Where’s Aimée?: Interviewing Winemaker Russell Hearn | Lieb Cellars Skip to Content

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Where’s Aimée?: Interviewing Winemaker Russell Hearn

November 23, 2021

This time of year finds us reflecting on that which we are grateful, and I am especially grateful for our winemaker Russell Hearn.

(The following interview has been edited for clarity, brevity, and the occasional technical difficulty.)

Aimée Lasseigne New: You are very well-traveled and have worked in California, Australia, Virginia, Burgundy, and New Zealand.  Am I missing any other places besides the North Fork?

Russell Hearn: Nope, that’s it.

Aimée Lasseigne New: Nope? Okay.

Russell Hearn: That’s enough.

Aimée Lasseigne New: (Laughs).  That’s right!  So what IS it about the North Fork of Long Island that makes it an excellent place to make wine?

Russell Hearn: I enjoy cool climate wines as a consumer, and I’ve spent most of my career in cool climates also, so when we were looking on the east coast, my wife Sue and I, we definitely wanted to stay on the east coast in a cool region, and we thought that the North Fork had really the best of the many, many worlds with respect to the maritime climate, obviously that moderates our region, the well-drained soils that allow multiple crops, especially grapevines, to grow well in this area, and from a personal standpoint, it’s also nice to have some other criteria that fit your lifestyle.  A lot of wine regions are pretty remote.  The North Fork definitely has a lot of benefits with the water and with proximity to the city and a number of other things, but the well-drained soils and maritime influences really makes a MAJOR difference.  We’re a very northern region and yet we’re pretty moderated in comparison to similar latitudes especially on the east coast.  As soon as you move away from the ocean, obviously the winter becomes a major, major issue.

ALN: Lieb Cellars was established in 1992 and you’ve been making wine since the very beginning.  I was wondering if you could tell us how the style of Lieb Cellars’ wines has evolved.

RH: I think the whites actually haven’t, or if they have, they’ve moderated or evolved a lot less so than maybe our reds.  I think from day one I sort of said to Mark and Kathy (the original owners of Lieb) that I think Pinot Blanc should be clean, crisp, bright, tank fermented, non-ML. And to a certain extent, even say, the barrel fermented Chardonnay not as heavy on the barrels, to kind of show some nice fruit expression.  And I think almost 30 years ago now, the American consumer wasn’t necessarily there, whereas now the marketplace has definitely moved more and more towards brighter, fresher more fruit-expressive wines. That style of winemaking were not necessarily in the US when we first started, so I think patience and/or eventually we found a customer base that really appreciated that style versus trying to change it to be very–at that time, you know, more was more.  California was all heavy oaking and higher alcohol and so from a domestic world the benchmark, if you will, was California, and Long Island was never going to benefit from trying to emulate California.  I think from a red wine standpoint, I’ve always tried to focus on fruit expressive wines.  In a cool climate we’re again not looking for big, big wines.  We’re looking for elegant and nicely structured wines that are much more food friendly.  I think I was probably aging the wines a little longer than I do now in oak in the 90’s. I think again that was probably a newness to the region.  Bordeaux was maybe the region that I looked at to try to emulate a little bit.  I think as the 90’s wore on I realized that maybe a little less oak would be more desirable, both from a timing standpoint, but also a type of oak, so we’ve evolved over the years to being almost exclusively Hungarian oak, much tighter grained wood that imparts flavor, but imparts it in a much slower manner so it doesn’t overwhelm some of our fruit nuances.

ALN: You have worked alongside our Vineyard Foreman Ildo Vasquez for many years.  So I’m curious what makes you such a great team?  How do you complement each other’s work?

RH:  He’s a very passionate farmer.  He wants to bring in the highest quality crop as often as possible.  So that’s always the first thing…if we’re both trying to do the right thing to grow the highest quality fruit, which hence makes us high quality wine, it’s easy. He’s never trying to do the shortcut.  He’s always trying to do the correct techniques.  I think he’s appreciated our interaction greatly over the years.  I’ve sort of tried to explain why we’re doing things.  There’s a really big difference between growing grapes and growing wine.  And a lot of the things that are designed to grow better wine are a lot more work at a time of year when they’re working pretty hard anyway.  Ildo’s always gravitated towards understanding what makes better wine and why it’s desirable that way so I think that we’ve had a very good and easy relationship over the 20+ years because of that willingness to try to do the best thing possible.

