The Wines of Long Island, NY

(Originally published May 2004)

The summer months are almost upon us and this means time for weekend getaways and vacations. Whether it is a summer share with your frat brothers, packing up the kids in a vehicle that gets 3 miles per gallon and heading to Disney World, or touring European castles with a dog-eared copy of Kafka in your pocket, it is time to unwind and relax.

Here in New York City, for many folks this means weekends in the Hamptons. But what happens if it rains? Long Island's East End has the answer! You can while away your soggy day touring their lovely wineries. What, they grow grapes on Long Island? Yes, it's true! The real question is which came first, the wineries or the tourist trade? Hmmm...

Although vineyards were planted on Lung Guyland as far back as the 1600's, real, concerted efforts to build sustained viticulture are a much more recent phenomenon, going back to the early 1970's. Before spinning the fascinating yarn of this history, let's first delve into the nuts and bolts of the East End.

Eighty-five miles east of New York City, the East End benefits from a variety of climatic elements. First, there are the breezes off of the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay. This maritime influence limits hot and cold swings during the days and nights and helps provide a more consistent temperature range in which the grapes may grow. This is important as it places less stress on the vines and grapes and may work towards avoiding sudden hot or cold spikes which can both create premature bud break and/or throw off the physiological ripeness of the grapes as they mature. The biggest threats to the vines are hurricanes, winter frosts (the vines are not that deep) and salt water exposure through the air.

Everyone and their uncle associated with the Long Island wine industry will remind you that this maritime influence is very close to that of the famed French wine region Bordeaux, which is itself not far off of the Atlantic while also pierced by the Gironde River. Hanes sees this as shameless marketing hucksterism. Long Island boosters don't rant about how close Muscadet in the Loire is to the Atlantic and you don't see Long Island wineries planting lots of Melon de Bourgogne do you? No. Bordeaux is famous so that's who you want to be compared to. While the climate is in some respects similar to Bordeaux, the people often making this comparison are not exactly unbiased parties.

If things like latitude are important to you in making regional comparisons, the latitude of Long Island is about 41, while that of Bordeaux is 44 and Nantes in the Loire Valley is 47. So, latitudinally speaking, the East End is a bit further south than the two regions with which it draws most comparisons. This should be in its favor, especially when you try to figure out "degree days," which is a unit devised to measure climates. Degree days express the number of days that the daily mean temperature is over 50 degrees Fahrenheit multiplied by the amount by which the mean temperature exceeds 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The French researcher A.P. DeCandolle devised this system to measure useful heat for vine growth and ripening. This system was refined in the 1940's by Californian researchers Amerine and Winkler, restricting the days measured from April 1 through October 31 (the idea must have been that temporary spikes in temperature from November through March are statistically irrelevant and misleading since they are more blips than temperature trends -- someone should have warned them about global warming).

So, they grouped things into five regions based on degree days in five hundred degree day increments, the lowest cutoff being 2,500 and the highest 4,000. The East End averages between 2,700 and 2,800 degree days. The Finger Lakes region upstate is more like 2,000 to 2,300. Bordeaux is between 2,300 and 2,400. Burgundy between 2,200 and 2,300. Napa Valley is between 3,100 and 3,200. That's a lot of numbers, what do they suggest? That, factoring in other climatic elements, the East End is warmer than Bordeaux (despite the fact that they both have a 210 day growing season) and as a result should on the whole have grapes which ripen better. But the degree days are also decidedly fewer than Napa so people who use Napa as a benchmark for, say, how a Cabernet Sauvignon should taste will find most East End versions less ripe shadows of their Californian brethren.

The soils of the East End are what you'd expect of the tip of an island and place known mostly for its beaches — deep and sandy. They drain pretty well since there's not a lot of richer soil or clay to hold the water. There are two forks in the island, the North Fork and the South Fork and the latter has more silt and loam in its soil and holds water better. As a result, the North Fork requires more irrigation. It should be noted that a major traditional viticultural product of the East End has been potatoes and many vineyards have been planted on former potato fields. Potatoes do best in loose, well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Poorly drained soils often cause low yields. Heavy soils can cause tubers to be small and rough. These facts reemphasize the distinct nature of East End soils and what kind of grapes should thrive in them.

By the way, are you aware of the vast potato fields dotting the landscapes of Bordeaux?

