Sipping a Pinot Noir Reserve, Russ McCall greets guests at his vineyard’s first Burger Night, on a Friday in May.
Picnic tables dot the shaded lawn in front of the tasting room, a former potato barn which Russ converted into horse stalls, harkening back to his polo playing days. In 2010, the stalls were transformed into private tasting booths that Ralph Lauren would envy.
Family photos and farm memorabilia hang on the rustic walls and the doors are flung wide open to the view of Corchaug Estate Vineyard, where Pinot Noir and Merlot grapes mature.
Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay made appearances a year later, in 2011, when McCall acquired what is now North Ridge Estate, where vines have been growing since the early 1980s, as some of the oldest on the North Fork.
It turned out that Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot, and Syrah also thrived among the hills of Long Island’s glacial terroir.
What stands out the most these days, is not a new grape varietal, but a new beef, called “Wagolais,” now served exclusively on Thursday and Friday nights, and for sale in the tasting room.
“We trademarked ‘Wagolais,’” said Russ’s son, Brewster McCall, who is also working the crowd at Burger Night. The McCalls know most customers by name and even the names of their dogs. Many had been there the night before, for the unofficial start to the 2023 season.
“It was free for first responders, as a way to get started without pressure,” says Brewster. “People in the community have been seeing my dad’s commitment.”
Russ has been coming to Cutchogue since the year he was born in 1943. “My mother was from Brooklyn and came here every single year,” he says. “I was born in Brooklyn, and attended grade and high school in Syosset, Long island.”
He went to college in the south and received an MBA from Emory University in Atlanta Georgia, where he remained a resident for 40 years.
“I was in wine distribution for 40 years in Georgia. I started the company from nothing in 1975 and sold it in 2006,” he says. “I was in the wine business as a retailer but realized I didn’t like people.”
He seems to be enjoying himself as he mingles from guest to guest. No buses are allowed, so the dial on the limit is set low. Tasting room reservations are slated for 90 minutes.
“We’re preservationists first,” Russ says, taking a seat at a high top. “We want to protect land, including our own.”
When the Town of Southold approved the development of “Down’s Farm,” 105 acres between Main Road and New Suffolk County Road to Down’s Creek, in the 1990s, Russ wanted to stop 46 condominiums from being built. Woodlands leading to Peconic Bay, originally ancestral land of the Corchaug peoples, would have been wiped out.
Russ convinced the Town of Southold to go into partnership with him and preserve the land. Easier said than done, considering the long, drawn out process of bureaucracy.
Nonetheless the McCalls formed an ongoing relationship with the South Fork-based Peconic Land Trust, allowing the farmland preservation conservancy to gain a foothold on the North Fork.
“We gifted them property and a house for stewardship on the North Fork, not just on the South Fork,” Brewster says.
“We share a driveway. We get their mail,” he laughs. “We were trying to learn what not to do in the Hamptons.”
It was Russ’s great grandfather Russell Walker who first came to Cutchogue from Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century. “At the time, before cars, New York was loaded with manure, and residents were afraid of polio,” he says. “Summer cottages were for families to get out of town.”
Walker, who started in the mail room at the Brooklyn-based Dime Saving Bank and worked his way up to President, was one of ten Cutchogue residents to put up funds as a founding member of the North Fork Country Club in 1912.
“My great grandfather bought farmer Down’s ‘clubhouse,’ a shack at the mouth of Downs Creek in 1902. The cottage was not insulated, not heated or cooled; a sweep out beach house,” Russ says.
“My great grandfather’s parents were born in England, and came to the United States looking for a better life, sometime after the civil war,” he says.
It is obvious that Brewster is proud of his heritage, later as he gives a tour from field to field, pointing out his family’s original homestead, not far from Corchaug Estate.
Oversized modern homes with indoor swimming pools, overlooking water and woodland, are interspersed with vintage whitewashed cottages, where one might expect to see Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey cha-cha down the winding driveway.
Brewster drives his pickup around his own modest farmhouse, equipped with a “corn crib,” a tiny house beyond the backyard’s picket fence. “I think about fixing it,” he says, with a sigh of resignation. “A woodchuck lived under there.”
Like his father, he attended Emory, and is Vice President of Brand Development for Gourmet Foods International, a national specialty food distributor, a company his father founded in 1967.
“I grew up in Georgia but spent summers here,” he says. “We won the lottery in terms of being born.”
Brother Rusty and sister Lauren aren’t as hands-on as Brewster is in the family’s business in Cutchogue.
It was a journey getting to where he is now. “I’m an actor-turned-burlesque dancer-turned-wine salesman,” he says inside the almost-completed barn, originally built in Loudon, New Hampshire in 1778.
The health and fitness buff’s only regret is not becoming Mr. Coney Island, when he worked at the infamous Slipper Room on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “I was not a stripper,” he says. “They got paid more. We got drink tickets.” He may have quit the entertainment industry, but he kept the Tom Selleck mustache.
As he speaks, he’s surrounded by hundreds of cases of wine, stacked floor-to-ceiling, in the cellar of the barn.
The purpose of the barn, aside from looking pretty on a hill 20-feet above the Corchaug Estate vines, is to store wine. McCall reds are rarely released under ten years, creating an extra special problem of storage.