ALN: I’m curious how you got interested in wine.  More importantly I think, is the fact that you’re known for having a passion for northern Italian varieties.  This rumor is correct, right?

RH: Yep.

ALN: Okay.  So how did that come to be and did you ever imagine that you’d be working with those grapes on the North Fork?

RH: So I guess a large percentage of people think about Australia as being a hot climate region in general.  Western Australia, where I grew up, is one of the cooler regions in Australia.  Obviously Tasmania is the coolest, but the southwest corner of western Australia has some of the coolest sections of viticulture in Australia so the styles of wines that I grew up with were, I call it less mainstream Australian style.  And I DID grow up drinking some Bordelaise wines.  I did grow up drinking Italian varieties that were imported into W.A. as well.  Again because the Western Australia’s sort of style of production was heading that way. As enjoyable as the big McLaren Vales and the Barossa Valley Shirazes are in South Australia, stylistically they’re not as close to Western Australian wines.  My mother was in the industry.  She worked for the second largest winery in Western Australia in marketing.  I was always around wine growing up, so it wasn’t this sort of oddball idea to get into this industry, and I’m very glad I did.  I’ve enjoyed traveling a lot over the years.  I thoroughly enjoyed traveling through Europe, especially Italy.  I’ve been to Italy many, many times, and that sort of turned me on to Italian wines more and more.  And obviously in the US, we’re afforded the benefit of so much of the world of wine being imported into the US, and especially in the NY market, that you can find pretty well any wine that you want from anywhere in the world.  The Alto Adige region in Italy, both from a white standpoint and a red standpoint, is one of my favorites.  It’s one of the most food friendly regions.  When it comes to wine, the alcohol is a little lighter.  So I was most surprised when I first heard of three or four northern Italian varieties being planted out here. Southold Farm and Cellars made two vintages at Premium Wine Group, so I had a firsthand look at these varieties, so when that vineyard sold and became available to be leased it was obvious to try to grab it.  I’ve enjoyed working with that vineyard now for two full years leasing it, managing it, and one in three years purchasing it.  It’s planted to Teroldego, Lagrein, Syrah, and Golden Muscatel.  All four ripen pretty early in the season so they’re desirable for our region.  I think they provide different fruit expressions that are very nice by themselves as well as blended, and they also complement our other reds in our blends as well, so I think there’s a lot to be said about those varieties because of their suitable nature to our region.  I happen to like Petit Verdot, for argument’s sake, as a Bordelaise variety, but one of its negatives is it’s such a late ripening variety, that it won’t grow every year.  It won’t ripen fully every year where I do see Lagrein and Teroldego fully ripening every year.

ALN: Yes, when we were in the vineyards the other day with Ildo he made a joke that Petit Verdot ripens in December.  He was pulling our leg, but it was really cute.

RH: We picked it this year on November 10th so that’s pretty late.  That doesn’t happen often, as a lot of years we’re in the 40’s by then.  This year we were in the mid to high 60’s on that day.  It was wonderful.

ALN: Wow!  What a picking day!

ALN: In addition to being Certified Sustainable we are taking extra steps in protecting the environment such as having a BioGill.  Would you please explain it in further detail?  I understand that it’s the first one owned in the US by a winery.  What does it do?  What is its role in our future?

(Unfortunately the connection got choppy so I am missing Russell’s extensive explanation of our well-draining soil and more.)

