Island wine country
PECONIC, N.Y. — The specialists were skeptical when the first vineyard was planted on the North Fork in 1973. Yet less than 40 years later, this narrow northern finger of eastern Long Island has become one of the world’s promising new wine regions.
Easily reached by ferry from New London, Conn., the region is perfect for a “Sideways’’ road trip from New England. More than 35 wineries along a 20-mile stretch between Southold and Aquebogue court tasters and buyers — handy, since many of the wines are available only through direct sales.
Manhattanites throng the wineries on weekends, but when we visited over several weekdays, the tasting rooms were subdued and staff had time to chat about their operations. Eric Fry emerged from the back room of Lenz Winery in Peconic with his shirt smeared with red wine sediment. He had been tuning up his temperamental Italian bottling machine. “What I like about the North Fork,’’ he said, “is that we grow all these different kinds of grapes. It’s exciting to have all this stuff in the region, not just chardonnay and pinot. And I like that there is no ‘North Fork style.’’’
Lenz was founded in 1978 and Fry has been its winemaker since 1989. His vinting approach is showcased in two tasting flights. The estate wines emphasize balance, fruit, and acid. The complex fruit flavors of the White Label chardonnay, for example, result from picking and fermenting the grapes at different stages of maturity, then blending “to make a fruit salad,’’ as Fry put it. The more expensive premium tasting includes his Old Vines wines, which he crafts in a Burgundian style.
But this is Long Island, not Burgundy, and the historic potato fields and sod farms have only recently been turned over to trellised rows of chardonnay and merlot grapes. The Old Field Vineyards in Southold exemplifies the agricultural evolution. Chris Baiz’s grandmother farmed potatoes and cauliflower on the property until her death in 1993 at 101. Baiz and his wife, Ros, moved to the farm in 1996 and planted grapes the next year.
Since 1640, only five families have owned the 23-acre farm that sprawls downhill from Route 25 to the ocean. “We couldn’t bear to see this property sold and developed,’’ said Ros Baiz. The site was once an Indian village. “We still find arrowheads,’’ she says, “and all the oyster shells they buried keep the soil sweet.’’ Most of the farm buildings date from the 1850s and ’60s, including the ice house, corn crib, farmhouse, and dairy barn (now the winery “so tight you can barely turn around’’). The grapevines of this backyard winery stretch from the shady barnyard down the sunny hill.
Perry Weiss, the Baizes’ daughter, manages the vineyard, and her mother is the principal winemaker. “It takes years to learn your own place, your soil, your climate, and what you can do with it,’’ Baiz said. She has refined her approach over time, focusing on fruit-forward whites and lean, structured reds with a spicy black-fruit nose. Guests often sip them at a picnic table under leafy oaks as the resident goose and duck waddle around. Baiz doesn’t let the chickens out until tastings end at 5 p.m.
The Old Field lies along the gentle south shore of the North Fork, but Barbara Shinn and David Page elected to establish their Shinn Estate Vineyards close to Long Island Sound near the north shore. “This land was the Long Island grain belt — corn, wheat, and rye,’’ Page said.
Both originally hail from the Midwest and had ended up together in Manhattan. Moving to a live-in vineyard on remote Oregon Road in Mattituck was a “big change, but a welcome one,’’ said Shinn. “We came back to beauty in our lives.’’ They planted their first vines in 2000, and began making wine in 2002.
The operation reflects their years in the restaurant and hospitality trade. Not only do they have a four-room B&B where Page serves amazing farm breakfasts, their tasting room feels like a country pub, complete with seating around small tables. Shinn works there a few days a week, but concentrates on managing the vineyards.
As fierce advocates of organic and biodynamic farming, Page and Shinn have defied conventional wisdom by successfully growing grapes without chemicals. Their wines are made as much in the vineyard as the winery — they even use wild yeasts to ferment whole fruit. Shinn wines are among the Long Island darlings of influential critic Robert Parker, who has praised their Bordeaux-style “Nine Barrels’’ blend and their cabernet franc. White-wine drinkers favor “First Fruit,’’ a shellfish-friendly sauvignon blanc.
The Long Island Wine Council claims that 1.3 million people visit Long Island tasting rooms each year. But wine has not entirely eclipsed traditional agriculture on the North Fork. The Harbes clan has been farming on Long Island for 12 generations. Although they did plant five acres of chardonnay and merlot grapes in 2003, the Wine Barn at their Harbes Family Farm complex in Mattituck is overshadowed by vegetables (including heirloom tomatoes and melons) and “agritainment’’ attractions such as mazes, weekend pig races, animal exhibits, and a children’s play area. The cafe sells roasted corn (a local delicacy) and slices of the farm’s fruit pies.
Niche farming is also flourishing on the North Fork. In East Marion, Serge and Susan Rozenbaum grow 20 varieties of lavender plants on 10 acres. The bloom season is over now at Lavender by the Bay (it peaks in July), but the shop sells virtually every imaginable lavender product, including dried blossoms and live garden plants.
Goat cheese from Catapano Dairy Farm in Peconic is the perfect complement to North Fork wines, and its fresh chevre is ubiquitous at tasting rooms and farmstands. The farm also has its own little shop and a pen full of exuberant kids. Visitors who stop around 4 p.m. can watch the 98 dairy goats being milked. Retail manager Debbie Slack, who identified herself as coming from “out west’’ (meaning Amityville in western Long Island), celebrates the rural idyll of the North Fork. “We do have a McDonald’s in Mattituck,’’ she admitted. But of chain development, “that’s as far as we want to see it go.’’ The farm shop offers its antidote to fast food with a “picnic special’’ of two goat cheeses, a block of goat milk fudge, and a box of crackers.
We took our special to Paumanok Vineyards, established in 1983 by Charles and Ursula Massoud. There were already a few chenin blanc vines on the potato farm when they bought it, and their Loire-style chenin blanc sells out quickly every year. Right now, it’s only available at the vineyard, so we each ordered a glass to sip on the shady back deck overlooking 73 acres of vineyards.
The opportunity to sip and survey a wine-country idyll is the ultimate appeal of the North Fork. On another day we bought grilled tuna sandwiches at Southold Fish Market and proceeded to nearby Corey Creek Vineyards, which is frankly designed to offer the Napa-like garden tasting experience. It doesn’t hurt that this second vineyard of well-established Bedell Cellars produces a bracing reserve chardonnay and an Alsatian-style gewurztraminer. As we ate lunch and sipped gewurz on the porch, we chatted with Frank and Patricia Farello, who had added fresh peach slices to their white wine. “It’s the Italian way,’’ said Patricia.
They drive an hour from West Babylon “a couple of times a year, just to relax,’’ said Frank. “It’s beautiful here.’’
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.