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Tasting Long Island's Wine Country

Posted by Ellen Bhang  August 3, 2012 07:12 PM

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During the summer months, the North Fork of Long Island, N.Y., is a green jewel extending into the Atlantic. Most of the island’s more than 50 wine producers are located here. Salt-tinged air signals a maritime climate that ushers in the island’s long and moderate growing season for vitis vinifera. Varietals like merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and riesling all thrive here. One marvels at how this vibrant wine region evolved from just a few acres of vines in the 1970s to more than 3,000 acres today. Sunflowers for blog.jpg With its bountiful farm stands, sunflowers, and expansive swaths of vineyards, a visitor might momentarily forget which region this is. But a bus load of day-trippers from New York City is a reminder that you have not left the Empire State. Barbara Smithen, owner of Sherwood House Vineyards has a policy of “no buses, limos only by appointment” to maintain the graciousness of the artfully appointed tasting room and property. Tour buses have plenty of other wineries -- some with cute baby farm animals -- that accommodate large groups of revelers and families. Entertainment is easy to find. Grapes at Bedell.jpg On a recent trip, we made a delightful discovery: When a saber isn't handy, the foot of a wine glass will do. At Jamesport Vineyards, tasting room manager Jake Perdie loves playing to a crowd. Holding a bottle of sparkling rosé in one hand, he took care to point the cork away from onlookers. With the other hand, he readied the foot of a wine glass on the shoulder of the bottle. Then, in one swift motion, he swiped the foot of the glass along the bottle’s seam, dislodging the cork with a dramatic pop. As the group oohed and ahhed, Perdie caught some of the froth in a champagne glass before it splashed on the cool cellar floor. This sense of confidence is evident wherever we went. The Long Island wine scene, with vineyard properties ranging from down-home-on-the-farm to elegant grand estates, has a strong sense of identity and many well-crafted wines. There is a wine experience for just about everyone. Zander and tanks.jpg Guides with long-standing roots in the region showed us the way. Zander Hargrave, (in the photo to the right) now assistant winemaker at Peconic Bay Winery was one. If anyone has the spirit of North Fork vineyards in his blood, it is Hargrave, whose parents, Louisa & Alex Hargrave, established the first vineyard on Long Island in 1973. On a sunny afternoon, the younger Hargrave talked about growing up in a region that was rapidly evolving from potato farms into vineyards. He retrieved a copy of his mother’s memoir, “The Vineyard,” and flipped to a photo of himself as a grinning teenager, shoveling pomace from inside a fermenter tank, his arms extended high in a gesture of victory. He has not lost that youthful enthusiasm. When a visitor remarked about the beautiful produce and shellfish abundant on the island, Hargrave said, “It is a happy culinary place, to be sure!” With plates of charcuterie and cheeses, he readied our glasses for a midday tasting of riesling, barrel-fermented chardonnay, and red blends. Peconic Bay NYR_2.jpg We were sipping a not-yet-released 2010 merlot-cab franc blend when a gust of wind toppled the umbrella shading our patio table. Someone lunged to grab it as it fell, but it was too late. We were experiencing first-hand Long Island’s maritime breezes and how they can wreak havoc. The sodden pages of a reporter’s notebook are now unreadable, but little could dampen our enthusiasm. The next day found us learning about sustainable growing practices and sipping Long Island’s answer to champagne. (Part 1 of 2)
Ellen Bhang

About By the Glass

Ellen Bhang writes about food and wine and reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe. Wine is the focus of her degree in the Gastronomy master's program at Boston University. She can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.

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