This story originally appeared in the fall 2016 edition of northforker’s Long Island Wine Press
Wölffer. Macari. Martha Clara. Raphael. Pellegrini. Pindar.
These are just some of the names we all know in Long Island Wine Country. They are large — by local standards, anyway — producers that make most of the 500,000 cases produced on Long Island each year.
Then there are smaller labels in the next tier down — places like Mattebella, One Woman and Roanoke — making fewer than 5,000 cases per year.
But there are also the really small labels. Call them micro-wineries, even nano-wineries, if you want. These are wineries making fewer than 1,000 cases a year.
Two such labels, Influence Wines and Rockwell Wines, aren’t really wineries at all. The wines are made at Premium Wine Group — the Mattituck custom-crush facility where several labels make their wines — by two Premium veterans, Erik Bilka and Andrew Rockwell, respectively.
Neither has designs on taking on the big guys in the industry. They just want to make good wines that people enjoy.
Bilka, a Buffalo native, didn’t set out to be a winemaker. At an early age, he became interested in cooking and restaurants, working both in the kitchen and in front-of-the-house jobs. Eventually, he made his way to Niagara University, where he earned a degree in hospitality management. While there, Bilka spent a semester in Europe — Engelberg, Switzerland, specifically — where he studied various aspects of wine.
Still, he didn’t think he’d make a career out of it.
“[The restaurant industry] is one of the few industries that is everywhere, which allowed me the opportunity to travel and work in many places,” he said.
After years in the restaurant business, including managing a beach bar and grill in St. Thomas, Bilka decided he wanted to work with wine.
His first job was working for Alice Wise as a vineyard research assistant at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead. Soon after, he moved on to Premium Wine Group in 2001. He was the third employee after founder Russell Hearn, who now serves as Lieb Cellars’ winemaker and has his own labels, T’Jara and Suhru, and John Leo, now winemaker at Clovis Point.
At Premium, Bilka worked not only with Hearn and Leo, but with many other winemakers who used the facility. He started making wine for Harbes Vineyard in 2008 and took over winemaking at Castello di Borghese in 2010. He still works with both producers.
In 2009, Bilka decided to apply all of that accrued experience and launch his own label, Influence Wines.
His first wine, a riesling made from Finger Lakes grapes, remains the core of his production. He made 585 cases in 2015. He’s also added a malbec made with fruit grown in the old Peconic Bay Vineyard on Oregon Road in Mattituck. In 2015, he made 319 cases of that. Both wines are closed under screwcaps and favor purity and freshness over manipulation or concentration.
“My goal is to let the wine be what it wants to be,” said Bilka, who takes a minimalist approach to winemaking. “Not all reds have to be big and tannic — a lighter fruit-forward wine can be just as exciting.”
In part because he’s a one-man show who does everything from winemaking to marketing to sales, Bilka doesn’t have plans to grow significantly in 2016.
“I don’t believe I have an end goal,” he said. “I will continue producing wine as long as people continue to enjoy it!”
Andrew Rockwell, a Bellport High School graduate who founded Rockwell Selections in 2010, also didn’t start his career intending to be a winemaker.
Rockwell, who has an undergraduate degree in material science engineering from Johns Hopkins University and a Master’s Degree from Stony Brook University in biomedical engineering, wasn’t exposed to wine until college, when he got a scholarship to study abroad at an engineering lab.
“Someone else in the scholarship program went to work at a winery in Spain and I remember thinking ‘Wait … We could work at a winery?’ ” he said.
In 2008, Rockwell interviewed with Russell Hearn for a harvest intern position at Premium Wine Group.
“I was pleasantly surprised and impressed that he was a technically oriented person that approached winemaking as a science,” he said.
Rockwell took the harvest job and was later promoted to lab director. Two years later, he made his first 120 cases under the Rockwell Selections label, a cabernet franc grown in Peconic by Pellegrini Vineyards.
Rockwell takes a distinctly pragmatic approach to winemaking and his label. He sees wine as an extension and preservation in time of the grapes that were grown that season. He favors clean wines without “significant vegetal” characters with minimal oak flavors.
“I think seeking to be unique for just the sake of uniqueness is a marketing gimmick and interests me little as winemaker,” he said. “When the wine drifts away from the character of the fruit it was made from, I see this as a failure.”
Rockwell has around 30 cases of that initial 2010 cabernet franc left to sell. He’ll release the 2012 vintage, made from fruit grown in the same vineyard, when the first vintage is sold out. He made a small bottling of petit verdot in 2013 from the same Peconic Bay Vineyards site where Bilka gets his malbec.
In 2015, Rockwell made roughly 170 cases of cabernet franc, this time purchasing fruit from Anderson Vineyard in Southold. Looking ahead to 2016, he plans to buy two to three tons of cabernet franc and a ton of petit verdot.
“I’ve been selling the wine so I have capital available for some small growth,” he said.
Rockwell plans to continue to grow over time and perhaps one day purchase land to plant his own vineyard.
When asked about his journey from Johns Hopkins to Orient, where he now lives with his wife, Melissa, who also designed his labels, Rockwell said: “I love wine. I love science. I don’t think I had a great passion for academia, but I’ve found I do for winemaking and fermentation in general. My engineering education is the backbone of not just my professional career but also many personal life philosophies, and I wouldn’t change that for anything.”