Long Island Wine: Agritourism isn’t the Whole Story

Posted February 20, 2014 by Lenn Thompson in Regions


Call it agri-tourism or agri-tainment (or maybe you think those are different things), activities-other-than-wine tasting have firmly entrenched themselves into the Long Island wine country experience. Tactics once employed by only a small handful of mediocre producers are being employed even by some of the region’s best now.

Food beyond crackers and maybe some cheese. Daily, often-loud live music. Events that only tangentially center on wine. Boisterous crowds often more interested in drinking wine than tasting it. That’s the reality of Long Island wine country today and for the forseeable future. At least until local government has had enough.

After years of loudly lamenting the trend and pointing out the potential hazzards, I’ve finally come to accept this new reality.

Do I still think agri-tourism stifles innovation and the drive for better and better wines? Sure. If the drinking (rather than tasting) throngs are happy with “good enough” wines, why bother investing time and money into improving them?

Thankfully, even as agri-tourism has become ubiquitous, complacency in the cellar has not. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at wineries where there is a true passion for it, great wine is still very much the focus.

That’s what I find myself focusing on these days. Someone asked me recently why I’m still so enthusiastic about the future of Long Island wine in the face of a Temecula-style focus on tourism. There are a handful of reasons.

A New Generation of Winemakers
At times, the Long Island wine industry edges on the insular. Winemakers tend to stay in jobs for many years and if they do move around, they seem to take one another’s jobs. Pair that with the current trend of wineries employing a “consultant winemaker” — who may be doing that job for a handful of local wineries — rather than hiring a dedicated winemaker, and you can get a lot of sameness in the wines, even if many of them are tasty.

A half dozen or so younger, full-time winemakers is breathing new life into the region with their intrepid drive to find new ways to make good wines better. Some have held other jobs on Long Island and can now spread their wings and make their wines. Others are new to the region and are looking at every aspect of the grape-growing and winemaking process with fresh eyes and ideas.

They respect those who came before them — and still lean on them for advice from time to time — but continue to push the envelope of what great Long Island wine is and can be. Field blends. Orange wines. Concrete eggs for fermentation. Pet Nat-style wines. Continued experimentation with ambient yeasts. Even vermouths — which are just aromatized wine. New grapes. Those things are all going on right now. It’s fun. It’s important. Some of those things may just be the future.

Vintages Like 2009
By now, we all know that vintage variation is a big part of what makes Long Island wine what it is. Early and late frosts. Scorching summer heat and dry spells. Hurricanes. We get a little bit of everything here. Over the past decade, there have been a handful of hot, mostly dry seasons that have been cheered as “the best” vintages Long Island has ever seen.

I’m less enthused about those vintages. Many of these wines, particularly from 2010, are over-ripe and out of balance. Worse yet, many taste somewhat like poor man’s West Coast wines — the types of wines that Long Island wine fans and marketers have railed against in the past.

I’ve been digging 2009 reds lately. That was a more typical (if there is such a thing) Long Island year. Cool-to-warm with a long, dry end of season. The wines have a freshness and a finesse to them that reminds me why I fell for Long Island wine years ago. I think they’ll age better than 2010s as well.

Don’t get caught up in the hype of “vintage of the century.” Find some 2009s from the best producers and taste what Long Island wine is about.

The Merlot is Still Damn Good
Merlot gets a bad rap sometimes — not only in the greater wine world be even locally. I refuse to blame Sideways so many years after the film’s debut. Instead the culprit is all of the boring, character-less merlot being made around the world. Most of it is flawless, but it just isn’t interesting. It lacks soul and distinctiveness.

That’s not a problem here. Long Island merlot — when it’s done right — is its own thing of beauty. Don’t compare it to merlot from anywhere else. It’s not Bordeaux (let’s bury that comparison for good, shall we?). It’s Long Island merlot and it’s delicious. It’s concentrated but not heavy. It’s fruit-forward, but also complex and earthy with a beautiful minty-herbal note at the end. It drinks well in its youth, but can also age gracefully. There’s nothing like it.

50 years from now, maybe another grape will prove to be the ‘signature variety’ for Long Island. In the meantime, let’s not ignore just how good Long Island merlot can be.



    Enjoyable read! Thanks for sharing this. I totally agree that the problem with Merlot has more to do with a sea of disappointing bottles than a movie.


    Actually right after the movie came out Merlot sales went up, not as much as Pinot Noir. That being said I think it hurt Pinot Noir more than Merlot, cause everyone wanted Pinot and wineries were trying to make as much as possible and blending in the legal limit of other things like Merlot to stretch it out.


    In my experience, summer customers are great. They generally are more into experiencing the wineries, are here for extended periods of time, appreciate wine more, etc. Autumn brings a lot of those drunken day trippers, unfortunately.

    I also agree with the amount of “sameness” in the region. I look forward to the new generation, too.

    When it comes to 2010 being overripe, I wholly disagree.
    2010 brought great fruit off the vineyard. It wasn’t raisiny, jammy, etc. 2010 brought epic fruit, with the caveat of weakened acidity. That’s easily fixed with the right additions.


    Some 2010s are great but a lot are flabby and hot. Won’t age well. Not good with food.

    Chasing California isn’t a good idea here.

