What They Got Wrong (Seeing Red in Long Island Wine Country)

Vinted on May 6, 2009 binned in best of, commentary, on the road, wine tasting

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.

The Where

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.

The How

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.

The Who

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.

Cheers!

(images: 1WineDude)

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    Comments

  • 1WineDude


    Thanks, Erika!

    If it were me, I'd be experimenting like mad with Cab Franc. Not that Merlot can't be very, very good in LI, but the 2007 Shinn barrel sample CF was *amazing*…

  • Tish


    Your points about the Merlot Alliance are well put. Personally, my best experiences with Long Island wines have been with Cab Francs, blends and whites (fave wine ever = Bedell's sublime white blend "Taste," which combines Chard, Viognier and Gewurz) . I think the whole Merliance push was driven by impatience — the urge to scream "Pay attention to us NOW, not after the decades it will take to figure out the whole LI terroir thing." And they seem to be hoping to make that attention ultra-easy, as in "Look out how we've figured out what our best grape variety is." And perhaps they believe that the Merlot focus will then have a halo effect on the other wines. I think they would be better served thinking locally, and trying to promote the many positive aspects of their diversity while being within shouting (and visiting) distance of countless wine lovers in the NY metro region.

    • 1WineDude


      Well put!

      • 1winedude5036


        Thanks for chiming in! I really appreciate it and I also wanted to note that I\\'m thrilled about the dialog that is happening between you, other LI winemakers, and wine bloggers!

        • R. Olsen-Harbich


          thanks man.
          Regarding 2007 Cab Francs – I think it was the best Cab Franc year ever on Long Island – and I think you'll taste lots of good ones in the coming years. Many of us were just not ready to taste yet. But be on the lookout for these. That's the good news. The bad news is that we can't do it very often!

          • 1WineDude


            Ah… but when you can do it… bellisimo!

  • 1WineDude


    Thanks, Erika!

    If it were me, I'd be experimenting like mad with Cab Franc. Not that Merlot can't be very, very good in LI, but the 2007 Shinn barrel sample CF was *amazing*…

    • 1WineDude


      Point taken, bro ;-)

  • 1WineDude


    Great points, Lenn. I take your point about Cab Franc, and I'm fully prepared to accept that my snapshot view got it wrong there.

    I also agree – and applaud – the fact that LI is still learning. Part of what I'm saying here is that more experimentation is needed. While I understand the financial pressures to push Merlot / Chard. and to raise prices, it doesn't mean those particular LI wines offer good value for money.

    One thing is for sure – thanks to your efforts, these wineries are getting a good amount of focus on-line from the bloggers who attended, and are getting their names out there to a larger audience in the on-line community, and maybe getting a different kind of feedback from that group as well. As you rightly point out, this is impossible without blogs.

  • David Page


    Joe,
    Thanks to your insightful post we have the vineyard crew pulling out all the reds. I think I will hire Christopher Tracy from Channing Daughters to oversea the new planting of all italian whites. (:

    Cheers,
    David Page
    Shinn Estate Vineyards

    • 1WineDude


      :-)

      Well, just so long as none of that interferes with the stunning 07 Cab Franc that you made!

  • Lenn Thompson


    Thought your readers might want to see my post about similar things:

    http://lennthompson.typepad.com/lenndevours/2009/

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Lenn. I've posted a reply in the comments of your post, reproduced below as well:

      "I appreciate the comments on the post, Lenn, and for the open-minded discussion that my post has generated.

      I've crossed-out the Cab Franc comment on my post, as Lenn has rightly pointed out that the weekend's experience can't really bolster my original comment on the CF.

      I certainly stand by my position about Loire and N. Italy being potential areas of inspiration for LI in the future, and I agree totally with Lenn that we bloggers want to see the lower end of the wine portfolio of the LI wineries – it's what we and most of our reader will drink, after all!

      Mostly, I want to underscore that I am not an enemy of LI wine. After this past weekend, I am most certainly a friend of LI wine and will be watching (and cheering) on its success from a couple of hundred miles to the south. I just don't want the wineries of LI to get too hasty or speed up the development of their terroir, which I am sure will continue to reach new heights in those wines!

      Cheers!"

  • Ted


    Joe- Please enlighten a Left-Coaster. I know only enough about LI wines to pass the CSW exam.

    When I read the discussion of mediocre wines at high prices I wonder what is the motivation of the producer is. Lenn's comment (from his blog) that Cab Franc is often terrible (but in some years great) and Merlot is therefore better because it is consistently mediocre. Is this what LI producers are happy with? And how do they justify paying $50+ for it? It seems grapes and land are far less expensive than top CA regions.

    I guess your answer is generally that they should focus on white wine. My overall impression from the post is these producers are trying to make do with what they have and the wines are pretty good for where they are from. I don't think that is the case, just the vibe I got. I have a picture of those dudes in Hawaii that are making wine way high up the Volcano because they can.

