Barbara Shinn & David Page: Shinn Estate Vineyards

Craig McCord

Craig McCord › Craig possesses 23 guitars and cannot play any of them. He likes fresh grilled sardines with a ...

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Editor’s note: We have been impressed with Shinn Estate Vineyards since we enjoyed a bottle of their Wild Boar Doe at their farmhouse in 2007. Previous to meeting the owners, Barbara Shinn and David Page, we had enjoyed many delicious lunches at the restaurant they owned at the time, Home. These folks believe in locavores and ‘locapours’ and you get that when you read their interview.

Shinn Estate Vineyards is more than just grapevines: a farmhouse bed and breakfast, chickens, gardens, beehives and more. Tell us about your operation out on Oregon Road.

Barbara Shinn & David Page: We have taken a very personal approach to farming and integrated this approach into every element of the farm. We farm in a restorative manner integrating organics, Biodynamics and sustainable practices and make this peaceful place available to our staff, tasting room guests and Farmhouse Inn guests. Farming should never become disconnected from our ecosystem. Keeping a farm in tune with our immediate ecosystem and in turn our whole planet means a “hands off” approach to farming allowing natural systems to predominate. The wine we grow reflects this.

Wine is food. The less it is processed, the more it is true to itself

What’s it like to be a part of a very exciting time, producing food and wine on the North Fork of Long Island, New York?

BS & DP: We are so lucky to witness the birth of cuisine and culture here on the North Fork. Previously, in the late 1990’s and into 2000, we saw farms being left fallow and the historic barns and farmhouses beginning to decay. In addition, winegrowers and the rest of the farming community were disconnected.  We were worried. Then out of the ether emerged a set of young people avoiding the constraints of corporate jobs and wanting to farm. We now have a thriving community of organic farmers growing crops, raising animals and creating farmers markets. Winegrowing practices have evolved too and we are proud to say we are founding members of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing program. This is a third party certified farming program which has proven to be quite successful. We have a promising agricultural future here where the wine of the region and the cuisine of the region are emerging into a thriving culture. 

David, with your NYC restaurant, Home, Barbara (Shinn) and you were locavore before locavores were cool. How have you translated what your practiced in that kitchen to your production methods at Shinn? Is there a connection?

BS & DP: Looking back 20 years we now realize Home Restaurant was the first farm-to-table restaurant in NYC. We still remember the expression on New Yorker’s faces when we would describe the specials as “local striped bass” or “local greens”. Local to them was NYC and they couldn’t imagine having a relationship with a farmer or fisherman. Two decades later we are producers in a very small wine region and we are lucky enough to be 90 miles from the largest wine consuming city in America. And the NYC wine drinking community is thirsty for their local wines! Not only do New Yorkers want to eat local, they want to drink local.

Describe the microclimate at Shinn. How does it contribute to the success of your wines. Talk about the grape varietals you guys are growing out there.

BS & DP: We are situated in a maritime climate and are surrounded by three large bodies of water, the Atlantic Ocean, The Great Peconic Bay and the Long Island Sound. The refraction of sunlight off the water is very special and I think this aspect is somewhat overlooked. What is most recognized is the insulation the water provides from frosts and deep freezing. Our white wines, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Pinot Blanc retain a beautiful acidity mostly due to our cool late afternoons and nights. By 2:30 every summer afternoon we get a southern breeze from the ocean and bay cooling off the vineyard. We have an extended growing season that lasts to the end of October and even into November which allows us to patiently ripen our red wines without accumulating sugar too quickly. Our Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec benefit from a slow ripening process. 

Here’s a quote from you both “We want wine that speaks truthfully, naturally.” What do you mean with that quote?

BS & DP: It means simplicity. Wine is food. The less it is processed, the more it is true to itself. We have gone so far as to put an ingredient list on our labels. The FDA does not require a wine label to have an ingredient list which is remarkable since wine can have up to 40 ingredients. On our labels you will see “hand harvested sustainably grown grapes, indigenous yeast, minimum effective sulfur dioxide” as ingredients.

This might be a bit technical, but can you explain your preference with indigenous versus cultured yeast? What’s the difference? Why does it matter?

BS & DP: It is really not that technical at all. Generally speaking, winemakers have only been adding cultured yeasts since the 1980’s. The big marketing thrust of cultured yeast is that it guarantees a strong start to the fermentation, a predictable temperature range, and a complete finish. This comes in handy when a winemaker is dealing with industrially farmed grapes.

