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The best statement about what to do – and what not to do – to make and promote fine wine in Long Island comes from the LI wines themselves – and it’s a different story than the one that its winemakers are telling.
Before we get into what’s wrong with the current state of Long Island fine wine, we should talk about what’s right about it – which turns out to be quite a bit, based on my experience tasting and talking with several of the area’s best winemakers over the course of two and half days there as part of the first wine bloggers’ TasteCamp East event.
To say that Long Island has the potential to make fine wine is to offer a textbook definition of the phrase “gross understatement.” Long Island’s Maritime climate tempers the harshness of the Summers and Winters that can, at their worst, besiege the inland winemaking areas to the immediate west. It’s best sites are built on top of sandy subsoil, similar to Right Bank Bordeaux, making even nearly imperceptible differences in elevation vitally important in terms of the drainage and aspect needed to develop concentrated, ripe fruit on the vine. In other words, LI has better potential than just about anywhere else on the East Coast to consistently achieve the ripeness that is essential to making fine wine.
Long Island also has Burgundy-like weather variations – as Joe Macari, the North Fork’s tireless promoter of all things organic and biodynamic, told us, “It’s probably just as hard to grow grapes here as it is in Burgundy – harder, even.” This makes ripening grapes maddening in difficult conditions, and also means that, like Burgundy, vintage variations have a larger impact on wine quality than in warmer regions like the Left Coast. It also makes the results in the final wine more rewarding – even if an obscene amount of fruit needs to be rejected in the process.
There’s no question where the muse for Long Island wine originates, and it’s not the lushness of California wines. Just about everyone making wine in LI is looking to the East – specifically, France. The ghost of France is inescapable here, and it haunts most aspects of Long Island winemaking.
“I’m not ashamed to say it,” Richard Pisacano, the amicable and quietly passionate force behind the North Fork’s Roanoke vineyards, told me when I asked him where he looks for his winemaking benchmark. “It’s France, and Bordeaux. I use their clones. I use their barrels. The wines are unfined and unfiltered, with extended maceration.” In other words, he uses their modern techniques as well. After visiting Margaux in 2000 to taste their wines in their natural French habitat, “I just wanted to go home and cry,” he said.
Modeling after the French seems to make sense, given the (burgeoning) terroir in LI, and it permeates the wine-making philosophies of almost all of the wineries in both the North Fork and the Hamptons to the south. The favorite word of Eric Frye (Lenz’s eccentric and un-quietly passionate winemaker), based on my few hours sampling his finished – and his fermenting – wines, is “Burgundian.” In the Hamptons, the warm and approachable German-bron winemaker Roman Roth has clearly modeled Wollfer’s “Premier Cru” ultra-premium Merlot on the high-end Right Bank Bordeaux offerings based on the same variety. Even the Long Island cafe’s have a French flair.
Spending time with Macari. Roth, Piscano, Fry, or the charming folks at the helm of Shinn is a lesson in Long Island terroir and winemaking, all of them being different in terms of detailed approach, but identical in terms of a shared passion to collectively and collaboratively improve Long Island wine. There is mock competition between the North Fork and the Hamptons (in my view, Hamptons is currently in the lead), but there is great camaraderie as well between the producers. Put another way, you are unlikely to find any winemakers in LI who don’t care deeply about their region, and their wines.
What Is Wrong.
Now that we’ve established that the Where, the How, and the Who seem to all be dead-on correct in the world of Long Island wine, we can talk about the What, which might be the only aspect that isn’t right.
Long Island is extremely fond of its Merlot, to the point that they brought together five of the region’s wineries to make a collective offering called Merliance (rhymes with alliance, though Francophilia runs so deep here that some of its members pronounce it as mer-lee-AHNZ, as if it were based in France). But just because you’ve got sandy subsoil, doesn’t make you Pomerol, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should be charging Pomerol-like prices. It might be precisely this Bordeaux Merlot love-affair that is holding Long Island back from its true winemaking destiny.
