| July 8, 2015 | Food & Drink
James Sturz takes us on the ultimate tour of East End vineyards with the Long Island Merlot Alliance as our guide.
I’m surrounded by tanks, and barrels, and towers of bottles. It’s the perfect late-spring day on Long Island’s East End, but I’m deep inside the coolness of cellars and tasting rooms to sip and spit.
The night before, Amy Zavatto, executive director of the 10-year-old Long Island Merlot Alliance, had asked me to please, please forget about the movie. Of course, she meant 2004’s sleeper hit Sideways, in which Paul Giamatti’s character famously rants: “I’m not drinking any f---king Merlot!”
Because that’s what I had come there to do: drink as much Merlot as I could over a four-day tour of Long Island’s top producers. Some 3,000 acres of wine-producing vines cover the North and South Forks, and Merlot grapes are growing on at least 30 percent of them. The Alliance’s mission is to promote Merlot and Merlot-blended wines as the regional grape of Long Island. Napa Valley has Cabernet Sauvignon, Oregon has Pinot Noir, and those identities do much to persuade wine consumers in restaurants and stores. Of course, the Alliance’s approach works only because of how good the East End’s Merlot has become. It hasn’t always been that way. When Long Island began as a winemaking region in 1973—when Louisa and Alex Hargrave planted 17 acres of a former potato and caulifower feld in Cutchogue—it took time to impress the wine world; most put that period at 20 years. Low production— even today Long Island produces just 500,000 cases of wine a year, about 1 percent of Napa’s annual output—meant it took that much longer for word to spread. Part of the job was correcting missteps, including identifying which grapes grew best (Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, will always struggle here). Because Long Island has a climate similar to Bordeaux, winemakers here soon realized that French varietals, especially Merlot, grew best of all—while, just as important, healthier clones became available to plant.
With its cool maritime climate, the East End model couldn’t ever become California, where the Merlots had become “hammer-over-the-head fruit bombs,” as Louisa Hargrave laughingly calls them today. Instead, the Merlots here would be vibrant, supple, delicate, lush. Besides, the Bordeaux model wasn’t bad—Margaux, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Saint-Émilion, Pomerol. Perhaps you’ve heard of those?
I started out with visits to the Alliance’s six winery members, beginning in Sagaponack, where I met with Roman Roth, Wölffer Estate Vineyard’s winemaker and partner. The native of the Black Forest led me through rows of leafng vines and breaking buds (they’ll be green pea–size grapes by the time this article appears), while one of the 80 horses stabled at the estate ambled by. Then Roth, who became Alliance president in 2013, says, “In a good year, everyone can make good wine; but it’s the diffcult [years] that set you apart. And because Merlot ripens in midseason here, and we have amazing sun, loam, and ocean breezes, we’re able to get structure and elegance. Plus, in France, with climate change, [vintners there are] picking earlier and earlier— sometimes in August—and they’re not always ready, because they’re on vacation.”
We went inside and talked and sipped. In blind taste tests, Long Island and Bordeaux Merlots will often seem indistinguishable, while California ones are sweet and heavy, with alcohol as high as 16 percent. “Ours,” Roth says, smiling, “are usually at 13 and are lighter, with nerviness and edge.” Then he drew a sample of his Christian’s Cuvée Merlot 2013 (made from reserve grapes only hedged at night, from a new French oak barrel) that won’t be for sale until late 2016. Are you really going to ask if it was delicious?
Next I visited Russell Hearn, the Australian managing partner of Premium Wine Group, a custom wine production facility in Mattituck that was the frst of its kind east of the Mississippi when it opened in 2000. Today, its 18 tenant wineries use its 124 tanks, crush pads, and racking systems to produce 100,000 cases annually, essentially one-ffth of all wine made on Long Island. None of those wineries are more than seven miles away, and all but four make Merlot—which might as well make Premium the glistening cathedral of Merlot. Among those wineries are Alliance members Lieb Cellars and T’Jara Vineyards, both of which Hearn co-owns, and where he’s a winemaker, too. As we toured and drank and spat into drains in the foor, a taste profle started coming through: a touch of rosemary and thyme, a hint of tobacco, cherries, currants, dark chocolate, spices, prunes. Back at Wölffer, Roth had said some vineyards ripped their Merlot vines out after Sideways became a hit. But now, Hearn laughed, “the irony is that Giamatti’s favorite wine is a Bordeaux, which means it’s a Merlot blend.”
