On an overcast Sunday in last October’s midst, Barbara Shinn was overseeing the harvest at Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck. Dressed in jeans with her hair pulled back, Shinn emerged from the rows of vines, pushing her bike and asking if we could talk while she worked.
Between rows of merlot, Shinn squatted and bent to clip at the base of each bunch, while she complimented the work ethic of her crew and noted the yellow, brown leaves as she picked.
This year, the ripening came 10 days later than last, but Shinn expressed that she wanted the grapes to raisin. “I want to get them dimpled,” she said, as she held a bunch, deeply purple, in the palm of her hand and clipped. “It’s sweeter that way…wine grapes are not pretty when you harvest them…you have to have a lot of courage and fortitude to let them hang.”
It’s a risky business, waiting for grapes to ripen, especially with all the rain that East End vineyards saw last fall. One fierce storm could decimate the crops, but luckily, Shinn Estate had recently been graced with gentle winds that cleared the moisture of the recent rains, allowing the grapes to dry, and not rot, as they continued to ripen.
As much as she embraces life at the vineyard, Shinn once had another career and life. In 1998, after selling their two restaurants in Manhattan’s West Village, Home and Drover’s Tap Room, Shinn and her husband, David Page, also sold their catering company, Home Away From Home, and purchased a conventional farm. “Our wine lists were all East Coast wines; and we started making friends out here,” said Shinn. When they purchased the farm, Page and Shinn knew that they wanted to wean the soil from the chemicals that its previous owners had used to grow corn and rye. “Once the soil is strong, healthy and natural again, Mother Nature can assist,” said Shinn as she bent to place a cluster of grapes into the yellow crate. “As I started concentrating on the soil, we started paying a lot of attention to cover crops. We were tired of pulling weeds…we hadn’t yet defined the vineyard as an ecosystem but we knew it in our guts…then we discovered biodynamics, which is all about ecosystems. If you’re a farmer, you have an opportunity to return the farm to its more natural and wild state. Unlike organics, it’s not just substituting one material for another, it’s a mindset.”
In 2000, the couple planted merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and malbec over nine acres, and today they have 20 acres of planted vines, that also include, sauvignon blanc, semillon and pinot blanc, and are working toward certification through Demeter, the American certifying body for biodynamic farms. As we walk through the rows of vines, Shinn speaks of “allowing the vines to communicate with the soil, the cover crops to communicate with the vines.” By allowing the vineyard to be overrun with various clovers, dandelions, mustards and chicories during the growing season, she allows for the existence of “intelligent natural information that allows cycles and rhythms to occur in the vineyard” that might not happen if this wildness wasn’t encouraged. By employing as many natural materials in the vineyards as seasonably possible, as opposed to chemical treatments and pesticides, Shinn is providing the vineyard with a way to identify with the natural systems, “correcting issues on its own” without intervention. Here, the presence of cover crops encourages the vines’ roots to dig deeper, which makes for healthier and stronger vines. Cover crops also help prevent erosion while attracting beneficial insects.
Working with her “fellow growers,” Shinn assisted in creating the standards for the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing program, a new grower-inspired sustainability standard. “I was able to add personal insight and experience working with these ecological farming techniques over the past 13 years,” Shinn told me. “The program is successful mainly because the core group of growers could remain humble and cooperate in forming a program with the interest of restorative farming techniques remaining paramount.”
Squatting to clip another bunch, Shinn added, “The more wild you can bring onto the farm, the more natural intelligence you can bring to the farm; we’re the least intelligent part. The instinct has been bred out of us…the more chemicals you use on the farm, the more you deafen it.” And then she rode her bike through the fields and back to the house, to inquire about lunch for her crew.
The day’s harvest was finished, but there was still work to be done. Inside the kitchen of the house where Page and Shinn reside, Page stood at the stove, his long gray hair pulled back into a ponytail, preparing to serve the 14 women and men who’d just come in from the field. A line formed at the stove, and everyone received a healthy helping of chicken and rice, before sitting outside, either at the table or at the edge of the long deck, some occasionally tossing the ball to Shinn and Page’s playful dog, Panda.