Russell Hearn, the Australian-born Pellegrini winemaker, described the Merliance initiative like this:
“The goal isn’t to make the best Long Island wine – that was never the goal, nor will it ever be the goal – it’s to make the best representation of what Long Island wine is; not Califronia, not ‘more like Europe,’ but like Long Island.”
The sentiment is dead-on, but the trouble is that it might not be quite true that Merlot is the quintessential Long Island wine offering – at least, the wines themselves are giving a different story about the future of Long Island’s terroir than the one many of its winemakers are telling.
The best reds in Long Island are enchanting, and ridiculously expensive even in poor vintages, where they might better be described as ‘Under/Over’ (Under-ripe & Over-priced). The consistent quality comes from the area’s whites, which can run the gamut from racy and laser-focused, with downright beguiling ripe fruit aromas anchored by svelte minerality and food-worthy acidity, to all-out oaked fruit bombs that dial up the aromas, the acidity, and the structure for long-haul aging. And they don’t need ultra-ripe landmark vintages, like 2007, to achieve high-quality in their whites.
The trouble is not that Merlot doesn’t offer great potential here – it’s that it doesn’t offer the same consistent potential as their racy Chenin Blancs, or their elegant Sauvignon Blancs that combine lemongrass, mild grapefruit, and mouth-watering acids in near-perfect balance. In terms of reds, their superb and spicy Cabernet Francs will likely offer more consistent quality year-on-year than chasing after the sublime ripe red fruits of Right Bank Bordeaux ever will (not that the Hanmptons aren’t coming close). [ Thanks to Lenn Thompson over at Lenndevours.com for rightly pointing out that my snapshot of LI wines was not deep enough to fully support this last statement. ]
In that way, Long Isalnd’s terroir future seems to have more in common with The Loire and Northern Italy than it does Burgundy and Bordeaux. Only Christopher Tracy, the celebrated former chef and now Master of Wine candidate winemaker at Channing’s Daughters Winery, seems to really embrace this.
It’s hard not to like Tracy. He’s energetic, anchored, and at ease when talking about his wines, and despite being a walking fountain of SWE and WSET wine geekdom, he is approachable and down-to-earth. He’s also not chasing after points/ratings (Channing’s itDaughters wines are not sent out for reviews), which means that he has the freedom – and the ability – to experiment. And experimentation is exactly what Long Island needs to find its true terroir expression. A a result, his whites are outstanding.
Tracy’s model? Northern Italy’s Fruili.
It’s not that Fruili, the Loire, and Long Island share the same weather and terroir – they don’t. It’s that their wines, at their best, share the same unique balance of ripe, linear fruit, elegance, and racing acidity. The best wines of LI are telling us something about their highest potential, and they’re not speaking with Bordelaise or Burgundians accents.
If offering very good wine at increasing price-points is Long Island’s ultimate goal, then they need do nothing, and can happily continue their near-obsession with Right Bank Bordeaux wines made via Burgundian viniculture techniques. But if the goal is to offer the best-quality wines possible, with a pure representation of unique place, transferred faithfully from vine to glass, then Long Island may need to stop seeing so much red.
Here’s something that you don’t see every day.
I’m about to give props to Wine Spectator.
And I’m going to apologize to their Forum members.
I will wait a moment to let the air of collective “WTF?!???” clear the room.
Ok… also, please pick your jaws up from the floor.
First, let’s provide a bit of background: A recent post on Tyler Coleman’s blog (Dr. Vino) explored a controversy on the eRobertParker.com forums, and in a comment on Tyler’s post I chimed in with the following extremely unhelpful comment (reproduced here because the post has about 1 billion comments now and I don’t want you to have to page through them to find it… I hope Tyler doesn’t mind!):
On April 16th, 2009 at 5:59 am ,1WineDude wrote:
The Wine Spectator forum is far, *far* worse. I’ve watched their moderators join in on discussions that clearly violate the forum’s participation policies…
Afterward, I was contacted by Tom Matthews, the Executive Editor of Wine Spectator. He wanted more information on my criticism, and I advised him that the thread I was primarily referencing no longer existed on the forum (apparently having been removed sometime last year), but that there were other examples of what I considered overly-aggressive treatment of me and other bloggers on the WS forums.
