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Dreams of a Napa by the Sound

After years of obscurity, the North Fork of Long Island is emerging as a promising wine region,with aspirations of greatness. But it has yet to decide what exactly it wants to be when it grows up.

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The Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck.  

Eric Fry spends much of his year poring over bundles of stiff orange sheets known in the wine trade as chromatograms. The bottom of each sheet carries a row of wine spots, one smear for each wine in Fry’s cellars at the Lenz Winery near Cutchogue. Holding a sheet up to his mouth, he raises an open bottle of Parsons’ all-purpose cleaner and blows across its top like a man making bubbles. The ammonia from the solution hits the sheets and reacts with acids in the wine, smearing them upward in green-blue blobs and streaks. Fry points at the streaks with massive, soil-stained fingers—the three acids contained in wine, malic, tartaric, and lactic, all streak at different speeds, so the acid content of each wine is immediately revealed.

“I’m like a jeweler endlessly fussing over tiny details,” he says, as if resigned to his own fanaticism. “I’m watching that malic acid decline. Acid balance is everything.”

In his graying ponytail, beard, and blue overalls, Fry looks more hippie farmer than jeweler, but the intensity in the eye is the same. We move into the cellars, pipettes in hand, ready to sample from barrels. Lenz is one of the top wineries in the North Fork, and Fry has long been considered one of Long Island’s star winemakers, a prized consultant to thirteen estates. We taste some of his old-vines Merlot—still foamy and tartly young in barrel—and he explains that Long Island is at something of a crossroads these days. It is no longer an obscure region in the shadow of the metropolis, but neither has it made its way onto the city’s greatest wine lists. New York’s indigenous wine is a mass of contradictions: Bordeaux varietals made in Burgundian styles, artisanal methods jostling with industrial production, Jeffersonian agricultural idealism merging with an influx of millionaires. The wines are getting notice; the crowds are getting thicker. In ten years, the transformations have been radical. Is the North Fork, then, becoming New York City’s very own Napa Valley, a wine-tourist theme park?

“Well,” muses Fry, a little perturbed by the familiar comparison to Napa. “I suppose something like that is happening. The voracious reach of the Big Apple is bound to touch us. But most wine economies around the world are tourist economies now. Look at Bordeaux. Look at Chianti.”

Inevitably, Long Island faces the dilemmas Napa faced 30 years ago. Back then, Napa was unrecognized in the world, its wines often crude and technically unsophisticated. In the eighties, all that changed. Technology, a growing interaction with elite French estates, and ruthless marketing turned Napa into a wine superpower, as well as a potent tourist draw. It’s doubtful that Long Island can reproduce the same spectacular success story. And given that Napa today is almost a byword for “supermodel” wines lacking character and intimacy, many North Fork producers are acutely wary of following closely in its footsteps, even while envying much of what Napa has accomplished.

Long Island has been a wine region only since two young pioneers named Louisa and Alex Hargrave planted grapes in 1973. Thirty years on, 60-odd vineyards spread over 3,000 acres produce 1.2 million gallons of wine a year, fueling a $65 million annual business. Such success has sucked in a new generation of entrepreneurs seeking what Californians call “the Vine Life”: a heady pastoral lifestyle based on vineyard ownership.

But somehow a stigma remains. In his thick, global-minded Wine Buyer’s Guide, critic Robert Parker barely mentions New York State. Manhattan restaurants offer more wines from New Zealand than they do from the far end of Long Island. True, the days are long gone when snobs purported to detect a whiff of potatoes in the glass, and Lenz runs ads boasting of how a $55 bottle of its 1997 Estate Merlot beat a $650 Château Petrus in a blind tasting. But the rankling sense of being ignored by the metropolis persists.

Some of this can be chalked up to the idiocy of fashion, which governs the wine trade like almost no other. That evening, Fry took me to a winemakers’ blind-tasting dinner at Starr Boggs restaurant in Westhampton Beach. Eleven winemakers brought unmarked bottles to sample, the only condition being that none of them should be from Long Island (I brought a Bisson Prosecco from Liguria). After a few rounds of blind tasting, the vintners got into heated oenological debates. I was seated next to Charles Massoud, owner of Paumanok winery, one of the most rigorously artisanal on the North Fork. Of Lebanese descent, Massoud was once an IBM executive. Today, he is the archetypal family-wine patriarch presiding over a very personal estate. His German wife is from the Pfalz winegrowing region and has helped steer him away from the California model, with its emphasis on specialization—in California, vineyard managers and winemakers tend to be distinct professions. Massoud prefers to be both farmer and winemaker, like his French and German counterparts.

“A regional picture has not yet emerged here,” Massoud said, as we listened to the in-house entertainer belt out Paul McCartney songs on a sad electric piano. “There are just a handful of wineries that have made a serious commitment to quality.” He then leaned over and murmured softly, as if spies might be about: “Not like some operations I could mention. The region is going to have to decide where it’s going.”

We then opened the Bisson Prosecco, and the table drank it. It was deliciously unusual, with a faint scent of yeast—a perfect Prosecco, I thought, though naturally quite unlike any Long Island wine.

“It’s corked,” a voice piped up, using a term to describe wine that’s spoiled in the bottle. I decided not to argue. The comment struck me as either an example of extreme technical obsessiveness or else of a kind of inferiority complex. As it happens, the latter sentiment is the more ironic, for Long Island is at last on the threshold of being known, and rightly celebrated, for its serious wines. No reason to feel so inferior anymore.

Intermingled among the charming old clapboards with their apple trees and slow-moving Hyster tractors are the spiffy, novel signs of the wine economy: creative environmental design, landscape gardeners, wine tasting here. Route 25 looks like a plush suburban gated community studded with wineries like Raphael, an imposing faux Tuscan monastery—are we really in Cutchogue? Other operations have a slicker, chic-er look. Take Bedell Cellars, founded in 1980 and perhaps Long Island’s most famous winery.

It was the Merlots made by winemaker Kip Bedell in the early nineties that put the region on the map, and his creations have remained among the North Fork’s most prestigious wines (he was “Mr. Merlot” on the cover of The Wine Spectator). A former retail fuel-oil dealer, Bedell bought the declining potato farm as a hobby and planted some Zinfandel there for fun. Learning as he went along, he turned himself into a winemaker—though his ruddy, no-nonsense face somehow still reminds one of a successful petroleum retailer.

“Our original capital wasn’t enough,” he says, sitting in the newly renovated Bedell guest cottage, wearing a neat Bedell Cellars T-shirt. “We set the winery up, but it was Michael Lynne who saved us for the longer haul.”


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