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Profile: Roman Roth of Wolffer Estate Vineyards

Originally Posted: July 05, 2007

Lenn Thompson

What were you doing when you turned 16? If you're like me, you were probably getting your drivers license, going to high school and begging your parents for your first car.

Roman Roth, the well-regarded winemaker at Wolffer Estate Vineyards in Sagaponack, was a little different. He was starting his winemaking career. But, it was a natural thing for the German-born Roth.

"I was 16. My father was a cooper and a winemaker before starting a wine and beer merchant business. As a result, both of my parents were wine lovers and collectors. Wine always played a special part in any occasion. I was intrigued by the winemaking process and all the different (wine) regions in the world. The creative aspect and the opportunity to travel ultimately made me stay in the business," Roth said.

And travel he has. After his initial three-year apprenticeship at the Kaiserstuhl Wine Cooperative in Oberrotweil, Roth left Germany for the United States in the summer 1986. He worked briefly at Saintsbury Estate, a respected winery in Carneros, California known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay before heading "down under" to work at an Australian winery you've probably heard of, Rosemount Estate.

After learning from and being influenced by Philip Shaw at Rosemount and Bob Cartwright of Leeuwin Estate (also in Australia), he returned to Germany to become one of the winemakers at Winzerkeller Wiesloch in Baden while pursuing his Master Winemaker and Cellar Master degree from the College of Oenology and Viticulture in Weinsberg.

In 1992, his degree earned, Roth made another move back to the United States.

Entrepreneur Christian Wolffer, looking to start his own winery on Long Island's East End, approached Roth and offered him the opportunity of a lifetime.

"He told me 'You can buy whatever you need and do whatever you want. Just make sure you make the best wine possible'," Roth remembers. When asked what has kept him here, Roth answered "Overall, what has kept me here is the great challenge to create something from scratch and the realization that we have great terroir. We've been able to build a great team, a great winery, and a consistent high quality that is the foundation of our success."

Roth believes "Long Island is the best growing region on the East Coast," and describes his own winemaking style as "Grapes and wine need to be treated with respect. One has to be realistic about what one is trying to achieve. I want to make balanced wines that can make a statement. Ultimately, I always want to push quality levels to new heights."

In his time at Wolffer Estate, Roth has done just that, crafting some of the best wines this side of California.

Roth has also served as mentor to many young winemakers. Several of his former assistant winemakers have gone on to become head winemakers as well, including Vinny Aliperti of Atwater Estates in the Finger Lakes, Axel Rothermel of Thalsbach Kellerei in Germany, and Les Howard the winemaker at Jamesport Vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island.

The charming, engaging Roth has helped define what wine can be on Long Island and will continue to do so as the region matures and the wines evolve.

Of Wolffer's recent and current releases, there are three that I've really been enjoying lately.

The first one is Wolffer Estate's 2006 Pinot Gris ($24). This medium-bodied, elegant wine includes 12% chardonnay and anything but your average pinot grigio. Peaches, pears and faint citrus greet the nose with similar flavors on the palate that are joined by blanched almonds, honeydew and gentle acidity. Only 230 cases were made.

The other is a wine that proves that barrel fermented chardonnay doesn't need to be fat, heavy and flabby. Wolffer Estate 2003 Estate Selection Chardonnay ($27) is fermented 100% in French oak (20% new) and it is among the best chardonnays of this style around. The nose is toasty, as you'd expect, but ripe peach and apricots and marshmallows toasted over a bonfire provide depth and complexity on the nose. Medium-to-full bodied, the stone fruit flavors are rich and mouth-filling with more subtle toasty oak and vanilla play beneath. Perfectly balanced by acidity, there is an intriguing kiwi note on a very lengthy finish.

Roth also makes an ice-style dessert wine from commercially frozen chardonnay, vignoles, gewürztraminer and trebbiano. Wolffer Estate 2006 Late Harvest Chardonnay ($37) is rich, sweet, intensely flavorful and balanced terrific acidity. Flavors of peach, apricot, and tropical fruit notes are accented by honey and hay.

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