The Big Grapple: Can Long Island Wines Get Some Respect?

With changes afoot, New York City's backyard wine region could finally remake its image
Aug 23, 2012

Author and journalist Ron Rosenbaum once called New Jersey "the second most maligned and unfashionable place to come from in America." The line appeared in an essay about Long Island.

"I don't think it's a secret," said Kareem Massoud of the North Fork's Paumanok Vineyards, "that Long Island has an image problem." We were in the vineyard, talking about the thorny issue of Long Island wine, which also gets some punch-line treatment in the American wine world. I'd describe the skeptic spectrum as running from "underripe and overpriced" to "a bachelorette party with vines."

I went out to the East End with some friends to do some casual wine touring, but I also wanted to meet with a few winemakers and ask them about this. Why do Long Island wines get a bad rap, still? What can be done about it?

Certainly, it's a young region, with the first modern vineyards going in a little more than three decades ago—but barely younger than Walla Walla in Washington, or Santa Barbara on California's South Coast. Yet these other regions are putting out some of the most coveted wines in America.

I chewed this over with winemakers at three estates, quality leaders on the North Fork—Barbara Shinn and husband David Page at Shinn Estate, Rich Olsen-Harbich, a 30-vintage veteran now at Bedell Cellars, and Paumanok's Massoud, a representative of the region's second generation.

"That question is what perpetuates the perception," Page insisted; any bad reputation lingers because of people who come in armed with assumptions. That's a fair point for Shinn and Page, who have created a brand that is in many ways indeed distinctive in the region. They aggressively follow biodynamic principles—from the chickens in their coop to the tufts of grass running between vine rows, a whole ecosystem is in place here. As Shinn describes in detail her composting routine, no visitor could doubt they are serious about farming.

With Shinn's devoted customer base, 50 percent of its stock sells out of the winery; virtually none leaves the NYC metro area. That Long Island has a captive market for tourism and sales—and one with a New York locavore obsession bordering on food jingoism—cuts both ways, though. It enables L.I. wineries to cash out on indiscriminately harvested Chardonnays and limousine weekenders, but it also frees the real grape nerds to experiment with less popular varieties and techniques that extract the best of the region, without worrying too much about how to sell them.

To the former point, Massoud admitted, "That bottom tier, all New Yorkers have been exposed to it. There's a level of vetting" for quality in other regions that doesn't exist in Long Island. Indeed, few Long Island wines reach or exceed 90 points in Wine Spectator blind tastings, and while many earn good and very good scores, the prices can be high in relation. With high costs of land and labor, it is unfair to blame wineries for not turning down the easy sale, but this tars the whole region with the same unflattering brushstroke.

And then there's the land. To call up Walla Walla and Santa Barbara again, where winemakers handily found friends in Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot, respectively (and Syrah for both), well, the East End is not like the West Coast. There are vintages—not just off vintages, but frost vintages, hurricane vintages. It's wet and windy and mildew gets all over everything. "It's hard to get a very consistent product," said Brooklyn Winery winemaker Conor McCormack, who buys some Long Island grapes for his wines. Not helping matters: "Pinot and Cabernet Sauvignon are probably the worst reds you'd want to plant here in any quantity," said Olsen-Harbich.

Getting the grapes right is the most important way forward, and at least from what I saw, some consensus is emerging. Long Island never abandoned Merlot, believing in its particular fit for the terroir even after Americans turned on the variety. The East End endures a lengthy growing season, which Sauvignon Blanc happens to enjoy; McCormack told me he couldn't get a lick of it from growers last harvest, such was the demand from other winemakers. The 2010 Cabernet Francs I tasted were clean and elegant, with none of the greenness that can mar that wine; Olsen-Harbich noted that vintners have drilled down to the clonal level on that variety, and many are replanting their Cab Franc plots to more suitable clones. Olsen-Harbich and Massoud, who grows Chenin Blanc, agreed on the potential of that grape.

The moment is certainly right for Long Island. Consumers have been returning to lower-alcohol, higher-acidity wines. ("We get California winemakers who come here and are immediately envious of our natural acidity," said Page). Younger drinkers are applauding experimentation, like Massoud's new barrel-fermented, unfined, unfiltered, "natural" Chardonnay and the grape spirits that are Page's latest pet project. And, finally, Olsen-Harbich is touting the vintage hitting the market—2010—as the quality benchmark for the region.

If the rest of the country can't often buy these wines on shelves, they can try them when they visit Manhattan: Restaurateurs like Tom Colicchio and Daniel Boulud tap the best stuff, and plenty of the wineries offer direct shipping where it's legal.

Undoubtedly, the region is still finding its way. Massoud is one of a growing number of younger winemakers pushing Long Island into the future, but Olsen-Harbich put it most poignantly: "The best wines that we're going to make, I'm never going to see."

What do you think of the current state of Long Island wines? What would you like to see for the region's future?

Incidentally, if you want to judge for yourself, the Harvest East End Festival, sponsored by Wine Spectator, takes place this Saturday, Aug. 25, with about 40 wineries pouring. Tickets are still available here.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.

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