If only all blind dates turned out this well.
The ad was pretty simple: A winery in an undisclosed location was looking for an assistant winemaker who had to be willing to relocate.
It was 2006 and Kelly Urbanik Koch was an aspiring winemaker from Napa Valley who had cut her teeth helping her granddad make wine, gone to UC Davis for viticulture and enology, interned in Burgundy for Maison Louis Jadot and was back home working as an assistant winemaker at Bouchaine Vineyards poking around for her next adventure.
“I figured it would be something like Oregon, not California, but not too far,” Koch says today. “I didn’t really expect it to be on the East Coast.”
From Napa to the North Fork
But East Coast it was. Bedell Vineyards flew her out to Long Island for an interview, and once she had taken a look at the winery and the region and sampled wines and talked to people and got a feel for the place, the blind date turned into a relationship with the North Fork that has lasted more than 10 years. She was at Bedell for two years as assistant winemaker and then principal winemaker in 2008. Since 2010, she has been winemaker at Macari Vineyards.
“I was super-surprised, in a good way, when I got here,” says Koch, now married to local Rob Koch and mother to an almost one-year-old. “It reminded me of where I grew up. Not the landscape, of course, but the small-town feeling. There is still a sense of adventure here as we try to define the region. I’ve been very happy.”
The region and Koch are well-suited for each other. The smaller scope of operations of North Fork wineries means that teamwork is key and that everyone is in constant communication from the vineyard to production to operations. “The Macaris are really involved and that is really great,” she says.
A smaller winery also means having working knowledge of far more than blending wines in a lab, something the hands-on Koch really appreciates.
“My experiences here have made me a more well-rounded winemaker; I can deal with any situation,” she says. “At small wineries the winemaker has to have a bigger skill set. Every year is a challenge and you have to be creative to respond to it.”
For example, while the North Fork is valued for its maritime climate, humidity issues come up, more or less sun, a cool season, a hot, dry season: When you have 200 acres planted and a yearly production that ranges between 12,000 and 14,000 cases as Macari does, even the smallest decisions the team makes will have far-reaching consequences.
The attention to detail all this requires is right up Koch’s alley. A meticulous person by nature and training, she is all about careful process. She points to the vines outside the winery, still partially blanketed in snow from a winter storm. “We are pruning now,” she says. “We pay a lot of attention to detail, to taking care of the vines so there is minimal spraying; maybe if there is humidity we harvest earlier. We have to be very mindful the whole way through.”
Making Clean Wine in a Maritime Climate
In this environment the winemaker has to dance carefully between controlling what she can and yet allowing nature to speak through the grapes. This philosophy threads through her conversation.
“I want to make clean wines,” she says. “My style in general is to try to make wines that are typical of the region, low alcohol, high acid and not overly extracted. I always try to make a wine that represents the vintage. If it is from a certain year, it should reflect that year…. We go with what the vineyard gives and that might be different from year to year.”
For her, each wine encapsulates the journey of that year.
“You can look at a wine and remember bringing the fruit in and the songs that were playing and what the fruit looked like and what it smelled like,” she says. “We work with interns from around the world, with this team of people doing it together and when you look at the wine you think, hey, this person from Argentina helped us make this and now she’s in Argentina making wine over there and that’s really cool.”
She does have personal favorites connected as much to memories as how it might taste.
Lucky Number 13
“One of my favorite wines is the 2013 Sauvignon Blanc. It was the first year we used the concrete eggs (a French innovation that is meant to help the wine achieve its maximum expression), and that was a memorable revelation for us. It is aging really well,” she says. “2013 was also a special year because it’s the year I got married. And here we redid the cellar, took out half of it and got new tanks. A lot of things were going on and life was good.”
And while she is all about expressing the region, that doesn’t mean she is trying to set a flavor or terroir in stone. What keeps her job fresh is pushing the envelope.
She has thrown her meticulous self into bringing méthode champenoise sparkling back to Macari after a 10-year absence. “It is very labor intensive but very rewarding,” she says. In addition to the usual suspects: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot and cabernet franc, Macari has small plantings of viognier, grüner, friulano, gewürztraminer and pinot meunier that are developing over time, some for blending and some for single varietal.
“We do a little experimentation,” she says. “As a winemaker this is a pretty fun place to work.”
And now with a growing family, a warm circle of friends to dine in and around with and the beach right outside her door, she seems to have found the North Fork a pretty fun place to live, too. Not bad for a blind date.