RH: Because of the humidity we’re not able to do organic, but it’s as close to organic as you can possibly get.  It’s the same thing with waste water.  Wineries and breweries use a large amount of water for washing and cleaning. I used to joke that winemaking is 70% sanitation, 20% perspiration doing the sanitation, 9%  inspiration, and 1% degustation. So we’re cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.  So as a result you do generate a fair bit of wastewater, and so we used to have the standard settling tanks and leaching pools setup.  As Premium grew and grew it became obvious that we were starting to reach our maximum capacity of that, so as opposed to installing just a larger settling/leaching pool field, we added a BioGill prior to that, and BioGill, it’s been in the cosmetics industry for several decades.  It’s a combination of technologies from baffles to trying to separate some of the solids out of the liquids and then eventually we have these two sections to the BioGill.  So once some of the gross solids have been eliminated by baffles and little waterfalls inside it, the top section of the BioGill is made up of hundreds of sheets that microorganisms are growing on, and so the water is then sprinkled over these sheets, and as it trickles down the bacteria break down the solids out of the water and separate them so the solids eventually are separated into a sludge tank, and relatively clean, I’ll call it graywater, goes into our settling tanks and leaching fields.  So we’re putting back into our leaching fields very clean water.  We have the possibility at some stage in the future of putting an ultra-filtration system downstream from the BioGill before the leaching fields, and when and if we do that, we can reuse that same water.  With an ultra-filtration it’s actually potable.  We’ll use it for production as opposed to drinking water, but it can be used for drinking water, so it’s a technology that I think is going to come more and more into the US.  The company’s originally from Australia.  They see that the US beverage industry is a pretty large market definitely from a brewery standpoint.  Think about all the breweries, let’s say in Brooklyn, or in municipalities.  They’re using a huge amount of water and putting it all back into the wastewater system, so to try to remove the solids, the BioGill is the way to go.  What we’re also trying to do is pump the sludge and take it to a local duck farm, Corwin’s duck farm, and they’re able to turn it into methane and break it down even further to create electricity, and then the byproduct is eventually dry powder that you can spread back out into the field.

ALN: That’s great!  Thank you for that.

ALN: Our Lieb Cellars Estate Chardonnay is influenced by French oak, but most other wines in the Lieb line are made using Hungarian oak.  You already addressed this earlier, but please describe what makes you such a fan.  Why Hungarian?  I know that you touched on it a little bit just now, but if there’s any other explanation I’m all ears.

RH:   I guess maybe why French for Chardonnay and why Hungarian for red is maybe the question as well.  From a barrel fermented standpoint obviously the holy grail is Burgundy, and so I think there’s a profile when it comes to high quality barrel fermented Chardonnays. Obviously you want fruit expression, you want the creaminess that comes from the lees extraction from spending extended periods of time on the yeast lees and stirring the lees, and you want the impression of some barrel influence as well.  I think the vanilla/vanillin character that comes from French oak lends itself very very nicely to Chardonnay. Now we move to reds.  I want less of that. I want a smaller percentage of vanilla coming into the wine as well as maybe some of the smokiness and nuances that come from the barrel charring.  Hungarian oak is the same tree that’s growing in France.  It’s just growing in a more continental area so hence it grows slower so the growth rings are tighter together.  The tighter the grain, the less oxygen and flavor that’s imparted into the wine.  So for Chardonnay since it spends a much shorter period of time in the barrel, and you do want that influence, French works beautifully.  With reds, since you do spend a longer period of time in the barrel I don’t want as much extraction or I want slower extraction.  Hungarian oak gives you that.

ALN: Your mother was in the wine biz, your wife, daughters, and son-in-law are in the wine biz too.  I just think that it must be delightful to be able to have intricate family discussions on technical topics.  I’m a little jealous here.  But what do you enjoy doing to “unplug” since you’re surrounded by this industry?  When you’re not making wine you can be found doing what?

RH:  If you would have asked me twenty, thirty years ago if that would have happened I would have said there’s no chance.  So it has been a bit of a revelation and an enjoyable thing that they all gravitated towards this industry.  Wonderful.  When we unplug we definitely do a lot of outdoor stuff; we go hiking and I’m a pretty avid sailor, very avid skier.  We try to travel as much as possible, of course it’s been harder recently with COVID, but we prefer more outdoor related activities.  Most of us also enjoy, some, if not all of those activities as well so it’s fun to share that. We’re definitely outdoors as much as possible, and the North Fork provides that.  You’ve got beautiful protected water, and so I sail and race sailing as often as possible.  During the season that’s a couple times a week.  Skiing, we try to get away and ski as much as possible.  It’s a major winter activity for us.  It could be snow-shoeing.  It could be, you know, just hiking outside as well.  I’m an outdoor guy.  I suppose that originally comes from Australia.

