When you reach the end of the Long Island Expressway, a journey more often measured in time and endurance than in miles, you’ve reached the point where the tail of what Walt Whitman accurately described as “fish-shape Paumanok” begins. South and east of Riverhead sprawl the Hamptons, the domain of ocean beaches and oceans of suntan lotion. North and east of Riverhead you enter the heartland of Long Island wine. Yes, there are a handful of vineyards on the South Fork – but the North Fork shelters some three to four dozen of them, dotted among the golf courses and surviving farms from Aquebogue almost out to the Marion Causeway.
It isn’t Napa, and there’s no Wine Train – actually, there’s no train of any kind – but it is still, as the Michelin Guide would say, worth the journey.
We like to make a day of it – a little birding; stops at farm stands for local corn and tomatoes and especially, late in the season, Green Mountain potatoes; lunch somewhere (maybe Claudio’s in Greenport for the terrific fresh clams); and many stops at wineries to taste and buy. It’s best before Memorial Day or after Labor Day, when the roads hold only locals and you can putter along at a tourist’s or birdwatcher’s pace, but even the summer traffic on the local roads can be bearable if you avoid weekends.
I have to admit that even long acquaintance with the North Fork hasn’t gotten me to all of the wineries – a situation long overdue for correction, but which force of habit and inborn sloth keep postponing. Long Island growers long ago impressed me with their ability to coax first-class vinifera grapes out of Long Island’s flat fields.
But about the same time, I formed the conviction (maybe now outdated, and another reason for me to get serious about the North Fork) that they hadn’t yet had that charismatic winemaker who would set the mark for their wines at a commensurately high level. I always find a lot to like in Long Island wines, but I haven’t yet found anything that stops me dead in my tracks and makes me think I’m tasting a world-class wine. Hope springs eternal: I believe the region is capable of that, and I’m taking a resolution here and now to pay more attention, more often.
Meanwhile, a ghastly New York City July pushed me to pure escapism: we – Diane, myself, and two equally heat-beaten friends – hopped into our wonderfully air-conditioned car (always cooler than our apartment, and Con Ed can’t charge us for it), slogged through the Midtown Tunnel, and then violated a few speed limits to reach the comfortable breezy, tree-lined North Fork Boulevards des Vins: Sound Avenue and Main Road, aka Route 25. We spent a comfortable day dropping into whichever wineries looked less crowded (admittedly not the soundest method of exploring a wine region), searching in a very limited range for inexpensive, preferably totally unoaked white wines to sustain us through the seemingly unending heat wave.
You can judge something of the diversity of Long Island winemaking just by the names of some of the wineries: at one end of the spectrum, Osprey’s Dominion, Duck Walk North, and One Woman Vineyards; at the other, Comtesse Thérèse and Castello di Borghese Vineyard and Winery. People grow everything out here: among the red varieties, mostly Merlot (the most successful red wine for my palate), Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, though I know there is a little Gamay and Refosco and Sangiovese and Syrah planted as well; among the whites (for me the most interesting of Long Island’s range of wines) Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Tocai Friulano, Riesling, Sauvignon, and Viognier, and probably some other varieties that I haven’t encountered yet. (I pass over in silence the various fruit wines on offer. Yes, I’m a snob.)
Part of the North Fork’s problem, I think, is exactly that “people grow everything out here.” Its terroirs and microclimates aren’t very varied: Essentially, there’s one of each. Overall, the soils and growing conditions at least loosely resemble those of Bordeaux – which is good, I guess – but that doesn’t mean that any grape variety that will grow here will necessarily give you a great wine. Individual growers and the region as a whole have got to find out what varieties really reward attention, and that is a process that takes a lot of time and patience and experimentation.
For instance: I was impressed by Martha Clara Vineyard’s Viognier, a pleasing, minerally wine from a Rhone Valley variety that seems to like Long Island’s hot summers, and I was very impressed by Paumanok Vineyard’s Chenin Blanc, a really lovely dry wine that recalled Savennières without imitating it. And several wineries – e.g., Lieb, Osprey’s Dominion – were offering charming, simple, refreshing unoaked Chardonnays at prices considerably below those of their to-me-almost-undrinkable oaked Chardonnays. Particularly in the context of all that wonderfully fresh, wonderfully flavorful Long Island fish and shellfish, a coating of new oak vanilla is totally out of place on a dinner wine.
It’s a bit of a downer, after a fun day in the greenery, to slog back along the LIE to steamy New York City, but a trunkful of assorted goodies more than justifies the effort. Now, if only the Long Island Railroad would install a high-speed, luxury train to the North Fork…. Oh yes, and while we’re at it, world peace would be nice too.