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Todd Cavallo, winemaker and co-founder, Wild Arc Farm
Issue 31: On bringing Piquette to the US, how he got started in wine, and creating community in the Hudson Valley.
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Wild Arc Farm is a small natural winery in the Hudson Valley that is largely credited with starting the Piquette movement in the United States. With no background in wine or agriculture, Todd and his partner Crystal left New York City in 2016, bought a small farm, and have been making some of the natural wine industry’s most interesting and drinkable wines ever since. I chatted with Todd about how he got started in wine, regenerative agriculture, building community in the Hudson Valley, and his interest in Piquette.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you got started in wine making?
Todd Cavallo: I don’t have a background in wine specifically. I have two younger brothers who worked in restaurants in the city for 10 years, and my partner, Crystal, and I separately got into wine as consumers. When we decided to leave the city - mostly because we had the worst luck with apartments - we said, "Let's go somewhere where we can commute to the city." I was going to keep my day job, and if we got some land maybe we could plant some grapes or fruit trees and make some wine or cider.
We had made cider, kombucha, and home brewed beer in our apartment, but never wine. But since wine was what we drank most often, we're like, "Yeah, maybe someday we'll make some wine." Then we happened to find this place that was nine and a half acres, we moved here and we started planting some vines. We started buying some fruit the first year like, let's see if we could do this. That fruit that we bought, we made 25 cases of wine. Because of a bunch of connections we had in restaurants in the city through friends and through my brothers, we were able to get it in front of the right people, and people responded and bought it. So we're like, all right, let's make a little more wine next year, and let's plant some vines, and let's get going on this. And then our third year in, I think we were making 600 cases and selling it pretty easily. And then my business partners at my old job in the city decided that I was more focused on wine so they nicely asked me to leave. Then we decided, all right, this seems to be working, let's make it our full time job. So we ramped up to, I think, 1200 cases the next year, basically more than doubled for the first three years.
Brianna Plaza: How do you even teach yourself how to make wine?
Todd Cavallo: We were super lucky to have mentors who had been doing it for long enough that we could ask them questions. Our friends Andrew and Jen, up at Eminence Road, let us process our first fruit with them. And then another friend of ours in Western New York actually studied wine making and had been working for other winemakers before starting to make natural wine like we do. We're able to get all our questions answered on cool climate wine growing that first season. I also read a ton of books.
On Levi Dalton’s podcast, I'll Drink to That! he interviews all the greatest living winemakers and asks them the questions about their process that I would want to ask them. It's an amazing masterclass in current wine making all over the world. So yeah, between some friends, and some books, and some podcasts, we just started winging it.
And really it's like a million tiny decisions that you can't learn unless you're making wine with someone else, which is probably what I should have done first for a couple years. It was really just a trial by fire. There's all these little tiny questions and you just have to figure out your philosophy and then answer those questions based on that. But between all of that, I think we got a pretty good grasp on it. We were super fortunate that in making the wine the way that we've been making it, we haven't had to dump much of it out and not sell it.
Brianna Plaza: Can you talk to me about the grape varieties that you work with?
Todd Cavallo: Hybrids have been making a splash in the last 10 years and more so in the last five years, but we weren't super excited about hybrids when we started. The first grower that we worked with had Chardonnay and Cab Franc, which are pretty traditional varieties around here, but then also some Traminette and it was like, oh, if you want to buy some fruit, buy a little bit of everything. Traminette is a pink skin grape that's got a lot of floral and lychee aromatics. We made a skin contact wine out of that our first year. And we liked it so much that we named it after our daughter who was born the same year, so that's our Luca.
And after that, we just were much more open to hybrids and we found a vineyard up in Valley Falls and we now co-manage two acres of Marquette, which is a hybrid from the University of Minnesota, where most of the cold hearty hybrids are developed (or at Cornell here in New York). We work an even split of vinifera and hybrids, and then among the hybrids, a pretty even split of New York or old French-American and cold hearty Minnesota hybrids.
On top of the Marquette, that vineyard also has a block that's a field blend of a dozen different red, white, and pink hybrids. Some of them, they don't even know what they are and we complement all those together. We have La Crescent, Aromella, Arandell, and Itasca planted here on our farm. Itasca and La Crescent are white hybrids from Minnesota. Arandell is a red from Cornell. Aromella is a white from Cornell. We have used Aromella in the past from other growers.
We make a hybrid blend of Noiret, which is a red that’s got a lot of peppery characteristics, and Riesling. Starting last year, we made a De Chaunac for a friend of ours who opened a wine bar in Beacon. And that's an old school, French-American hybrid too. And then we got some organic certified De Chaunac this year for our own experimentation. And then we also made a sparkling Concord that we put in cans for this year. So we're starting to play with native grapes too.
Brianna Plaza: Do you eventually hope to grow all your grapes at your farm?
Todd Cavallo: We have an acre here and it's densely planted so maybe if we crop it heavily we'll get four tons from it. But we processed about just over 20 tons last year and that's going to be probably our production for the most part. We could clear another two or three acres here, but that would mean clearing native wildflowers and grasslands to plant a mono crop that we then farm. Farming, regardless of how regeneratively and thoughtfully you're doing it, is not natural. Saying we’re stewards of the land is still not a net benefit for the land or the local flora and fauna. So we're thinking more and more, we have our acre, it's our experimental block. We're learning how to farm in the best way that we can, the most regenerative and organic way that we can. And we use that knowledge to pass it on to the other growers we work with to move them in that direction.
