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Mr Schneider (left) began the Gotham Project with Mr Bieler, selling wine in reusable kegs to restaurants.

He's in a cabernet franc state of mind

Feb 14, 2020 5:50 AM

RECENTLY, I attended a tasting that examined neither a particular wine through the years nor a specific site. Instead, it was a vertical of one man's journey through the wine business, making cabernet francs in New York state over 25 years, both on the North Fork of Long Island and in the Finger Lakes.

The man, Bruce Schneider, is not particularly well known, but he has done a lot in wine, from farming to production to marketing and sales to innovation, foreseeing more ecologically sustainable methods of selling and transporting wine. He has had to be especially resourceful as he came to the trade with few financial assets.

But most of all, he has made some really good wines over the last 25 years, wines that not only demonstrate the potential of cabernet franc upstate or down but also parallel the voyage of winemaking in New York over that time and indeed the evolution of American wine styles.

Mr Schneider and I met in mid-December at the NoMad Hotel in Manhattan, where we tasted 25 cabernet francs he had produced from 1994 through 2018.

The wines included his first efforts for Schneider Vineyards on the North Fork, perhaps grandiosely named by Mr Schneider and his wife-to-be in 1994, Christiane Baker, as they owned no vines at the time.

They included bottles from Onabay Vineyards, also on the North Fork, where he is the consulting winemaker; from Gotham Project, in which he and his partner, Charles Bieler, have pioneered selling wine in reusable steel kegs, now in more than 40 states; from Schneider & Bieler, their label for Finger Lakes cabernet franc; and from Empire Builder Return & Reuse, a forthcoming project involving reusable bottles.

Why the focus on cabernet franc? It was an early sign of Mr Schneider's confidence in his talent for identifying what might not be an obvious winner but one that could pay off in the long run. Such assurance comes from a family background in wine.

Mr Schneider, a boyish-looking 50, grew up in Springfield, New Jersey, the grandson of a bootlegger and the son of a wine-and-spirits distributor. Winemakers from around the world passed through the household, he recalled, with plenty of stories to tell.

For a high school work-study programme, with help from his family, he interned in Burgundy, where he learned from Becky Wasserman, the noted American wine broker; Chartron & Trebuchet, a producer; and François Mikulski, then a recent wine school graduate who has gone on to establish his own Burgundy domaine.

He went on to study history at Washington University in St. Louis, and got a job working for the New York State Democratic Party in Manhattan by day, taking wine classes by night. Through his political work, he met Ms Baker as well as Carol Gristina, a party board member who also happened to own a North Fork wine estate, Gristina Vineyards. He quit politics for wine, first working in public relations and at Garnet, a wine retailer. There, he met David Lillie, a wine buyer who introduced him to cabernet francs from the Loire Valley.

In 1994, determined to make his own wine, he and Ms Baker scraped together US$20,000, bought a few tons of grapes, which they picked by hand, and persuaded a Long Island producer, Kip Bedell of Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, to help them make the wine, using the Bedell facilities.

Despite his affinity for Loire cabernet francs, Mr Schneider's ambitious aim was to make a wine like Cheval Blanc, the great St.-Émilion, which is roughly half cabernet franc, half merlot.

That '94, the first Schneider vintage, was no Cheval Blanc, but 25 years later it was light and pretty, with earthy, berry aromas. The '95, also made with Mr Bedell's help, was a step up in depth and concentration.

In 2000, they started working with Sean Capiaux, a California winemaker who also consulted on Long Island. And they started to make their wines at Premium Wine Group, which provides equipment to small producers who do not have their own facilities.

In 2001, Mr Schneider decided to make a Loire-style 100 per cent cabernet franc. He called it Le Breton, a Loire synonym for cabernet franc, and, unlike his blended cab francs, which received prolonged barrel age, the Breton was bottled before the next harvest. The 2001 was delightful 18 years later, lively, energetic and joyous, with pretty flavours of dark fruits.

In 1998, Mr Schneider and Ms Baker had bought a potato farm in Riverhead and planted it with numerous clones of cabernet franc, as well as some cuttings of cab franc and merlot that had originally come from Vieux Château Certan, a famed Pomerol estate.

The 2003 Breton was the first wine I tasted made entirely from fruit grown in their vineyard. It was earthy, minerally and savoury, not concentrated but lasting on the palate. The '04 Breton was cool, breezy and delicious. Then came 2005, a landmark Long Island vintage.

"It was the most crazy, freaky, incredible vintage I've ever experienced," Mr Schneider said. At one point that October, it rained 17 inches in eight days, leaving the grapes swollen with water. Then, miraculously came 10 clear, dry days, which dried them out. Mr Schneider, who at this point had taken over most of the winemaking, made several unusual cuvées that year.

La Bouchet, his Bordeaux-style wine, was complex, rich and earthy, with fine tannins and lovely red fruit flavors. He also made a one-off, La Cloche, made exclusively from the Vieux Château cuttings, a floral, pretty, high-toned wine that was structured yet delicate. I thought it was superb. Both these 2005s have years ahead of them.

"I'm stunned by the youthfulness of the '05s," Mr Schneider said. By 2005, however, Schneider and Baker had already decided to sell the vineyard. With a daughter, Chloe, they preferred to live in New York City.

The 2007 Breton, balanced and pleasing, was the last wine in the tasting made from estate fruit and the last vintage sold under the Schneider Vineyards label. Mr Schneider then took a job with Onabay, which had bought a vineyard on Peconic Bay in 2006 and replanted 7 acres using Mr Schneider's research on cabernet franc. Soon it was making two cuvées of cab franc, Night Heron in a Bordeaux style, and the Loire-style Côt-Fermented, in which cab franc was fermented together with a little malbec, or côt, as it is called in the Loire.

In 2010, Schneider began Gotham Project with Mr Bieler, selling wine in reusable kegs to restaurants. Their idea was that kegs could improve the quality of wines sold by the glass because kegs preserve freshness longer than bottles. They are also more eco-friendly.

The partners also began bottling cabernet franc from the Finger Lakes in 2015, a move west that came as the Finger Lakes were becoming the most exciting place in New York for wine.

Cabernet franc is now a leading red grape on Long Island and in the Finger Lakes. It cannot be attributed to Mr Schneider alone, but he has been among those who have demonstrated the grape's potential.

Mr Schneider will continue to make wine from both areas. He and Mr Bieler are also working on a reusable-bottle project that will be tested this year in New York City. NYTIMES