In exchanging e-mails with Tom, I was impressed that he cared enough about this to follow it up seriously. I also realized during our echange that my comment on Tyler’s post just sounds like a nasty, snide, negative attack. It’s got no background or context, tells no story, doesn’t explain how it relates the eBob forum controversy… it’s just totally and completely unhelpful. It’s useless.
So, I apologized to Tom, and I offered an apology on the WS forum (that one is probably turning some heads), and I’ve apologized on Tyler’s post via a follow-up comment – though again it might be tough to find it in the thread of gazillion comments, so here it is below:
On April 19th, 2009 at 3:36 pm ,1WineDude wrote:
Hi all – I’ve been corresponding with Tom Matthews regarding my previous comment in this post about the Wine Spectator forums.
I’ve subsequently apologized in the forum and to Tom, because by not providing the background of *why* I think the WS forums are worse, my comment simply comes off as a snide attack.
I am sorry about that. If anyone wants to know why I don’t like the WS forums and called them a snake pit on my blog, you can check out the threads available here and see for yourself how I was treated:
I don’t respect the forums any more than I did previously, but thanks to Tom reaching out to me I can understand fully why my comment could be perceived as a snide attack, so I’m officially saying that I’m sorry for that. I may really dislike some of the WS forum members, but I still believe that everyone, including those that treated me badly, deserve more respect than what I showed here via my comment.
I’ve not changed my view of the Wine Spectator forums – I still think discussions there sometimes devolve into a snake-pit of acrimony, mostly due to the input of a few very rotten apples spoiling the bunch, and a lack of sufficient moderation.
But I also truly believe what I wrote above – everyone deserves a basic level of respect, not snide hit-and-run sideswipe comments without context. Even the folks who might not think that I deserve respect.
I’d happily debate any WS forum member on the relative value of blogs vs. wine mags, on how differently I think that they should treat new forum members, or on how different and positive discourse is on alternative sites like the Open Wine Consortium. But I shouldn’t have blasted the WS forum in a public setting without providing the proper context to back it up, and I’m deeply grateful to Tom for reaching out to me and with meaningful, civil discourse pointing out the un-helpfulness of my comment.
I should also add, for the benefit of my harshest critics on the WS forum: Tom mentioned to me that he’s a follower of the 1WineDude.com blog. I’ve got your chin band-aids here, folks – I’m sure many of you will be needing them after that.
Anyway – Mad props to Tom, and apologies to the WS forum members.
Now, if any WS forum members would like to apologize to me and my fellow wine bloggers for any past disrespectful transgressions from civil discourse on their part… I’m sure we’re all ears…!
Before I get into the topic of today’s post (which, I’ll tell you now for future reference is “why and how even preeminent wine authorities can be duped”), I first need to give you some background on the world of wine fraud.
A few years ago I was on a business trip to Russia (before the Caucasus conflict last year), and some of my co-workers were getting together one evening during my visit to share a meal at the rented house of one of the local IT managers, an expatriated British friend of mine. Being the only person in the group with a wine certification, my task was to obtain some wine for the meal.
I accompanied one of the local guys on our team to “downtown” Stupino, which is basically a town square with some shops strewn about, to seek out the wine. He acted as my translator since I spoke a paltry amount of Russian. Being relatively close to Georgia, I told him that I’d love to seek out some Georgian wine for our meal that evening.
That’s when he face took on a grim countenance and he was visibly torn between wanting to please the boss (me) and not wanting to embark on a torturous sideshow of navigating what was then a very ripe market of fake Georgian wine.
