In 2016, in the palpable heat of a New York City summer, Todd Cavallo and Crystal Cornish shed themselves of a collective 30 years of city living for a new life upstate—one where they’d operate their own farm and vineyard and produce their own wine. Today, the pair runs the four-hectare sustainable farm “experiment,” officially titled Wild Arc Farm, in Pine Bush, New York. Their grapes are now entering their second leaf (this is their second season of growth) but they still source grapes and some essential supplies from other producers (including the Josephine Porter Institute), always sticking to the standards they’ll hold themselves to when they begin producing their own wine: biodynamic, low-intervention and no sulfites added.
As such (and perhaps unsurprisingly) being new to the trade, the pair adopted habits and techniques other older properties would have never considered. They proudly forgo the chemicals (found in pesticide and moldicide) many winemakers consider essential to growing, maintaining and then converting grapes in a region that’s both wet and temperate. Wild Arc Farm also offers advice on how to further their organic and sustainable practices.
New York doesn’t necessarily garner the same allure or prestige as Napa, California, but the audience for excellent wine is there—especially so as New York persists in its tendency to foster niche food and beverage producers—and that audience is expectedly aware of the practices of their favorite producers.
While not all natural wines are distinguishable from those produced more commercially, there’s an unspoken responsibility, as a vintner (and, in this instance, as a farm-owner) to do right by the land—and hopefully the land will return the favor.
“[New York] is certainly more difficult than many better known regions,” Cavallo tells us. “The heavy rain and humidity through the summer bring intense disease pressure from mildew and rot. The cold winters can kill the buds for the following season, or outright kill the vines if it is too cold for too long, and late frosts in the spring that come after the vines have started budding can kill a full year’s crop—we also don’t have the resources and infrastructure of larger, more established growing regions, which makes it harder to source equipment and labor.”
While Wild Arc may not have the build-out or backing of a heritage producer from France or Italy, its most well-received release has been a reserved-for-Europe style that hadn’t caught on here—that was until the release of Wild Arc’s 2017 Piquette.
The low-ABV, “waste wine” is made using the leftover skins, seeds, stems and pulp (often referred to as pomace) that remains after production. This pomace (which can come from any combination of grapes) is added to water, carefully inspected for bacterial infections—they can be more common when water, which subsequently raises the concoction’s pH, is added—and left to fuse until unique flavors develop. As its being bottled, much like traditional Saisons or farmhouse beers, yeast, honey or another sugary substance is added to ignite a second fermentation; this round gives Piquette its carbonated, almost juice-like mouthfeel and some of the iteration’s more unexpected flavors—strawberry, pineapple or tart orange, for instance.
These bubbly wines have gained fans from other loyalties—beer drinkers find the effervescence familiar and the tartness reminiscent of sours and still wine drinkers find the fresh, juiciness of wines they love and then some. That being said, Wild Arc’s collection of still wines, the pre-cursors to their Piquettes, are undoubtedly unique, too—though considerably more rustic than the effervescent, spritz-like byproduct.
“We work with some hybrid grapes in addition to the vinifera that may be more familiar to wine drinkers,” Cavallo explains. “These grapes, with names like Marquette, Traminette, Noiret, and Cayuga, are lesser known than conventional wine grapes. Additionally, while many producers do things like add sugar to boost alcohol and de-acidify, to round out wines from cooler climates, we take the unconventional route of allowing the wines to be what they want to be, coming from this place and climate. We don’t add or remove anything, and we feel that this makes a better wine that is a truer expression of a place.”
Their loyalty to their land is paying off so far. Though they’re still a few years off from producing wines using their own grapes, inherent differences in terroir are surfacing.
“A colder, shorter growing season means that ripe grapes here make wines that fall into the 10-12% ABV range, rather than the higher ranges associated with California and most European wine regions,” Cavallo continues. “We also have more acidity for the same reason, which means the wines go great with food, which is how we like to enjoy wine—as part of a meal shared with friends or family.”
When it comes time to use their own grapes, the pair will do so with years of experience and the foundation to further their philosophy on winemaking—and that leaves plenty to be excited for.
“The agricultural history of the region lends itself to the kind of wine we make, which begins in the vineyard,” he concludes. “We are growing organically on our home vineyard, and helping to move other growers in that direction as well. There is a long history of wine-growing and organic food production in the region, and we are trying to show that you can successfully combine the two. Wine is a luxury product and there should be no reason to poison the land or its people in its production.”