In a country that pledges allegiance to California vintages, Long Island wines are fighting for recognition--and getting it. At a July 4th picnic, East End winemakers tout their region.
On the way back to the marina from a recent sail around Peconic Bay, off the North Fork of Long Island, New York, chef David Page stared at the Long Beach Bar Lighthouse. Known as Bug Light (at one time, it was propped up on its foundation by spindly metal joints that resembled insect legs), this striking Victorian edifice is perched on a rock outcropping completely surrounded by water. "Don't you have the keys?" Page asked his friend Frank Lynn. Lynn, then the director of the East End Seaport Museum and Marine Foundation, which maintains Bug Light, did, in fact, have the keys.
To the lighthouse, then. Several weeks later, inside Bug Light, at a picnic table, Page--who, with his wife, Barbara Shinn, owns Home restaurant in Manhattan and Shinn Vineyards in Mattituck, Long Island--served a Fourth of July luncheon celebrating Long Island's best foods and wines. Frank Lynn and his wife, Jane Baxter Lynn, the executive director of the Long Island Wine Council, were there. So were the couples behind Jamesport Vineyards and Schneider Vineyards, who brought along bottles to pair with Page's menu: Oysters Casino, a version of clams Casino using the shellfish Long Island is known for; grilled wild striped bass, which are abundant in the local waters; and spicy brisket sandwiches on potato rolls, an homage to Long Island's famous potato farms.
The mood inside the lighthouse reflected the winemakers' excitement about the burgeoning Long Island scene. Over the past four years, investments of $30 to $40 million have swelled the number of Long Island wineries to 27. As Jane Baxter Lynn says, "That's an impressive number when you think of the relatively small size of the region"--only about 3,000 acres planted to grapes. The roster of new East Enders includes Leslie Alexander, owner of the Houston Rockets and now Alexander Vineyards; the group of Chilean vintners behind Laurel Lake; Italian prince Marco Borghese and his wife, Ann Marie, who recently purchased Hargrave Vineyard (founded in 1973, it's one of the region's pioneers) and renamed it Castello di Borghese/Hargrave Vineyard; and the co-CEO of New Line Cinema, Michael Lynne, who plumped for two: Bedell Cellars and Corey Creek Vineyards. Lynne says, "I was looking in California, France and Italy, but then someone took me on a tour of the North Fork. It felt so much like a small version of Napa 30 years ago that I decided to indulge my fantasy and buy a vineyard here."
In this crowd of newcomers at the July Fourth lunch, Ron Goerler Jr. and his wife, Joanne, of Jamesport Vineyards are old hands, since his father started planting grapes in Jamesport in 1981. Ron Jr. says, "Everyone was planting Chardonnay when we came out here. But we enjoyed drinking Sauvignon Blanc and liked how well it pairs with a wide variety of foods. The grape is different from year to year. Every vintage we have to adjust." Appropriately, he takes the long view about winemaking. "Twenty years ago, we were happy just buying land and planting grapes. Now we know that making great wine takes time: I'm still learning about the weather." Long Island has an environment similar to Bordeaux's, but its microclimate, especially the North Fork's, is warmer. This affords a long growing season--a condition that favors not only Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay but also Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Another guest at the lighthouse luncheon, Bruce Schneider of Schneider Vineyards, in Riverhead, is third generation in the wine business (he comes from a family of importers) but a first- generation vintner. "We always thought we would make wine in Napa," he says, but he and his wife, Christiane Baker Schneider, became enamored of Long Island. Cabernet Franc, they believe, is especially well suited to their vineyard. "Cabernet Franc is the best of both worlds," Bruce says. "It has the nice up-front fruit of Merlot, and the structure and backbone of Cabernet Sauvignon. And I love the aromatics."
David Page and Barbara Shinn bought land in Mattituck just four years ago and are still busy planting, mostly Merlot. A hot, airless summer afternoon in the basement of their now-closed Manhattan restaurant, Drovers, "with the pipes sweating and dripping on us," Page says, convinced the couple, who had always dreamed of opening a winery, that it was time. Shinn Vineyards is now a work in progress; its wines are still a few years from hitting the market.
Though fledgling vintners, Page and Shinn have been longtime enthusiasts of the region, and Long Island wines have always been prominent at Home. When people at the restaurant ask Page why there are no French or Italian bottles on the list, he tells them, "If you go to Bordeaux, you don't drink Burgundy." Which explains why the new culture of food and wine on the North Fork makes perfect sense to Page: "There's this incredible connection between the wine and the food. We produce all these crisp and fresh, fruit-forward wines. The Sauvignon Blancs pair with all the beautiful shellfish here. Long Island is famous for its duck, and I don't know a wine in the world that would go better with it than our Merlot."
At their Fourth of July luncheon, the proof is on the table. With good acidity and not too much oak, the Schneider Chardonnay served with Page's creamy clam chowder exemplifies the local style, one that makes it a better companion for food than many of its West Coast counterparts, which have a tendency to overwhelm whatever dishes they're paired with. (In fact, in a kind of reverse commute, Schneider Vineyards Chardonnay has appeared on the list at the well-regarded Napa Valley restaurant Tra Vigne.) Meanwhile, the Jamesport Sauvignon Blanc, with its lovely balance of acidity and fruit, is a natural with the bacon-studded Oysters Casino.
A surge in interest often spells the beginning of the end for a rural area, but the opposite is true here. The suburban sprawl of Long Island stops at the edge of the North Fork, where land has always been committed to farming rather than retail or housing. The setting, a hybrid of pastoral and maritime, is still relatively undiscovered by tourists, unaffectedly American. Certainly the Fourth of July party at the lighthouse fits that description. As Page says, "At the end of the day, it's an amazing place to be."
Charlie Suisman, a freelance writer in New York City, wrote Manhattan User's Guide.