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Learning From Long Island

As a teenager, she couldn't wait to leave Long Island. But on a recent drive through the North Fork, this skeptic discovers great wines, gifted chefs and delicious local foods.

Like a lot of people who grew up on suburban Long Island, I couldn't wait to leave. I spent my twenties trying to escape, eventually moving 3,000 miles away, to France. Naturally I was skeptical that the wine region on the rural North Fork of Long Island could live up to its nickname, the Napa of the East, much less rival French wine country. But since moving back to the Island four years ago, I've heard about how exciting the area has become, with more than 3,000 acres of vineyards and charming restaurants and shops opening every year.

So one Friday afternoon I found myself on the Long Island Expressway with my husband, Bill, trailing the eastbound Hampton Jitney. When the bus veered south toward the Hamptons, the moneyed enclave across Peconic Bay from the North Fork, we headed north on Main Road into the old whaling village of Greenport, where we would be staying at the Greenporter Hotel and Spa.

As we drove into town, I realized that the North Fork is nothing like the bedroom community where I grew up. Instead of split-levels, there are white-clapboard houses; instead of strip malls, there are farm stands with orchards and fields behind them stretching to Peconic Bay. The North Fork also has a reputation as the retro alternative to the high-powered Hamptons, and the Greenporter, a renovated 1950s motor lodge, seems to confirm that. But the hotel also offers vinotherapy treatments as well as Frette linens and Annick Goutal bath products in its 15 guest rooms. Fifteen more rooms and a full-service spa are under construction.

Whenever I took trips in France, I got into the habit of booking a room at the inn where I would be eating the first night so I could simply walk upstairs to bed after dinner. And that's what I'd done at the Greenporter, since I had made a reservation at its restaurant, La Cuvée Wine Bar & French Bistro. La Cuvée, with its wraparound windows, zinc bar and chartreuse chairs, feels as hip as anything in New York City. And the diners here look like investment bankers, not farmers or fishermen. In fact, owner Deborah Rivera still runs a financial management company in Manhattan.

Rivera is also La Cuvée's chef, and her menu is just what you might expect of a gifted home cook who is a diplomat's daughter (she spent her childhood in Madrid, Paris and Mexico City): red pepper bisque, linguine with arugula pesto. The meaty, rich bluefish I had for dinner, which had been caught by one of Rivera's cooks, was sautéed with fresh herbs that grow in pots outside her kitchen door.

Half of La Cuvée's 60-bottle wine list is local. I am admittedly prejudiced against American wines, which I generally find to be overbearing. I don't want to taste raspberries or oak in my wine; I like subdued flavors and lively acidity, the better for pairing the wine with food. But it seemed ridiculous to drink European bottles on a weekend in the North Fork, especially because Long Island wines are hard to find outside the area (only 400,000 cases are produced a year, a fraction of California's nearly 200 million cases). Rivera suggested wine pairings for each course on the tasting menu, and many were a revelation. The fruity, sweet Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Paumanok Vineyards, for instance, was delicious with a salty Stilton cheese.

The next morning, we headed west toward Cutchogue on Main Road. First stop was the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Free Library, which occupies a deconsecrated Congregational church that dates back to 1862. We hoped to borrow some cassette tapes to play in the car between wineries: A librarian obligingly checked out a few for us on her own card.

Then we drove to Wickham's Fruit Farm, one of the North Fork's 35-odd farm stands. I'd heard about the place from Eberhard Müller, the executive chef at Bayard's in Manhattan, who with his wife, Paulette Satur, owns nearby Satur Farms and buys doughnuts from Wickham's for his farm crew. We watched the dough being fried in a machine that moves it through hot oil, then sampled some warm, fresh doughnuts at a picnic table.

If the 200-acre Wickham's hasn't become a housing development, it's because the owners understand that modern farms must also be in the entertainment business to survive. So in addition to selling apples, pears, grapes and cider in season, Prudence Wickham Heston and her husband, Dan Heston, offer hayrides and fruit-and-vegetable picking—on an autumn Saturday, up to 4,000 people come to pick apples. The Hestons even converted Freddy's House, their 1798 Cape Cod—style home, into a lovely bed-and-breakfast with two Victorian-style guest rooms. Guests can wander through the farm's wildlife sanctuary and hang out at its private white-sand beach overlooking Peconic Bay. At Wickham's you can also find homemade pies, jams, honey, breads and an impressive array of cheeses, everything from Fontina and Manchego to Drunken Goat and Cacio di Roma. The only thing missing for a picnic was the wine, so we moved on to Lenz Winery in Peconic.

