Winemaker Zack Klug
Low-intervention wine comes to middleport
Photos by kc kratt
Name: Zack Klug; 29
Title and location: Winemaker; Liten Buffel, 8822 Pearson Rd., Middleport, litenbuffel.com
Years in the business: 6
Previous experience: Winery operations degree from NFCI; winemaker at Freedom Run; assistant winemaker at Leonard Oakes; winemaker at Vizcarra Vineyards
Natural wine, low intervention wine, organic wine, biodynamic wine: these terms don’t mean exactly the same thing, but neophytes use them interchangeably to describe wine that’s made the old fashioned way. By old fashioned, we mean the way wine was made for thousands of years before industrialization took over and created predictability, uniformity, viability, and—some would argue—lifelessness.
The popularity of low-intervention wines came to a head about five years ago among wine drinkers in the know, but it’s only recently begun to weave its way into the conversations and shopping carts of everyday wine drinkers. Many people, both inside and outside the industry, are offended by the whole movement, both in theory and practice. As with any new thing, there is a lot to learn, as well as the predictable misfortune of consumers, who often latch on to a trend without taking time to fully understand it, and businessmen who often exploit its popularity without concern for its reason, methodology, or spirit.
Caveats out of the way, you might be surprised to learn that one of the few progressive natural winemakers and biodynamic vineyards in New York State is located in Middleport, about thirty minutes northeast of Buffalo. However, after listening to its low intervention winemaker and grape grower Zack Klug talk about the region’s terroir, Middleport seems to make all the sense in the world.
“Niagara is an obvious choice for wine. It’s the second warmest region in New York and the driest,” Klug asserts. “The climate and soil are conducive to growing many varieties, but are best matched to the growth of pinot noir and syrah. It’s also one of the most capable regions for creating high-quality, legitimate wine on the East Coast. It benefits from the Canadian side, which, with its shared terroir and advanced winemaking industry, prove the potential for this region with every vintage it releases. Plus, due to the lack of development, land in the Niagara region is abundant and extremely inexpensive.”
Klug and business partner Patrick Vaughn launched Liten Buffel a year ago, opening the doors to their winery’s tasting room in May of 2017 with two whites and a red. The pinot noir broke away from what sticklers would consider style standards for the varietal, but easily found a home on the wine list at Dapper Goose. Voted best new Buffalo restaurant in 2017, Dapper Goose has been recognized for its progressive, on-trend wine prowess since the day it opened. Tommy Lombardo, the passionate part-owner and wine buyer for Hertel Avenue’s wine-centric Ristorante Lombardo has added Liten Buffel’s riesling to his wine list. The winery’s third release, a white blend of gewurztraminer and riesling called De la Terre, Pour la Winediva has quickly become a fan favorite for both its balanced and easy-drinking flavor profile and its tongue-in-cheek moniker.
The opportunity to interview Klug took some effort. The busy father, husband, grape grower, and winemaker is also the winery’s sales rep. After a crazy summer and an even busier harvest, he’d left for New York City in order to secure a wine distributor and attend the RAW Wine Fair, where he mixed and mingled with hundreds of other natural wine industry pioneers, workers, and fans. We finally caught up with him right at the turn of the New Year.
De la Terre, Pour la Winediva has become a fan favorite.; Lombardo’s has added Liten Buffel riesling to its wine list
How did you get into the wine business? Was it what you always wanted to do?
I wanted to do something that meant something. I was in what some call a quarter-life crisis. Mid-divorce, young, disillusioned, hateful, removed, etc. Then some friends and I met a grape grower at a party. He was besieged by our exuberance, and I bothered him with questions regarding his fortitude. I remember feeling guilty for asking. He was under forty but had these hands like gravel, like unpolished, unsanded iron. I wanted his solitude. His direction. His security. I thought I’d be fulfilled if I had what he had. I wanted to grow grapes.
Why Middleport? It’s such an unlikely home for the region’s first low intervention winery.
Because the land is cheap. Because we can theoretically survive anything. Because it’s a quick bicycle ride from my house. Because there’s an excess of plantable acreage on this side of the escarpment. Because if I can do it with my hippy BioD bullshit, then anyone can.
Being first to market in WNY requires extensive ongoing consumer education. Did you anticipate that?
Yeah, we expected that, and we’re fine with it. We wish people didn’t feel like wine was so fancy, though.
What wines will LB release next?
We will release our 2016 wines in late winter/early spring. 2017 will bring some sans soufre wines [meaning no sulphur added] and whole-cluster fermented whites, which echoes the way we ferment our reds.
What item in your catalog is most representative of your personal preferences?
Our 2016 Perfetto Pinot Noir. It reminds me of barolo … and I can’t afford barolo.
What don’t people understand about winemaking?
“Natural” doesn’t mean less work.
Owning a winery means you’re broke.
We just want to have fun.
Wine is slaying the millennial market in bigger cities. Will our time come?
I certainly hope so. The Rochester market is quite a bit ahead when it comes to wine. As soon as Buffalo clues in to the low intervention movement, I think it will explode, but the city is just removed enough that it’s often slow to change.
What is it that people like about low intervention wines?
If a consumer wants to learn the ABCs of low intervention wine, how would they do that?
Have you had your heart broken by a wine you thought was amazing only to find out it was an engineered, manipulated adjunct? Then you’re ready to truly grasp why the natural wine movement is such a big deal—I think. But fuck what’s cool … love what’s honest and matches your interests. Natural wine should be the wine of the people.
Where can we buy or drink Liten Buffel wines besides the tasting room?
We have a distributor now, so a lot of our wine is found in the NYC market, but our website lists all the places in the WNY area where you can find it, too.
What is your first influential wine memory?
My earliest wine memory was drinking shitty burgundy at Thanksgiving when I was fifteen.
A quick fill in the blank: Most people wouldn't expect a winemaker to ...
Earn the bulk of his income as a bouncer in Lockport? I did.
Death row wine?
Cava. It’s always been there for me.
Best album to make wine to?
H.E.R., Volume 1