I continued east to Anthony Nappa, the Massachusetts native who learned cool-climate winemaking in New Zealand and is now winemaker for his own label, Anthony Nappa Wines, and at the larger Raphael, both in Peconic. He’s the Alliance’s vice president. Now it wasn’t all drinking. “North Fork wines are meant to be enjoyed with food,” Nappa says, “which means if you don’t pay attention to the restaurants, you’re making a mistake.” Fortunately, Nappa’s Winemaker Studio shares space with his wife’s gourmet shop, Provisions & Ingredients, so I tucked into a pressed prosciutto sandwich as we went to work. Work? If that’s what you call a fight of six Merlot and Merlot blends from the two labels—plus a few unrelated glasses, I admit.
“No one in the Alliance is saying Merlot is the only thing you should grow,” Nappa says, as I tried his Dodici, a 2012 Merlot/Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon blend. “We all do more than one thing, and if there were a Cabernet Franc alliance, I’d join it, too. But when you’re talking about a business model, which is what winemaking is, you need consistency, and that will always be Merlot. When you make decisions in a winery, it takes two years to see them. When you make them in the vineyard, it takes fve. Our region is only 40 years old, and we’re barely looking back, but we’ve got to start looking forward.”
I sipped a 2010 Merlot reserve at McCall Wines in Cutchogue beside a herd of grass-fed Charolais cows. Gilles Martin, the vineyard’s French, Languedoc-Roussillon—trained winemaker, says, “Merlot isn’t the only thing we do.” In fact, he’s also winemaker for Southold’s all-bubbly Sparkling Pointe—“but if you can’t do Merlot here, then you can’t do anything else.” Merlot opens the door, but it’s also the admission test for getting in.
I continued on to Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead, which joined the Alliance just this year. Winemaker and general manager Juan Micieli- Martinez is the Alliance’s native son. He grew up in Center Moriches, and he came to the North Fork as a boy to surf-cast for bluefsh and striped bass with his dad and to play baseball against Shelter Island. “I grew up in the dirt, and I spent summers on the water,” Micieli-Martinez says. “But, just as important, I know what it’s like here in the winter, and in the fall as we’re approaching harvest.”
The vineyard’s history is interesting, too. It began after Robert Entenmann sold the company his grandfather had founded, Entenmann’s bakery, in 1978, and used the money to buy the land. (Maybe he owes his good fortune to his mother, Martha Clara, who thought to use cellophane on the packaging so people could see the goodies inside.) His plan was to raise thoroughbreds, but once grapes caught on, he decided to plant in 1995. Micieli-Martinez joined the team in 2007, and his 2010 Merlot was named the best in the state at the 2013 New York Wine & Food Classic.
Once again, it was a meeting with refreshments, which numbered 11, but all in the name of science. Micieli-Martinez is a scientist, too. In May, he devised a smart-block registry, a spreadsheet to be flled out by each Alliance winemaker, recording each clone, rootstock, nursery source, planting date, location, soil profle, spacing, pruning method, bud-break date, and cluster weight, plus sample analyses taken from mid-September through the end of harvest. Winemaking is art, but it’s based on data, and the more info you have, the more you can pass on.
“There are three appellations out here,” Micieli- Martinez says. “Long Island, the North Fork of Long Island, and the Hamptons. Right now, we’re still fguring out there are differences from spot to spot. In Napa, you can say if it’s Stags’ Leap or St. Helena. So it’s a sign of our youth as a region that we don’t know yet. But we’re making wine, so we’re in a feld where you want to age.”
It wasn’t hard to fnd exceptional Merlot wherever I wandered, and it wasn’t limited to the Alliance members. “A rising tide lifts all ships,” Anthony Nappa says. “The success of our wines rests with the success of the region.” I met with Larry Perrine, managing partner and president of Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton. In 1988, he’d organized a groundbreaking conference—amazingly funded by Suffolk County’s vocational-school program—“Bringing Bordeaux to Long Island,” during which he argued that Long Island had the most similar climate to the French region as any winegrowing area in the US. Two years later, the frst Merlot in the Hamptons was planted in his vineyard. “If you can’t produce competitive-quality products,” Perrine explained, “how can you hope to sell in New York, which is our market? But we’ll never be what the Willamette Valley is to Portland [Oregon], or [what] Napa is to San Francisco, because New York is the center of the world. We’re just another district here, and we have to compete against all the ones that exist. So, of course, our wines had to get better.”