However, grapes grown with low impact farming practices like ours potentially have an indigenous yeast population for a natural fermentation. In early July I see the yeast beginning to cultivate the skin of the grapes out in the vineyard and I do everything possible to keep that yeast culture healthy. When we harvest, our grapes can have several different wine yeast varieties on their skins, each playing its unique role during the fermentation process and therefore adding their unique character to our wine. On the other hand cultured yeasts are just one single variety of yeast. Why opt for monoculture when Mother Nature gives you biodiversity?

Can you briefly tell us about your line up of wines? Let’s start with the whites.

BS & DP: All of our white bottlings are known for their beautiful aromatics: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and Coalescence which is a blended white. We seldom age our whites in barrel preferring the non oaked style. This allows the aroma and brightness in flavor to make the wine a refreshing experience.

Our reds have a complexity and earthiness that we attribute to our natural yeast fermentations. We bottle an Estate Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Wild Boar Doe which is a blend of the five red grapes we grow, and a Nine Barrel Reserve Merlot.  For an every day drinking red we bottle a non-vintage blended red which we call Red. Occasionally we bottle a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, a Malbec and a Petit Verdot. Our highest end reds are Grace and Clarity which we only produced in 2007 and 2012.

We also produce a pear cider, and a rosé which are both in a dry style.

Tell us about blended wines. What is a ‘blended’ wine and why is it important?

BS & DP: Blending a wine is a final step in the making of a wine. This is when individual barrels are selected to be blended together to make a wine. The fascinating point is that before blending each barrel of wine is its own unique ecosystem and therefore its own unique wine. For example a block of Merlot can be harvested the same day and fermented in the same tank but when it is separated into barrels for ageing, each barrel evolves into its own wine. Blending can be done with barrels containing all the same grape variety, say Merlot, to produce a 100% Merlot wine or blending can be done with differing varieties. A classic red blend is Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, and a classic white blend is Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

You’ve built a world-class tasting room at the vineyard. Talk about how the one-on-one with the public helps the Shinn brand.

BS & DP: Although we are growing wine in a very small region, the North Fork of Long Island gets thousands of wine tourists every season. We are very fortunate to have the potential to sell a large proportion of our wine at retail. We both understand how important it is for our customers to have great service when they visit us so we concentrate on instilling a proprietary demeanor in our staff. Their job with us includes knowing what is happening in the vineyard and winery every day, assisting with harvest and continuing their wine education. In the tasting room both of us are always at hand to say hello and we give vineyard and winery tours on the weekend when the guests get our undivided attention and a good lesson on farming and winemaking.

What’s is like to sell your wines through to the retail shelves?

BS & DP: It is all good. As we have said before people are thirsty for Long Island Wines. An interesting point is that we deliver the wine ourselves. We can fit 52 cases in our Subaru. Having the same person who sold the wine come through the door delivering the wine is a memorable experience for a wine buyer working in a retail shop. It undoubtedly makes for a re-order!

Shinn’s bio-diversity is incredible (and it doesn’t happen accidentally). Talk about the steps Shinn has taken to be as sustainable as possible.

BS & DP: Allowing the vineyard to express itself as an individual entity is an ever evolving process. It all begins with the soil and using only naturally occurring materials to feed our living soil. So, by using compost, compost tea, fish, seaweed, peanut meal, and whey the soil is never dumbed down by chemical fertilizers. Chemical fertilizers override the natural soil nutrition cycle causing it to stay in a state of recuperation instead of actively growing and cycling nutrition. Once a living soil is allowed to do its work the whole ecosystem of the farm kicks in and the farm will create biological systems within itself. Beneficial insect habitat will be created, wildlife will homestead areas left in fallow and the surrounding ecosystem becomes integrated into the farm. For instance the northwest section of the vineyard has always had bothersome weeds that grow tall and have long tap roots; it also has heavier soils. So we do some hand pulling of these weeds but we don’t eradicate them. In sustainable farming “controlling” does not mean “killing”. What is actually happening is that these aggressive weeds are helping to restrain the grapevines that would otherwise grow out of control and probably not produce much fruit. They are balancing the vineyard. In a conventional farming approach the weeds would be killed and a chemical fertilizer would be applied to get over-vegetative vines to produce more fruit, but then everything would be thrown out of whack for more reasons than I have space here to explain.

Describe for us Barbara’s use of compost and her giant “tea bags”.

