Come harvest time, Richard Pisacano is one tough man to nail down, as this Long Island native pursues the quintessential grape with fervor and skill few can match. During high school, he worked among founding vintners at the Jamesport, Pindar and Palmer wineries and at Island Vineyard. At the tender age of 21, Pisacano bought land and planted a vineyard of his own. On those 17-acres of mostly chardonnay vines, he helped pioneer innovations such as bird netting and permanent cover crops between rows, and he quickly built a reputation as one of Long Island’s most respected—and committed—growers: “I’ve missed weddings and fishing trips because the grapes always come first.”
The oft-stated cliché that wine is made in the field, not the cellar, holds special relevance for Pisacano, a grape-grower before he is a winemaker. “He has raised the bar for fruit quality by his intuitive understanding of the vine’s needs and his commitment to exact management,” says Larry Perrine, partner and CEO of Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, who called Pisacano “one of a handful of truly excellent vineyard managers on Long Island.” This ability to empathize with the maturing vineyard—call him the grape whisperer—may be Pisacano’s greatest asset, according to longtime collaborator, Roman Roth, who creates wines for Roanoke, as well as Wölffer Estate and the Grapes of Roth. “He has a great feeling and understanding of the needs of the vines to produce superlative wine.”
Still, if 10 years as vineyard manager at Wölffer Estate in Sagaponack were not challenge enough for Pisacano, this tall, stocky, brown-haired vintner pursued the oenological siren of hearty regional reds by defiantly planting only red varieties on his 10 acres of land near Riverhead in 2000. Skeptics may scoff. Some even suggest the East End of Long Island is maturing into a white wine region, but since the first 2003 estate release, Pisacano and those big reds have vindicated his faith in the North Fork.
As for hopes of harvesting today, he scans the gray, late-October skies over his Roanoke Vineyard and gives a quiet, unassuming, “Not yet.”
“Red grapes are more expensive to produce and less forgiving,” he says, “but now I’m picking as late as November.” At 45 and with decades of experience, rain doesn’t keep Pisacano awake at night anymore. He departs for responsibilities at Wölffer as Gabby, his hard-working father remains at Roanoke, hoping for sunshine. “I’m bored,” says the spry septuagenarian with hands as gnarled as the vines, while rain falls on the two rows of grapes he tends. A fine mesh net protects them from hungry pests. As for a working relationship with his son, Gabby says, “Sometimes when I’m out in the vineyard, Richie asks me, ‘Why are you doing that to the vines,’ and I say ‘because that’s what my grandfather taught me to do.’”
“My father loves pruning vines in two feet of snow,” Pisacano laughs. Perhaps that undeniable fascination for robust wines of the darker persuasion might be due to generations of Italian genes, but his cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc vines are still relatively young. Visits to the red wine regions of Bordeaux, Napa and Mendoza in Argentina offered further inspiration, Pisacano says, “But I don’t believe that great wine requires old vines, especially in the North Fork’s sandy subsoil.” These vinifera adolescents have an exuberance he restrains and directs. “I try to balance the vineyard in clear, poised tones of a symphony. From winter pruning to harvest, all the work is done by hand, so I know every vine. In spring, I look for robust bud-break with an even distribution of young shoots, and an explosion of flowers at bloom. Hedging and leaf removal keep the vine trim and the fruit exposed to heat and light. At veraison [when the grapes begin to change color] we practice crop thinning for even ripening of the fruit.”
Pisacano recognized that cabernet franc, a thick-skinned black grape that thrives in the Old World’s cool, damp environs, was perfectly suited for the North Fork. European vintners commonly blend this variety, and Roanoke follows suit in two award-winning blends with the no-frills monikers, Blend One and Blend Two. (Both wines are traditional Bordeaux-style Meritage blends featuring cabernet franc, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon in varying proportions from vintage to vintage. Blend Two contains more cabernet franc, making it a leaner, more elegant blend, with a bit more of a nod to the pepper-and-spice character. Blend One offers a deeper, darker fruit character and slightly heavier mouth-feel.) But the East End’s maritime environment has its own subtle yet significant micro-climates. As Pisacano says, “We are the western-most of any North Fork vineyard and located further inland than most, making this site warmer and more insulated.”
The extra heat allows Roanoke to emphasize merlot and cabernet sauvignon, which are poured into tasting glasses by operations manager, Christopher Watkins. Watkins’ love of wine was nurtured in Italy where his academic father had brought the family, but his tastes matured as a student at UC Berkeley where he scouted under-the-radar gems in Napa and Sonoma counties. This poet, writer and musician who wearied of the rigors of touring, has since put down roots amid the Long Island terroir, bringing to Roanoke his wine-collecting expertise and oenological passion. “Among winemakers, seek out the little guys,” Watkins says. “That’s where you find the artistry.” Visitors tap his extensive knowledge in the winery’s wood-paneled tasting room—the only source for its annual production of 3,000 cases.
Still, Pisacano feels most comfortable in the field. “As owner/vintner I have full control. I’m responsible for establishing the wine’s potential, by meticulously tended vines and insecticide-free, hand-harvested grapes,” he says. “But winemaking is collaboration.” He depends on his wife and “managing partner,” Soraya, to get his product into the world. And he leans on the sympathetic winemaking skills of Roth, born in Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s only red grape region. “I work well with Richie because we don’t play it safe,” Roth says, “and if we strive for the best we are also practical enough to make our ideas work.” And, yet, Roanoke builds flavor the old-fashioned way, by leaving the new wine in contact with the crushed skins, not filtering or “fining” to soften or clarify, and aging in French oak barrels. The result, according to Roth: “multilayered wines of many dimensions and a quality that sustains us financially.”
“Red wine is my passion, and I love the way it expresses the seasonal essence and the human work that went into it.”
As for the future, “I don’t foresee the winery getting much larger, because our focus remains on excellence,” says Pisacano. “Red wine is my passion, and I love the way it expresses the seasonal essence and the human work that went into it.” With no tradition of its own, the fecundity of the Long Island landscape provided a blank canvas for vintners to paint—and with creativity, skill and boldness Pisacano has added some vibrant shades of red.
Visit the Roanoke Winery, Monday to Friday, noon to 7 p.m., Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., at 3543 Sound Avenue, Riverhead, 631.727.4161, www.roanokevineyards.com.