A fine wine from an unlikely location
October 9, 2007
I shouldn’t have been surprised when I tasted the 2001 The Grapes of Roth Merlot. The wine had, after all, been awarded 91 points by Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate in a review and tasting by David Schildknecht. And, perhaps even more important, the other David, the one in the wine shop in Bridgehampton, N.Y., where I first spied the bottle, had pronounced it a “killer” wine. But, as a Western kind of guy, I still harbor a healthy bit of skepticism for wineries, surf shops, ski hills and football teams that are located on the East Coast. Of course, the New England Patriots, Stowe and now Roman Roth – the winemaker of The Grapes of Roth – have all proven how provincial, and ultimately wrong, my prejudices are (though I cling to the opinion that Pacific Coast surf shops will always be better than Atlantic surf shops, for obvious reasons).
I found Roman Roth on an early fall afternoon in his office at the very modern and drop-dead beautiful Wolffer Estate Winery on Long Island’s south shore, where he had just received a shipment of grapes from this year’s harvest. A tall, congenial fellow with a close-cropped beard and a distinct accent from his native Germany, Roman has made wines on Long Island since 1992, when he first came to Sag Pond Winery. That makes him a pioneer in a region that is starting to be taken seriously in the wine world for producing small-batch, handcrafted wines. For his efforts he was recognized as Long Island’s winemaker of the year in 2003.Roman’s passion lies in making a world-class merlot on Long Island. He is convinced that the Bordeaux varietal, “one of the kings of red grapes,” is an excellent grape for the region and he cites three reasons.First is location. Long Island is farther south than Bordeaux; it is closer in latitude to southern Spain than France, which gives it longer days of sunshine during the growing season. Next, the maritime influence. The ocean is closer than a mile from most Long Island vineyards. It provides cool temperatures in the summer evenings and keeps frost off the vines in the shoulder seasons, allowing a longer hang time for the grapes. And, finally, the soils. Long Island has long been known for its potatoes, and many of the vineyards on the island are on the same soils as old potato farms. It is loamy and rich in nutrients, with sand about 6 feet underneath. It makes for an unstressful base for growing grapes.Relying on these natural attributes and combining them with a ton of hard work, Roman has produced a wine that is, well, eye-opening. The 2001 The Grapes of Roth Merlot is rich, dark and deep in the glass. It looks smooth and silky and is a pleasure to pour and swirl. The nose is, well, merlot. It’s got lots of plum and berry. Not too jammy; more like a basket of dark fruit. The first taste is intense, you taste the color, but it is soft in the mouth. It is a wine that feels as good as it tastes. The berries and fruit mingle with a little earthiness and a touch of vanilla. It is low in alcohol, just 13.5 percent, and the tannins are more sedate than one would expect of a wine this intense.
It was, in a word, a pleasure to drink.So why was I surprised? The production of wine is proliferating in the U.S., with bonded wineries found in all 50 states. Gruet is making excellent sparkling champagne-style wines in New Mexico. Viogniers from Virginia are getting great reviews. And let’s not forget some of the wines being made in Palisade and Paonia here in Colorado.While I consider Roman’s wine to be a step up from some of the other “new region” wines being produced in other states, I write about his efforts to make the point that it should not come as a surprise that there are excellent wines worth tasting from places we may not have considered before. Placing prejudices aside and honoring pioneering winemakers by tasting their wares is not just a nice thing to do, it is a great way to expand your own personal world of wine as well.
Roman’s 2002 vintage of The Grapes of Roth (yes, the name is a pun on the John Steinbeck book – Steinbeck once lived in Sag Harbor, N.Y.) will be released shortly, albeit in very limited quantities. If you are interested, then orders can be placed at thegrapesofroth.com.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.