One place to see them is in the labyrinthine wine cellar of the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, where among the 30,000 bottles, including many Bordeaux, I found more than a hundred Long Island–made wines, including a three-liter 1998 Wölffer Estate Merlot with Roman Roth’s signature across it (a steal at $505!), some of Louisa Hargrave’s old vintages, and ones dating back to the mid-1980s, when there were just a dozen of the 60 wineries that exist today.
I knew I still had a few more visits in me, so I went to Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue to meet winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich, who founded the Alliance when he’d been at Raphael (he also applied for those three Long Island appellations). In 2012, he helped found Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, the frst sustainable viticulture program on the East Coast. A year later, his Merlot was served at President Obama’s second inauguration—but Olsen-Harbich reveals that he always blends: “Even when I make a straight Merlot, I’ll combine ones from our 12 different blocks; and each of them will taste different, brooding and earthy, or playful and aromatic. If you don’t blend, it’s analogous to painting with one color or playing just one instrument.” In the US, a wine needs to consist of 75 percent of a varietal to bear its name on the bottle. When the grapes are the fve red Bordeaux grapes—Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petit Verdot—the wine is sometimes called a Meritage, which is produced across Long Island. (And, lest you worry, there’s a separate national Meritage Alliance promoting that.)
And then there was Shinn Estate Vineyards and Farmhouse in Mattituck, another of the sustainable group’s founders. When the 20-acre winery produced its frst wine, a 2002 Merlot, it won The New York Times’ blind tasting of Long Island reds. “That changed things for us immediately,” winemaker David Page told me. “We planted more Merlot.” Today, those constitute half of Shinn’s grapes, but what really changed at the vineyard began in the soil. “Growing Merlot means producing wines with profundity, so you can’t dumb the soil down by using weed killers. You have to let it think for itself—and then, with you as the catalyst, you take the grapes further.”
In 2004, Page and his wife, Barbara Shinn, converted the vineyard foor to a meadow, with 40 broadleaf species and 17 kinds of grass, using their roots to break up the soil, absorb excess water, and form benefcial insect habitats above ground. There are at least eight Merlot clones on Long Island, some originally from California, others from France. Thus far, no one puts the exact genetic identity of what’s in their wine on their labels, but in 2008 Shinn became one of just three US wineries to list the ingredients.
Since I was already in Mattituck, I fnished at Macari Vineyards, named winery of the year at the 2014 New York Wine & Food Classic. That’s where I started tasting wines that had aged. One irony of Long Island wines is that despite their depth, they’re often summerdriven. Most buyers come East for the beaches, and during a day in the sun, visitors want to drink lighter fare including rosé (Wölffer debuted its 71 percent Merlot, Summer in a Bottle, last year). And wineries, which rarely mind a little return on investment, often release their reds within two years or less after bottling. The last three vintages, 2014, 2013, and 2012, are all spectacular, but still try to get your hands on a 2010, 2007, or 2005, if you can—a fne Long Island red can happily age fve to 15 years. Or simply try Macari’s 2004 Alexandra, a 57 percent Merlot blend of all fve Bordeaux grapes, which has been produced in only three vintages ever. It’s available now.
Thanks to Long Island’s role, New York is now the thirdlargest wine-producing state in the country (moving up on Washington fast), and the annual economic impact of the wine industry, including grapes and grape juice, is $4.8 billion. In 2014, Wine Enthusiast named New York State “Wine Region of the Year.” Even the 48-member Long Island Wine Council is getting in on the action, hiring the former marketing director for Puma North America in April as its own.
met the Alliance winemakers one more time, at a May dinner to launch the release of 2012 Merliance, a blend of straight Merlots from each of the group’s six members. It was a six-course Peking duck dinner at Scrimshaw in Greenport. (The Peking duck was from Aquebogue.) “The bottle is the best business card you can have,” Roth says. (It’s available at member tasting rooms and through its wine clubs.) Throughout my explorations, I kept hearing how food-friendly Long Island wines were, so this was my chance to put that recommendation to the test.
“One more purpose of the Alliance is that we’re all so busy,” Nappa says, “so we don’t have a chance to see one another that often and talk about things like bud break, right when it’s happening, which is now. But it’s also about camaraderie.” He takes a bite, then smiles. Then Russell Hearn and Juan Micieli- Martinez do, too. “When you’re sipping wine, you’re sipping a year in a person’s life,” Amy Zavatto says, which mostly meant it was time to eat more duck. And then, of course, to wash it down.
photography by doug young