to me.'” Roth smiles broadly at the sweet serendipity now sitting in a bottle in front of him. The Claletto amarone-style cabernet sauvignon (named for one of the estate’s horses), which became part of Wölffer’s limitededition 20th-anniversary wine series, is thick with the sticky aromas of dried fruit—prunes, figs, raisins—dark, bursting blackberries, and a refreshing hint of eucalyptus; one can only imagine what it will be like in a decade or so.

No one could have known this pretty stretch of land two miles from the ocean in the vacation-happy Hamptons, famous for its temporary residents, could be so celebrated for its winemaking. Not even the entrepreneurial-minded Christian Wölffer who started it all.

Born in Hamburg, Germany, Wölffer founded the 170-acre estate in 1978 with a mind to turn it into a weekend getaway. By 1987, he’d turned it into his picture-perfect namesake, but it’s come quite a ways since that first vintage—a chardonnay that was labeled “New York State White Burgundy.” Wölffer saw the potential, though, and set out to find himself the right winemaker for the job. The hunt eventually led him to his adventurous winemaker and fellow German native, Roth. The decision put Wölffer on the map.

Long Island has had to fight its way into the good graces of sommeliers, wine writers, wine reps and the vino cognoscenti in general, but now the region’s wineries are winning praise from a growing number of those in the biz. Wölffer has played host to culinary heavy hitters like the James Beard House. The Times has sung their praises. Their wines are poured at Tribeca Grill, Landmarc, Blue Hill and Union Square Café. Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert even said Roth’s 2007 rosé made him “fall to his knees.” And in her last remaining years Julia Child herself showed up to see what all the buzz was about.

“Wölffer’s been on my radar for quite a while. I remember trying their rosé seven or eight years ago and thinking, wow, this is really impressive,” says Blue Hill wine director Claire Papparazo. “We support local and sustainable [wineries] and it’s been a good fit on our list. I like the way the 2005 reserve chardonnay is drinking. It pairs beautifully with a dish we’re doing with corn and mushrooms. It’s really balanced and not over-oaked, with beautiful bright acidity—everything you look for, and at a good price point. But I don’t think it’s just because of the price that people love it. I think it’s more the expression of what we have to offer [in the state].”

Appellation Wine & Spirits owner Scott Pactor, another fan of Wölffer’s reserve chardonnay, reports, “It’s been a successful bottle for us. After so many years of being bitten by bad chardonnay, it’s beautifully balanced and has appealing aromatics and a low alcohol level [12.5 percent]. It’s a judicious amount of French barrique as well, and the wine is delicious. I think for under $20, it’ll be one of the better chardonnays you’ll be able to find in New York.”

But while winemakers like Roth, Lenz’s Eric Fry and Channing Daughters’s Christopher Tracy have gained notoriety far, far beyond the borders of Suffolk County, Roth knows making great wine is not enough, and accepts the notion like fickle weather. While he earned the nickname Roman the Showman for his aforementioned singing talents, it’s not a stretch to apply that moniker to his drive to get Wölffer’s name out there.

“You can make the greatest wine in the world, but if it’s not shown and you don’t go out…” he trails off, waving a hand in the air. “In Manhattan I run into more New Zealand winemakers than Long Island winemakers. People need to conquer that prejudice. A few have found their place, but it’s an effort. Sometimes you don’t feel like driving back from the city at 1 in the night and getting up for bottling at 8, but if you don’t like people, don’t go into the business.”

But while Roth seems to enjoy (or is just especially good at tolerating) the social aspects of his work, it’s the vineyards, fermenting tanks, laboratories and barrel-rooms where he drops that outward poise, and that giddy, geeky, intense love that has kept him here for almost two decades bubbles to the surface. He’s made wine for Shinn Estate, Martha Clara, Roanoke Vineyard and Vineyard 48. And while Wölffer has become known for Roth’s pretty, pale, near-iconic Hamptons rosé, with its gentle strawberry and citrus notes, Roth is no one-trick pony. Several of his wines are in the $10–$30 range, blowing the long-heard complaint that Long Island wines are too expensive, while on the other extreme collectibles like the $100 2002 Premier Cru Merlot proved Long Island’s potential to play with the big boys.

Wölffer is one of the larger chardonnay producers among the East End’s ever-growing crop of vineyards, making 4,500 cases annually. (Although, as Roth notes, this still fits squarely into boutique status: “It’s not a climate that produces mass quantities. We’re working here by quality and small quantities, where you select these particular little lots. That’s what makes it special.”) The anniversary series for which the Amarone-style cab was made also features an earthy, juicy barbera, an exciting botrytis chardonnay and the Noblesse Oblige sparkling, brut-style rosé. “From a quality point of view, we’re pushing the envelope all the time,” says Roth. “Christian Wölffer is happy to jump at opportunity and say, ‘OK, let’s try
something; let’s change something!'”

Then there’s the winemaker’s own garage-esque series, separate from Wölffer, cheekily labeled the Grapes of Roth. “I got this urge to create something very special for myself. And Christian Wölffer was OK with it, so here I am.” In 2001, he made a few hundred cases of merlot from special vineyard blocks at Martha Clara—it garnered a whopping 92 from David Schildknecht in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. And under what could be labeled “You Can Go Home Again,” last year he finally produced a Germanstyle riesling that’s been winning raves.

“The greatest part [about making wine here] is there is this traditional style on Long Island. A really rustic tradition, and some people don’t like that. We don’t do modern winemaking things like heat up the tanks to make the process goes faster. From my point of view, I cannot make a better wine anywhere. You can’t just drive a bigger Mercedes and a bigger one—or make a fatter wine and a fatter wine. If you lose you lose your balance, your esprit, your essence, you broke the camel’s back,” he says, picking up a glass of his “amarone” and bringing it to his nose for a whiff. “I think that’s one of my specialties, maybe.”

Photo credit: Lindsay Morris