Certain parts of this country seem more like punch lines than they do places to live. The state of New Jersey, for example, or Toledo, Ohio. Both have been the target of quite a few funny songs and late-night comedy routines. Needless to say, they’re not places where great wine is made. As the stereotype goes, great wine is made in glamorous locations (e.g., Napa or Tuscany) synonymous with money and prestige. And then there’s the contradiction that is Long Island: It’s the target of jokes (and the inspiration of many Billy Joel songs), but it’s also the home of the glamorous Hamptons, and lately, the source of some very good wines.
Until recently, this last fact was more a rumor than a reality to me. While I’d heard that Long Island wines had improved, and some had even earned impressive critical scores, I still wasn’t convinced they had really gotten dramatically better. I had some bad memories to overcome, too. In fact, the last time I’d visited the North Fork (the island’s chief viticultural region), about 10 years ago, I’d tasted a lot of not-so-great wines, mostly high-acid Cabernet Francs and herbaceous Merlots. And these were the grapes that Long Island winemakers supposedly did well.
But in the past several years, I’d heard about other high-performing varietals—Tocai, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, to name a few. I even found some on wine lists in Manhattan. The new Borough Food & Drink, for instance, sells 13 Long Island wines. "Do a lot of people order these wines?" I asked after choosing a bottle of Wölffer Rosé. "They do," replied the waiter, a burly young fellow with an accent whose borough of origin (Brooklyn) was unmistakable. "They’re getting more and more popular. I really like that one," he said, pointing to the list: the Dr. Konstantin Frank Rkatsiteli, an obscure white Russian grape. But alas, the wine is from the Finger Lakes, upstate.