The issue was that each year far, far more “Georgian” wine made its way into the Russian market than could ever possibly be produced by Georgian winemakers. Most of these were faked – some could even be poisonous, according to my Russian co-workers. I was insistent, seriously underrating the amount of effort it was going to take to find a genuine Georgian bottling at the local market. I think we examined about a dozen bottles, during which I had no idea what I was looking for in terms of validating the provenance of the bottles in front of us, and a line of increasingly solemn and angry Russian shoppers began to form behind us at the shop counter. All the while, my co-worker was repeating “Нет, не это” (“no – not this one”) to the shopkeeper, while loosely explaining to me in English why we shouldn’t accept the last bottle as the shopkeeper reached for the next alternative.
“This can’t be Georgia wine,” he said, “the shape of bottle is all wrong.”
We did eventually succeed in purchasing a genuine bottle of actual Georgian wine, and enjoyed its ripe, peppery red fruit with dinner. I think we also succeeded in pissing off a good number of the local shoppers in Stupino (though they are Russian, so they should be used to standing in lines, right?).
The bottom line is that fake wine is very, very real and endemic problem in some markets, like Georgian wine and really, really old French bottlings from top Chateau. Most of you reading this aren’t ever likely to encounter a fake, but if you ever want to splurge on one of the big boys, you should at the very least inquire to the shopkeeper about the history of the bottle.
Even though we’re about 600 words into this post, I’ve only just gotten started – and we’re not going to talk about fakes. We’re going to talk about why smart, talented people get duped by fakes. Sort of like MTV’s Punk’d, but for wine, and on a massive, multi-millions dollar scale.
People like Robert Parker (the world’s most influential wine critic), Jancis Robinson (one of the wine world’s top writers), and Serena Sutcliffe and Michael Broadbent (who headed the international wine departments of auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, respectively).
The names above constitute a large part of what could well be considered the High Priests of wine (more on the religious overtones – which are fundamental to the issue of being duped – in a moment or two). And all of them were duped by a man named Meinhard Görke, better known as Hardy Rodenstock, widely considered to be the perpetrator of the most expensive wine frauds in history – a story told with expert prose and excellent research in Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar.
How were these people duped? I don’t think it was by Rodenstock. From where I’m standing, these wine gurus duped themselves – whether it was from hubris, greed, or simply being starstruck (more on all that in another moment or two).
I won’t spoil the details of The Billionaire’s Vinegar – you really need to read this cover-to-cover and detailing too much of it would dilute a good deal of the pleasure you’ll derive from it – but in summary, Rodenstock’s fake wines seem to have been expertly executed, culminating in an over-the-top, several-day-affair 1998 tasting of 125 vintages of Château d’Yquem.
The tasting notes and auction logs of Sutcliffe and Broadbent came to rely more and more on wines poured at Rodenstock’s opulent tasting events, which were also attended by Robinson and Parker, with Parker famously giving some of the likely fake wines 100 point (‘”Perfect”) scores.
One possible (but unlikely) explanation for why four of the most preeminent wine authorities came to be so duped by what were likely fraudulent wines constructed by one man (who never charged them directly for the ancient vintages of wines he poured them at his garish tasting events) is greed and hubris (or is that technically two explanations?). Even though it’s not a likely explanation given the body of work of those wine personalities, it’s worth exploring. Their livelihoods, at the time, all centered around the marketing of exceptional wines as rare and expensive commodities, and probably depended at least somewhat on that view. No one wanted to question the illusion, or even whether or not they should have been at the tasting events in the first place – too much was at stake for them:
- Parker’s reviews drove wine prices globally;
- Robinson’s reputation and book sales relied on the bedrock of her authority on all things wine-related, which could be questioned if she was suddenly tasting fewer rare vintages of famous French producers than rich collectors who weren’t officially in the wine business;
- Sutcliffe and Broadbent had made millions for their auction houses over the years selling wine, and both pawned off extremely expensive likely Rodenstock fakes.
