Less than two hours from New York City, vine buds are beginning to break. The vineyards that started replacing potato fields 26 years ago on Long Island's sleepy North Fork are bearing fruit, and the grapes are attracting an onslaught of A-list investors. Already being poured at the Union Square Cafe, Jean Georges, and Lutèce, Long Island wines, once scoffed at, are suddenly chic, prompting observers to liken the North Fork to Napa Valley circa 1970.
"Thirty years ago," says Charles Massoud, winemaker-owner of Paumanok Vineyards and until last month president of Long Island's Wine Council, "Napa wines were pooh-poohed. Restaurants wouldn't serve them until San Franciscans started demanding them. We're not there yet, but we may be getting there." Eberhard Müller, owner-chef of Lutèce, may not grow grapes on his eighteen-acre North Fork farm but says he is "already pouring a number of great Long Island wines at Lutèce. Macari makes a fabulous Chardonnay. Lenz makes great aromatic whites. Paumanok made an absolutely stunning wine in 1995, which I'm cellaring. One day people will say, 'Wow, you have 1995 Paumanok in your cellar?' "
The first North Fork vineyard was planted by Louisa and Alex Hargrave in 1973. "People thought the Hargraves were two eccentric kids with money to play with," remembers Matthew Gillies, who began working for the couple in 1979 and currently manages the Peconic Bay Winery. Now they're considered trailblazers. Since 1995, vine-planted acreage on the North Fork, which currently supports 22 vineyards, has tripled, from 1,055 to the current 3,186. Real-estate deals in the past year alone have exceeded $20 million.
"When we started selling wine in 1990," Massoud says, "People said, 'What are you talking about? Long Island wine?' Today, the question is 'Which wines are we going to buy?' " Paumanok's 1997 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc has been poured at several White House dinners, and Robert Parker recently rated the 1998 vintage an 89-plus out of 100. "Parker tasted 681 wines outside of California," brags Massoud. "There were five wineries whose wines scored higher than our wines."
The current investment boomlet began last July when Juan Esteban Sepulveda, the youngest son in a Chilean winemaking family, bought Laurel Lake's thirteen planted and eight raw acres with five other partners for $2.2 million (they leased 22 more acres in November). "We looked in California, France, Australia, and New Zealand," says Sepulveda, who oversees the operation. "Then we found this small place on Long Island that grows very good grapes." Michael Lynne, New Line Cinema's president and a wine enthusiast, followed with the August purchase of Joel Lauber's Corey Creek for $2 million. "I've always wanted to own a vineyard," says Lynne, a New York native, "and I looked extensively in France and Italy. This area's potential blew me away. I'm 100 percent convinced the North Fork is going to become a globally recognized wine region." Matthew Gillies negotiated the purchase of Peconic Bay Winery and 200 acres for Manhattan investment banker Paul Lowerre and his wife, Ursula, for an undisclosed sum, and Leslie Alexander, the Boca Raton-based owner of the Houston Rockets and Comets, bought acreage in Southold to grow grapes and sell them to established wineries.
Last October, the Hargraves sold their 84-acre estate to Marco Borghese, an Italian prince, and his wife, Ann Marie, for $4.4 million -- the most expensive real-estate deal in North Fork history until this February, when Michael Lynne upped the ante by contracting to pay $5 million for Bedell Cellars, a 30-acre vineyard. At first, Kip Bedell, touted as Long Island's best red-winemaker by The Wine Spectator in 1999, wasn't interested in selling, but Lynne tempted him with a five-year winemaking contract on top of the sale.
No matter how big the deals get, of course, Napa's heir apparent will never compare in volume. "There's more land under vine in Napa than there's land in the entire North Fork," says David Sokolin, a Southampton wine merchant who invested in Corey Creek and Bedell with Lynne. But enthusiasts are certain the North Fork will catch up in cachet. "We're in Napa 1968 right now," says Sokolin's partner, Michael Densen. "That's when the world said, 'Wow, this place is for real.' "