Posts Tagged New York

Interview with Joseph Macari Jr., Macari Vineyards, Long Island (audio w/transcript)

In the forthcoming issue of Color Magazine, there will be an article including a short section about the fantastic Macari Vineyards on Long Island in New York state. Here, I want to include tree longer audio segments from my extensive interview with the owner, Joseph Macari Jr. A partial transcript is included below.   Part I

Part II

Part III

Macari is among the largest producers on the East Coast and is on an upward trajectory. They employ 35 people, the vineyard is 440 acres. So far, 200 acres are planted with vines. Macari also has two tasting rooms where over half of their business is made. Joseph’s view on terroir, wine, Long Island, and biodynamic farming are fascinating. The lengths to which he goes to keep in with the spirits is, well, particular, and quite inspiring.

Macari Vineyards’ 180 acres of vines, producing 17 thousand cases a year are enriched by biodynamic composts with fish heads, manure, horns, kelp, and nettle tea and is home to cows, goats, Sicilian donkeys and ducks. This recreation of a pastoral past is mind blowing for a place near New York City. But this is not the Age of Innocence. Terroir is about possession. If you possess terroir, you have power. The power of place. Macari Vineyards is definitely aspiring to terroir, to power, and to becoming a great place.

Who are you selling this wine to?

We sell 60 percent out of the tasting room here on Long Island. We also have a good presence in restaurants in NYC and Brooklyn. We have distribution across New York state. In my view, everyone wants a local product. Wine has been stepping up to the plate.

You are second generation?

No, I started this in ’95, my father and wife, my wife and I. We had most of the property since ’63. We were up to 500 acres, then we sold some and were are now at a comfortable 440 acres. We go from Sound avenue to the Long Island sound, almost a mile.

Why did you get into wine?

This was a potato farm. They grew hay and straw. I moved out from the city to raise kids out here. I was driving into the city every day. Got real tired of that. My father loved wine. Wanted to look into this industry. See if we liked it. We had the property. Decided to plant a little. Planted 67 acres the first years. Another 40 next year. Created a big situation. One of the biggest on the East Coast. We still have to do more with the sales. But we are so busy that we are focused more on the quality than on the marketing right now.

Have you gotten attention from wine writers?

Yeah, a whole history. Upstairs, we have a book with all the awards since ’97, when we made our first real vintage. We made wines when most of the vines were only 3 years old. That is when I realized that Long Island had great potential. The sky is the limit here. Whatever you put into the land and your soil. The work you do outside shows directly in the bottle. It is how committed you are to the earth.

Why did it take so long for vineyards out here?

Because it is just a natural progression of a region. I also believe it is really hard to grow fruit here in this volume, this quantity is really hard with the weather conditions. The vintage variation from year to year is extreme. Obviously, ,this year we had a stunning, incredible year, like nobody has ever seen before. Way above the curve, even with this week’s rain. Every region has a natural progression. It takes time. You can’t rush it. You have to accept it. You have to stick it out. It might not be my generation that will do really great. Even though we are doing great. It might be my son or his son. Because, you see, wine is generational. The land, it takes a long time to really know what’s right, what to plant. You are dealing with this weather. It is incredibly hard.

So it takes decades?

With wine, totally. Even though in America here we are making some of the best beers in the world now. We are making incredible wine in a short period of time. But still, the romanticism, and the whole idea of loving wine and the history of wine is just so much history that you want to have the age with it. You want to have the knowledge that comes with age and generation.

I was just watching Bottleshock, this movie about the Californian wine industry before they won that competition in 1976…

Yeah, great movie.

Is any of that going to happen in Long island?

Yes, I think it is happening. If you taste some of my wine you are going to be chocked at the quality of wine. That keeps me waking up every morning. The wine quality is phenomenal. If you don’t over-oak it. Don’t pour chemicals into your soil. Don’t put nitrogen. You could really settle the plant down into its own and make some beautiful fruit. I could show you some wines that if you were blindfolded, you wouldn’t know if they were from New Zealand, Loire, Bordeaux. Not that I want to compare my wine to them, but, obviously.

So where are you now in your trajectory?

We are definitely above the curve. Whatever that is I cannot really say. A lot of people are making great wine out here. And it shows. You can tell right away. Who is serious. Like I said, I am very into my farm and the earth. We live here. We work here. We play here. We walk through the property. I got my dogs here. We don’t want to hammer it with all sorts of nasty stuff. We try to be gentle. But the more your intentions are correct on your land, the more you are going to get out of it. The more you work with mother nature. It takes generations. I am very happy with where I am now but I know the sky is the limit.

What was your background?

I managed property and real estate in Queens and built some houses. I moved out here because I raised dogs and needed land for my dogs. I always loved wine. Basically, all was Italian wine. Now, I have the love for world wine. My grandmother was from Italy. My mother’s side is actually early American. So that is our background.

One of the reasons why I picked your winery to visit was that I found some old info on the internet that you had a quite international crowd here for a while. A Chilean wine maker, Paola Valverde?

