By Juliette Pope
New York is the most dynamic wine market in the country; the availability of international wines of both celebrity and obscurity is staggering and unique. On the domestic side we have ready access to the best of California, Oregon and Washington. This vast and varied pool has made it far too easy to overlook or dismiss what is growing and flowing in our own backyard: Long Island wines. I am pleased to report that Long Island wines have come a long way, in both overall quality and the respect accorded them here in the big city.
Long Island does not have a vinous track record as lengthy as that of the classic European wine regions or even California or Oregon. But considering its brief history, Long Island wines have made tremendous progress toward a consistent level of excellence. It takes time—as well as incredible amounts of experience, education, money, physical labor, passion and sacrifice – to establish a winegrowing culture. Sure, not every bottle from the region produces a rave at this point. However, the quality and range of Long Island wines has exploded over the last ten years thanks to a handful of passionate winegrowers and winemakers who work relentlessly to mine the strengths and understand the limitations of their terroir. And as a result of the widening public discussion surrounding the origins of what we eat and drink, our local wines have gained some newfound sex appeal.
Some resident Long Islanders have raised a skeptical eyebrow at the multiple Long Island wines we feature by the bottle and by the glass on our wine list. Perhaps they view their home turf as a somewhat unremarkable flat land of strip malls, expressways and suburbs, in stark contrast with what 17th-century European settlers saw – an untapped paradise of fertile soils and temperate climate ripe for transformation into farmland. The passing of time has seen Long Island’s rich 300-year-old farming tradition squeezed ever eastward, due largely to development. The primary concentration now exists in the region known as the East End, which begins where the main body of the island splits into the North Fork and the South Fork (aka the Hamptons).
Until quite recently, potatoes played a starring role in the East End’s modern-day agricultural story. Though they are still grown, along with a host of other gorgeous vegetables and flowers that grace NYC‘s markets and kitchens, wine grapes have absolutely stolen the show. Back in the early 1970’s, the pioneering Hargrave family had the vision, resources and nerve to plant European grape varietals on the North Fork. The well-drained, sandy soils and the mild temperatures (moderated by the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound) reminded them of Bordeaux. While the Hargrave’s gamble laid the essential groundwork, the region would experience inevitable challenges as it developed this industry.
Rot-causing, ripeness-inhibiting dampness, resident swarms of hungry deer and birds, fierce domestic wine competition and biased market perceptions have all provided the nascent wine country with a tough row to hoe. Even as a child, Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards thought his parents were crazy to plant vineyards on the North Fork in 1983. Bruce Schneider, of Schneider Vineyards, jokes that he and his wife Christiane “didn’t know any better“ and acted simply on gut feeling in opening their winery. Barbara Shinn and David Page, who began planting Shinn Vineyards in 2000, ignored those who warned them that any pursuit of organic and biodynamic viticulture here would be folly. Though finicky Pinot Noir is typically not well-suited to such a damp climate, the McCall family has been growing and selling it away to others since 1989. They recently decided to make a go of bottling their own wine. And while few New Yorkers associate the Hamptons with dirt or vines, two of Long Island’s most respected wineries, Channing Daughters and Wolffer, are growing grapes on their Hamptons estates with incredible success. These growers and some of their diehard quality-minded compatriots continue to take risks to push the quality and reputation of Long Island wines ever forward.
Establishing an East End wine identity is a great challenge in itself. Napa screams Cabernet Sauvignon, the Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, the Mosel Valley Riesling. And Long Island? The popular notion that Long Island’s growing conditions mirror Bordeaux’s suggests that red Bordeaux varieties would perforce thrive on the East End. These grapes, however, can only fully ripen with very careful site selection, meticulous vineyard management and a fortuitous (dry) growing season. What cannot spring successfully from East End vineyards is extremely ripe, high-alcohol, powerful, heavily-oaked wines. The consistent thread throughout the best of them is a more traditional European one: restrained tannins and alcohol, palate-refreshing acidity, ripe-yet-modest fruit and judicious oaking. Long Island is developing a lovely range, be it well-made wines for easy drinking or more thought-provoking, complex wines over which to linger. They are wines for the table, to pair with food—not necessarily wines crafted to knock scores out of the park.
I am incredibly pleased to see (more and more) that for every international tourist, old-school New Yorker or California-phile who scoffs at the very idea of Long Island wines, there are another handful of people eager to try one. Every time we delight a guest with a bottle from a local vineyard, I consider it a small but significant success for our winemaking neighbors. While there is still plenty of room to improve, their industry has evolved dramatically and impressively in recent years. Much like restaurants, wineries take years to establish solid roots and truly flourish in the community, and can only do so with loyal local support.