    I also don't want to just tout that the Left Coast is the best coast (which it is, by the way) I really have very little knowledge of Eastern wine industry nor do we ever see these wines out here. I find this discussion very interesting!

    Thanks,
    Ted Henry

    • Lenn Thompson


      Ted, I think you mis-read my post. I think maybe you should re-read it ;)

      Long Island merlot is not consistently mediocre. If it were, I doubt that local winemakers would be happy with it.

      There are challenges every year in any cool-climate region. Those challenges, at least from what I know, are larger more often with cabernet franc than they are for Long Island merlot. It's that simple.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Ted. I'd say that based on your comment, either I did a crap job at explaining my position, or you've got your Left Coast blinders on – maybe both! :-)

      I'm not saying that LI is making do with what they have. I'm saying that they have HUGE potential in their wines, but that I'm not so sure that Merlot is THE variety for LI. There are sublime Merlots being made there, and their prices are astronomical.

      From what I tasted, the whites had more complexity and better balance, and I think concentrating *too* much on Merlot might sidetrack LI from developing what could be world-class white wines from Loire varieties.

      But all that is too short so instead I dragged it out into a confusing 1200 words! :-)

  • 1WineDude


    Evan – In my book, you're right on the money (on both counts).

    • Lenn Thompson


      The absolutely fascinating thing is that no one else is doing chenin. No one.

      Why? I dunno. Maybe they see the success — both critical and commerical — that the Massouds have had with the grape and they just don't want it? ;)

      • 1WineDude


        :-)

        My guess is that it's not a big seller. Which is a shame, because it kicks all kinds of ass…

  • Taster A


    Excellent synopsis of the weekend. I fully see what you are putting in black and white. I must say that the region has wonderful potential but it is not easy when the climate changes from year to year. I think that is making the LI wineries savvy and forces them to be fast on their feet.

    B and I didn’t have time to make it to Channing Daughters. I’m delighted to see that there are some LI wineries looking to Italy. The Italian style has helped Argentina and Chile. I wonder if they will try using the huge chestnut barrels. They give a softer tannin structure.

    B and I had a great time sipping and spitting with you this weekend. I glad to have met you and your family.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks! Great to finally meet you as well.

      I think the other thing that keeps LI winemakers on their feet is their passion and expertise – those people just have a scary amount of wine knowledge!

  • John Witherspoon


    Hey Joe
    As always, your writing amazes me. And Lenn, I thought you and Joe were mentioning sweet nothings in each others ears, glad to learn other wise! :)

    On to business…that Cab Franc from Shinn killed, but do I think it is what Cab Franc always is in Long Island? No! Do I speak from experience? Yes! Not Long Island experience but Virginia experience… That answer is loaded based on the context of your post of course as I think Cab Franc is a grape that will carry Virginia forward along with Viognier but both grapes still see tremendous variation from vintage to vintage, unless of course back to back vintages are stellar.

    I think the stellar knowledge of the wine makers in this region is really helping them make a leap forward. If you think in comparison how long the VA wine industry has been at it, and how the current LI wine industry compares, it is amazing. ANd I think that is in part because of the immense passion and more importantly knowledge that was brought into the region, it seems as a first step.

    Both Virginia and Long Island are "plagued" by on average 28 less growing degree days than the left coast of the United States so it would make sense they look across the pond for inspiration, technique, etc as a more stable reference. I don't after one weekend I am ready to say that Bordeaux or Burgundy is the wrong answer for inspiration. I did love Mr Tracy at Channing Daughters and his whites were everything you said they were, but again, not sure if it will be the right fit for the region in the long term, but they were damn good this weekend!

    Not sure if this comment made any sense…tons of thoughts running around in my head! haha

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, bro! First of all, I'd need a stepladder to be able to whisper sweet nothings into Lenn's ear…

      Coming from PA and knowing a bit about the Right Coast growing seasons, I fully appreciate what you're saying about VA and LI. They've got talented winemakers who are learning so fast, it will make your head spin.

      I guess in my ongoing and evolving opinion on LI wines (and Right Coast in general), I'd say not so much that Cab Franc is the future, but that they shouldn't be in a hurry to declare Merlot or Burgundy or Bordeaux as the defacto answers for the region. Much more experimentation is needed I think,

      Cheers!

  • Lenn Thompson


    I think the key point here is the "even in the worst years."

    In even typical years, there are some beautiful wines. In the best years, like 05 and 07, they can be amazing.

    And me talking about acreage planted is just giving you the full picture. No matter how much we try to romanticize wine, it's still a business.

  • Bryan


    Nice post. Next time tell us what you really think ;)

    Just wondering which whites you found a svelte minerality in?

    • 1WineDude


      Yeah, I need to come out of my shell now and then… :-)

      I got good minerality in a good number of the whites, actually, especially at Channing Daughters. But I should have said that it was svelte *fruit* (not svelte minerality) – sorry!

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