Is the North Fork the Next Napa Valley?
by james sturz
Ursula Massoud walks through leafy rows of vines of Sauvignon Blanc, studded with clusters that are getting bigger every day. By the time you read this they’ll be swollen, and it’ll nearly be time to pick.
“We planted in 1983, in May, even before we closed on the property that fall,” Ursula recalls. “My husband and I were living in Connecticut, and we’d read an article in The New York Times that crazy people were growing vinifera grapes on the North Fork. So we bought 10 acres. For the first nine years, my husband worked for IBM. He’d come home in a suit, change into boots, and then we’d come out to Aquebogue for the weekend. At first, we sold grapes. Then we made our first wine professionally in 1989. Sherry-Lehmann later took it, and Charles quit IBM after that. He took the ‘bronze parachute’ because he said this was so much better. Then the White House came out, too, and served our 1997 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc at a 50th-anniversary dinner for the signing of the NATO pact.”
So goes the somewhat-abbreviated version of Paumanok Vineyards’ rise—one that includes everything but the hard work: the perspiration in summer, the harvesting and hand-sorting in fall, and the wearing of thermal underwear in winter to prune the vines before buds break at the end of April and fruit begins to set (plus the thousands of winemaking decisions along the way). This September, Paumanok (1074 Main Road, Aquebogue, 722-8800) marks its 30th year, which it will celebrate on September 28 with a benefit for Peconic Bay Medical Center and the vineyard’s first “bubbly,” as Ursula fondly calls it. The Massouds have 80 acres planted now. Meanwhile, winemaking on Long Island celebrates its 40th anniversary this year—a milestone that will be commemorated at the annual Harvest East End, on August 24.
The Massouds have grown Paumanok along with their family—their eldest son, Kareem, is the winemaker now, while his two younger siblings, Nabeel and Salim, manage the vineyard and do administrative work—but they’re hardly the only ones to have helped transform Long Island’s East End into one of the world’s premier wine regions, one known for its elegant, Old World– style wines. With more than 50 wineries on a 25-mile stretch between Baiting Hollow and Greenport (plus three more on the South Fork), Long Island has earned a place on Wine Enthusiast’s 2013 top-10 list of wine destinations.
Of course, the Massouds weren’t the first. Ten years before they arrived, Louisa and Alex Hargrave, newlyweds just out of college without so much as a vegetable garden between them, bought a 66-acre farm in Cutchogue (the plots were all cabbage, cauliflower, and potato farms then), and planted the first vinifera grapes on the island. (Vinifera grapes, long cultivated in Europe, include all the famous varietals wine-drinkers know, while North America’s native species, labrusca, is better known for its use in Manischewitz wines and Smucker’s jams.)
The Hargraves were pioneers. In her 2003 memoir, The Vineyard: The Pleasures and Perils of Creating an American Family Winery (Viking), Louisa compares her experience to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s on the prairie, and as with any newcomer, there were mistakes: wrong varietals for the region, planting in areas that were too wet, aging Cabernet Sauvignon in Arkansas-made whiskey barrels, which stripped it of so much color it had to be sold as nonvintage rosé. But more interesting is what the Hargraves did right. “We showed the world that estate-grown wines could excel on Long Island, and we established it as an area for complex and vivacious wines,” she says today. Or as she put it in her book: “I became the midwife for a whole new region.”
By 1989, there were 26 active wineries and 1,300 acres planted on Long Island. By 1999, there were 38 active wineries and 1,700 acres, which makes today’s 3,000-plus acres, and 500,000-case annual production a serious success. Long Island plays an important role in making New York the fourth-largest wine-producing state in the country, although third in terms of the economic impact of its $3.8 billion wine industry.
The Hargraves sold their vineyard in 1999 to Ann Marie and Marco Borghese, an Italian prince who renamed it Castello di Borghese (17150 County Road 48, Cutchogue, 734-5111), and who still produces Sauvignon Blanc from the original vines, along with exceptional Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Merlots, and Cabernet Francs. Many other original wineries are also still around today: The Old Field Vineyards (59600 Main Road, Southold, 765-0004), established in 1974—try its 2007 Commodore Perry Reserve Merlot; Lenz Winery (38355 Main Road, Peconic, 734-6010), around since 1978; Pindar (37645 Main Road, Peconic, 734-6200) and Peconic Bay (31320 Main Road, Cutchogue, 734-7361), both in business since 1979; and Pugliese (34515 Main Road, Cutchogue, 734-4057), Laurel Lake (3165 Main Road, Laurel, 298-1420), and Bedell Cellars (36225 Main Road, Cutchogue, 734-7537), all producing wine since 1980—Bedell’s 2009 Merlot was served at President Obama’s second inaugural luncheon. But there are also startling newcomers, including Kontokosta Winery (825 North Road, Greenport, 477-6977), which opened in June. The founders are brothers Michael and Constantine Kontokosta, who also own the Cove Place Inn in Aquebogue and Harborfront Inn in Greenport, just down the road.
