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Sunshine Follows the Rain

Thomas Matthews
Posted: February 3, 2000

Sunshine Follows the Rain
By Thomas Matthews, senior editor

A lissome young woman in a sea-green slip-dress studied her wine glass, oblivious to the crowds jostling around her, tasted the purple barrel sample and exclaimed, "It's so accessible!"

Her enthusiastic assessment applied equally well to the 1996 Merlot from Palmer Vineyards she was tasting, the vintage as a whole for red wines from eastern Long Island and the event that showcased them, the eighth annual Long Island Barrel Tasting, held on Aug. 16 at Osprey's Dominion Winery in Peconic, N.Y.

The chance to compare Merlot barrel samples from the expanding roster of Long Island wineries, along with dozens of other local reds, whites and roses, and match them with tidbits from two dozen area restaurants, drew over 800 people to the big white tents that billowed over green vineyards in this bucolic corner of New York state. Though attendance was down nearly 30 percent from previous years, fewer people meant more room and refreshment for everyone. And by holding the ticket price steady at $95, the wineries attracted a young, casual crowd that managed to take the tasting seriously but still have plenty of fun. Even a brief downpour couldn't shake the visitors' spirits, and their confidence was amply rewarded when the skies cleared into a spectacular sunset.

Those who did taste carefully might have noticed that the much-maligned 1996 vintage produced surprisingly successful wines. The best Merlots are lighter and softer than those from the blockbuster years of 1993-95, but they have an elegance and balance sometimes missing from riper vintages. To my palate, their harmony and accessibility actually seem more in tune with the region's character than massive wines meant for aging.

I particularly enjoyed barrel samples from Pellegrini Vineyards, Paumanok and Bedell Cellars on the North Fork and SagPond Vineyards on the South Fork. As a group they showed bright fruit flavor of raspberries and blackberries, relatively light oak treatments and refreshing acidity, a legacy of a cooler-than-normal growing season.

"We're learning," said Russell Hearn, winemaker at Pellegrini. "The fruit reminded me of 1992, but back then I tried to extract too much and wound up with a clumsy wine. Now I'm not trying so hard to make a huge wine, and I think I made a better one." Roman Roth of SagPond noted that he had responded to the vintage conditions by cutting back on the maceration time and the percentage of new oak used in maturation.

It's not surprising that local vintners haven't yet figured out all the nuances of their terroir. After all, the region is still in its infancy -- and still struggling to establish its credentials in an unlikely and uncertain environment.

Long Island comprises 120 miles of contradictions, from the concrete beehives of Brooklyn and Queens in the west to the playgrounds of the rich and famous on the broad Atlantic beaches of the Hamptons to the east. The ever-expanding vineyards -- mostly located on the eastern end of the island's North Fork -- just add to the community's complexity. Founded in 1973 by Hargrave Vineyards, the wine region now counts over 1,800 acres of grapes, and 18 wineries were pouring their wares this year, all of them members of the Long Island Wine Council, which sponsors the annual event.

The road hasn't always been easy. Though new labels appear every year, several producers have fallen by the wayside. This year's host winery actually arose from the ashes of Long Island's most spectacular vinous failure, the bankrupt Le Reve; the ostentatious South Fork winery is now Duck Walk, and its once-abandoned North Fork vineyards form the core source of grapes for Osprey's Dominion, whose first vintage was 1993. Winemaker Bill Skolnik worked on Long Island in the mid-1980s, then moved to Michigan for 10 years before returning. "There has been a quantum leap in viticultural expertise and grape quality since I left," he observes.

Improving wines and an ebullient economy have both helped stimulate the region's expansion. This year's newcomers included Laurel Lake, Schneider Vineyards and Ternhaven Vineyards, all located on the North Fork; new ventures in the pipeline include Macari Vineyards and a $3 million project by John Petrocelli, a Long Island construction company owner.

"To me, it's a great adventure," Petrocelli told Wine Spectator. It seemed to me that the enthusiastic young tasters dancing under the tent on a warm summer's evening would completely agree.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, will feature the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week senior editor Thomas Matthews takes a turn. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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