ALN: I would like to pull back the curtain a little more on your process if you don’t mind.  Please tell us about your yeast recruitments.  What do you look for in cultured yeast to best suit the needs of Lieb Cellars wines?  Explain your criteria and process.  What do you seek to find?  Why bother?  Wouldn’t it just be easier to do nothing?  Why do you believe this process is worth putting in the extra effort instead of just relying on ambient yeast?

RH: As a professional winemaker I view my first priority is to produce wines without flaws, technically correct wines.  So I think that’s maybe the first criteria, and then hopefully not way beyond that producing wines that are enjoyable, flavorful, have some substance and nuance behind them. To get to produce wines that have similarity or repeatability , you have to be fully in control of as many aspects as possible in winemaking.  So we spend so much time out in the vineyard pruning a certain way, tucking shoots up, getting as vertical a canopy as possible, taking leaves off of the fruit zone, doing all of these techniques to grow the highest quality fruit possible, and I think as soon as it gets into the winery you need to be doing the same things.  I’m looking for yeast strains, and I’m constantly evolving with my selection of yeast strains as well, although it’s become a little bit less movement over the years, because I think I’ve just sort of gotten to a certain selection of yeasts by variety that I think work well.  That’s not to say that I don’t experiment with other ones every year as well, and I’m looking for attributes that lend nicely toward each of the varieties.  So in the case of Sauvignon Blanc there’s a couple of yeast strains that I think are very very expressive.  There’s one that I’ve been using for several years now called “Sauvy”.  It’s analytically proven to show that it develops and releases more of the gooseberry tropical characteristics from the fermentation which is highly suitable and desirable with Sauvignon Blanc.  Same goes with Chardonnay.  And with reds we use a selection of yeasts that either enhance some of the darker fruit characteristics, or one yeast strain that I use creates more glycerol during the fermentation.  Glycerol has sort of this– not oily taste, but an oily texture to it, so it gives you a bit more of a rich mouth-feel to the wine, this isolate yeast from the Rioja area in Spain.  I work with a selection of yeasts depending on the variety that best express that variety, and to do that in a repeatable manner.  I think that we’ve had some vertical tastings of Lieb reds over the years, and there’s a similarity running through the Merlots, or there’s a similarity running through the Cabernet Francs, and you’ve got vintage variations, and that’s always going to happen, but it’s my goal to try to minimize the lows and maximize the highs as much as possible when it comes to vintage variation.  But I think to me it’s very passionate, very important to produce a wine that has a similar thread to it over the years.  I do that from a wine consuming standpoint. When I go back I have a pretty large cellar at home, different selections from different parts of the world, but I buy from multiple producers that I feel very, very comfortable with just picking up the bottles, ordering six bottles, nine bottles without needing to go to a tasting because their style is something that I’ve appreciated over the years, and so I gravitate towards that as well.  Not to do that is a choice, and you know it is a part of our industry.  It’s just, from my liking, I’m trying to reduce the variations from year to year as much as possible, so people can feel very comfortable saying, “I like Lieb wines.  I’m going to buy that.” versus let me taste it first and see if I like it.  I think there are certain wineries around the world that they are known for their Merlot, or they’re known for their Cabernet Sauvignon, or maybe they’re known for their Chardonnay, but they also produce a Sauvignon Blanc or a Viognier or something else and they’re not as well appreciated, and I think what we’ve tried to do over the years is to make a small selection of wines that all show well.