Yes, she just left. She was with us for 7 years and did a great job. For the next coup;le of years you will be tasting her wine here. We needed a full time person, which is Kelly. We are very happy with her enthusiasm and credentials. We had a guy from France, Gilles Martin, who was very accomplished. We had a great guy from Spain. I always felt that since this region is so young, I wanted to pull from all these other regions. It just felt good, satisfying me to pull from history. Helmut Gangl, from Austria. I did not go to school for this. It is all practical knowledge. So, I learn from all of these people. We have friends, Masi in Argentina, people in Spain. All over. France. It is good to have those connections. You are always learning.

Thanks for taking the time in the middle of harvest [He now takes me out to the yard to see the winemaker, Kelly Urbanik] What are we doing here?

Sorting out the grass, green berries, anything that’s bad. Without getting stung by bees.

Why do you enjoy being a wine maker? You seem to be having fun out here? What’s the attraction?

It is a fun job a net job because it incorporates the whole growing season which culminates in the harvest. Stressed the whole year. It is hard work but the rewards are great.

Joseph interjects: “wine brings everybody together. Make peace not war.”

I used to pick blueberries like this. I am from Norway. We have blueberries.

Wow. I planted a hundred blueberry bushes this year. We love them. Great antioxidant.

What principles have you taken on board, working with the vineyard. What is most important?

One of the first thing Joe told me is that he wanted the wines to express the vineyard. Our goal is to try not to manipulate the vines. Try to let them express the property, let the vineyard shine through without masking that. Let the vines speak for themselves.

[I come to realize that I am actually distracting her. Finally, understanding that, I move out of her way and continue the conversation with Joe]

You have water on both sides. The sound. The bay. The ocean. An incredible, unique situation. A lot of varieties grow great here. You have the sandy soil. Free draining. That is a plus. Don’t have to deal with root stain wet. And you have the breeze if things get wet, the breeze dries things right away. Lot of gray areas. A lot of humidity. Also a lot of positives. The region keeps getting bigger and bigger. The positives outweigh the negatives.

Are you able to learn from the community? Knowledge hub?

There is Cornell station. They are really knowledgeable. Otherwise, there is some jealousy like in anything. If you need anything you make a phone call and everyone is there to help you. Everyone is busy, but if you need help they will come together.

Tell me about your compost, which is particular…

The Indians uset to put the corn in the heads of the fish and plant it right in the fish head. My grandmother grew up with the fish head right by the potato plant. So I started getting better compost. I have 10 years of getting fish for the compost. Plus we get kelp to blend in with the minerals.

How did you get into the biodynamic stuff? Is it from your grandmother?

My friend was a potato farmer right next to us. Everything is green and beautiful, next day everything is brown. I said, Bill, what happened? He says, well I had to spray it with Gramoxone so I can pick the potatoes. That stuff is bad for you. The first two years we had someone here putting that stuff on our vines. I haven’t used a herbicide in five years now. That’s when I started learning about all of the other stuff. Started eating organic. Knowing where my food came from. You have to know what you put on your soil.

But you are not ready to get certified?

No. I am certified crazy. If I was in a hot region I would be there already. I have a horn pit. I have a 100 horns. It is beautiful.

[His wife, Alexandra, walks by] Busy?

We must have had 1000 tastings in here yesterday. It gets busy during the weekend. We get 60 percent of our business is from tasting rooms. We get lots of visitors from Boston. We had a distributor. Problem is not allowed to ship to Massachusetts. We are so small. Maybe you could help us find somebody (she says, jokingly)?

How about your compost?

The pile down here is all laced with fish. We dumped 30K pounds of fish. We layered it with different compost. This is what we lay down. I will dig into it to show you. Now, I don’t put any chemical fertilizer in there at all. This is totally beautiful and clean. This is a two year thing. This is what I use to feed my vines. Everyone puts chemical down. Cow manure will heal the earth. When you take something you want to give something back. This is my way. We have been doing this for 12 years. On the top you see crab shells, some minerals and kelp. We lace all the tops.

[We are in Joe’s truck. We move further around the property]

This is a little greenhouse. I have 18 different types of figs in there. My pop likes the figs.

It is important to see the composting. You work with mother nature and mother nature will work with you. I got earthworms everywhere. You could put your hands into the soil and pick it up it is all crumbly and beautiful, smell it. If you use herbicides it becomes like cement. It is like a matrix. You want to keep your soils alive. Once they are alive, you can work with them. But you got to get them to that point.

Do you think you can double your business?

Totally. In 3-5 years.

Economically?

Next year we will break even, after 14 years.

[We drive onwards. Joe points]

Nettles. Every plant in the world loves nettles. We cut the top and make pasta. Nettle pasta.

We have a ¼ acre planted. Turkeys, chicken, ducks, chickens, rabbits. Cattle. To me, the more diversity that you see, the easier it is to do the organics. The more life force you have on your property. It is all about life force. The energy that comes in and connects with the cosmos.