As we pulled into the tasting room set amid flat-as-Kansas rows of staked, grape-laden vines, I wondered, how can you make good wines without slopes? You don't need them to drain off the rain, it turns out, if your winery is built on a giant sand pile. Vines don't like wet roots, Eric Fry, Lenz's winemaker explained, and Long Island's sandy soil allows the rain to run off. What the North Fork also has is sun, more than practically any other place in New York, and because it's not relentlessly hot—fall is especially gorgeous—the grapes ripen slowly and don't have to be shaded as they do in Napa. That combination allows some 30 East End wineries to grow more than 20 European varietals, mostly Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

In Lenz's barnlike tasting room, we sampled four reserve wines—two can easily share a single $2 pour—then bought a bottle of the big, fruity 1997 Old Vines Merlot made from 20-year-old vines. We also picked up a bottle of the minerally Pinot Gris for our picnic, which we ate on the winery's small porch under a leafy grapevine canopy.

Raphael's vineyard is virtually across the street. The 7,000-square-foot Italianate tasting room with its ceramic-tiled floors, chandeliers and gift shop selling white-truffle oil and Deruta pottery couldn't have been more different from Lenz's no-nonsense barn—or more unintimidating for beginners. We tasted a Sauvignon Blanc with good acidity, an easy-to-drink Saignée (a rosé made from Merlot) and several Merlots, which are the focus here. A selection of cheeses is also available with the flight. Who wouldn't have fun trying wines here?

In the past, we wouldn't have been able to taste the bottlings from smaller producers, who don't usually have their own tasting rooms. But in May, the Tasting Room, the first cooperative wine shop opened on the North Fork. When we were there, Robin Meredith was pouring his Broadfields Cabernet Franc and Merlot as well as bottles from the other members of the co-op, Schneider Vineyards, Sherwood House Vineyards and Le Clos Thérèse. All are interesting: The Broadfields wines are bottled without blending or filtering, and the Schneider Vineyards Chardonnay has acidity without an overwhelming oakiness. I walked out with an assorted case to bring home.

There was still some time before dinner, so we wandered along the grassy waterside park in Greenport. A few kids were reaching for brass rings on an antique carousel; fishermen unloaded bluefish, flounder and striped bass; and day-trippers boarded the ferry for Shelter Island. On Front Street, which runs along the bay, we window-shopped and shared a chocolate-dipped biscotti from Aldo's Too. At Salamander's, we found Satur Farms vinegars, which tasted like they'd been made from the wines we'd been sampling all afternoon.

When we got to the Frisky Oyster in Greenport, the bar was already buzzing. Owner Dennis McDermott, who also grew up in a Long Island suburb and moved away, opened the business last year. His small menu, which changes weekly, pulls together an internationally inspired mix: a homey carrot and red lentil soup with Asian spices; grilled striped bass with spinach and a delicious potato cake. The short wine list, which is updated nearly as often as the menu, is geared toward year-round residents searching beyond Long Island for wines, though there are always several estate selections from locals such as Corey Creek and Macari Vineyards.

On Sunday, following a tip from David Page and Barbara Shinn, who own the restaurant Home in Manhattan and Shinn Vineyards in Mattituck, I discovered several shops on Love Lane in Mattituck. After buying some delicious scones and blueberry-and-cheese danishes from Connie's Bake Shop & Café, we had our breakfast at a table in the bakery's pocket park, which is painted with a French village scene. If I hadn't already made a lunch reservation, I would have picked up artisanal bread made by Bill Schenone, Connie's husband, and stopped at the Village Cheese Shop for some Morbier and Appenzeller, and then selected handmade chocolate turtles and nonpareils from the Love Lane Sweet Shoppe for dessert.

I wasn't disappointed holding out for the Seafood Barge, overlooking the marina in Southold. To my surprise and delight, chef Michael Meehan has fun with his fresh catch—since when can you get sushi at a seafood shack? His menu also includes fried flounder with tartar sauce and coleslaw, familiar but terrific. The fish was caught off the coast of the South Fork; the coleslaw includes three different cabbages; and the tartar sauce is homemade. Paulette Satur, who was a wine consultant before she became a farmer, helped create the wine list, which is largely devoted to North Fork bottlings.

There's so much I didn't get to do in our two-day stay on the North Fork. I didn't rent a bicycle or a kayak or take the ferry over to Shelter Island or visit the Horton Point Lighthouse & Nautical Museum. But what I did do was find my way back to Long Island to discover an exciting, growing food culture in my own backyard.

Published October 2003
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