Winemakers seem happiest when they’re engaged in more than one task—which makes them well suited to their job. After all, a winemaker assumes multiple roles in multiple locations—in the vineyard, the winery and, increasingly, on the road, assisting with sales and marketing. Just how varied is the profession? Here’s what happened the one “light” day I followed Mr. Olsen-Harbich around.
After our pause before the cases of wine, we repaired to his small office, a space cluttered with books and adjacent to the lab, where cellar master Marin Brennan was performing a chemical analysis of a rosé. Had Mr. Olsen-Harbich ever thought of making wine somewhere other than the North Fork of Long Island, perhaps in Napa? Never, he replied. Long Island is not only where he was born, he’s found it exciting to come of age with the wine region itself. “It’s frontier country,” he said. “The book hasn’t been written here.” Napa could never deliver another kind of excitement either: “It’s cold [here]. It rains. It’s humid. It’s not a slam dunk.”
I’ve heard similar things from many winemakers, the best of whom relish the challenges of bad weather and difficult circumstances, which prove their mettle in a way perfect growing conditions do not. As they like to say, a good vintage “makes itself.”
The eclectic nature of the job also drew Mr. Olsen-Harbich. “It’s all over the place,” he said. “It’s introspective, but it’s also off-the-charts physical.” It means moving and cleaning barrels; cleaning tanks and hoses (“Good wine requires a lot of water,” Mr. Olsen-Harbich joked); driving fork lifts weighted with bins of just-picked grapes; and repairing equipment. Bottling lines, in particular, break down a lot. “It’s almost like theater at harvest time, when everyone has to plug into certain roles,” he said. And though two interns are added during harvest, the winemaking staff consists of only three full-time employees, including Mr. Olsen-Harbich.
Bedell is a medium-size winery by North Fork standards, producing about 10,000 cases a year of reds, whites, rosés and sparking wines that cost $25 to $90 a bottle. Kip Bedell founded the winery in 1980 and, though he stayed on as an adviser, he sold it in 2000 to film executive Michael Lynne. Mr. Lynne added an art-filled tasting room, expanded the winery and renovated the farmhouse.
The day’s schedule included sampling possible blends of Musée, the top Bedell red, at a blending trial. A winemaker may test many combinations of finished wines over a period of time before deciding on a final blend. The individual wines can be produced from different grapes or the same grape vinified different ways (fermented in oak, stainless steel or some combination of both).
But before putting together these trials, Mr. Olsen-Harbich wanted to visit a part of the Gewürztraminer vineyard to see how well it was rebounding from last winter’s brutal cold and snow.
The walk to the vineyard was a bit chilly. The sun was out, but the winds were strong. Most of Bedell’s 30 acres surround the winery building, and the Gewürztraminer vineyard is not only the closest but the winery’s oldest, at 36 years of age. “This concerns me,” said Mr. Olsen-Harbich, pointing to vines that were lush with leaves but showed no signs of budding grapes. What could he do? “Sit tight and hope for the best.” He inspected several more spots and walked to another block. Bud break is slow on the North Fork, he noted.
Plastic cones protected the stick-like twigs of new vines. Mr. Olsen-Harbich had replanted this block of the vineyard with a new, superior Merlot clone. “Land is a luxury, and we need to be able to make the best possible wine. That sometimes means changing some things over,” he said.
Much of winemaking is trial and error, and because vines take several years to mature, it can be years before a decision is revealed as a success or a mistake. “I’d say it took 15 or 20 years before I truly grasped what was going on,” said Mr. Olsen-Harbich with a laugh. He knows a good winemaker must be humble. Nature can always upend the best-laid plan, lay waste to the hardest work.
We walked to the equipment shed, where vineyard manager Dave Thompson was adjusting a tractor. “Hey, where’s the fire?” Mr. Olsen-Harbich asked. The men laughed at this allusion to a recent incident in which, Mr. Olsen-Harbich explained, a winemaker at a nearby estate left his tractor running when he stepped into his house. When he returned a few minutes later, his tractor was ablaze. He quickly doused the flames. Apparently, a good winemaker also knows how to put out a fire.
“We’ve looked at the components separately several times throughout the year,” said Mr. Olsen-Harbich as we sat in a loft-like space above the tasting room. Through an interior window, we could see wine in barrels in the cellar. He explained the character of the wine he was trying to achieve: “Musée is a real classic-style red, with power and structure,” he said, raising his voice above a boisterous group of female customers below. It’s also the winery’s flagship wine, produced only in top vintages, and priced at $90, one of the most expensive wines on the North Fork. Mr. Olsen-Harbich consulted his sheet to check the percentages of the six wines. I remarked that he must have been a good math student. “Math? I was horrible at it. I took science, but that doesn’t serve you in the cellar.” The two subjects were tools, he said, but “you have to know what you are going to build and how to do it. We don’t rely on chemistry to make decisions.” Besides, he added with a laugh, “if we followed chemistry it would be very boring.”
He doesn’t undertake the creation of Musée lightly. “This is one of the most important things we do,” Mr. Olsen-Harbich said as we tasted the six options over and over until he asked the team to rank their two top choices. I put option three first. It seemed the most integrated and supple. Mr. Olsen-Harbich and Ms. Brennan preferred the same wine, a blend of Petit Verdot, Merlot and Malbec.
“I think we’ve narrowed it down,” said Mr. Olsen-Harbich. “Five percent of Malbec is good, and anywhere from 45% to 50% Petit Verdot.” It was close to 5 p.m., and there was cleaning to do, regulatory paperwork to complete and emails to send. Mr. Olsen-Harbich is on a number of committees and just helped launch the Long Island Latino Vintners Association.
That night, he would also meet with the tasting-room staff, many of whom had been hired for the summer, to familiarize them with wines they would be pouring for customers, key terminology such as “corked” and various vineyard practices, such as organic versus sustainable.
Mr. Olsen-Harbich’s day would end close to 7 p.m.—fairly typical of a slow day, he said. During harvest, it’s basically 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I asked how much longer he saw himself doing this. His answer was pretty much what every winemaker says: “As long as I can.”