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Long Island

The sleepy North Fork and the glitzy Hamptons share a love for good Merlot and local foods

Long Island is full of rolling vineyards, especially along Route 25 in the North Fork.
Long Island
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Mitch Frank

Before Ternhaven Cellars on Long Island’s North Fork closed, it had a sign that read “Last winery before France,” thanks to its location on the northern end of the island pointing toward France. The sign summed up the region’s self-image; in the ’80s and ’90s, vintners on the North Fork and in the neighboring Hamptons routinely compared their climate and grapes to what’s found on the left and right banks of the Gironde River in France.

Now the sign is gone, and the comparison with France is subdued. Today, Long Island’s winemakers are learning to work with their own terroir, and they’re starting to define what a Long Island wine should be. “Trying to mimic other regions, without knowing why, will get you into trouble,” explained Russell Hearn, winemaker at Pellegrini Vineyards.

The local culinary scene is evolving with the same sense of confidence in the region’s fine produce as in its wines. The Hamptons have long boasted fashionable restaurants and creative chefs, and the once-sleepy North Fork has now become a dining destination of its own. At the Fifth Season in Port Jefferson, chef Erik Orlowski focuses on local produce, fish and game, and Mirko's in the Hamptons offers an eclectic Mediterranean menu with Croatian touches. Good wine, good food and an ocean that stretches all the way to France—what’s not to like?

Long Island extends 120 miles east from New York City. At its eastern end, the island splits into two forks, each with its own personality.

The South Fork is home to the sandy beaches of the Hamptons, a playground for city residents willing to brave the traffic for a weekend escape. It’s also home to four of the island’s wineries. That number probably won’t increase anytime soon; land here costs about $500,000 an acre, compared with approximately $30,000 an acre on the North Fork. Each town on the South Fork has its own personality. Southampton and East Hampton are filled with trendy restaurants, high-end stores and plenty of money, old and new. Amagansett and Montauk are more laid-back, with a maritime flavor. Sag Harbor is an old whaling community gone upscale; nowadays, Ferraris park outside the clapboard antiques stores.

Home to 46 wineries, the North Fork is the last stretch of farm country on the island. Most of the area could pass for a quiet New England coastal town. Once you get beyond Riverhead, where the island forks, you stop seeing signs for malls and instead find yourself in docile hamlets such as Jamesport and Peconic, with farm stands and harbors full of boats. Most of the wineries lie within a 20-mile stretch. At the far end is Greenport, what passes for a big town here, with a recently refurbished harbor and park and the ferry to Shelter Island.

Shelter Island lies between the two forks, in Peconic Bay, connected to the mainland by two car-ferries that ply a short and lovely route. There are no wineries on the island yet, but each year there are more restaurants worth exploring.

Travel on the East End—as this whole area is called—can be tricky. Trains and buses go to the Hamptons, but to really experience the wineries, you’ll want to drive, and that means braving the traffic. During the summer, it’s brutal on the South Fork. And while the North Fork is far quieter for most of the year, Route 25, its main artery, backs up during busy fall weekends. Car ferries travel between Connecticut and Orient Point, east of Greenport.

Lodging tends to be either expensive or rustic, unless you have a fondness for dowdy bed-and-breakfasts. The Harborfront Inn in Greenport is a good option, or you could stay on Shelter Island. Sag Harbor is your best bet if you want to stay closer to the Hamptons wineries.

Thanks to the warming influence of the surrounding waters, the North Fork is the warmest wine region in the state, with an average of 230 growing days a year and an average high of 80° F in the warmest months. (The South Fork is about 5 degrees cooler.) Unlike the Finger Lakes or the Hudson River Valley, Long Island enjoys enough sunshine and heat to ripen red grapes consistently.

Bordeaux grape varieties are the focus among the reds. Like Bordeaux, the North Fork has sandy loam soils that drain quickly, compensating for the heavy humidity. Summer temperatures are comparable, but Bordeaux usually receives half as much rain and doesn’t get hit by tropical storms every few years. On Long Island, Cabernet Sauvignon will only ripen consistently in the sunniest of spots, and many wineries now use it only in blends, except in good years. Cabernet Franc has its partisans, but Merlot represents the most acreage and delivers the most consistent results.

When it comes to white wines, vintners have struggled to find a clear regional style. Chardonnay has long been the most popular, largely because it’s easily grown and sells well. But because they’re grown in a cooler climate, Long Island grapes don’t have the body to handle a lot of heavy oak. Several wineries are now switching to fermentation in steel, and the results are encouraging. Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc both show promise.

