A first vintage that grew out of advice and grapes from some North Fork neighbors.
Sometimes you can be too careful. Sometimes you can wait too long before jumping in and stomping the grapes, but that’s the easy part. The hard part is putting wine in a bottle, labeling it and slinging a bag across your back to knock on doors and ask someone to buy it.
John Leo overcame the hard part after the 2007 vintage out here on the East End. The grapes were so ripe and beautiful; low humidity had nearly excised our climate’s inclination to cover fruit in mold and mildew. And in the culmination of a project that started in 1999, he finally declared a vintage year, his wife did the artwork for a label, and he found willing buyers: Leo Family wine was born.
After years of backpacking that took him around the world and brought him to his wife, Miho Mabuchi, Leo ended up on Long Island looking for a job in wine. A short stint in Napa had whet his appetite, the birth of his son had curbed his appetite for itinerancy, and he landed back in New York, where he grew up at a job at the now-defunct Rivendell Winery in the Hudson Valley. The Leo Family moved to Long Island in 1994, where Roman Roth put some cutters in his hand and declared him the assistant vineyard manager on a staff of two.
A job at Pellegrini in sales and administration followed, but when Russell Hearn, Pellegrini’s winemaker, opened Premium Wine Group—the custom crush in Mattituck—in 2000, Leo leapt at the chance to get back into production. The previous year he had started to tend two acres of merlot at Martha Clara Vine- yards in Riverhead, with the understanding that he could make his own wine from the results. Taking care of the vines himself— leaf pulling, cluster dropping and harvesting by hand—he turned the fruit into wine, tweaking his technique year to year while learning from all the winemakers that use Premium. He refined his taste for cold soaking, learned he prefers punching down to pumping over, and glimpsed (and tasted) the limits of new oak.
The result of all this preparation is now in the bottle: the 2007 Leo Family Red Wine, a blend of 80 percent merlot from his two-acres that had by then moved to a plot at Pellegrini; 7 percent syrah that he bought from Bruce Schneider; 6 percent petit verdot that came from Hearn’s vineyard in Peconic; 5 per- cent cabernet franc from the 67 Steps Vineyard in Greenport; and 2 percent cabernet sauvignon from Clovis Point’s vineyard in Jamesport, where Leo has been the consulting winemaker since 2004.
The wine is a reflection of Leo himself, understated, complex, friendly and thoughtful. Not a California fruit bomb, but ripe; and not exactly a Bordeaux blend—the syrah negates that—but old-world in style, as it’s food friendly and kind of sneaks up on you with its graphite nose and mid-palate, ripe plum fruit and a little bit of sachet aromas that come from the petit verdot.
That said, it’s too bad Long Island wines are sometimes still described by what they are not, but Leo’s wine is part of a new wave of winemaking that is distinguishing Long Island by hon- oring its climate and soil and by operating meticulously in the vineyard. Leo prunes to one cluster per shoot, which allows for maximum air circulation and concentrated ripeness. Such pruning is becoming more common on the East End and it is showing in the wine.
But he’s still got to sell it. Leo’s sitting on 400 cases of wine, now available at the Winemakers Studio in Peconic, on the list at North Fork Table and Inn and on the shelf at Domaine Franey in East Hampton.
The wine, says Leo, is drinking well now but will probably need a few more years until it’s showing all it’s capable of.
“Hopefully it will last longer,” he says. “Because I have 400 cases, if I don’t sell, I will have to drink.”