So if someone's got a 40 acre farm that's been strip sprayed with herbicide every year for 50 years and we get them to stop spraying herbicide for us, that's actually a net positive. That's become our philosophy, just trying to make a dent and shift the conversation for New York grape farming.
Brianna Plaza: You talk a lot about regenerative agriculture and viticulture, can you explain a little bit more what that means and you philosophy behind that?
Todd Cavallo: Regenerative organic farming is kind of defining itself now. There are a couple organizations doing certifications around it, including one that's spearheaded by Patagonia, who we made a wine for this last release.
For us, regenerative farming is building the soil up in a way that's not only considering the output commercial product of the farm, but considering the entire balance of the flora and the fauna and the soil microbiome. Now that we've got chickens, we're putting nitrogen back into our soils with the chicken manure and using that for our compost. Eventually we hope to have some other grazing animals to deal with the weeds, instead of having to mow or mechanically weed, which are also pretty invasive processes.
So that's our idea. There are parts of that in biodynamics, which is building a system. We use some biodynamic practices and sprays, but we've kind of moved away from dogmatically adhering to biodynamics. And I think that's really the way that you have to farm, is you have to find what's best for you and for your land that you're working. Little bits of biodynamics, regenerative agriculture, organic sprays, and then talking to whatever everyone else is doing around here and making decisions based on that.
Brianna Plaza: How do you see your brand as part of the growth in making the Hudson Valley a more prominent wine region?
Todd Cavallo: The Loire Valley in France has been growing wines for the small eateries of Paris for a hundred years - it’s a pipeline. So we thought, why isn't the closest growing region to New York City, sensibly, the largest natural wine drinking city in the world, not doing this?
One surprising thing for us is that it's fairly conservative up here. So there's a big culture shock coming from the city to Orange County. Part of our challenge has been, how do we build community here? And make something that can be for the local community when the people that we most communicate with and understand what we're doing are coming up from the city and from Brooklyn every weekend.
I think we've decided we're just going to make what we make. We make interesting things and as we grow our own fruit, we'll be making and fruit wines from them too. But we're just going to make what we make. We're kind of politically outspoken as well in a way that doesn't necessarily mesh with our neighbors. But we're hoping that either we bring people in and change hearts and minds with our good wine or the shifting demographic of people moving around up here meets us where we are. We're finding more and more like-minded people for sure.
We're trying to create community by giving people space who might not otherwise have access to make a little wine here and then go on and sell that wine and maybe start up their own thing from that. I guess we're letting it happen and we're going to see where the chips fall as far as the local community goes. But we're also doing what we can to foster a new community up here with like-minded people.
Brianna Plaza: You talk about coming down to the city to do tastings, but you also have somewhat of a limited capacity to produce wine. How do you think about marketing and growth when you know that there's not that much that you can produce, but then you still want new folks interested?
Todd Cavallo: It's been a challenge since we started because other states have asked us for distribution and we've taken them on very slowly. So if we're expanding, it leaves very little for everyone to have access to. I think what we really want to do is to make sure that we can sell as much directly to the consumer as possible. And that's why we do our direct sales twice a year on our mailing list. The wine is significantly cheaper from us than it will be on the shelves and that's fine. So for us to break even we have to sell as much as we can directly. And we're happy to make that cheaper because the margins are so much higher.
Marketing is getting in front of the right people, making sure the right shops and restaurants can have access to our wine. And that's both up in the Hudson Valley and down in the city. Up here if local friends are opening up a shop and they can't get an allocation, we will very often give them a couple cases from our stash and just bill through our distributor. But really just getting that visibility so that more and more people know that we're here and they can come to us directly. And also now starting to allow season-long onsite visits for bottle purchasing rather than just twice a year. It's all that balance of trying to build that direct sales percentage up from where it is to be a little bit bigger chunk of the pie.
Brianna Plaza: You are the first people to make Piquette in the US. Can you talk to me about why you decided to go that route versus other types of wine and how it feels to be at the forefront of that style?
Todd Cavallo: Piquette is a low-alcohol wine made from the second pressings of grape pomace - I always say we were just the first ones foolish enough to try to sell it to people. Since it’s a byproduct of winemaking, it's no cost at all to try it and then if it's good enough to bottle, you pay for the bottles and labels, but if you can sell any of it'll recoup its own expenses. So that first year we did it with the four different wines that we made. We made the Piquette from each one individually and three out of the four of them were great. So we bottled them and sold them.
We were able to get it in front of people and explain to them that it tastes like sour beer, kombucha, or something odd. Some people will drink it and love it, and others will hate it. When people saw that it was viable and that it was a no cost and sustainable way to get your margins a little bit less scary, I think it just made sense. And then the market was beginning to accept it. Then it happened at the same time that hard seltzer was coming to the market and so fruit-flavored, tart, 7% sparkling beverages were taking off. The market met us where we were. Once we had the Piquette, it's just another thing that I can be like, oh, I want something sparkly and bubbling, but I don’t want to be hammered.
Other things ~
The New York Times looks at how the wine industry is adapting to the fact that millennials apparently drink less wine than previous generations. Apparently our generation just does not prefer to drink wine, though I, my friends, and my collection of wine don’t tend to agree.
I had no idea collecting Starbucks tumblers were such a hot market. Eater takes a look at the bonkers cup market.