Wild Vine - Creating natural wines locally,
despite the odds

By Samara Ferris

He clutches a trailing bunch of spring-green grapes, dangling from the black arm of the Cayuga grape vine, and frowns, “There was so much winter damage, and I’m not sure these new trunks are going to come through.” Doing things naturally has its difficulties, especially when the focus is growing grapes in the oft unforgiving Northeastern climate. Paul, vintner and proprietor of BashaKill Vineyards, located inside the 2000+ acres of the BashaKill Preserve in Wurtsboro, NY, is dedicated to his craft and the ethics of it, too. 

The desire to grow grapes and make wine was born from his Italian heritage and his dream of escaping his day-job. But, the desire to make, press, ferment, bottle, and even label the wine by hand and to grow the grapes as naturally as possible became a moral imperative after his young nephew was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Part of the methods the family used to save Dylan’s life was to begin to eat organically, to become acutely aware of health and wellness, to avoid chemicals whenever possible and to adhere to the healing power innate in foods and herbs, in positivity, in community. Dylan is now a happy and very healthy boy who has helped inspire the from-scratch creation of a vineyard that adheres to those very same ideals. 

The vines tangle themselves along wire stretched from one beam to another—all made of black locust wood for its resistance to rot, so that none of the posts would have to carry the chemicals that treated wood does. A small herd of shy sheep graze through the vineyard, munching on clover, Queen Anne’s Lace, and sweet leaves of grass, naturally keeping the weeds down and helping to clear more land for further vine endeavors. Paul brews beer, too, using NY-State-grown barley that is malted by hand at a local malting-house. The spent beer grain goes right back to feeding the sheep, especially in winter when viridescent food becomes scarce. With this logic, everything benefits another element in the system, and generally speaking, things tend to work in harmony, even in times of catastrophe: A few years ago, a neighbor’s dog snuck onto the property and killed two of the sheep. Not to let anything go to waste, Paul ate the sheep, which he zealously insists was some of the best meat he has ever tasted. The wool is sheared once a year and given to a woman who hand-spins the wool into yarn, uses natural dyes to color it, and then pays back the free wool in the form of knitted hats. 

But BashaKill Vineyards wants to take this holistic approach to farming and wines even further. This summer, using the organic, estate-grown Cayuga grape wine, Paul created a new kind of wine, perhaps a wine that could even be called a truly American wine, a prototype for something beyond the wine practices emulating their European counterparts. Over a glass of wine with friends who run Winterton Farm, an idea was born: infused wine! Wine that could meld with the natural flavors and benefits of another plant grown by hand, organically…locally. And so came the abstract concept for lavender wine, utilizing the more than 5 varieties of lavender that Winterton Farm grows. The experiment was carried out on a few gallons at a time, and then, as tastings resulted in an overwhelming outcry of support, 50 gallons were made and infused with the delicate spiciness of lavender that had been extracted using the almost-comical and humble abilities of two industrial-sized pressure-cookers. On the dreaminess of the scent of lavender wafting around as the cookers whizzed away atop the stove, Paul is quick to assure me that it was far from an idyllic experience, the scent so overpowering that it almost prevented him from sleep that night, each breath inundated with the intensified fragrance of over 40 bundles of lavender. The perfumed struggle proved worthwhile as all 50 gallons of organic lavender wine sold out in less than 60 days, proving that the demand for unique products, produced ethically and grown organically, is high. 

Elated from the response to the lavender wine, Paul has since delved into fermenting his own Kombucha, an ancient Chinese-turned Russian drink of fermented tea loaded with flavor and probiotics, which he sells on tap every weekend, when crowds gather to listen to live music and enjoy the view of the BashaKill marsh. 

There’s a big dilemma in the natural wine world, Paul tells me. A winery can make great wine, and yet that is only half the battle. The rest of the battle is with the very thing that he helps to protect: nature. Unless pasteurized, which would be suicide for a great wine, a wine will naturally age in a bottle; not a problem so much with red wines, whose tannins help prevent the wine from producing ascetic acid, the acidifying agent present in vinegar. White wines, however, lacking the natural tannins in their grape skins, and with their higher sugar content, are more susceptible to spoilage, rendering them a near-impossible product for aging and resale without the use of sulfites. But ah, sulfites! The great divider in the world of wine! Purists argue against the use of sulfites, insisting that it interferes with the true character of the wine. Wineries, among others, often push back against this ideal, attesting to the mercurial nature of wine, maintaining that sulfites help wine, especially white, to exist with some stability, to be kept room-temperature at a wine shop where customers may buy a bottle, take it home, and drink it at leisure. Without sulfites, this would not be possible, as the white wine would have to be kept in a low-light, temperature-controlled environment to prevent spoilage, and the customer would be required to adhere to the same practices in order to enjoy the wine at its intended best. “Even the Romans burned sulfur candles into their barrels to protect the wine,” Paul, his dark eyes focused upon my notebook, assures me. He shares with me an anecdotal story: “A wine judge once told me,” he says, offering me another glass of his Cabernet Franc, an award-winning red with the depth of any European equivalent, “ ‘putting no sulfites in your wine is like driving a Ferrari in New York City without any insurance,’ ” and it is clear that though this has been a true experience in his own wine-making, he hopes to one day avoid the use of sulfites all together by tapping into one of the best—if least sexy—methods of keeping a wine stable without using sulfites: kegs. Today, he sterile filters many of his wines and kegs them to provide them a safe place to exist without any air contact, thus reducing the possibility of spoilage. This, he says, would render sulfites nonessential, allowing the wine to be the pure product of grapes and natural fermentation.

As the music ceases behind us and the tables of families and friends begin to dismantle, wandering back to their cars parked along the rows of organic Cayuga grapes, now shielded beneath a vest of white netting to protect them from the ravenous birds, this winery— before an amalgamation of playfulness and noise, music, laughter, and clanking glasses—now becomes a quiet retreat with the sounds of crickets and cicadas and the trajectories of barn swallows curving in at every angle of the wooden overhang. The fog begins its daily rise from the wetlands of the marsh, covering each glaucous orb with its warmth, a factor, Paul says, that allows him to grow grapes in this particular spot that would otherwise have great difficulty growing in the New York climate. The fog, he says, is also what helps protect the grapes in the famed wine-growing region of the Finger Lakes. 

The sheep come marching down from their hidden abode in the forest as Paul’s many dogs roam the vines, hunting for voles. I am reminded of the reality of setting a dream into action, of the constant fight for and against nature, of the exigent demand of life that insists on change. Here, pocketed in a little furrow of nature, of warm fog, among the pristine water and lands of this place, is change: is growth. Is invention. Is the hope of health combined with being a steward of the land, with the necessity of inventing something new, something profound, something altogether old and new, better and cleaner, refined and…wild.