ALN: So speaking more about this large cellar that you have, before I joined #TeamLieb I had read a few articles on you in which you spoke disparagingly about Chardonnay.  I found it really surprising and humorous since quite often our Chardonnays, both for Lieb Cellars and for Bridge Lane, continually win awards in various competitions despite this fact.  Have your opinions changed since those articles came out, and if not, why the hate?

RH: I have probably close to 1,000 bottles in my cellar at my home.  I have one bottle of Chardonnay.

(Unfortunately the sound went out here and got choppy.)

I will and do drink tank fermented Chardonnay on occasion, but the goal of the barrel fermented Chardonnay is to be BIG, and FULL, and RICH, and LUSH, and if I want big and full and rich, I’m going to drink a red wine.  It’s just sort of something that– doesn’t hit.  And preference for oak, I use oak very heavily when it comes to– well exclusively when it comes to red wine for sure, but our red wines do not taste oaky.  Just that heaviness of oak is a little tiring to my palate.  So I still don’t drink Chardonnay.  (Chuckles.)

ALN:  (Chuckles.) Thank you for your honesty.

RH:  But I DO think I make a pretty good one.

ALN:  YES!  You don’t do anything halfway!

(Recording breaks up again.)

RH: When I go to trade tastings, that’s the first wine that I go to try.  I’ll go around and try a dozen Chardonnays from different parts of the world just to keep my palate fresh.

ALN: I know this pest has been in the news lately, the Spotted Lanternfly, and I was wondering if we had any plans for when it arrives.

RH: It’s an invasive species that is causing some major and impactful damage in the northeast, mid-Atlantic states.  Things spread so easily because of transportation and just movement.  It has its concerns because of that.  We are Long Island, we are separated from the city, but there’s still a huge amount of freight that moves and people that move around.  Its host tree does not really live on Long Island so that’s a major positive for us.  We don’t have the easy environment for it to live if it was to migrate here.  That isn’t the case in Pennsylvania and some parts of the mid-Atlantic that are having some larger and larger issues.  There’s not a lot you can do unfortunately.  In Australia, for instance, agricultural equipment cannot move from region to region, so if you’re moving anything in different zones within Australia– this isn’t just recently, this has been the case for 40 years, you’ll go through wash stations and decontamination stations, if you will, for the tires and the undercarriage.  That’s never going to happen in the US.  I just can’t see how it would be possible to do that anyway with the quantity of roads and movement of people.  It’s something that we’re probably going to have to deal with to a certain extent in the future.  The good news is again, the host environment trees that they live in typically aren’t here.  So I’d like to think that we’re going to be impacted less than some of the other parts of the northeast are.

ALN:  Here’s hoping.  Thank you.

ALN: If you could magically have ten more acres of mature vines ready for winemaking what would it be and why?

RH: You know the obvious need for us is Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a variety that continues to grow better and better on the island.  I’ve been watching it for many decades, and especially for the last ten years the quality of Sauvignon Blanc is going up more and more, and it’s going to continue to increase obviously because of vine maturity.  That’s obviously the first one.  I don’t know about TEN acres, but if I was to plant another variety I’d plant Tannat.  I think Tannat has potential that we as a region should look at, and it’s the most widely planted, most successful, highest quality grape in Uruguay, and Uruguay is east coast South America.  This is obviously east coast North America so there’s similarities there…some are rainfall, humidity.  I would like to plant some of that in the future.  Would I want ten acres immediately?  I don’t know.  It wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but the Sauvignon Blanc wouldn’t be a problem at all.  It would be a strong positive.

ALN: And for our last question today, there was a Pharaoh who was found with a peppercorn in each nostril.  What would you want to smell for all eternity?

RH: First of all, my plan is to be cremated so I won’t necessarily…

ALN: Ah!  What would you want in your jar?

RH: Exactly!  In my jar, definitely a few eucalyptus leaves.

ALN: Ah haha!  I love it!  Okay, well I know that you are an extremely busy person.  I really appreciate your taking the time with us today and I look forward to sharing this with your fans on the Lieb Blog.

RH: Great Aimée.  As always, good to speak with you.

Thanks for reading!

Salud,

Aimée Lasseigne New

NYC Brand Ambassador

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