- We can throw in famous Bordeaux Chateau like Y’quem, Mouton, and Lafite as well, who for years did little to nothing to combat fraud while they enjoyed skyrocketing prices for their wines brought on by the publicity of the tastings and the subsequent tasting notes of the wine elite, whose words the affluent wine-collecting public followed blindly in lemming-like droves.
In other words, even if they suspected something was amiss, they were all in too deep. Interestingly, their responses (especially those of Parker and Robinson), centered around the fact that they were duped, but duped by excellent wines. Robinson offered this in one of her on-line reactions to the “Rodenstock Affair”:
“As the auction and other secondary markets’ greed and status values continue to nurture conditions for forgery, which feeds on skyrocketing prices, in the future many more high- and-low rollers will depart salesrooms wondering if a not-rigorous-enough front office is taking them to the cleaners.”
This could be considered an exercise in ass-covering, because it’s kind of embarrassing that these wine High Priests should ever have been at the opulent Rodenstock tastings in the first place. Why do I say this? Because wines from Lafite, Mouton, Petrus, Y’qem – we could go on and on listing the most famous Bordeaux houses – are kind of like works of art. Yes, they are meant to be consumed, some several decades after release. But a wine that is hundreds of years old from these producers? That is a piece of history, not a prop for a select and affluent few. Like paintings from famous and loved artists, or the manuscripts of history-making political figures, don’t these items take on something more than just a collector’s fancy? Aren’t they artifacts that somehow belong to the collective history of wine?
In my view, attending a tasting of 125 vintages of Chateau Y’qem is almost obnoxious. You might as well pair the wines with braised cuts of meat from endangered species. Robinson, Parker, Sutcliffe, and Broadbent are amazing talents and great writers – but did they also, even if only subconsciously, “rape & plunder” wine history?
[ This begs the question of course, when and how should an historic or rare wine be consumed, if at all? I don’t know the answer, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. I’m pretty sure it’s not during an elitist affair held by possibly the biggest fraud in the history of wine. ]
Consumers tend to take the word of these High Priests on total faith, and like many religious-like followings those words can blindly guide the spending choices of millions and millions of dollars. Also not unlike many major religions, the power in this Religion of Wine sits in the hands of a few people who have access to a rare commodity and, in part, build their financial power and prestige based on talent, but also based on ensuring (whether consciously or not) that the commodity of some fine wine is available only to those who can afford their own tropical islands.
Which is all a very long-winded way of saying that maybe they had a vested interest in keeping those rare wines, well, rare.
Another explanation, and one that is probably much more plausible given the significant contributions that Parker, Robinson, Sutcliffe and Broadbent have made to the wine world, is that even talented and intelligent High Priests of wine can be starstruck at the idea of being included among the chosen few who would sample ultra-rare, ultra-expensive specimens of wine high art. Who wouldn’t be at least tempted and intrigued by the offer to sample wine from the 1700s and 1800s, to partake in an ephemeral bit of history?
Don’t act like you wouldn’t at least consider it.
Hell, I would, at least for a moment or two – and that’s even after my self-righteous diatribe about the raping and pillaging of wine’s history. Things probably look very different when you have the opportunity to see them from the viewpoint of the pillagers…
I suppose the moral of the story, if there is one, is that even the best in any field are only human. As a wine consumer, there is much you can learn from the likes of Robinson, Parker, Sutcliffe, ad Broadbent. But infallible gods they are not. The best thing you can do is to use there work as Parker himself recommends – as guideposts for your own journey into wine.
(images: amazon.com, stern.de, slideworld.com, crimogenic.blogspot.com)
Or is that Whom Do You Love?
I usually get flamed for writing about writing about wine, so I’m donning the asbestos undies for this one. Bring on the heat, baby! ‘Cause I’ve got (yet another) bone to pick with the world of wine writing (this includes wine blogging, and hence includes 1WineDude). Mainly, the rub is this:
Why is it that so many wine writers seem to be writing for each other, and not for wine consumers?
