The Lenz Winery is located in Peconic, on the North Fork of Long Island, in New York. This is a distinct geographic region as well as a designated BATF appellation for US wines.
Founded in 1978, the winery has some of the most mature vineyards in the region, or - - given the extensive replanting of California vineyards to avoid further damage from the phylloxera louse - - in the country. We grow only vinifera grape varieties: chardonnay, gewürztraminer, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and pinot noir. We have nearly 70 acres of vineyards, with the following approximate acreage per variety.
The eastern end of Long Island has several distinctive features as a wine growing region:
a long, frost-free growing season
the highest sunshine hours in New York State
annual "heat accumulation" in the ideal range for growing and ripening a wide range of vitis vinifera grape varieties
deep, well-drained soils
even, year-round rainfall of about 30"
water on three sides to moderate winter lows and summer highs
Growing vinifera vines under these conditions is only normally demanding. That is, we work hard to control vine vigor, grape pests, fungus diseases, bird and deer attacks, plus the occasional hurricane, intermittent droughts and wet spells. But we are usually able to bring our grapes to full ripeness each year, by mid-to-late September for the early ripening varieties and by mid-to-late October for the others, with cabernet sauvignon invariably coming in at or even after Halloween.
At harvest - - most local growers harvest by machine - - the grapes are characterised by a medium level of sugar, with 21% to 22% being typical and 23% uncommon. Varietal ripeness tends to occur at these relatively low sugar levels. The wines tend to be full-flavored but not that high in alcohol. They are tight and elegant rather than huge and "blowsy". Acid levels stay naturally high right through to the point of full varietal ripeness. In short, they are not hot-climate wines. Just as in California the move has been away from the central valley and away from the Napa Valley, towards cooler growing regions like Sonoma, Russian River and Carneros, so the North Fork of Long Island is a region with characteristics that lead to fine wines.
Many commentators, including the inestimable Robert Parker ("The Wine Advocate"), have noted the balance of true varietal character, moderate alcohol levels and fresh acidity in the region's best wines.
These are sophisticated, well-knit and well-balanced wines. They are not over-ripe "blockbusters" that impress at first sniff or sip but then collapse in the glass. They are outstanding food wines which is what we think a great wine should aspire to be.
At Lenz, our philosophy in the vineyard is high-touch. We are interventionists and we intervene, at great cost in time and effort, to micro-manage each vine to ripeness each year. Leaf removal, shoot thinning, cluster thinning, crop reduction, triple catch wires, super-attentive pest and fungus control (our "open canopy" approach keeps fungus problems to a minimum), all combine to add cost (unfortunately) but to ensure fully ripe grapes of the highest quality.
In the winery, our philosophy is low-touch, though not taken to dogmatic extremes. We do not subscribe to the current vogue in which wineries claim not to intervene at all in the natural process of winemaking. If a wine needs an acid adjustment, it gets it. If reduction threatens a sulphide problem, we fix it. If it needs filtering, we filter it. And we use cultured, not wild yeast to start the fermentation. Beyond that, we want the wines to express the character we've brought out in the vineyard by developing full "varietal ripeness".
For example, we have developed a proprietary method for splitting the grapes after harvesting, prior to fermentation. Traditionally, this is done using a machine, aptly named a "crusher", that compresses and shreds the grapes between two large, rapidly spinning rollers. This process, seemingly central to winemaking as we know it, is in fact the source of many problems. Shredded skins and split seeds contribute excessive amounts of the hardest, driest, most bitter tannins. They also contribute to various pH and stability problems in the finished wine.
Fermentation of the grapes without splitting the skins, on the other hand, leads to a "carbonic maceration" type of fermentation that has equally odd results. We have come up with a method that splits the berries without any mechanical action and hence without the shredded skins and split seeds created by a grape "crusher". This is an important factor, we believe, in the quality and character of our red wines. We recently shared our new method with a visiting winemaker from a very prominent Napa Valley winery who was most appreciative: "We've been wondering how we can split the berries with less mechanical action." she said, "This is really a breakthrough!"
In the cellar, we use French oak exclusively, not liking the characteristic "Crayola" aroma imparted by most American oak barrels.
One important facet of our approach is the "estate" element. We make almost all our wines "estate bottled". Legally, that means the wines are made entirely from grapes grown in our own vineyards or vineyards under our own direct care and control. More generally, it signifies an approach that eschews winemaking-as-chemistry. We never use grapes grown outside the North Fork of Long Island designation and we almost always use grapes that we grow ourselves. We never add concentrates, flavor or coloring, even where it is technically legal to do so.
Our approach to each wine is distinct:
Sparkling Wine - - "Cuvée"
We make this wine, 70% pinot noir and 30% chardonnay, using the so-called méthode Champenoise. We age the wine for extended periods en tirage, finishing small batches as needed. The consequence of this approach is the development of layers of complexity over the pinot noir fruit base. The finish is dry. Technically, the Cuvée is ultra brut.
