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A Vintners' Clambake

Thomas Matthews
Posted: February 3, 2000

A Vintners' Clambake

By Thomas Matthews, New York bureau chief

All through this hot, dry summer, as farmers along the drought-parched Eastern Seaboard watched their crops shrivel in the relentless sun, Long Island's grape growers quietly rejoiced. Not only were their grapes ripening well ahead of schedule, but reporters starved for "man bites dog" stories were writing about their contrarian good fortune, adding valuable free publicity to the nearly perfect growing season.

Even a freak tornado that ripped across the island's North Fork, where most of the region's nearly 2,000 acres of grapes are planted, managed to skip over the vineyards and wineries. So despite cloudy skies and cool weather that felt like ominous portents of autumn, the members of the region's wine community were in high spirits as they threw a clambake for themselves on Sunday, Aug. 15, at Pindar Vineyards, the East End's largest winery.

"Everybody brought their best wines," said event organizer Susan Bedell of Bedell Cellars. "We have 240 bottles for 125 people. That ought to be just about enough."

The wines showed off the increasing quality and broadening range of the region's production and made terrific matches with the fresh, locally produced food. Succulent clams on the half shell went happily down the hatch with a fragrant Viognier from Macari Vineyards -- or with a crisp, clean Chenin Blanc from Paumanok Vineyards, or Hargrave Vineyards' herbal-scented Sauvignon Blanc Reserve (all from 1998). Boiled lobsters, sweet and rich, showed off the diverse styles of the 1997 Chardonnays. And barbecued chicken made a good foil for the reds. I particularly enjoyed the ripe 1995 Bedell Merlot, Pellegrini Vineyards' suave 1996 Cabernet Franc and a fruity, balanced 1997 Merlot from Wolffer Estate.

The conversation was lively as people tried to digest the many changes that have rocked the 25-year-old regional industry this summer. New vineyard plantings, the sale of established wineries to new owners and new wineries under construction and on the drawing board seem to signal a turning point, as a cottage industry nursed initially by dreamers and hobbyists becomes more professional and perhaps more market-driven. From my point of view, the two most significant developments are the imminent opening of Raphael Vineyards and winemaker Russell Hearn's plans for a custom-crush facility scheduled to debut next year.

Raphael is the realization of a long-held dream of successful builder John Petrocelli, who grew up making homemade wine with his immigrant grandfather and his father, Raphael, for whom the winery is named. The technical team is led by Richard Olsen-Harbich, one of Long Island's veteran winemakers, with consultant Paul Pontallier, director of Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux, who has been praising Long Island's potential since a 1989 visit.

The massive, Tuscan-style winery may not echo the local architecture in style or scale, but it signals their intention to make a world-class statement with their wines. Raphael will focus on Merlot, which Olsen-Harbich and Pontallier consider the region's best grape variety, and make wine only from their estate's own fruit. The goal, however, is not to aim for huge power and concentration, but rather to make a more elegant, fruit-driven style whose charms are not masked by oak -- a wise accommodation to the realities of the region's terroir.

Hearn, an Australian who has been making some of Long Island's best wines at Pellegrini since it opened, in 1991, plans to open Premium Wine Group in time for the 2000 harvest. The winemaking facility should initially be able to produce 30,000 cases a year, increasing to 60,000, and Hearn hopes to attract as clients growers and brokers who want to produce their own wines without building their own wineries.

Hearn points out that many of California's most sought-after small-production wines are made in similar leased facilities. Already on Long Island, successful labels such as Schneider, Corey Creek and even the first two experimental vintages of Raphael have been made at established wineries such as Bedell, Palmer and Pellegrini. If it works as planned, Premium Wine Group should encourage the kind of smaller-scale experimentation that is essential if the young wine region is to continue to discover its true strengths.

But even as Long Island's wine industry changes in ways whose long-term effects are difficult to predict, the clambake also offered a vision of stability and continuity. I was struck by the number of winemaking families whose second generations are already significantly involved. There was Jason Damianos, son of Pindar founder Dan Damianos, who trained at Bordeaux's Institute of Enology and is now making wines at Duck Walk Vineyards, the family's South Fork operation. There was Kareem Massoud, who has put a banking career on hold to join his parents at Paumanok.

And there were Anne and Xander Hargrave, whose parents founded the entire industry when they planted Long Island's first vineyards, in 1973. Young children then, they are now self-possessed and knowledgeable about their business, and though neither is fully committed to the winery (in fact, Hargrave is up for sale), both obviously love the world they have grown up in.

"It's just amazing how much has changed over the years," marveled Anne, noting the ever-more-abundant vineyards, the ever-bigger wineries, the ever-increasing sales. "Even my parents never imagined this kind of success."

But Xander demurred. "What seems truly amazing to me is just how little has truly changed," he said. "This is still a community of small towns, farmers and fishermen. It's still a long way from the Hamptons." He gestured toward the South Fork, only a few miles distant, across Peconic Bay. "And that's just the way we like it."

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from New York bureau chief Thomas Matthews. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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