It’s no secret that wine consumers themselves are getting into the wine writing space, evidenced by the explosion of wine blogs over the last two years. In many ways, 1WineDude is itself a product of that movement to involve consumers more directly in wine appreciation and critique. When it comes to wine, I’m not a professional per se, but I’m a bit like what we in the IT department call a “super-user” – I’m one of those people that other users come to when they need to know more, but don’t have access to the inside scoop. Yes, I consult, but I don’t make or sell wine – so I view myself primarily as a consumer of wine who somehow forced himself through a crack in the door to take an inside look at how the industry works.
I love the fact that wine consumers are blogging (even if they’re not as “serious” as I am about the writing aspect) and are causing the industry to rethink its product and how it engages those consuming it. That’s good for everyone (except possibly Wine Spectator), and in that way “wine writers” (if that term is extended to include people writing about wine, not just those who make their living at it) are indeed writing for one another – in a very good way with increasingly positive results.
Take someone like The Wine Whore, whose blog unabashedly exists solely on the premise that it will feature a wine review in exchange for receiving a sample (no guarantee it will be positive, thankfully). A lot of people (especially wine writers) will probably hate that idea.
I love that idea.
I love the fact that it’s ballsy and turns the question of wine writing “ethics” on it’s ear. Am I saying that just about anything is “okay” so long the author is upfront and transparent about the premise? When it comes to blogging, yes, I am saying that. Ideas like this one put the power in the hands of the readers, and effectively they get to decide if any core ethical questions are violated by the premise.
The more I think about it, the more brilliant I think idea behind The Wine Whore is (though I receive far too many samples now to effectively steal it!). It’s ultra-cheap publicity for a winery, retailer, or distributor, and it’s useful and entertaining for other wine drinkers. Many wine writers will bristle at The Wine Whore’s premise, but the blog is getting wines and you need to admire the gumption of someone who’s willing to throw that caution to the wind, challenge the wine writing paradigms, and share their thoughts with other wine consumers.
But there are wine writers in wine mags, and in well-established and “serious wine blogs” (if the term is extended to include A- and B-list wine bloggers, which arguably includes 1WineDude if we collectively lower our standards just enough for a moment or two here) that don’t seem to give a crap about wine consumers. They seem to be writing more for one other without taking a consumer view.
I won’t be naming names, and I don’t dismiss this as flippant or somehow wrong – because we’re talking blogs here, and the basic premise behind blogs is that you can write about whatever the hell you like, and all of your real-world certifications and credentials don’t mean jack if you don’t contribute something meaningful to the on-line conversation. I just think it’s a shame to spend all of that talent and potential in writing for other writers. Don’t we have chat rooms and forums for that? Sometimes I think that wine writers, when they lack inspiration for writing about wine, instead write about writing about wine (case in point: this article! oh… the irony…).
Or, even more absurdly, when they are really bored, they attack other wine writers for not meeting their personal blogging or writing standards. Personally, I find this extremely boring reading. Do consumers really enjoy that, or are they just temporarily entertained by the ensuing on-line cat fight, sort of like a sad reality show featuring frustrated and drunk wine writers. I can’t imagine it increases consumers’ appreciation for wine or their opinion of wine writing…
If you’re a “serious” wine writer, or even a wine hobbyist blogger who wants to detail his or her tasting notes and publish them for other to read on the web, stop for a moment and really consider why you’re writing, and who you want to benefit from reading your thoughts. It can’t hurt, and it may just bring some clarity to what you want (or don’t want) to achieve. Who do you love?
As a consumer, consider why you’re reading what a writer is telling you about wine, and if you feel that they really have your best interests at heart – because if they don’t, there is no dearth of competition for your attention at the moment.
But then, I’m the kind of guy who thinks fighting should not be allowed in ice hockey, so what they hell do I know…
(images: uglyradio.wordpress.com, winewhoreblog.com, si.com)