We have several different chardonnay clones in three main vineyards and multiple vineyard sub-sections. Each year, the grapes from these separate areas show different characteristics. Those with the richest and most intense flavors are generally set aside for the "Gold Label" chardonnay. Gold Label is 100% barrel fermented in 60 gallon French oak barrels, mostly from the Vosges area in eastern France. The wine also goes through malo-lactic fermentation and is treated very reductively in the cellar (withholding of all oxygen) in order to promote the kind of funky, reductive characteristics that so enhance wines of this type. The result is a fine wine of unusual character and depth.
Our other chardonnay wine is the "White Label". The 1996 vintage is 100% chardonnay, fermented mainly in stainless steel at cool temperatures, using different strains of yeast to accentuate or moderate certain fruit qualities in the grapes as we see them at harvest. Generally, we tend to accentuate the so-called northern fruit flavors (apple, pear, cherry) and moderate the tropical fruit flavors (banana, guava and mango). These wines see only limited oak aging and they emerge as lively, vivid examples of chardonnay at its best.
Lenz has been noted for its gewürztraminers from the start. This grape variety is notoriously fickle in the vineyard. It sets fruit in an unpredictable way, 4 tons/acre one year, 1 ton/acre next. Our vineyards are no exception, but the result frequently gives us gewürz at its best: an intense, floral/fruity wine (tea and rose petals) with spicy aromas (nutmeg, cinnamon spices, not chili peppers) and flavors that recall lychee nuts to those who know the taste and a whiff of grapefruit that seems to characterise the variety for others.
We pick our grapes by taste not chemistry - - that is, we pick when they taste like the variety they are, not when the sugar or acid in the grape reach certain pre-determined levels. This approach is never more important than with Gewürztraminer. As the grapes ripen, they gradually sweeten and lose their tartness but they taste fairly generic. At some point they develop distinct gewürztraminer flavors. At first the odd berry, then 50% of the crop and finally 90%. Only when this point is reached do we pick. We ferment the wine dry - - this is not a sweet or semi-sweet gewürz.
There aren't that many good gewürztraminers made in the USA, so it is, perhaps, faint praise to be judged the best. Some wine critics, however, have suggested that Lenz may make one of the best. David Rosengarten, for example, has even gone so far as to say that he thinks North Fork gewürzes, and Lenz in particular, represent the ideal balance between the Alsatian style ("too cloying") and the California style ("too sweet, not true to variety").
With the relentless urge to characterise and label, people have declared that Long Island's North Fork "is best for merlot", ignoring the other superlative wines made here. Even Robert Parker has noted approvingly the depth of character of Long Island's better merlots, noting that they are true-to-variety in a way that a great many California examples, so many of them blended extensively with cabernet sauvignon, are not.
Lenz merlots have been singled out ever since the 1985 vintage which showed unusual grace and flavor in what was, otherwise, a modest vintage.
It was the 1993 vintage, however, that showed what the region can do with this variety. Our own 1993 merlot, as you can read elsewhere in this website, has stood comparison with the acknowledged best merlots in the world, from France (Chateau Petrus) and California (Duckhorn). From this vintage on, the Lenz merlots - - all estate grown and bottled - - reach a new level of intense concentration, rich complexity and varietal character. We generally blend some cabernet franc and a small percentage of cabernet sauvignon into the merlot. Interestingly, our merlot needs cabernet to soften it and round it out. Unlike in other regions, we find the cabernet to be softer than the merlot. This will sound like a role reversal to French and California producers.
We don't make much cabernet. It's the hardest variety to ripen on Long Island - - even on the relatively warmer North Fork - - so relatively little is planted. We have about five acres. By controlling vine vigor, however, and by crop-level limitations, we can bring the variety to full ripeness in most years. We've banished the vegetal and stemmy characters that you get with less-than-fully-ripe grapes or from shaded fruit. This is hard work and it costs more but the result is worth it.
In blind tastings, these wines - - again starting with the 1993 vintage - - compare favorably with top-of-the-line cabernet-based wines from Pauillac and Napa. They are deep in color, rich, concentrated and well extracted. In character, they tend to be softer and rounder than many cabernets, with smooth, ripe tannins. We generally blend in a little merlot - - usually less than 10%.
We grow pinot noir but we rarely make it. This apparent paradox is explained by the fact that in most years we use the pinot noir grapes, picked early, to make sparkling wine. Once in a while, however, we bring the grapes to full ripeness and make a red pinot noir. We did this in 1991 (60 cases), 1993 (60 cases) and 1995 (350 cases).
How is it? Very respectable. The 1993 was probably the best so far. It stood fair comparison in blind tastings with excellent red Burgundies and top west-coast pinots. The 1995, tasted a few days ago (mid-'97) with dinner at Ross' restaurant in Southold, was aromatic, medium bodied and medium/rich in flavors. It has rounded out further since (spring '98), and is a very lovely wine indeed at this point.
We have recently changed several vineyard practices that will, we believe, allow us to bring our pinot noir to a successful conclusion in most years. Stay tuned! We will be doing more with this most challenging of varieties.