Celebrating 40 Years of Long Island Wine: A Look Into the Future

Posted March 12, 2013 by Lenn Thompson in Regions
40

I’ve got some ground to make up if I’m going to write 40 posts about Long Island wine’s first 40 years. So today, let’s start not by looking at the region’s past or even its present. Instead, I want to look at where I think Long Island wine will be when it turns 50 or 60.

I’ve been drinking and exploring Long Island wine for a decade now — and writing about it for nearly as long. A lot has changed in those ten years.  It may be cliche to say that “Long Island wines have never been better” but it’s also true. Growers have honed their practices to squeeze every last bit of ripening out of each of Long Island’s diverse growing seasons. Winemakers have started to embrace Long Island terroir rather than trying to style their wines like those from Bordeaux or California. The ‘good’ wineries of the past are pushing into ‘great’ territory. And the lesser wineries are pushing into mediocre — at least most are.

And yet, it feels a bit like Long Island wine has grown a bit too comfortable in its skin and reached a bit of a plateau. I don’t think that it’s a long-term plateau though. — eventually you have to either continue your ascent up the mountain, or you fall into a canyon.  I think you’ll see some of both happen in the next 10-20 years, but a revolution could be afoot — one that could greatly change the landscape and re-energize Long Island wine country.

So what changes will drive this revolution? Here are some predictions for the next 10-20 years of Long Island wine. Some are more wishful thinking than anything else, but this is what I think you’ll see happen in coming years.

Continued Importance (Dependence on?) of Agri-Tourism
I’ve been vocal (probably too vocal) in my disdain for this trend. I’ve decried the decision to rely on food and live music and all the other bells and whistles to drive foot traffic to tasting rooms over making better wine, but no more. It’s still not how I’d operate a winery if I owned one — at least I like to think I wouldn’t — but for many the financial realities of sustaining a winery on Long Island mean at least dipping one’s toe into the amusement park-as-a-winery pool.

And, unless land or labor costs drastically shrink in coming years, which won’t happen, this will continue to be an important part of how individual wineries market themselves and sell their wine.

Some Large Wineries Will Close
It is expensive to make wine on Long Island — very expensive. Land is expensive. Manpower is expensive. And growing grapes in this climate can be very expensive. Long Island’s winery community has grown over the years with the help of owners who made their money in other industries and bought into the region. I don’t have access to their books, but it’s commonly accepted that several local wineries are not consistently profitable. And, the fact that several wineries are for sale and have been for years, leads one to believe that outside investors don’t think that it’s easy to make money here either.

I think the fiscal realities may be catching up with some owners — particularly the larger wineries with large staffs. Let’s call it the Bordeaux chateau model.

No one wants to see wineries closing, but I think a few will over the ten years. And I think it will be some of the larger ones, with larger overhead, that are big for the region but not big enough to really benefit from economies of scale.

Smaller Vineyards/Producers Could Flourish
If that’s the Bordeaux model, I think we will see a move to more of a Burgundian one in coming years. Smaller plots. Owner-vigneron doing most, if not all, of the vineyard and cellar work. That model takes “handmade” to the extreme and offers a level of connectedness to consumers that larger, corporate wineries just can’t offer. Plus, with far lower overhead, this model may be more financially sustainable over the long haul.

Less New Oak
This tide has already started to turn. Rich Olsen-Harbich has scaled way back on the new oak being used at Bedell Cellars with outstanding results. Anthony Nappa made one of my favorite wines of 2011 with his unoaked 2010 cabernet franc “Bordo.”

Cutting back on the new oak allows the unique, distinctive qualities of Long Island wine shine brighter. That matters more now to a wider audience. Winemakers are starting to take note. And hey, maybe it makes sound financial sense too.

Less Reliance on Merlot and Chardonnay
Yes, chardonnay and merlot are consistent in the vineyard. That’s why they are the two most-planted varieties on Long Island. But the fact is that no matter how good Long Island merlot is, it’s just not a sexy grape right now. It would be hyperbole to say that no one cares about those grapes, but in many circles, it’s true.

I recently did an informal poll of some of the local wineries who have had the most success selling their wines in New York City. Chardonnay wasn’t mentioned once and merlot barely so. Instead, New York seems more interested in chenin blanc and pinot blanc and cabernet franc and white pinot noir.

More Focus on White Wines
Even the most reliable red grape, merlot, can be difficult to ripen on Long Island in those cooler, grayer years. And, with the extra vineyard work and applications red grapes sometimes need — plus oak barrels in the cellar — costs go up and are eventually passed along to the consumer, who sometimes complain about Long Island wine prices. Consider the low yields that are often required to get adequate quality and the need to store reds for at least two years before release and you can understand why Long Island reds can be pricey.

Aromatic white wines don’t require oak barrels, ripen earlier in the season and can be sold more quickly after bottling — making them cheaper to produce. And what goes better with Long Island’s seafood bounty than crisp white wines?

Improved Regional Marketing
In part, this is just wishful thinking on my part — Some wineries do a fine job marketing themselves,  but I’m hopeful that eventually a person or organization will come along to help unite the region under a singular message and execute an innovative, fresh, long-term campaign to promote that message.  Is that message a single grape? Is it diversity? Is it something else? I don’t know — but Long Island wine, as a whole, is deserving of more attention from more journalists. Wineries need to be able to work collaboratively to make that happen.