The wine industry is in love with the word "terroir," but there's a note of ambiguity about what it actually means. Simply defined, it conveys a sense of place - the complete environment from the soil to the climate - that gives each wine a distinct flavor. It’s the vines’ calling card.
In addition to the agricultural boundaries, many people broaden that landscape to include all the living creatures that exist within it. By that definition, a Labrador retriever named Willow has been a bedrock at Bedell Cellars.
She’s been riding shotgun in a pickup to the winery since she was 10 weeks old, alongside her owner Donna Rudolph. A dozen years later, she’s become the self-appointed patroller of the vines, chasing deer, groundhogs and rabbits.
The winery is in Cutchogue, New York, a quaint, rural town along the North Fork Wine Trail about a two-hour drive from New York City.
Since Louisa and Alex Hargrave first planted wine grapes in Cutchogue in 1973, the region has seen a considerable amount of transformation. Today, more than 50 Long Island wineries produce about 1.2 million gallons of wine annually, according to industry group Long Island Wine Council.
Like her trusty, four-legged companion and the sunny stretch of island, Rudolph had an accidental entry to the wine business. After finishing college in Arizona, the restaurant where she waited tables closed for a two-month renovation, and she faced a typical post-grad query: What the hell do I do now?
Having grown up down the road from Cutchogue in Mattituck, Rudolph missed the maritime views and headed back east.
When she saw an ad in the local paper for picking grapes, she decided to give it a whirl for the harvest season.
“I said I’d do that for a little while,” Rudolph says. “That was 31 years ago.”
In 1996, she came to Bedell; she’s now the assistant vineyard manager. In its 30 years in business, the estate has consistently been named one of Long Island's top wineries; its 2009 Merlot was even chosen to be showcased at President Barack Obama’s inaugural luncheon in 2013.
Willow isn’t the first dog to roam the vines with Rudolph. Over the span of her career, she has had three that have joined her on the job, and that’s been a highlight for both woman and beasts.
“That was one of the points about me taking the job,” she says.
There’s the old cliché displayed on many veterinary office posters that “a tired dog is a happy dog.” Rudolph says, “All my dogs have been tired.”
Canines have been part of winemakers' packs since time immemorial. Some winery dogs are of the hardworking variety - others are of the reclining kind. At the height of a mealybug infestation in Napa and Sonoma in California in the mid-2000s, a group of local vintners decided to train dogs at the nearby Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa to sniff out the bugs notorious for ruining a vintage.
There’s even a series of photographic books devoted to the pet-owner relationships, whether vermin hunter or tasting room companion, aptly called "Wine Dogs." While it started in Australia, the scope of the project has since expanded to other wine regions because of its success.
With either role, there’s a warm nuzzle waiting - so long as the favor is returned with a belly rub.
To Rudolph, Willow is more of a pet than an employee, though Willow might think differently. On Rudolph’s occasional day off, the willful retriever still likes to be taken to the estate to roam the vines with the workers. Vacation is overrated as far as Willow is concerned - especially when work and play are indistinguishable.
When Willow was a puppy, Rudolph would chase her around the truck at the end of the day for 15 minutes; Willow wanted to stay just a few minutes longer.
Most people in the neighborhood know the now gray-muzzled old girl, including local law enforcement.
One time a vermin scent led her to the main road. When Rudolph heard horns beeping and drove up to see sirens on a police car, she expected the worst. But there Willow was, sitting in the back of the squad car, tail wagging.
“Well, just don’t yell at her,” Rudolph remembers the officer saying.
“She’s just a knucklehead sometimes,” she admits.
Twelve years later, Rudolph says she doesn’t have to worry about Willow as much. She takes her time coming back, and with a slight limp.
There’s a point in life when everyone realizes a loved one is falling a few steps behind. Aging is a crucial component in wine, and inevitable in the people (and creatures) who produce it.
“I do miss the younger stuff. I feel like it’s getting more of a chore for her … and she doesn’t want to stay the whole day out,” she says.
Some days, Willow stays in her bed in the winery’s office after lunch, and Rudolph allows this without hesitation. If she wants to go back out, she’ll give one of the staffers a quick bark at the door - and is off.
“If I believed in reincarnation, this is what I’d want to come back as,” Rudolph says: forever a part of the terroir.