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A World of Its Own

Thomas Matthews
Posted: February 3, 2000

A World of Its Own
By Thomas Matthews, New York bureau chieft

The evening light was fading when Bernard Ramis, vineyard manager for Macari Vineyards & Winery on Long Island's North Fork, climbed off his harvesting machine after a long day in the fields. Ramis, a wiry Frenchman, was pleased by the quality of the Chardonnay he was picking, disappointed by a field of Viognier, and still needed two weeks or more of good weather to ripen the Merlot. As he evaluated the grapes' progress toward full ripeness, he kept checking the sky. Harvest is an anxious time in wine country.

It's a time for hard work, too. Inside the winery, winemaker Gilles Martin and owner Joseph Macari Jr. were dealing with a crisis: Their expensive new press turned out to have a faulty computer, and they were trying to operate it manually. Young employees, "cellar rats," scurried around, moving hoses, spraying down machinery, carrying baskets of discarded skins and seeds; rattling pumps nearly drowned out conversation; the sweet, yeasty smells of fermenting wine filled the large, high-ceilinged space.

Upstairs, in the handsome tasting room, visitors lingered past closing time, asking questions, talking about the wines. One family unpacked a picnic on the expansive deck, uncorking a bottle of wine as the first stars appeared in the sky. Harvest is also a time of abundance and celebration.

The North Fork is a narrow peninsula about 75 miles east of New York City, surrounded by Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay. It has been farmland for three centuries, but in the last 25 years wine grapes have become the most exciting crop. Nearly 2,000 acres are now bearing, with Chardonnay and Merlot the leading varieties, and over 20 wineries now bottle Long Island wines.

Fortunately, this new industry hasn't disrupted the long-settled community; rather, it has brought new energy while maintaining the region's traditional character. Vineyards march in long rows down narrow rectangular lots, replacing potatoes or sod or fruit trees, keeping land free from industrial development or housing projects. New wineries stand near the two main east-west roads, proudly announcing "award-winning wines" to attract customers to their tasting rooms. Most are designed to fit into the local architectural style, with cedar shingles or clapboards, low lines and muted colors that fit snugly into the landscape.

The learning curve has been short but steep. The wines are good, if inconsistent, and continue to improve, but no one feels that they've reached their full potential. Some wineries have failed, but hopeful newcomers fill the breaches. When Mattituck Hills Winery went bankrupt in 1996, the Macari family took over, expanding both the winery and the vineyards in what has become one of the most ambitious ventures on the island, a 340-acre property with 125 acres already planted to grapes. At the opposite extreme, Ternhaven Cellars opened a tiny winery in a former gas station in Greenport, to vinify the harvest from their 5-acre vineyard.

Perhaps the next recruits will be Leonard Blangiardo, a 30-year-old real estate investment banker, and his wife, Deborah, a freelance writer. They were sitting in the Blue Top Tavern, a comfortable dive in Cutchogue, eating fried clams with Howard Dickerson, who was advising them on possible ways to get into the local wine industry. Macari's Ramis and a few other winery workers had joined them around a big round table, trading gossip. "We've gotten to the point where we want to make our living doing what we love," Blangiardo said.

But the big news this year has been about departures. Dan Kleck, who had been making wine in the region for nearly 20 years, was lured to California by Kendall-Jackson. (Many locals told me that they believe Kendall-Jackson is considering a major investment in the North Fork, and a winery spokesperson confirmed that preliminary investigations are underway.) And Alex and Louisa Hargrave decided to sell their eponymous winery. The Hargraves were the first to plant wine grapes on the North Fork, in 1973, and their cultural sophistication and openness to experiment energized the emerging wine region.

Still, the recurring cycles of harvest-time emphasize the continuities inherent in wine regions. As they sort through their options, the Hargraves are picking grapes and making wines. Their daughter, Anne, 24 and a recent graduate of London's Courtauld Institute of Art, is an articulate hostess, overseeing a full tasting room on a sunny Sunday.

"Try our 1995 Chardonnay," she urges. "In a blind tasting over dinner recently, Eberhard Muller preferred it over a Puligny-Montrachet." Muller, chef at Lutece restaurant in New York, is a Hargrave family friend; I can see why he liked the local white, nicely balanced with notes of vanilla and melons, fresh and fruity. "People are always surprised at how good our wines are here," Anne continued. "Hopefully, they'll stop being surprised and just accept it."

In this rural community, harvest time means more than grapes. Across the main road from the Hargrave winery, the Greenland Family Farms stand is overrun with children exploring a corn maze, picking just the right pumpkin from an orange-dotted field, piling on a wagon for a hayride. The stand offers half a dozen varieties of apples, lots of squash and gourds and even a late crop of sweet corn.

And across another field from the Hargraves, chef Muller and his wife, Paulette Satur, have bought land and built a house, and are now creating a farm for specialty products such as herbs, heirloom tomatoes and exotic potato varieties. They live in Manhattan during the week--Satur works for wine importer and distributor Martin Scott--and spend weekends in the country.

"I grew up on a farm," Satur explains, "and I missed it. About 10 years ago I lived out here and worked for the Hargraves. I learned to love the North Fork. Now we're part of it."

And the North Fork is a part of them. Sunday evening, they walk their fields, checking the crops, adjusting irrigation, planning the week to come. Muller pulls some leeks, Satur gathers herbs, and a few minutes later a pot of leek and potato soup is bubbling on the big Garland range. Every ingredient comes from the farm, except for a slab of smoky bacon and the final garnish, generous shavings of a fresh white truffle. The delicious soup makes a lusty match with a rich, spicy Bedell Cellars Merlot Reserve 1994, one of the top North Fork reds.

"I feel a sense of wholeness here that reminds me of the little town in Germany where I grew up," Muller muses. "It's the interconnections between the food, the wine, the architecture and the land. For this to exist so close to New York City, it's a miracle."

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 senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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