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Wines of North Fork, Long Island

A trip through the East Coast takes us to wineries coming of age.

By Leo Bueno




I don't know of a wine fan who would not like to visit the hallowed lands of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa Valley and the like. The problem for us in South Florida is that those places are relatively far and generally expensive. The U.S. Northeast, however, provides us with a fairly convenient and more cost-effective opportunity to get a feel for wine country: Long Island is your destination. A hop on a Southwest Airlines jet out of Fort Lauderdale, a rental car and a motel or bed-and-breakfast will do the trick.

Location

Needing to travel for business to New York, I took the opportunity to drop by at Long Island's "North Fork", where the bulk of the vineyards are located. The promotional literature from the Long Island Wine Council indicates 35 wineries in the North and only 3 in the South Fork, where the hoity Hamptons are located. The drive off the L.I. Expressway (US 495) which took me to State Road 25 was generally pleasant and scenic, with small towns interspersed with roadside shops (from produce stores to strip shopping centers), vineyards and other agricultural crops.

While knowing the wine country was a touristy destination, I guessed I could arrange lodging once I got there. Wrong guess. The first stop was Peconic Bay Winery. Drove up to the tasting room, paid a modest tasting fee and tried some of the products. It was at Peconic Bay, while tasting and calling hotels, motels and B&Bs; in the area, that I came to the realization that affordable lodging on a Friday night in July would not be easy to find.

The calls yielded either no rooms available or a high rate option at a B&B.; The tasting room clerks suggested I call a local motel on the wine area's edge. Settled on it at $129 ($140 with taxes), a poor value, given it was a run-down 1960s or earlier relic with wood panel walls and stained industrial carpeting, albeit with a clean bathroom. If there is a next time, I will surely book a room ahead of time at a B&B.;

Tasting

The whites at Peconic Bay were a typical fare, however, I noted that the classic Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot varietals tended to be fairly light colored. Did not think much of it until I went to a second winery and noted their reds were also light in color. Did not need to be Sherlock Holmes to see an emerging pattern: Long Island is not suitable for the production of deeply colored reds. The owner confirmed my suspicion; not only his but everyone's reds were typically made in a light style. He explained that the area did not get sufficient sunlight to produce the big red jobs California or Australia puts on the market.

Visited a couple of other wineries and headed East to the tip of the Island (just to see what was there). Drove past Greenport, which seemed like an inviting town, but did not stop; I wanted to get to the end of the road before nightfall. The road ended in Orient, the town which links Eastern Long Island and Connecticut with the New London ferry. Ate at the Orient By The Sea Restaurant. The Mahi-Mahi was firm and good (it probably got in great shape swimming up the East Coast all the way from the Caribbean).

Headed back at dusk. Missed the turn into Route 25 and never saw Greensport again; got lost onto Route 48. Saw much of the same on Route 48: farms, vineyards, roadside houses, green lawns and trees. I enjoyed the mixed character of the land, particularly the combination of the rural, agricultural and littoral scenery.

The Tasting Routine

A couple of years ago I did a de rigueur tour of Napa Valley with several of my day-job colleagues. Visits to winery tasting rooms followed a pattern. Show up; pay a tasting fee; sample a few wines; walk around the tasting building or possibly the winery; drive off. Uniformity is great for some things but not for others. The tasting ritual seems to have become a mainstream – and boring -- cultural event. The Long Island wineries I visited pretty much followed the California routine. I wish it were different.

Pindar

A couple of locals suggested I visit the Pindar winery. Heeding their suggestion Sunday; Pindar was my last stop.

The tasting room, at about 1:30 p.m., looked like a scene from Sideways. Lots of people milling about the long wooden bars next to the merchandise isles. Pindar was the only winery I visited which had free tastings of 17 wines -- which may explain the big crowd. The tasting sheet also listed 6 wines which carried a $4 tasting fee each, refundable upon purchase of any one of them. Paid $4 and tried the 2000 Mythology, highly touted on the tasting sheet. It was a pleasant Bordeaux style claret, but at $30, a bit aggressively priced. The nine-dollar 2004 Gamay Beaujolais (I think it inappropriate for US wines to use French Geographical names, by the way) was an enjoyable light red wine, but did not taste anything like a French Gamay, at least not the ones I have tasted. Ditto for the 2001 Syrah ($15), pleasant but no spice.

Took the Pindar tour at 2 p.m. from a jovial and informative guide. Not much depth to the circuit, as expected given its introductory purpose. The guide explained that Pindar is Long Island's largest winery, owning about 500 vineyard acres, small but not insignificant even by California standards. Bought a fabric bottle cover as a souvenir for Catherine on my way out of the tasting room and headed for the airport, a little over one hour away.

Impressions

I don't recall having tasted any Long Island wines before the trip, so did not know what to expect from them. I try and hope to only judge wines by what's in the bottle, not what's on the label; so, to the extent possible, I tasted with an open mind.

Assuming my sampling was representative of the products available, I think prices were generally a bit on the high side, compared to what's available in the South Florida market.

Several of the whites, particularly the Gewurztraminer blends had intense and flowery noses. One in particular, at Corey Creek Vineyards, gave the initial impression of being a dessert wine, only to reveal it was dry and crisp on the palate. Generally, the classic-variety whites (and blends) tended to display typical varietal character. The reds, as mentioned, tended to be on the light side. A couple of the Cabernet Sauvignons (particularly from 1999) were unpleasantly green.

Long Island wines are not widely distributed in South Florida. I gathered from one of the owners that the area's distribution focus is New York State and vicinity. Compared to other wine regions, Long Island is relatively new, so we can expect improvement as winemakers and growers fine-tune their products. Right now, I will not shy-away from Long Island wines. . . and neither should you.

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