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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.
TasteCamp East, the first-ever gathering of Right Coast wine bloggers, is now freshly behind us.
I nuked my palate tasting hundreds of wines in a two-day whirlwind tour of Long Island wine country.
You will read more ( a lot more) from me regarding my take on the current state of Long Island wine – and some very, very good wine is being made in the North Fork, and even better wine is being made in the Hamptons.
But that is a topic for another entry on this blog.
Today, I only want to give thanks – to the wineries of Long Island, for their generosity and hospitality; to Lenn Thompson, for doing the yeoman’s work of pulling together the first TasteCamp, and for providing the broadest, deepest, and most comprehensive introduction to Long Island wine that I could have ever hoped to have had; and most of all to my my fellow Right Coast wine bloggers.
After spending a few short days with that group, I’m humbled and deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to be included among the ranks of such a knowledgeable, talented, passionate and fun group.
Those aren’t just the fuzzy Kumbaya words of a slightly-inebriated wine lover – to me, they underscore an important aspect of how wine “media” are interacting with wine consumers.
The online community of wine writers is a vibrant group, with a viability and relevance that is increasing nearly every day as a new generation of wine consumers (and those older generations that are increasingly influenced by them) not only demand a new, more immediate way of interacting with wine, but also join our blogging ranks. These newcomers to the world of wine don’t give a crap about our pedigree, our credentials as writers, or our proven experience-levels with respect to wine (as measured in traditional ways such as certifications and the like).
They only care that we’re transparent, and that we prove consistently that we know what we’re talking about and are dedicated to passionately improving our craft and giving them solid advice.
It’s a bit of a scary prospect sometimes, because once you start to get an interactive readership on a blog, you can’t help but to want to try live up to those standards. Knowing that you’ve got so many colleagues (and friends) on the Right Coast who are living up to those standards is, simply put, inspiring.
Much more to come, both on the topics of Long Island wine and that demanding generation of new wine lovers. But for now, here’s to Long Island, here’s to Lenn, and here’s to many more TasteCamp meet-ups with the folks who are inspiring me!
“When our weary world was young
the Struggle of the Ancients
The Gods of Love and Reason
sought alone to rule the Fate of Man”
– Neil Peart, from Hemispheres
I am in the throes of TTL Aftermath.
Put another way, I’m extremely hungover from co-hosting the latest Twitter Taste Live event – the largest of its kind, ever – the kind of hungover that makes you mutter curse words aloud at the random air molecules that are causing you physical pain as they bounce off your head.
Actually, the air molecules aren’t so much bouncing as they are attacking, with extreme prejudice, using some sort of especially violent molecular kung-fu.
It’s the kind of pain that is somewhat abated by a) sleeping in until the hotel forces you to checkout, then b) spending a few hours walking the Wharf in Boston to take in the harbor air (and take advantage of Boston’s Spring, which is nearly an entire day-and-a-half in length). I wore my Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl XLIII Champions t-shirt, just in case anyone mistook me for a despondent Patriots fan.
By most accounts, the TTL event (which took place Friday across three time zones, and featured wines from Hospice du Rhone producers) was a big success. We had what seemed (to me, at least) to be a relatively small but passionate contingent participating in the East Coast portion of the event. On the Right Coast we had a sort-of battle between Aussie and California producers, but the clear winner was not terroir but the white Rhone varieties themselves – our participants enjoyed the white wines that bookended the on-line tasting: Rutherglen’s extremely well-balanced Marsanne / Viognier blend (“The Alliance”) and the honeysucke-sweet Le Vol Des Anges, a late-harvest Roussanne dessert wine from Bonny Doon. I think the East Coasters were able to try something new, and open up their wine worlds just a teeny-tiny bit.
The Second Glass (who were thoughtful – and probably over-busy – enough not to mention that I am long, long overdue on my writing assignment for them) really knows how to throw a top-notch event, and Wine Riot! was a great time. I’m finding myself a bit sad at the prospect of missing the second night of the Riot – my liver, however, is extremely pleased that I’m homeward bound).