There was a time when Long Island wines suffered a bad rap. “The farmers out here didn’t give us a shot in hell,” admits Ron Goerler Jr., of Jamesport Vineyards (1216 Main Road, Jamesport, 722-5256), whose father first planted grapevines in 1981. “In those days, we finished harvesting in September, so we picked green grapes and used sour fruit to make California-style wines.” California was everyone’s model back then, since it was the American success story. Many in Long Island’s wine community still talk dreamily of the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when Stag’s Leap and Chateau Montelena beat French competitors in a blind taste test, and all of Napa was catapulted onto the world stage. (Twenty years later, bottles of the winning Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were enshrined in the Smithsonian’s collection.)
But the point is that Long Island wineries learned. First, they realized that California, with its much-hotter climate and extra month of growing days, wasn’t the right model; they recognized that the proper example all along was France, particularly Burgundy and Bordeaux, where the climates are similar to that of the East End. The grapes that thrive on Long Island are the same ones that do well in France: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. (Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Syrah are grown in lesser quantities on the East End, often for blends.) If you’re buying, 2010 is the prized vintage, followed by 2007 and 2005. So far, 2012 has proven spectacular for whites, and the hope is it will blow consumers away even when the reds start trickling out. Fortunately, all Long Island vineyards had harvested their grapes by the time Sandy hit, although sometimes just by days.
“We established Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay as rock-solid,” Louisa remembers. “But that foundation lets wineries try other varietals, like Riesling, which has been incredibly successful, or Blaufränkisch and Albariño, because they have the security of knowing what works.” Today some 38 different vinifera grapes are grown on Long Island, and Cornell’s Cooperative Extension in Riverhead keeps testing new varieties.
One popular experimenter on the North Fork is Anthony Nappa. Once winemaker at Shinn Estate Vineyards (2000 Oregon Road, Mattituck, 804-0367) and now at Raphael (39390 Main Road, Peconic, 765-1100), he also produces bottles under his own name and sells his and other local winemakers’ private labels at his Peconic-based Winemaker Studio (2885 Peconic Lane, Peconic, 774-641-7488)—many are produced at Premium Wine Group’s custom-crush facility in Mattituck, one of only a dozen in the country. To pursue his interest in cool-climate wines, Nappa decided against studying at U.C. Davis, as so many American vintners do, and headed straight to Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, where cool-climate wines are the rule.
“Napa Valley invented wine tourism, especially with the help of California’s food movement and people like Alice Waters,” Nappa says. “But we have our own locavore movement now, and outside of Oregon, there’s no other serious cold-climate winemaking in the United States. Don’t be fooled by Washington State because that’s mostly desert. The US is all about fads, and we all know what that’s meant for California wines—over-ripe, jammy, and over-oaked. Now we’re getting back to well-balanced, elegant, and more food-friendly wines.”
These East End wines are lower in alcohol (California’s sun means more sugar, which increases the proof), higher in acid (making their flavors sharp), and conveniently ideal for pairing with Long Island seafood or duck. “And now we’re making Rieslings and Merlots that taste like New York, not Germany and France.” Nappa is also making a white Pinot Noir called Anomaly that’s been winning praise.
“The criticism we get is that our wines aren’t everywhere,” Nappa continues, “but that’s because we have a huge market here and can’t produce that much.” Together, Napa and Sonoma are almost 2,330 square miles, while the North Fork is less than 160. “But we have that same proximity to a huge wine market that gave California its start.”
Another way of addressing whether Long Island is the next Napa Valley is how Barbara Reuschle, who staffs Paumanok’s tasting room, does it: “We had a bachelorette party here, and everyone had T-shirts on that said, pretending we’re in napa. I was really nice, but I asked, ‘Why would you want to pretend? We have elegant wines and beautiful vineyards, too.’ Sure, Napa and Sonoma are stunning, and there’s no shortage of hot-air balloons wherever you look. But have you ever tried to swim? You’ve got to love 55-degree water—even in August—while it’s no secret what there is here.”
It formerly was a foregone conclusion that the North Fork would be developed. Russell McCall, a former wine wholesaler who grew up in Syosset, is one of many vineyard owners whose purchase has helped to keep developers out. Some, like the Hargraves and McCall, whose 152- acre property includes former tribal lands, have sold development rights, insuring that the area will keep its rural identity and never reproduce the urban sprawl of what Syosset has become. “All these fields would have become strip malls and housing developments, but they became vineyards or gourmet-produce farms instead,” concurs Jane Taylor Starwood, author of Long Island Wine Country: Award-Winning Vineyards of the North Fork and the Hamptons (Three Forks). “We’ve had agricultural progress. What will this area be like in another 20 years? Just like it was 20 years ago, except the houses that were falling down are all fixed up.”
Meanwhile, the wines keep getting better, regularly rating scores of 90 and higher in Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, and The Wine Advocate. Once there were missteps, and once the vines were young—putting their energy into growing stalks and roots instead of making grapes. But Long Island has entered a new era, with an ongoing cycle of mature vines, always at their peak in quality now. “It’s half-land, half-sky here, and you get just one chance per year to make good,” says Louisa, who has watched her early efforts turn into a celebrated industry. Just as in Bordeaux, some local wineries now offer futures. But Long Island’s future is already here.
photography by brian sckipp (sherwood house); daniel nazzaro (wine camp)