Miguel Martin of Palmer Vineyards
North Fork Celebrities is an ongoing series of interviews introducing North-Forks readers to the people who make their wine, make their beer, and make their food.
Often the winemakers at a winery may seem like the Wizard of Oz: the magician behind the curtain, orchestrating but not to be seen. Sometimes, you can find Miguel Martin lending a hand in the tasting room. For those fortunate enough, at those moments, to ask questions about the wine they are tasting, they are treated to a description of the wine by the person responsible for making it, and his joy and passion for what goes into the bottle comes out.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Martin and asking him a few questions about his passions. Following is an excerpt of that interview.
“…Wineries bring so much beauty. There is no ugly wine region in the whole world…That’s what wine brings to an area. It brings passionate people…”
What was your first experience with wine that made you see it as something more than just a beverage?
I’m originally from Spain and my father always had a few barrels of wine in the basement. He always had wine: one glass for lunch and one for dinner, always white and always with food. I remember Saturdays and Sundays spending a couple of hours with him in the basement washing barrels and moving them around. One of the first things my mom would do when she set the table was to put out a glass and a bottle of wine for my father. On this day, my dad asked my mother for another glass for wine, and that glass was for me. I was maybe fifteen or sixteen. My dad poured me a tiny bit, he poured himself more, and that motivated me to enjoy it and see how much my dad was enjoying and appreciating the wine. It became almost a hobby to pay more attention to what my dad was doing. I was so interested in wine that I went to a university in Spain to be an agricultural engineer. I got my degree and moved to the US and went to UC Davis to get my masters in Oenology and Viticulture.
What is your favorite part of being a winemaker and of the winemaking process?
It’s really difficult to choose just one. I’ve been making wine for twenty-seven years and I love every moment of it. It’s something I don’t get tired of, something that I love and have passion. Some days you work until five in the morning and come back at eight o’clock with only one or two hours of sleep, but you’re so excited because you only have one chance each year. It’s not like making beer – and there’s nothing wrong with beer – but you can make beer all year round, you can have dry ingredients, and if the batch doesn’t go the way you want, you throw it away and start over ten minutes later. Harvest is just one chance a year, and Mother Nature dictates the quality of your wines and your schedule, when you get to pick and when you get to work. I’ve worked in different places: California, Australia, Chile, Spain, and Long Island is by far the most challenging place. That’s a beautiful thing, too, because every year is different and you don’t get stuck making the same wines every year.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a winemaker?
Mother Nature is the biggest challenge. As a winemaker, you control what kinds of barrels we use, what kind of yeast, how to manipulate and choose the grapes, all to release the best wines from the winery in, but from the winery out, we are depending on Mother Nature for what kind of weather we get: if you get half an inch or three inches of rain. That is something that is sometimes scary on Long Island: you can go from a great year to a disaster in a couple of hours. It’s out of your hands.
What is your favorite wine or variety?
About seven years ago there was a block in the vineyard that wasn’t producing well, the quality was no good. We decided to rip out that acre of grapes. The owner of the winery asked, now that we ripped out the grapes, what do we plant? Well, I don’t want to plant more Chardonnay or Merlot, so why don’t we plant something more unique that nobody here has, let it grow and see what happens. It’s just one acre, not twenty, so we can gamble. So we plant one acre of Albariño. Like I said, I’m from Spain, and one of my first jobs out of university was in Galicia, and we worked with Albariño and I fell in love with that grape. It’s really aromatic, beautiful salinity, and it’s a grape that loves to be in contact with the water. We planted them half a mile from the water, so it makes a wine that has a maritime influence. Three feet under the soil is pure sand beach, so you have all this influence on the grape translating to the wine. You can almost taste the salinity, the crushed seashell. I’m really excited about that grape.
What are your plans with that grape?
I bottle one-hundred percent Albariño. This is our third vintage and it’s been accepted pretty well. Another winery has planted Albariño – Bedell. It’s a grape that will do well here because our weather is so similar to Galicia. We don’t have the same landscape, Galicia is all hills, here is pretty flat, but we have similar weather patterns. It’s a good grape with a thick skin so they handle the adversities of wet, dry, back and forth. Some grapes don’t handle that. Pinot Blanc, for example, has a very thin skin so the minute that there’s more humidity than normal, you have a problem. Albariño is just a grape that planted very well and I’m very happy with it.
What should we be expecting from you in the coming year – what are you excited about?
Probably some exciting red wines. I planted one Syrah about four years ago and am really excited. We just released it for wine club members. I feel the reds are going to be exciting. We already know the whites are doing well in the region, but I think the reds have really great potential to be done well. I love the Cabernet Franc in this region. When you have something that grows well, it gives back. I’d love to plant Zinfandel, but is it going to grow well here? Not really. I think there are some great reds that grow well here besides Merlot.
When you’re not making wine, how do you have fun on the North Fork?