While I thoroughly enjoyed myself, I was inwardly torn the entire night (I also struggled to behave myself on twitter as my tweets were being broadcast on projectors throughout the event location).
I’m a very social animal, and I’m a recovering chronic multi-tasker, so I try very hard to concentrate on the moment and not try to have too many things going on at once. Co-hosting a Twitter Taste Live event is the equivalent of me falling off of that wagon. The TTL events are frenetic, and it’s tough keeping up with the influx of information coming in from the stream twitterati comments (which are more often than not fantastic and energizing, so I don’t want to miss them). Throw in a near-constant stream of friendly and buzzed Bostonians who are coming to check out TTL, media types who are asking you and your posse for interviews (I did take part in one which was filmed, and will try to get a link out to that when/if I get one sent to me), hanging with the generous and excellent guys behind TTL (Craig and Chris) and trying to catch up with other bloggers (like uber-consumer Rob Dwyer and the uber-funny Dale Cruse)… well, it’s just a recipe for Dude Brain Meltdown.
My natural inclination is to engage with the people physically in front of me, and so the TTL stream likely suffered from lack of my full attention in co-hosting. As soon as the TTL event drew towards a logical close, I had to shut down the netbook and get my social-butterfly groove on (at the expense of my social networking groove).
My fear is that, during the time when both streams were full-on, my lack of ability to effectively balance them caused both the on-line and off-line events to suffer, in “Jack of all trades, master of none” fashion. This has potential negative impacts on both my on- and off-line lives, of course: in these situations, should we potentially piss-off the people who are right in front of us by appearing aloof and anti-social, or potentially piss-off the contingent of on-line participants who are expecting us to converse with them, hopefully uninterrupted, in a unique shared experience in real-time?
In my increasingly-inebriated state, I imagined the ancient Greek gods battling over topic of where my attentions (and intentions) should lie:
|Apollo – God of Reason, Logic, Lunar landing vehicles, & General Level-Headedness
||Dionysius – God of Love, Wine, & Aggressive Social Palm-Pressing
“Joe, this is not going well. Despite the fact that you want to talk to the people that are physically in front of you, you have a duty to co-host and interact with the on-line TTL participants.”
“Don’t listen to that guy. You’re here in Boston, you should enjoy yourself. Did you see all of those booth babes? There must be a thousand bottles of wine up in this joint. Here – take another sip…”
“Once again, Dionysius you show why he cannot be trusted to give Joe proper discourse. Joe, you must keep your countenance and abilities lest you drunk-tweet and damage your on-line brand image!”
“Countenance? Brand image? What planet is this dork from, anyway? Jeez, did you see how tight the shirt was on that girl who wanted to talk to you? Are you drunk yet?”
“I should come to expect such blinkered, juvenile and puerile attacks from you, Dionysius. And it’s clear that… wait a second, did you just give me the finger?!?? You a—hole!!!”
“You wanna piece of me, Logic Boy? Come an’ get it! Or should we just sit here and wait for us to all die while you prattle on with yer analysis-paralysis? Hey, let go of my tunic, d—khead!!!”
What does it take to make these guys just shut up already ?!??
Anyway, I’m really, really hoping that I did you all (both on- and off-line) better than that in how I handled things Friday evening.
And I’m also really, really hoping that I won’t need medication for hearing the voices of battling ancient Greek deities in my head when I’m drinking.
If you’ve got advice for a former chronic multi-tasker on how to handle these sort of conflicts, I’d love to hear it, because I’m not sure that I participated in either the on-line or the off-line as well as I would have liked. In fact, I’m am sure that I didn’t participate in either as well as I would’ve liked.
I’d love to blame the booze (and let’s face it, the TTL Grenache-based selections were whoppers and approached Port-like abv levels) but for me the struggle began long before the high-alcohol Rhone varietal buzz kicked in.
At the very least, I had a great time. And as Ricky Nelson once said, “you can’t please everyone, so you gotta please yourself…”
(images: 1WineDude, pantheon.org, mythencyclopedia.com)