Some Personal Observations on Long Island Wine’s 40th Anniversary

Posted January 23, 2013 by Len Dest in Features
Photo Courtesy of Long Island Wine Council

Photo Courtesy of Long Island Wine Council

 

This year Long Island wine is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first vinifera grape plantings by Louisa and Alex Hargrave that kicked off the Long Island wine region.  As one who arrived very late to Long Island Wine some ten years ago, my perspective is somewhat different than that of the wine professionals and writers who have watched the evolution of wine making on Long Island over the past 40 years and the establishment of a solid wine region that today is acknowledged as producing both outstanding and unique wines.

Although I was raised and educated in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and was familiar with wine production in the Fingers Lakes region, I was not introduced to Long Island Wine until we moved to New York in 2003.  For the previous 30 years, I was either travelling consistently for business to California from the East Coast, or after moving to California in 1982 living there for 20 years and learning about wine from a West Coast perspective.

As I am not a wine professional but rather a wine enthusiast. California became my frame of reference for domestic wine, and how it compared to traditional European wines.  When I went to California in the 1970s it was all about Napa and Sonoma, particularly after California wines proved to be at least the equal of great European wines in a series of wine competitions. By the 1980s it was about the emerging West Coast wine regions that — like Long Island — began in the early 1970s. New vineyards had been planted from Santa Barbara, up the Central Coast to Paso Robles, to Monterey, to Santa Cruz, along the Sonoma Coast to Mendocino, and up to the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

Very much like Long Island, each of these regions experimented with multiple varieties and by the late 1980s to early 1990s each of these West Coast regions began to focus on one or two grapes or styles. Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley, with a hotter climate, found chardonnay and Southern Rhone varieties were a good match, while the cooler Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria regions focused on cool-climate pinot noir and lean chardonnay.  Further North in the Paso Robles hotter regions, zinfandel became the grape, while in cooler portions of that region Southern Rhone grapes were selected, as they were in Southern Monterrey   The cooler Santa Lucia Highlands of the Carmel Valley selected pinot noir, as did Santa Cruz and the Sonoma Coastal wine regions. In Mendocino’s cool climate white varieties were the predominate wines.  In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, pinot noir was the main vareity although cool-climate whites such as pinot blanc, pinot gris and riesling were being planted and producing excellent wines. Later Washington State focused on riesling in the cooler Colombia River region, while merlot and cabernet sauvignon were the main grapes in the hotter Walla Walla wine region.

When I began to explore the Long Island wine region starting in 2003, there were a number of surprises — some positive and some less so.

First, while not really knowing the history of Long Island viticulture, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful vineyards found on the East End.  It was clear that there were serious proprietors and vineyard managers who invested in developing outstanding vineyards.  Unlike the developing West Coast wine regions that were located on hillsides, Long Island was more like the Napa Valley with broad flat vineyards. Second, I was impressed with the number of substantial wineries and large attractive tasting rooms.  The newer West Coast wine regions, unlike established Napa and Sonoma regions, tended to have far fewer fully equipped wineries and far less extensive tasting rooms. And of course I found the leaner more European-style red wines to be very appealing, particularly in comparison to the big, fruity and high alcohol wines from Napa and Sonoma.

Ten years ago there were some disappointments.  My biggest problem back then was the big variation in quality between the top producers and the lower-tier producers, and quality issues in certain wines, particularly whites, from both top and lesser producers.  I had just not experienced such major variation in quality on the West Coast — especially given that Long Island wines, as they remain today, were priced at the upper levels of the domestic wine price range.

My second problem ten years ago was that after finding great wines at the wineries, when I went back to Manhattan, it was difficult or impossible to find the wines being sold at wine stores. Not only could I not buy in Manhattan, I could not have friends in Pennsylvania or California also experience the wines I was enjoying.

Another issue with the Long Island wine region was — unlike the developing West Coast regions — there did not seem to be a distinctive variety that identified Long Island Wine. Ten years ago Long Island seemed to be continuing to experiment with many grapes and many winemaking styles, including some that were not well suited.

By 2006 when we purchased a house on the East End, I was completely committed to the land, the winemaking and wine of Long Island.  The wine cellar at our house was quickly filled with the best wines I could find at wineries and local retail stores. I seriously considered investing in a vineyard, and becoming an active member of the Long Island wine community. I was fortunate to be introduced to top winemakers and proprietors and eagerly took on a role at the Long Island Merlot Alliance (now Merliance) in 2008 as I had concluded merlot and merlot-based blends represented the best of Long Island.

After two years back in the aerospace industry, when in 2011 I returned to New York I was pleased to find that Long Island wine remained robust during difficult economic times.  New wineries, new brands and new approaches were being pursued. While no one variety has emerged as defining Long Island wine, there do appear to be positive trends.

Fortunately the issue of wine quality has significantly improved in the ten years I have been observing Long Island wine, although it is far from completely solved.  As the lowest quality producer or wine remains the weakest link in the reputation of the a wine region, it seems to me to be important that the collective of Long Island wine ensures that all wine being produced is of high quality. Unfortunately, as consumer interest in merlot remains low, one of Long Island’s strengths has had a run of bad luck.  But as leaner, lower alcohol, aromatic wines are popular with consumers, Long Island is well positioned with it maritime climate.  As a top winemaker has said, “Long Island does not have adjust to make these wines; it is what we have always made.”

A number of white varietals and in particular white blends, sparkling wines and rosés are increasingly being seen as the potential defining wines of Long Island.

Distribution is also improving, but in my opinion has far to go. Yes, today it is much easier to buy Long Island wines in Manhattan and throughout the greater New York area, but try to buy Long Island wine in Philadelphia, or San Francisco, or Portland.  Fortunately, wine shipment regulations have improved and it is now possible to ship wine to many of these locations. And in addition to distribution, price remains an issue, While I know firsthand how expensive Long Island vineyard land is, how expensive productions costs are, these costs are as high or higher on the West Coast, and there are far more lower priced California, Oregon and Washington wines in the marketplace than there are Long Island wines. This remains a major challenge.

Congratulations to all those that are and have been engaged in Long Island Wine over the past 40 years,  The progress has been great and the potential remains even greater.