BS & DP: Compost tea is a liquid compost. The first step is to produce a very high quality compost geared towards the specific nutritional needs of your individual farm. When spreading the compost in the fall some is kept aside, about one pound of compost for every acre you want to treat in the upcoming spring season. A tea is made from this compost in March or April: we take 50 gallons of aerated water at around 72 degrees, add some humic acid, seaweed and fish hydrolizate and 5 pounds of compost which will treat 5 acres at a time. The compost goes in a big mesh bag that resembles a tea bag and is submerged in the warm water. The mixture is kept aerated and held at the warm temperature for 24 hours. The micro organisms in the compost migrate out into the water and reproduce very rapidly. After 24 hours the compost tea is drained into buckets and transferred into a sprayer on our tractor. We tilt the spray nozzles down to the ground and open them up for a very large droplet size. We then drench our soil with this tea of beneficial micro organisms. One teaspoon contains trillions of micro organisms so this inoculation is a big boost for our living soil. I time my soil drenches very specifically according to the spring soil temperature, the phase of the moon and its position in the constellations.

Talk a little about bio-dynamic winemaking. What’s a “leaf” day? What’s a ‘fruit’ day?

BS & DP: The basic practice of Biodynamic farming is to heal the earth and tune your farm to the subtleties of nature. It is by far the most sustainable way to farm. Everything we have spoken about so far here addresses Biodynamic farming. One aspect unique to this method of farming is the observance that celestial bodies (planets, moons, stars) affect agriculture. This goes back to ancient farming some of which can be scientifically explained and some of which cannot. At least not yet. Science is beginning to get pretty involved in Biodynamics and has been able to explain some aspects of how the moon affects agriculture.  So for example when we said we time our soil drenches according to the moon we do this during a descending moon when it is in an earth constellation. Half the month the moon rises low and half of the month it rises high. When the moon is arcing lower there is a subtle air pressure pushing down so the earth is more receptive and it is a good time to do soil work. The moon has an obvious effect on water and since the compost teas are liquid this makes sense. During the two weeks that the moon is descending we wait until it passes through an earth constellation since we are addressing soil work. The 12 constellations that humans have used in agriculture for thousands of years have been attributed with either earth (root), air (flower), fire (fruit) or water (leaf) attributes by ancient people. So when the moon is descending and passing through one of the four earth constellations we do our soil work.

Barbara you are quoted as saying, “The more wild you can bring onto the farm, the more natural intelligence you can bring to the farm.” Can you explain what was behind the quote?

BS: This is really where theory and practice come together! In theory humans are the most dumbed down species on our planet. We have spent thousands of years choosing to remove ourselves from nature in order to survive. The biggest shift was when we stopped foraging and became an agricultural species. Then little by little as we controlled nature more and more we removed ourselves from it by living indoors, changing our ecosystems, industrializing food and travel until we are what we are now. Except for “fight or flight” we have lost most of our instincts and natural knowledge. We have dumbed ourselves. So, a deer has more instincts than a domesticated animal yet both of these animals have way more instincts or natural intelligence than us. What about plants then? It is the same. A domesticated plant namely an agricultural plant (our grapevines for instance) has less instinct or natural intelligence than a weed. Anything growing wild has its natural systems intact and has a relationship with its surroundings while participating in a balanced ecosystem. A good example is a meadow and its insect population. At Shinn Estate Vineyards we have allowed a natural meadow to grow over the entire vineyard floor bringing with it a beneficial insect habitat, efficient nutrient cycling and much more. The weedy meadow is the driving force of our farm and therefore our wine. As farmers we understand the big picture of farming naturally but we can’t even fathom the intricacies of the natural machinations in the vineyard. We should acknowledge that a complete understanding of Nature may be beyond human intelligence

It seems you don’t waste anything. You even use the “leftovers” from the winemaking process to make other products. Tell us about what you do with your wine “leftovers”.

BS & DP: Shinn Estate Vineyards is also a small distillery. We make brandy, eau de vie and grappa. There is plenty of alcohol left in the settlings of wine after fermentation that would otherwise be discarded so the art of distilling gives added value to the winemaking process.

David, you’re a chef without a restaurant, (and aren’t you glad!) but you still are able to ply your craft at the Farmhouse bed and breakfast. Tell us how cool it must be to source ultra-locally and prepare meals for your guests.

DP: As we discussed previously, the emerging food and wine culture here is very inspiring. For breakfast our guests at the Inn are served eggs from our chickens and they recognize how special the moment is. In the spring summer and fall they visit us working in the vegetable garden in the early morning and see the tomatoes that will be on their breakfast plate. I go to Crescent Farms to pick up the Long Island duckling that I smoke here and use to prepare a smoked duck and potato hash.

Well, thank you for your interesting answers. We learned a lot.

BS & DP: Thank you. We enjoyed it.

Did Barbara and David impart some knowledge about biodynamic farming and wine that you didn’t know before? What was it?

Photo credit: Shinn Estate Vineyards