To really understand what is happening at McCall Wines, out on the North Fork of Long Island, it is helpful to note that, for several decades, founder Russ McCall played professional polo.
Professional polo is a very dangerous sport, one which McCall liked even more than he liked rugby, which he also played. Now, on this bucolic peninsula, he is trying to produce pinot noir of distinction.
Which is to say, the man clearly has an appetite for punishment.
“They do call it the heartbreak grape,” he acknowledges, as we taste some of his wines in the charming outdoor area that has served as the winery’s tasting room this pandemic season. The usual space, a converted barn with some inventory storage and a small retail area, was once home to his team of ponies. McCall first planted grapes in 1997 on this former potato farm, and made his first vintage in 2007. With his wife, Nicola, he opened the tasting room in 2010, and the winery today produces around 6,000 cases.
The leafy property, in Cutchogue on the main wine route of the North Fork, sits between two inlets off the Peconic Bay, just a stone’s throw inland from his family’s longtime waterfront home. In 1902, McCall’s great-grandfather, a banker in Brooklyn, rode out in his horse and buggy and acquired the mid-19th century place as a summer home.
Over time, through a series of real estate transactions, in partnership with the Peconic Land Trust, McCall has acquired a sizable property adjacent to the family land, and helped assure its protection from development in perpetuity. “You own the land, but you can’t do anything with it other than farm, so its value goes down about 70 or 80 percent,” McCall notes. “I agreed to do that because I didn’t want development anyway.” (A disclosure here: my father has done legal work for McCall for many years).
The 21 acres of vines are divided between merlot (the most common grape in the area) and pinot noir; just north of the property, another plot produces cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay. The house also makes a rosé as well as a rosé of pinot noir.
McCall began his professional life in Atlanta, opening his first retail cheese shop in 1967 while still an MBA candidate at Emory University. The business expanded through the 70s and 80s to include gourmet foods importing as well as wine wholesaling. And along the way, through tasting and travel, McCall fell in love with Burgundy. Finally, he says, he sold the Atlanta-based wine company, “and thought I would much rather live right here, near where my great-grandfather, my grandfather, and father lived.”
The property is also home to fields of alfalfa, feed for a herd of 75 Charolais cows, a beautiful French breed. “These are organic, grass fed,” McCall says, with a tinge of pride. “No shots, no antibiotics. Zero. They don’t get sick because they live on their own; they are born here.” They are also the source of McCall Ranch’s beef offerings, and the winery’s well known Burger Nights, a Friday night community draw that COVID has temporarily shelved (“the first year in five years we haven’t done it,” he says).
McCall is modest about his label’s standard estate pinot noir offering, preferring his more elegant reserve bottlings, but I found the 2014 quite delicious. Light garnet in the glass fading to rose at the edges, the wine has bright cherry flavors on initial impression, and opens to strong cola notes, with persistent dryness and a long finish. It’s a nice value at $30. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate recently gave the 2014 a 90 point score, noting somewhat effusively that the wine “does not lack for sex appeal, but the lovely and classic fruit is well supported by the wine’s fresh demeanor. Right at the moment, it is so sensual and has so much elegance.”
A handful of other wines in the portfolio scored equally well—or better. A week after our visit, I opened a 2013 Ben’s Blend ($69) to have alongside a grilled steak. Made in classic Right Bank style, the wine is merlot with cabernet franc, and had both powerful blue fruit—my notes say “blueberry pie”— and lots of bright acidity. Giving it a 90, the Advocate described it as “impeccably balanced.”
But the star in the lineup, in my view, is the Hillside Reserve pinot noir. In the years they make it, this wine is drawn from a sloped plot at the southern end of the property, where the soil is sandiest. The 2014, which Wine Enthusiast described as offering “a pleasant mix of Old World earthiness with New World ripeness,” achieves what the McCall team has set out to do.
Sip after sip, the wine calls you back, the ripe cherry and cranberry notes built on a woodsy foundation—a hallmark of the finest examples. McCall will tell the story of encountering some editors from Wine Spectator in a restaurant in the Hamptons, and sending them a bottle of his good stuff. “This can’t be from here,” they remarked.
But it is. We chatted with McCall about the ongoing project.
Let’s jump right in. Isn’t it nuts to grow pinot noir out here?
A little crazy.
Yeah. But you see I was a distributor in Atlanta for a company in Oregon that I absolutely loved, WillaKenzie Estate. I knew them quite well and I said I just bought some land in New York but I don’t think it’s going to grow there. There wasn’t much pinot noir grown on Long Island at all. Out here it rains too much. This summer has been nice and dry, but most summers, especially if you get rain in September, then all of a sudden what you did a great job on all year has a lot of mold.
So you used their clones?
Right. It’s American rootstock but the budwood we used is from them. We have 11 or 12 acres of pinot and it’s grown with the grapes from WillaKenzie, from the 667, 777 and 115. And right now we’re tasting the 2014 Hillside Reserve Pinot Noir, from a little 3-acre piece of vineyard right over there.
You haven’t made a reserve since then?
We skipped all the years in between. We just didn’t think it was there.
But you’re happy with your ’19 in barrel right now.
Yeah, last year was really good.
So when did this all really start for you?
We planted in ’97. There were maybe 20 others around at that time. They started growing grapes out here in the 70s. We waited more than 10 years to make wine. Initially the roots are sitting there and it’s just a little water pump. You get a grape with no flavor, no interest, no minerality, because the water is coming and going. It’s a simple concept but some people don’t like to wait.
Did you expect to reach 6,000 cases a year?
My wife and I started by opening the tasting room and we did it together. We had no other employees. We just opened up. This barn, before it became a tasting room, it was a stable with eight stalls. My son, Brewster, works with us now.
Are you the actual winemaker?
No—I’m the critic. I’ll say ‘we’re not putting that barrel in with the rest.’ Someone will say, ‘Let’s bury it,’ but no—we wont bury it. Just make some spaghetti wine out of it or something. We’re trying to make wine that is as good as either Oregon or Burgundy.