The 40-feet by 80-feet barn was assembled piece by wooden piece, like a jigsaw puzzle. “Russ bought the barn, put it in three containers and brought it down here ten years ago, completely dismantled,” Brewster says. “No nails, oak pegs.”
Again, it was a challenge working with the town, architectural structural engineers, archeological reviews, contractors coming and going, and thousands of pieces of wood. Even the stone from under the original barn was brought down and used in the reconstruction.
Going forward, there will be no heat or air conditioning. “Just the barn as it was,” says Brewster. “A livestock barn with hay storage in the ceiling. People added to it over the years.”
Although the future is unclear for the glorious space, two things are for sure: No weddings. No new tasting room. Brewster does like the idea of square dancing.
He admits to being “kind of the black sheep,” but when tempting a large white cow in the middle of a field with a handful of grass, he seems quite assured.
The McCalls began raising Charolais soon after they opened the tasting room in 2010. Russ fell in love with the broadly built, white cattle with pink noses and pale hooves, while touring Pinot Noir vineyards in Burgundy, France.
It was Brewster who convinced Russ to bite the bullet and buy Wagyu, highly sought-after Japanese breeds, in order to create a unique hybrid, which can be found at county fairs but never available commercially until now.
This is the first season, the tasting room is serving exclusively Wagolais, half Charolais and half Wagyu, beef burgers, alongside their sustainable farmed estate wines.
“We self distribute to local restaurants and shops in Suffolk County and the city. Not so much Nassau,” he says. “We sell meat out of the tasting room.”
“Russ is an incrementalist,” says Brewster approaching a field of cattle grazing on organic alfalfa. Trees provide shade and troughs provide water.
Wagyu, in contrast with Charolais, have an all brown body, brown nose and a smaller head. Charolais are so lean they lend themselves to cross breeding, which works with Wagyu due to their intramuscular fat.
“Wagyu works well with the climate and works well with the breed,” Brewster says. “Russ had to warm up to it. He came on board.” There’s a total of 80 animals in the grass-fed herd, a mix of both breeds.
“She might be pregnant,” Brewster says. Each animal needs one acre to be considered “grass-fed,” so there’s a lot of area to roam.
“You can hug them like puppies. If one is cool with us, the rest will come over and hang out,” he says. “Hey momma.”
Momma gives a little huff. Eventually she lumbers toward Brewster, who is bent on one knee as if to propose, with an open hand of fresh grass.
“Oh, there’s a baby,” he says.
In another field, some of the Wagyu cows are being grain finished. “Grain gets them fat,” says Brewster. “Once they’re given grain, they’re no longer organic, unless the grain is organic.”
“We give them a gentle start into the grain. Can’t do too much at first. Ours grow slowly because we don’t juice them up with steroids,” Brewster says.
“Even though the pastures have been organic for 15 years, we just got the paperwork,” he says.
The cows are shipped to Stafford Springs, Connecticut, a 45-minute trip from the New London ferry, to be processed.
A Long Island slaughterhouse would be a dream for the Long Island farming community, and a quick solution for bringing meat to market, but that too has been a long time coming.
“Want some, big guy?” Brewster coaches, with more grass. “Here comes Sassy, the one with her little attitude.”
After being chased out by Sassy, Brewster heads to the old growth vineyard, known as Andy’s Field, dominated by 40-year-old gnarly vines that had been revived by McCall.
“So these are great, some of the oldest vines on the North Fork. We didn’t have any record of the clones, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon and Chardonnay,” says Brewster. “Clones of every varietal come from different towns in France, or whatever. We still don’t know exactly.”
The older the vine the better the wine. Deep roots express soil better and have less minerality. The great thing about Long Island is that the sandy soil drains well, so grapes don’t get their feet wet.
“Young vines put out tons of fruit but it’s mostly garbage,” Brewster says. “Older vines have fewer clusters but oh so good.”
Brewster comes across several large holes under some vines. “Woodchucks will burrow, it’s not good for the roots but they don’t eat them like deer or raccoons,” he says. “When they do this, it’s no good.”
In general, the winery was a slow burn until they won Winery of the Year at the Wine and Food Classic in 2013 and then business exploded. They’re most noted for their Pinot Noir, a notoriously difficult wine to grow.
The grape has a thin skin, tight cluster formation, is delicate and prone to disease in bad years. “Nobody wants that struggle or ongoing challenge. Unless you’re passionate about it,” he says. “The New York Times called Russ crazy.”
Still, McCall has the largest Pinot Noir vineyard on the east coast, and the Pinot Noir Reserve 2014 was awarded a 93 from Robert Parker.
Merlot, which has a thicker skin, is softer with more tannins and flavor, is picked a month after the Pinot Noir. Merlot has an affinity toward more clay in the soil. “I would say it adds volume and richness to wine,” says Russ, back at the tasting room.
The McCalls greet their customers, including Daisy the dog, and there are hugs all around. “Brewster, we missed you,” says one customer, as Brewster was heading off to host a wine dinner at Southold Social with James Beard award-winning Chef François Payard.
Customers settle down to a burger and French fries, tucked into a kraft paper dish, and a glass of Marjorie’s rosé, matching the changing color of the sky. Chocolate chip cookies are offered for dessert. An owl flies into the woodlands across the vineyard and an osprey shrieks overhead.
Life doesn’t get any better than this.