Alchemy in the Cellar


PECONIC—From the outside, a winery in winter looks as dormant as its grapevines. The chaos in the vine fields subsides. The stream of tasting room tourists slows to a trickle. But deep inside the bowels of the cave, the grape juice is maturing and the winemaker is buzzing—sampling, blending, brewing, and passing judgment. He engages in a sort of alchemy. And Eric Fry is such an alchemist.

Fry prefers the term “food chemist.” Surrounded by stacks of 60-gallon barrels each holding a quarter ton of grape juice and giant stainless steel tanks holding even more juice, he wields his chemistry. Removing the cork from one of the barrels, he inserts a “thief ” into the hole, covers the top of the thief with his thumb, lifts the full thief, and releases his thumb to deposit an anthracite stream into his wine glass. (A thief is a pipette-like glass tube open at one end and tapered at the other used to take a wine sample. Think of the way that kids often capture soda in a plastic straw.)

Fry grabs a sample from a couple of tanks, dancing between rows and climbing barrels labeled with cryptic codes. (He keeps no spreadsheets. The information rests in his head.)

He swirls the contents of the wine glass: a bit less than half from chardonnay grapes harvested intentionally early (to get bright citrusy, lemony, pineapple-y flavors), the same amount from chardonnay grapes harvested roughly 10 days later (after they have acquired soft apple and pear characteristics) and the remaining 10 percent from very ripe chardonnay grapes harvested even later and sojourned in oak barrels (to get a rich creamy, nutty, toasty flavor). “Chardonnay is the chameleon,” he said. “This is all the same juice treated differently. The idea is that I’m building a fruit salad with a garnish of toasted nuts and cream. Building wine is like cooking, but much slower. Too much pepper and you blow it. Too much coriander and you blow it. This is basic winemaking. Take some juice, break it into separate components and then blend them back together to have a more complex whole.”

We all sniff, sample and spit. The “wine” delivers some upfront pizzazz and fruit juiciness (the vines harvested early) with a more finessed fruit flavor and viscous mouthfeel (the vines harvested later) on the finish. “This is sort of slapdash, but I’ll do this to get a sense,” Fry explained. After ruminating on the mock-up, he would repeat the process with more precision and refine the ingredients. This is the recipe he is favoring for his 2005 White Label Chardonnay.

Today, Fry, who has been making wine at Peconic’s Lenz Winery for 16 years, will taste from most of his barrels, a task that takes hours. It may sound like Bacchanalia, but it is both intellectually and physically fatiguing. One quickly understands why spitting is mandatory. (Afterwards, Fry often needs to “decompress” with an Erkwell and pepperoni pizza at Legends in New Suffolk. “Winemakers drink beer,” he said.)

In the process of making the 2005 vintage, Fry repeats the tasting several times during the winter, gradually mixing his ingredients. In February, for instance, Fry was working with dozens of different chardonnays and merlots—different aged vines harvested from different fields, all delivering different flavors. A month later, he was down to nine chardonnays and he will shortly blend these into the winery’s three chardonnay labels.

This year he’s particularly excited because he’s letting his fruit flag fly, so to speak. Fry feels that the wine drinking public has evolved sufficiently away from a California style of wine making (more oak, less fruit flavor) and towards Long Island style wines (less oak and more “fruit-driven” in industry jargon). So his three 2005 chardonnays all spent more time in stainless steel and less time in oak, all in an effort to hone in on an East Coast style of winemaking. “California responds to its climate,” said Fry, who visits Virginia wine country more often than California’s Central Coast. “Why don’t we respond to ours?”

Sniff, sip, spit. We flew through barrel after barrel, and Fry pressed his guests for reactions, adjectives. “People are very timid of wine-speak,” said Fry. But Fry, who talks politics as much as wine-making and who is the opposite of pretentious, believes that, in our natural state, we can all describe wine. “We put wine in our mouth, our taste buds and olfactory nerves send signals to our brain, and if we say the first thing that pops into our head, we will be absolutely right,” he said.

Some additional guidance doesn’t hurt. Citric acid yields lemony, Fry explained. Tartaric acid yields grapey. Malic acid becomes green apple or sour cherry. After tasting an unfiltered Gewürztraminer, one guest shouts back, “Pineapple and sage.” Fry smiled, “Exactly.”

Fry, a microbiologist by training, previously worked in vineyards in California, Australia, France and New York’s Finger Lakes region. With a ponytail and gangly beard that sometimes drips during extended tastings, he looks like “the Dude” played by Jeff Bridges in the Big Lebowski. He loves to talk shop, but cringes when conversation veers towards marketing and promotion (“To me, flash isn’t pretty.”). Nonetheless, he proudly recounted the latest results of a blind-tasting of red wines from Lenz and three highly respected Bordeaux châteaux that Lenz has conducted for years in an effort to destroy stigmas against the region. (“Pétrus outscored us by a point, and outpriced us by $2400.”) Such pride of provenance also doesn’t keep Fry from being one of the only Long Island vintners to honor the slow, tedious, and expensive tradition of making sparkling wine: the first pressing of the Lenz’s pinot noir grapes go into its rare and bone-dry sparkler (Cuvée Méthode Champenoise), and the juice that has simmered in the skin a bit longer goes into its zippy and extremely affordable Blanc de Noir rose.

Still, Fry describes himself as a “non-interventionist” winemaker, an approach legitimized by the wide praise Lenz wines have garnered. “Get the ripest, most beautiful grapes possible,” he said, “and then don’t mess with them.” Fry, who also blends wine for other North Fork vineyards, steers clear of additives and various forms of filtration and processing that are more common in industrial-scale winemaking, but pretty rare on the East End. “There are whole catalogues of commercial additives,” he said. Enzymes that will extract different characteristics, synthetic tannins, sugars, colorings, flavorings, and “all this commercial product crap that anyone anywhere can pour into a tank.” He added, “To me there is no skill in that.”

Which is one of the reasons Fry appreciates the erratic nature of Long Island wine country. “It’s not like California,” he said, where the weather—and grape production—is relatively consistent from year to year. “We actually have vintages.” Last year was particularly erratic. “ We actually had two separate vintages. It was an incredible ripening season, but I had all my whites in before the monsoon, and we harvested the reds after.” During the prolonged October rain, the red grapes took up so much water that most of them split their skin. The rain was followed by days of cool windy weather that turned the split grapes into raisin. “We were careful to get rid of the raisins. The grapes that didn’t split returned to their pre-storm state with really good fruit expression. I think it’s premature to talk about something that consumers won’t see for two or three years, but I think it’s going to be a very nice vintage.”

Particularly in Long Island’s fickle and relatively young grape growing area, Fry believes that winemaking is best a collective activity. “I’ve been focused on my own grapes for the last three months, to the extent that I don’t sleep,” Fry said. “I can’t drink just my own wine and remain open-minded.”

During the winter, he regularly spends a day with a neighboring winemaker, tasting last year’s vintage from both shops and offering mutual critiques. “No audience. No holds barred,” Fry explained. And, in once-monthly dinners, local winemakers critique wines from everywhere else. “These meetings are essential for me, but also to raise the bar for the region,” Fry said. “Over time, we will define a regional identity.”

Fry picked up the idea for the winemaker exchanges while in California, but says that the Long Island meetings are uniquely informal. “In France, they don’t do it,” Fry said. “They’re overly secretive and competitive.” True to his populist sentiments, Fry has faith in his fellow winemakers. “The more we interact, the better the wine is going to be,” he said. “The better the region will be.”