Down the road from where he spent his childhood summers,
Russell McCall makes wine that pleases his worldly palate.
By Robert Simonson
When people talk Long Island wines, they talk merlot, they talk cabernet franc. They don’t talk pinot noir. But that soon may change. And when this happens, the conversation will turn to Russell McCall.
“That’s the largest vineyard of pinot noir, maybe in New York, but for sure on Long Island,” says McCall, standing in his modest tasting room—a spartan, barely converted old potato barn—and pointing his blue eyes toward his equally modest 21-acre vineyard in Cutchogue. Only 11 acres of that is under pinot vines. The rest, 10 acres, is merlot.
“I had one foot out here that could get cut off any year,” says McCall of the vineyard’s varietal split, “because pinot noir’s such a difficult grape to maintain. Merlot is easier.”
Though he may have hedged his bets, grape-wise, he won on both sides. The 2007 vintage, McCall’s first, has won high marks from the New York Times, and is carried at tony local restaurants like the North Fork Table and Cavaniola’s Cellar in Sag Harbor. The delicate, low-alcohol pinots, in particular, surprised critics and sommeliers who thought the finicky French varietal couldn’t thrive on Long Island.
“To me they have a varietal purity,” says Juliette Pope, the wine director at Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern. Pope has poured McCall’s pinot noir, rosé and, most recently, the merlot by the glass. “The pinot noir tastes like pinot noir, and not like oak, and the same with the merlot. Particularly the merlot. Pinot noir is naturally expressive; merlot is not, and can easily taste the same no matter where it comes from. The wines are very honest and unmanipulated.”
Old Man McCall got some help placing his fledgling wines at Gramercy Tavern from his son. Brewster McCall, a New York City actor who also holds a degree as a sommelier, said, “When my dad decided to release our first vintage, I went to my short list of the best restaurants in New York that had a focus on local foods. Gramercy Tavern was my first account in the city.” Brewster also handles the winery’s website and some of its PR.
The story of this late-blooming Long Island wine grower seems unlikely at first. But it begins to sound inevitable the more you learn about him. First of all, although he made his name as the founder of the Atlanta Wholesale Wine distribution firm, and pronounces merlot with a countrified accent on the “mer,” he’s not from the South. His parents were from Brooklyn, and, as a child, he vacationed with them on the North Fork. In fact, the century old summer house built by his grandparents still stands and is on the same stretch of property that now contains his vineyard.
Grandpa, formally known as Russell Simeon Walker, was an immigrant from England who rose in 15 years from a secretary to president of Dime Savings Bank. “He was the one who wanted to get out of town,” says McCall. “This was a two-day drive in his horse and buggy, before the railroad arrived.”
How McCall came to return to the playground of his youth has a lot to do with the towering, incongruous wind turbine— among the largest on Long Island, installed by local alternative energy company GreenLogic—standing just beside his rows of vines. It powers the electricity in the room and pumps water to a newly purchased mini-herd of Charolais cattle, which McCall hopes to sell as steaks to the same restaurants that buy his wine. The cows will be butchered this summer, possibly using a mobile slaughterhouse in operation in the Hudson Valley. He already has agreements to sell the meat to a couple local eateries. But the public can enjoy an even more direct line to the beef—McCall plans to sell cuts right out of his tasting room, announcing availability through local ads.
“Fifteen years ago the Peconic Land Trust called me. They came to me and said, ‘We have some farmland, but we want it preserved, so we want to sell to a conservation buyer who will give us all the development rights.’” As the farmland was near his property, McCall was interested. He joined forces with the Trust, helping to save nearby Down’s Woods and Fort Corchaug, which, 300 years ago, were the center of civilization for an Algonquin Indian tribe. Some farmland adjacent to the woods was part of the bargain.
“Five years later we bought another 50 acres,” says McCall. “And a few years later, the neighbor next door was encouraged to preserve another 30 acres. You have almost 200 acres around us that have almost no development rights left.”
It is strange to hear a lifelong businessman speak smilingly about having no development rights. But this change, also, was perhaps a long time coming. “After all these years of listening to my children talk about eco-friendly and green it soaked in,” he says, mentioning his son Russell, a redhead known as Rusty, who is a third-grade teacher in San Francisco and the greenest member of the family.
McCall replaced the corn and potato fields with vineyards. That he should plant pinot noir doesn’t sound quite so nuts when you learn that, under his guidance, Atlanta Wholesale Wine acted as distributor for such terroir-focused, Francophile importers like Kermit Lynch and Becky Wasserstein. “I had a lot of single, small vineyards of great wine, a huge number of the greatest French growers in Burgundy and the Rhône. My start in the 1960s—when there wasn’t really a California wine business—was with the French. The heart of that was in Burgundy. So I became a pinot noir lover.”
For the first decade, McCall sold his grapes to other local winemakers, like Gilles Martin, while he waited for his vines to mature. When he was finally ready to vinify his own grapes, he turned to Martin. “Knowing the quality of the grapes,” says Martin, who also makes wine for the bubbly-focused Sparkling Pointe, “I was happy to work with him.”
Martin was given charge of the merlot, while the pinot noir grapes were placed in the hands of John Graziano, the winemaker at Hudson Valley vineyard Millbrook, which is owned by John and Kathe Dyson. The Dysons know their pinot noir; they are also the owners of Russian River Valley’s well-known pinot producer Williams Selyem. (McCall had previously sold grapes to Millbrook, and he still spares a few clusters for them.)
Back when putting in his merlot vines, McCall remembered something said to him by Christian Moueix, who runs the famed Bordeaux producer Pétrus, creator of mythical merlot-heavy reds. “I once asked him, ‘Why is your little property so different from everyone else’s?’ He said, ‘It’s a little 11-acre hill of clay. That’s makes me different.’ So we planted our merlot on a piece of property that has a big vein of clay in it.”
Martin thinks there may be something to this theory. “I’ve seen a difference on his site, compared to other places on Long Island,” says the winemaker. “He definitely has a deeper structure in his wine. He also has very close planting, a high density, and that makes a difference. He respects a very simple rule of one cluster per shoot, which limits the yield. That reinforces the concentration of his wines.” In addition, the grapes are hand-harvested, which can help preserve and accentuate fruit quality.
Further complexity is lent by aging 25 percent of the merlot must in new oak barrels, and another 25 percent each in one-yearold, two-year-old and three-year-old casks.
“Our m.o. is to make a wine that extracts ripe tannin,” says McCall, “which means leaving it on the vine even after the Brix is there.” (Brix is a measurement of the mass ratio of dissolved sugar to water in the grape juice.) “You get that by letting that little seed turn gray instead of staying green. We always wait, tasting the pips [the grape seeds] and skins and eating 1,000 grapes. Some people say, ‘OK, 23 Brix, let’s pick.’ That’s not it. It’s the flavor. Is the flavor there?”
Russell McCall’s partner in this project is his wife, Nicola Plimpton. She herself is a walking, breathing bit of kismet in the McCall story. A quarter mile down the road from the old McCall family summer home is an equally old summer home.
In this cottage, generations of Plimptons spent their holidays. Somewhere in the space between the two homes, many years ago, the current husband and wife became acquainted. “We met a long time ago when we were kids,” says McCall, “and got back together a few years ago.”
Nicola remained quiet during my visit to the tasting room. She deferred to her spouse as the main mover behind McCall Wines, saying, “No, this is your baby,” when invited to pitch in her two cents. However, when Russell got to pouring, she spoke up. As the merlot splashed into the glass, she declared, “That’s my favorite.