Once everyone was fed, Shinn grabbed a bowl and joined the others on the deck, which runs alongside their home that itself is an extension to the original homestead that was built in the 1800s and restored in 2006. Inside the original structure is a four-room bed and breakfast that is occupied every weekend of the year, and on every night from June to the end of August. A destination for mostly guests coming from the city and tristate, said Shinn; it’s a lovely place from which to begin one’s exploration of the local wineries. Open since 2007, the halls of the B&B are lined with wallpaper that is made of grass, and for breakfast, guests are treated to local duck eggs, eggs from the chickens on their farm, smoked duck hash, and bacon that Page smokes himself, using local pork belly. Perhaps, in a few years, the menu will extend to make room for Shinn’s honey.
Tucked between the tasting room and the house stands a brood box, a purple hive where Shinn’s bees reside. “It’s a nation in there,” said Shinn and laughed, as she went on to discuss the life inside. Having been kicked out, the males were already dead. It’s the females that are the worker bees, including the mortician bees that are responsible for removing the corpses. Keeping the boxes close to the house, Shinn and Page don’t ever plan to sell honey; they just hope to produce enough to consume at home.
As we made our way to the winery, we bypassed the turbine windmill that, with the on-site solar panels, produces 100 percent of the electricity that they use. The turbine stands 110 feet tall and produces 22,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, but it was not an easy addition to erect. In the town of Southold, one must set a turbine 300 feet back from the property line. “If we would have had to locate our wind turbine 300 feet from the property line, we would have had to remove a few hundred vines to create clear access to the wind turbine,” said Shinn. “The cost of doing so, plus the lost revenue from the wine produced from those vines would have been prohibitive.” And so, to avoid this setting-back provision, the couple went through an “expensive and time-consuming process of getting variances,” attending countless town meetings where they ultimately won approval from their neighbors and community.
Since then the turbine has come to produce “80 percent more energy than the system was calibrated for,” wrote Shinn. “It is beginning to become apparent that one of the North Fork’s greatest natural resources is wind. Harnessing the wind equitably, either privately, through agriculture or in a townwide municipal level, could help improve the economy of the North Fork.” Shinn said that other vineyards and farms have started to take advantage of solar and wind power, which “is a fantastic addition to our agriculture endeavor on the North Fork.”
Outside the winery, where a crew stood hand-selecting grapes, we found Page and Patrick Caserta, Shinn’s winemaker who recently came on board after having worked as the assistant-winemaker at Plumpjack-Cade, an organic winery in Napa. Prior to that he worked at Vieux Château Certan in Pomeral, Bordeaux, which is owned by the same family as Le Pin. “He’s very loyal, very even-keeled,” said Shinn. “He has a Zen approach to winemaking, which is lovely. He’s very gentle with the wines.” With Page as the force and inspiration behind the style of wines at Shinn, he and Patrick will work together to produce wines that express the nature of the place.
After talking a bit about the recent harvest (Page found it quite rewarding despite the severe weather), Page was eager to show me the copper alembic pot still. Among the first on the East End to have a farm distillery license, which Shinn spent two years obtaining, she and Page have made grappa, from the grapes’ pumice and lees (residual yeast and other particles), and eau-de-vie, a fruit brandy that’s currently in barrel and expected to age for two years. (This recent endeavor has its own sustainability implications since it helps squeeze extra life from already-used barrels and wine-making byproducts that would otherwise be composted or thrown away.) “There’s only a few great brandies being produced in America,” said Page, as he demonstrated the mechanics of the still, talking about how his grandfather was a distiller/bootlegger in the 1920s, a whiskey farmer who grew corn and rye in Wisconsin. Having already produced a pear cider, the couple is now working an apple brandy, with cider apples from Wickham’s on the North Fork. Which points to another dimension of sustainability that Shinn and Page are acutely aware of: the need for economic diversity in an ever-changing market. If all goes according to plan, they’ll have 1,000 bottles in four to five years—just another chapter in the lives of Shinn and Page, offering more proof that, in their family, the ecological system must be respected and maintained because the fruit never falls far from the tree.
Karen Ulrich lives in Harlem and is the head writer of social media & marketing at T. Edward Wines in New York City.