But all of this life force it must be an enormous maintenance issue?

Yes. I have 2 guys who take care of the animals. But basically, I concentrate more on the soil than on the vines. I know it should be the opposite. My soil is rocking. You can taste it. You can see it. Nothing is going to stop us now. Once your farm is alive, you have that connection…but you have to have the right intention. Sometimes your intention is more important than what you do.

What intention do you have?

To create life. To create a living cycle. Have your own production, the food, the wine, life force.

[We arrive at the edge of the woods, and a pit, essentially a small whole in the ground manifests itself]

Usually the pit is open. The clay on the outside. The clay protects the horn manure from the worms. But you can also spray this. The horn is like an antenna. The energy comes in the horn. The cow is such a digestive creature. The horn manure. They tried it in glass, in clay, in all different types of vessels. Only in a horn does it turn to this. 1/3 of a cup per acre. A ton of fusion. You stir it for an hour. Special sprayers that don’t get any chemicals at all. We stir it, screen it and spray it on the ground. You don’t have to spray it everywhere. Just on the blocks. Every two or three rows. Then you are done. I’m proud of this.

What happens to the horn?

We take everything out. We put it in a clay pot. The horn gets reused. The stuff gets put in a clay pot. We store it in a root cellar. I probably have enough to inoculate the whole island. This is the only hole we have been using. Every year we use the same hole. Right on the edge of the woods. This stuff is freaking phenomenal.

Why do you think a lot of people don’t believe in this?

Well, if you are a scientist. They think it is hocus pocus. If you believe everything is scientific…you study a frog, you cut a frog open, you dissect it. But, I say, if you want to go study a frog, go live with it. It is the same thing. There are 100 horns in there. That is way more than what I need.

This is the first time I have seen this in action.

I like the mystery. They talk about the nature spirits. How great is that, that there is nature spirits helping us do the right thing for the property. Gnomes.

Would you say that your workers, everybody else on this farm, your wife, believes as strongly as you in this?

No. I know my wife does. Maybe a couple of workers. The general population have seen me composting for 10 years, but they don’t really know. They know I get the fish. They know I stir barrel compost. They see it. They probably believe in it, but they don’t know about it. The key people who need to know, my wife, my kids, they know. My 14, 17, 21 year old sons are all into it.

It is what your intention is on your property. It is what you want it to be.

Did you buy it all?

This side of the road we had since ’63, this side we bought in ’98. In ’63, obviously, things were a lot cheaper. My dad, he was going to build some houses here. He didn’t. Was busy in the city. We are all glad he didn’t. Good things take time and patience. But you tasted the wine, you can see for yourself that we are on the right direction.

It is a process, as you said.

Donkeys, the animals on the farm are really really important. Their manure is being used. I know I am saying a lot of stuff. Probably sounds crazy. I believe that if I do my little part. Slowly. If you do something good, it spreads. Plus, with all the cancers in the world. It looks like a carrot but it is not a carrot. You have to know where your food is coming from. Where your wine is coming from. When I eat something I want to know. Who grew that? You want to know a little more. You want to know that someone put their love into it. Good intentions. I don’t want to sound too crazy. If I could not do this my way, I would not do it. Animals bring a whole different spirituality. They are living and breathing here, adding to the property. This is crazy for most people. But this is the reason I am here.

Is there any interest from the City? (meaning New York city)

That is our savior. This is why other regions are interested. It is our life saver. Brings tourists out. So close. One of the closest. We get more tourists here. You could do this whole region in 2-3 days. Everybody is very close. It is a fantastic growing region when mother nature works with us. We are making fantastic wines. The City realizes that now. For so long they rejected us. They wouldn’t give us the time of day. And you cannot blame them. I could get my Chateau Figeac. I can cherry pick the whole world going to NYC. So you cannot blame them.

A region has a natural succession. It takes time. You cannot jump start it. You cannot push it beyond its schedule. It will always go back and take the time it takes. That means everybody doing the right thing. I am not saying I make great wine. I want to make great wine.

Do you see that around you?

Bedell, Lenz. Raphael is on the track. Paumanok is on that same track. We are not going to be satisfied making farm wine. We are no: “Wow. This is Long Island? This is amazing.” That is enough for me. That will carry me along another month or two. You need to get that. So many problems. But you can definitely turn heads when they try wine. If you cannot stand up to world class wine I wouldn’t be doing it. But again, the region has its own time line.

You are saying. Even if one winery did great things for 1-2 years, it would not help?

Well, yes. We do have the technology to jump ahead. But in reality we all want to drink European wine. We want to hear the history. We want to know you were there for generations.

Well. The Americans, maybe. But for Europeans, their history is already there. I am Norwegian [so I know]. They are fascinated by history that is 5 years old, 10 years old.

Ok, so I guess there are other ways to look at it. It could be an excuse I am making. An excuse for everyone I am saying is great. I am not saying that. Wine is definitely generational. I think that my son will do better than I am doing. He is studying viticuture. It is a huge farm. We need help.

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