Matt Campbell, co-owner of Charles John Vineyard along with his
wife Jackie, can trace his love of wine back to when he and Jackie were
living in Rochester, N.Y., in the early 1980s. “I knew nothing about
wine. (But) we went to dinner and I ordered an ‘expensive’ glass of
Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon for about $7 – to impress Jackie. I
couldn’t believe how good it tasted.”

For a man who grew up on the Jersey Shore “listening to Bruce
Springsteen” and knowing beer “as the only alcoholic beverage that had
four letters,” that glass of Cabernet was a revelation that Campbell
jokingly calls “getting religion.”

Campbell’s job with Intel took he and Jackie to the Sierra Foothills
outside of Sacramento, where they lived for seven years, exploring
local wineries as well as those in Napa and Sonoma. He also enrolled in
a viticulture program at the University of California – Davis, made
wine at home and worked at a local winery during harvest.

It was Campbell’s sister, however, who fell in love with the North Fork
and introduced them to the region when she bought her house in Southold
in 1982. “The contrast between the 4th of July Jersey Shore
Budweiser-sponsored beach bikini volleyball tournaments and the
resulting all-night partying versus the calmer, quieter, simpler 4th of
July celebrations has brought me to the North Fork ever since.”

In 1999, the Campbells’ first son and vineyard namesake, Charles John,
was born and the couple wanted to move back east to be closer to their
families. Mr. Campbell moved to Intel’s Boston office where he and
Jackie “found ourselves ‘commuting’ to my sister’s house every weekend
because we enjoyed the North Fork so much. That didn’t make much sense,
so we sold our house in Boston and bought a house in Southold, and I’ve
done a reverse commute once a week for a day or two ever since.”

The same year, the Campbells bought 17 acres of land between Horton’s
Lane and Young’s Avenue, north of Route 48 in Southold, and planted
half of them with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc vines.
The remaining acres were planted a year later — and the first bottling,
a 2003 Merlot ($18) was released earlier this year. The vineyard is
managed by Mudd Vineyards.

With the help of winemaking consultant Gilles Martin, who is winemaker
at Martha Clara Vineyards, the Campbells strive to make wines that are
unlike the “heavy, grapey, over fruity, carbon copy mass-produced
California reds people buy.” They also show a dedication to the North
Fork’s terroir. “We clearly have terroir here,” said Matt. “I don’t
know if is the salty October storms or what, but you know distinctively
when you have tasted a good North Fork red wine.”

The 2003 Merlot release is an impressive first effort. Invitingly
aromatic, the nose is sweet with black cherries and blackberries and
spiced with oak, earth and white pepper. Elegant and flavorful, the
wine is smooth and medium bodied, with slightly gripping tannins that
provide the foundation for refined cherry, cinnamon and vanilla
flavors. The soft finish lingers with sweet berries, and because the
wine is still so young, it will likely improve and open up with
short-term cellaring.

Campbell recommends the Merlot (which has 5 percent Petit Verdot
blended in) with “pork, spare ribs, burgers — a porterhouse is best.”
It’s hard to argue. This is a well-crafted, charming wine. The bottle,
which features a label designed by Mattituck calligrapher, Linda
Pascal, is currently available at select restaurants and wine shops on
the East End. The Campbells also plan to open at tasting room at their
vineyard site in the coming weeks. Call 765-9218 for more information.