Who’s Here: Roman Roth, Winemaker

If you stop by the Wolffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack on a Friday evening, you can enjoy a cheese or charcuterie plate with a glass of wine, hot jazz and—if you’re lucky—maybe you’ll get even more for the price of a drink, a chance to meet winemaker Roman Roth.

Roth and his expertise, brought to the winery from Europe 20 years ago by owner Christian Wolffer, might lend insight into the nuances of your drink, sort of like a painter describing his masterpieces at a festive art opening.

A big booster of Long Island and its surging potential as a class act in the wonderful world of wine, Roth believes that the soil that has loved potatoes is also a match made in heaven for the vine. Let Italy prize its pinots and Chiantis, let California carry on with its cabernets and chardonnays, and allow France to boast its Burgundies and Bordeaux—vive la différence! Just as beauties can be blond or brunette or redhead; flowers can be orchids or roses or lilies; and horses can be Thoroughbreds or Clydesdales or Arabians, the best of wines can be appreciated for all the reasons they are different from one another. [expand]

Wolffer is a boutique vineyard, and we try to be true to the region,” Roth said. “The wines are very distinctive. Compared to more commercially produced wines, they have less alcohol, are less sweet, show more minerality and have better acidity.” We talked with Roth  down in the Wolffer wine cellar, surrounded by hundreds of neatly lined up wooden barrels. There is a soothing orderliness about the cellar, which this week, despite its fresh-scrubbed spotlessness, had a kind of winter holiday fairy aroma from the recently-picked ice wine, which had then been sped over to Berkowski Ice to freeze.  Long Island wine is definitely coming into its own, Roth said, though it wasn’t long ago that “people thought that only French and California wines were good. We have done our little part in helping create the local movement.”

At Wolffer, you are guaranteed not only an offering of local-as-local-gets on the East End, but a sophisticated and serious wine experience. Serious, yes, Roth said, but not stuffy or intimidating. “We are classical, but we are alive, dynamic. Not boring.”

Roth said he learned early the maxim: “There is no good day without wine.” His father was a cooper in southwest Germany when metal barrels replaced the traditional oak. He became a wine dealer. Roth’s mother enjoyed a glass of sparkling wine each day.

The close-knit family enjoyed the best of life together, including music. “We had a family choir, and I joined a choir that traveled throughout Europe.” Though Roth said, “Wolffer Estate is my life,” he squeezes in weekend time to sing baritone with the choir at Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor.

The family loved music and wine, yet Roth said “they wanted me to be a banker.” With all due respect to his well-meaning parents, he showed his true admiration for them and went ahead with what he knew and loved best, and went to California to work at Saintsbury Estate, a winery known for its pinot noir and chardonnay wines.

Australia and its up-and-coming wine industry beckoned, and along the way, Roth went for his Master Winemaker and Cellar Master degrees from the College for Oenology and Viticulture in Weinsberg, Germany.

It was when he and his cousin were on a vacation tour of Universal Studios that his life took another exciting turn. While they were looking at “The A-Team” van, a young woman tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he would use her camera to snap a picture of her and her friend. He said sure, liking what he saw and then liking what he saw through the lens. The movie studio tour had a very happy ending with their eventual marriage. And Roth’s cousin who was with him married the friend. Roman’s wife is Dr. Dushy Roth, who works with Dr. Caroline Fierro at Anti-Aging & Family Wellness Group in Southampton. She and Roman have a 7-year-old daughter, Indira, who lives with them in Sag Harbor.

Roth has dedicated his career to Wolffer Estate Vineyard, but he has also been able to work on his own brand, The Grapes of Roth (a label that seemed like an appropriate pun, since the author of the novel, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, was local). A successful venture it has been—the Grapes of Roth was just nominated for American Winery of the Year by The Wine Enthusiast.

It has been an adventure full of artistry and achievement ever since. He is making his mark on the Long Island wine world. Earlier this year, he appeared on NBC’s “Today” show to discuss blending wines.

Also important for the last three years has been his role as chair of Harvest East End, a charity fundraiser presented by Food & Wine Magazine and organized by the Long Island Merlot Alliance and Long Island Wine Council. Proceeds of the event’s live auction benefitted three regional charities —East End Hospice, Group for the East End and the Peconic Land Trust.

Winner of Long Island’s Winemaker of the Year Award in 2003, Roth prizes it as affirmation of the fruit of his hard work, of his quest for further perfection, of his having to endure near-sleepless October and November harvest seasons “because everything is to find the ideal time to pick, the perfect moment. But if today is the special day, unfortunately, I can’t pick 50 acres in one day. This is why we make different wines and different styles, so we can capture the perfect moment for each wine.” Thus, they grow different varieties whose time to pick come at different times during the year.

Long Island wine wasn’t always fashionable. “In 1992, people didn’t even want to taste Long Island wines,” Roth said. “Now people make a beeline here.” And he said he believes the current popularity and reputation “is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Wolffer Estates is famous for having made rosé the Eliza Doolittle of wines on the East End. A magnum of his first rosé, the 2003 Noblesse Oblige, sits on display in the cellar with the soft blush befitting its rise from humble origins to nobility. “It used to be very unfashionable to drink rosé in the U.S. They were too sweet. But I came here in 1992 and I said to Christian, ‘We’re on a beach, we need a rosé.’”

Rosé, he explained, can be picked early in the season, an obvious asset for any cool growing region. Wolffer and Roth went on to produce a rosé that was drier, and it caught on. Now anyone who looks down his nose at the pink drink is obviously living in the Dark Ages. Wolffer now brings out about 10,000 cases of rosé each year, almost half of the total production of its 50 acres.

While rosé has its place on the beach and with many elegant foods, such as lobster, oysters and salmon, Wolffer also produces serious wines with serious prices as well. The Christian Cuvee Merlot, for example, currently sells for $100 a bottle.

Roth said Christian Wolffer decided to change the name of the vineyard from Sag Pond Vineyards to Wolffer Estates “once we were in all four-star New York City restaurants,” Daniel, Jean George, Lespinasse, and Chanterelle.

For the many East Enders who are evolving connoisseurs, Roth has advice. First, get the book Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. Travel to any wine region in the world and take a tour. “Taking a look out on the vineyard, you can see why a wine is better.” Join a tasting group. “And finally, don’t just buy a buy and drink it and expect to remember it. Buy three bottles of that wine and drink it on different occasions with friends. Discuss it.”

For the holidays, Roth recommends The Wolffer Estate sparkling wine Methode Champenoise and The Grapes of Roth Merlot.

Roth credits Christian Wolffer, of course, for his vision and support in making the vineyard a success, along with the rest of the team, including vineyard manager Richie Pisacano. “Together, we can push towards heights no one expected,” Roth said. Some years you have luck with the weather and exquisite grapes, and then there are years like 2011, with the wettest weather in recorded history, which Hurricane Irene didn’t help. “But it’s the tough seasons that bring the best out in us and, as a result, the crop is good,” he said. “Anyone can make wine in a good year. We still made good wine this year. There isn’t a single dog.”

Until the winery reopens in next year’s warmer weather, make it a point to stop by to bring on that warm and fuzzy glow that a great wine can lend. Look for Roth, if you are very lucky, he may sing a traditional European folk tune or Elvis hit. Thank him for for helping Long Island rise into the big league of wine regions.

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