    “Epic” reduces your credibility significantly.

    I’m not as optimistic as Len is. Less and less good wine every year. Chasing the money in running wine bars.


      Using the word “epic” reduces my credibility? That’s fine. You’re free to be pompous. BTW, “hot” wines can age well when they are made well. There’s your PSA for the day.

      Call 2010 flabby; acid additions fix that. Or did you not understand that the first time I said it? Moreover, you’re acting as if vintages outside of 2010 don’t have issues with acidity. Did you know 2012 and 2011 actually had lower TAs in general?

      This isn’t about “chasing California,” it’s about having grapes that can deliver, and juice that can get away from being green, underripe, and filled with MP. Snarky phrases like that take away from your credibility.


        Okay — let’s try to keep things civil here. Differences of opinion are just a part of the wine world.

        I never said that all 2010s underwhelmed. There are some great wines in every vintage (yes, even in ‘lesser’ years like 2008 and 2011). Most important thing is to know the best producers and follow them.

        Perhaps my point wasn’t clear — years like 2009 are the ones that I’m most excited about. Those are the years that are historically more common (could change with climate change of course) so they are more “normal Long Island.”

        If you don’t like the well-made 2009s, you probably just don’t like Long Island wine that much. And that’s okay.



    Look at these numbers and even at 19 Brix wines are going to be flabby. LI has no natural acid you need to add it or have flabby wines.

    That being said most people coming to LI for a day are drinking beer or harder stuff in a limo or bus they are going to like the high pH wines what are flabby and a lot that are sweet. They are not eating food with the wines so a wine with good acid will not appeal to them. Sad but true. Look at cost of doing business out here and how many wineries are up for sale or just closed the doors. Sad to say I foresee the region getting smaller over time. Cost of production is to high about 6 time of the other coast.


    I was excited to read this article for many reasons this morning but then daunted to throw my hat in the ring via commentary but…I’m going for it anyway.
    Achieving balance would be a goal for most debated topics here. Agri-tourism vs. costs of production, acids vs. over ripeness, drinking vs. tasting, under cutting intelligence vs. stating a fact alone…
    Achieving balance in any aspect of life or business is challenging. It is an everyday battle for viticulture on LI because of our weathers temperament, the cost of living & small production. Have there been people in the past less focused on achieving said balance, yes. Are there still people producing that way currently, yes. But who or where in the world is perfectly sound? Other countries rooted in traditions have stepped away from decades of ‘balanced achievement’ to create new interest & attract new world enthusiasts. Whereas some practices of other areas have been adopted here to create the same results.
    I applause those seeking balance in all of the areas vital to the growth of the Long Island & New York Wine regions. I also respect those willing to be honest & challenge quality, question ethics & do so respectfully.


      Very well said Sarah. Instead of diving into the foray of who knows more than who, I’ll only speak to my own experience.

      It was this idea of balance that inspired me and still pushes me out here. I do think it’s completely possible to achieve it with the varietals already existing on LI, even without bags of tartaric, but if that’s a tool you want to use, then you’ll find no judgement over here. It is this balance that drives me to ask if our approach to ripeness should be seen through different prisms than ones brought from California or even Bordeaux and maybe not worry about how closely we can compare them. I’m driven to discover what the North Fork has to say through these revered varieties that only the North Fork can…

      On the other hand, it’s also this question of balance that pushes me to ask if there are other varieties that might also thrive out here, maybe ones with more natural acidity that other places similar and even dissimilar than here. Who knows?

      I am driven by the visitors that I’ve met who do have a vast knowledge of wine and are excited by what we’re doing out here. It was my own experience in that same capacity (without a beer in my hand) that inspired our move here in the first place.

      I’m also pushed by the talent that is still bubbling out here and the opportunity for more to join, I hope one day we’ll look back at the past 5 years as a pivot point that attracts more and more talented people who also share the same passion and excitement for this place.

      As Lenn originally pointed out it’s easy to get bogged down in what isn’t right here; how we don’t have it as good as other regions. It’s a slippery slope that I find, even for myself, difficult to battle, so thank you for a reminder like this, the future is bright indeed.


        I agree about comparisons. We aren’t anything like California, and we should stop trying to be Bordeaux’s little sister. To be frank, I think Long Island is one of the hardest places in the WORLD to make wine.
        We have a unique situation here; a pain in the ass with inconsistencies in weather (we all know this), and that pain in the ass is uniquely ours. We need to own it, handle it, and constantly see how we can better ourselves. We should appreciate what has been done right so far, and we should constantly be our own number one critic, too.

        I think the region also needs to accept certain realities vis a vis winemaking, but that’s an issue for another time.

        I want LI to continue making wine ad infinitum. The LAST thing I want to see is a winery closing down. I love drinking wines from friends who made them, etc. I hate when a place shuts down because that means people lost jobs. I want everyone to experience success in the industry here. Honestly, that is why I find myself so critical of this place. Most of your everyday people don’t understand the costs of this endeavor, but for those of us who do, we understand what is on the line when engaging in this business. This is why we need to be constantly picking ourselves apart, seeing what we’re doing wrong, and talking honestly about how we can fix whatever is broken, not so we can feel bad for ourselves, and feel like failures, but so we can reach a more successful position.

        May the wineries continue. Cheers.

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