I caught up on my blind tastings in Wine Spectator’s New York office earlier this spring, and since it’s rare to get a breather from the tasting grind, I seized the opportunity to head east to the North Fork of Long Island for a quieter work-from-home vibe.
A little more than a year ago, Long Island’s tasting rooms were forced to close, along with the rest of the state’s, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some were able to pivot, finding new ways to serve their customers (Wölffer Estate created a “Hands-Free Rosé Drive-Thru”), and adding food service when that became a requirement for outdoor alcohol service in summer 2020.
Happily, many of Long Island’s tasting rooms have now reopened, and I took the opportunity to anonymously visit a few, fly-on-the-wall style. The ones that were open were busy (while adhering to social distancing and safety requirements), which was good to see. And over the week I saw both the good and the bad of the Long Island wine scene.
There is much to enjoy out here. The North Fork is a bucolic, gently undulating and pastoral stretch of agriculture that is decidedly detached from the major metropolitan center just 90 miles to its west. Farm stands abound, and the quality of produce, meat and poultry at places such as Sang Lee Farms and 8 Hands Farm (both in Cutchogue) is superb. The foodie building blocks here are very strong indeed.
It’s exciting to see how the produce farming here has taken a bent toward organic practices. And Long Island was the first East Coast wine region to introduce a sustainability certification for its vineyards, customized to the East End's unique needs; it now has more than 20 members and continues to evolve. Still, it's frustrating driving around to see how many vineyards have manicured strips of closely-mown grass between rows alternating with the moonscape that spraying chemical weedkiller under the vines leaves behind.
The Long Island wine region was essentially founded in 1973 when Alex and Louisa Hargrave set up shop with their namesake winery. That means the industry is fast approaching its 50th birthday. Wine is always a long game, but half a century is plenty of time to prove what you can and can’t do, vinously speaking.
The terroir of the North Fork is primarily a long strip of Haven loam (a mix of mostly sand over clay). It’s good growing dirt, but with an overall lack of soil diversity, wineries have to differentiate themselves either through the varietal composition of the wines or winemaking chicanery (or feature what are basically catering halls with a vineyard attached to draw in weddings and other large groups).
The early years of Long Island wine saw producers trying to emulate Bordeaux or Napa. While time has shown that isn’t the best approach, some wineries are still producing oaked Cabernets and a hodgepodge of wines that try to be all things to all people. Some wineries are trying new things, however, updating their vineyards to better vine material while introducing grapes that seem better-suited for the region’s humidity—such as at Bedell, where new bottlings of Albariño and Melon de Bourgogne are now on line. Walking the vineyard with longtime winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich, there aren't any moonscape strips of exposed earth here, either, but rather a blanket of grass, weeds and flowers and healthy-looking vines.
Long Island wineries benefit from having a captive audience come summer. Most of the operations out here are small enough to easily sell their wares directly from their tasting rooms. So why risk submitting wines for review to be judged along with the rest of the wine world, or strive to break out of cottage industry status when you don’t have to deal with the markups brought by the three-tier distribution system? I guess I can’t blame them for taking the easier road. But that means change and progress will have to come from within, rather than being pushed by outside investment or market forces. And that means change and progress will be slow to come.
At their best, Long Island wines offer a fresh, bright, acid-driven approach. They are not crackling rapiers, but rather gentle-edged, charming wines that drape like a lacey curtain flitting against a slightly open window. Bedell’s Pinot Gris checks in at a breezy 11.5 percent alcohol while delivering a pure and persistent lemon peel, floral and mineral profile. Pair it with light-handed cuisine drawing on the area’s bounty, including its terrific seafood, and you can put together a lovely wine country lifestyle spread. That’s the strength I’d like to see the North Fork wineries play to, instead of shallow marketing that touts a “luxury” tasting room experience.
With two generations of grapegrowing experience to draw on now, the region should have plenty of lessons learned. The path forward seems much clearer now than it did before: Be the North Fork first and only, not something else. It’s all there for the producers’ taking. Some producers are heeding the call. I hope the rest start to hear it as well.