What’s amazing about these wineries is how quickly they have developed. In 1973, when young Harvard grads Alex and Louisa Hargrave bought their 60-acre farm in Cutchogue, the North Fork was mostly planted with potatoes and cauliflower. The Hargraves learned through trial and error. John Dyson, the New York state agriculture commissioner at the time, remembers being shocked at how little they knew: “Governor Hugh Carey and I went out [to visit the Hargraves] in 1978. I asked them, ‘How are you doing this? Are you in contact with Cornell?’ They replied, ‘Oh, no. We’re reading the agricultural works of Cato in the original [Latin].’”

Despite the Hargraves’ inexperience, their project soon caught the imagination of several New York wine lovers who had always wanted to make their own wines. Kip Bedell, for example, started his winemaking career in his house in Garden City, N.Y., with a kit his brother gave him. After reading about the Hargraves, he bought a 50-acre potato farm in Cutchogue. “The first year we made wine was 1985,” Bedell said. “My wife and I set up a picnic table the next Memorial Day weekend to sell it.”

Bedell now sells his wines in a tasting room housed in a renovated potato barn originally built in 1919. Recalling a Tribeca loft inside, the walls are adorned with a modern-art collection including works by Simon Starling and Liam Gillick. Bedell makes the wine in two dozen state-of-the-art fermenting tanks from South Africa, with the help of Kelly Urbanik, who previously worked for Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa, Calif., and consultant Pascal Marty, former director of winemaking for the Bordeaux-based firm Baron Philippe de Rothschild, S.A.

All this is part of a new wave of investment in Long Island wineries. In 2000, Michael Lynne bought Bedell Cellars. The co-CEO of New Line Cinema and executive producer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Lynne probably could have bought all of New Zealand if he wanted to, but he’s a New Yorker and wanted to make Long Island wines. Kip agreed to stay on, but he has been gradually transferring the reins to Urbanik. Other investors with similar ties to the area have bought or started their own wineries. Raphael, just down the road from Bedell, and Wölffer Estate, on the South Fork are just two examples.

Despite the big money, Long Island wines are still looking for consistency, and many vintners realize that this problem can only be overcome in the vineyard—slowly. “In five years, I look forward to having five-year-older vines and learning more about making a world-class red that will put us on the map,” said Richard Olsen-Harbich of Raphael, who has been making wine on the East End for more than 28 years. “But the real results will probably be another 25 years away.”

Joe Macari Jr. agrees. When his father bought the bankrupt winery next to his farm in 1994, Macari didn’t like Long Island wines—he thought they were generic. But he began focusing on ways to enliven his soil, taking a near-biodynamic approach, including making his own compost from fish supplied by Agger Fish and manure from the 47 cows, donkeys, horses and chickens he keeps on the property.

This belief in the importance of the land extends to food. Locals on both forks of the East End are increasingly focused on eating and drinking what they grow. Not every potato field has been turned into a vineyard, and plenty of farms are growing high-quality produce. Since 1997, chef Eberhard Müller of Manhattan’s Bayard’s has operated a farm in Cutchogue with his wife, Paulette Satur, growing leafy greens, heirloom tomatoes, Brussels sprouts and herbs. He uses them at Bayard’s and sells them to other New York chefs. Ask any East End resident about the local seafood and watch their eyes light up. Fishermen pull in monkfish, swordfish and tuna daily. And the once-depleted population of scrumptious bay scallops in the waters between the North Fork and South Fork has recovered strongly.

These foods are being paired with the wines in a holistic symbiosis that reflects the area’s ground-to-table (or water-to-table) philosophy. Paumanok Vineyards hosts oyster dinners each year to highlight how well their Chenin Blanc pairs with the briny mollusks. Barbara Shinn and David Page, owners of Shinn Estates Vineyards in Mattituck, first started visiting Long Island wineries because they wanted local wines to serve at their Greenwich Village restaurant, Home.

At the Fifth Season in Port Jefferson, the owners have a wine list comprising exclusively Long Island wines. “One of the reasons we moved out here was because there were so many resources we could use,” said Orlowski, who worked in Manhattan before opening the Fifth Season in 2004. “The foods that grow out here grow side by side with the grapes and complement the wines well.” It all adds up to a perfect match and a distinctive East End identity.

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