I eat. I like to say I spend my free time blinking and breathing. I have three kids and they keep me busy, and I love to spend time with them and we love to explore. We are the kind of family who put the kayak on the truck and see what we can find in the lake. That’s one of my favorite things. Also to taste wines and enjoy the beautiful restaurants that we have here. North Fork and South Fork, I think we have amazing restaurants and talented chefs. They fell in love with the local ingredients as much as the winemakers fell in love with the grapes from here. They very proudly use the local ingredients. You hear so much “farm to table” that it becomes a saying, but here it’s true. We have beautiful shellfish, ducks, meats, and vegetables. It’s very tiny out here, but we have so much. You can almost get fresh produce all year round. You start the early spring with asparagus all the way into the winter with squash. The pumpkins that you can make soup from. So, I love to explore and support the local farmers. That’s my hobby. At home I also have some chickens and a vegetable garden.
Other than your own wine, which is your favorite North Fork winery/winemaker?
I won’t name myself! I definitely give a lot of credit to – I won’t name one – but I give credit to the winemakers who came twenty-five, thirty years ago to Long Island, to this region. They are people who had good years, bad years, and stuck it out because they believed in this region and they made amazing wines. This region is new. I mean, there’s new and old. This region is forty years old, which is a good chunk of years, but compare that with Italy, Spain, or France, and we’re still in diapers. I think about all those winemakers and vineyard managers and owners who through good years and bad, through hurricanes and disasters and everything in between, they really thought this region was worth it, that if last year was bad, next year is going to be better. I came here twenty-five years ago and worked at the winery that is now Duck Walk in Watermill. I was a winemaker there before I went to UC Davis. So, I went from Spain to New York to California. I was there for a couple of years and really fell in love with this region. It was really like a diamond in the rough, and I’m so happy that I came back twenty-five years later and found amazing wines and more wineries than ever. The people really became fans of their own wines, which is really unique. I’m very fortunate to work in this winery. Bob Palmer, who died two years ago, he was a super nice person and one of the first winery owners planting grapes here and he believed in this region. He understood the cost to get this started and didn’t hesitate to write a check to make sure we had what we needed to make good wine. He could immediately make more money by planting tomatoes or sod, but he saw that this was different. I can only thank those winemakers and vineyard managers and owners because it’s thanks to them that we’re here. Think about if there were no wineries now: there would be golf courses and condominiums. Nothing wrong with a golf course, but wineries bring so much beauty. There is no ugly wine region in the whole world. It doesn’t matter where it is, it can be the most desolate place on earth, if there’s a wine region there you’ll also find good restaurants, the people are nice, there’s good hospitality. That’s what wine brings to an area. It brings passionate people and the wineries feed the restaurants and the restaurants feed the wineries.
If you weren’t making wine, what would you want to be doing?
I think I would probably be either a farmer or a chef. Those are probably my two, because I love to eat and explore foods. You asked before what my favorite pastime is and I like to take my kids and go explore a place where they have Indian spices or make their own tortillas, making them unique. My kids are like, aww, come on, where are we going, could you give us a break, can’t we just have a steak? We’ve been around the world, California, Australia, Chili, so they know there is a reward after all the pain that comes from driving for three hours to Brooklyn just to go to a place that make their own tortillas, because after all that they get to eat that tortilla. We go to farmers markets, so they’re used to those places. In theory winemaking is farming, too. There’s no difference between growing grapes and growing apples or pears. It’s all farming. I need to do something touching food and wine. I can’t wait for the spring so I can start pulling weeds out of my vegetable garden.
What do you want to see happen to the North Fork wine industry over the coming decade?
The North Fork wines and Long Island wines in general don’t get enough attention from the media: Wine Spectator or Food and Wine. For whatever reason they think our wines are not of real quality. They want the label that brings attention which I think is wrong. On the other hand I’m thinking that we don’t want to become a tourist trap, we don’t want people to come here because – I think it’s a good thing that we’re so hidden because only food and wine people want to come and enjoy it. It hasn’t been discovered by the masses – do we want to get all the attention some regions get or should we be an explored area that lets people discover a region by themselves, not because they read about it in some paper. I think it’s a tough balance. We want recognition, but Sound Avenue can only hold so many people. I don’t think our wines get the attention they deserve. I have my wines in restaurants in New York City, but because the chefs buy it or someone there likes my wines. Many times I’m told, I didn’t know you make an Albariño or how did you make this Merlot, your Chardonnay is really good. You are discovering the wines for yourself, not because so-and-so recommended the wine in the paper. The expression you get in people’s eyes is the surprise of discovery: you found a secret no one else knows about. As a chef or restaurant owner you want that recognition, you are okay with lines and waiting lists, or you have to be willing to have the sacrifice that maybe people will see a good product and good food and everyone can pay attention to the customer and talk about the ingredients. I guess I want the region to receive the recognition it deserves and still stay a special secret.