There are two American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the East End. The North Fork appellation covers, duh, the North Fork of the East End. The Hamptons appellation covers the South Fork. Together these AVAs represent almost 3,000 acres of vineyards with roughly two dozen wineries. Most of these vineyards are on the North Fork, the South Fork boasting more million dollar mansions than vineyards. The contemporary era of East End wineries began more or less in 1973 when Alex and Louisa Hargrave put their shingle out on the North Fork (a good move since Hargrave Vineyards was not too long ago sold to an Italian prince for $4 million).

With dreams of Lafite and Latour in their heads, winemakers eschewed native North American "Vitis Labrusca" grapes like Concord, Catawba or Baco Noir and planted the European "Vitis Vinifera" varietals. These are mainly the Bordeaux-inspired grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. But there's no lack of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with some Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chenin Blanc and Viognier thrown in for good measure.

Given the relative youth of the wine industry in Long Island, there's still much trial and error going on in the selection of the correct grapes to plant, those which will thrive and produce the best wines possible given all the environmental factors involved. As a result, people should cut the wineries some slack. Luckily, Hanes ain't people. He presented the "facts" above to try and underscore the similarities and dissimilarities between the East End and other comparable regions in the hopes that it would present a reasonable framework for discussing the potential of the wine industry on Long Island.

Sadly, most of the folks out on the East End are not drawing comparisons to Mr. Spock in terms of rationality. For whatever reason, they keep tilting at the windmill of growing certain grapes even though year after year the results are pedestrian if not worse. Whatever the maritime climate, degree days or latitude tells you, the wine in your glass tells you most grapes just don't ripen fully on the East End. On the whole, white grapes ripen before red grapes. This should suggest planting more white varietals than red. Alas, this is not the case on the East End. The holy grail continues to be Chardonnay. Hanes jadedly suspects this decision is driven by the tourist trade's demands for the grape rather than its true suitability to the place. Even given Chardonnay's predisposition towards easy ripening and flexibility in adopting to various terrains, on Long Island it usually turns out watery and flat. Chardonnay loses its acidity quickly in the latter stages of ripening so maybe efforts to coax some more flavor out of fully physiologically ripe grapes causes it here to lose what crisp acidity it could possess.

Painting in broad strokes (the only type Hanes uses), they should ditch most of the Chardonnay in favor of Sauvignon Blanc, the latter a varietal which should thrive on the East End. It is prone to being too vigorous so a cooler climate helps it avoid over-production. It depends on crisp acidity for appeal so, again, cooler is better as high acidities are more easily achieved. It creates more elegant wines on hardier soils rather than rich soils, another checkmark in the pro column for Long Island. And not only is it a primary grape found in the comparable Loire region but it is also a main white grape in much-emulated Bordeaux! Geez, what else do these guys want?

As for the other white varietals such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chenin Blanc and Viognier, it's too early for even Hanes to casually dismiss them. However, he suspects that if any of these rise above the fray it will be Chenin Blanc or Riesling.

It's basically the same deal with red grape varietals too. Everyone wants to make a "world class" Cabernet Sauvignon. But the damn grape — known for its slow ripening — just does not ripen properly on the East End resulting too often in green, herbaceous wines lacking in fruit. This is a common problem in Bordeaux too so, hmmm, maybe the East End is like Bordeaux after all. Hah! The same goes for Merlot, which buds and ripens about two weeks before Cabernet Sauvignon which should give it a leg up in a cooler climate. Sadly, though, the plump and fruity Merlot produced throughout many parts of the world do not bare a resemblance to the thin, short wines coming out of the East End. It could be Merlot's sensitivity to frost, mildew or rot or its need for soils with more water retention than one finds on the East End. The sheer volume of Merlot coming out of the East End has resulted in some very good Merlot wines but if you look at things quantitatively from top to bottom, the results are not pretty. Hanes does not believe all Merlot should be uprooted but it's use should be much, much more selective and aimed at only the most favorable soils. That said, all Pinot Noir on the East End should be uprooted.

The true wild card is Cabernet Franc, the grape with perhaps the most promise of all on Long Island. This grape is becoming less fashionable in Bordeaux but remains the primary red grape of the Loire. Eminently food friendly, Cabernet Franc buds earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon and ripens with greater ease too. It is less susceptible to rain-produced rot. What Cabernet Franc is not is "sexy." It has higher acidity than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which is a good part of its food friendliness, but also presents less fruity extract making it less of a candidate for mindless swilling on the beach or backyard patio than a Merlot. Cabernet Franc is fresh with a bracing touch of herbaceousness and citrus as well as bright cherry and berry fruit. It is rarely a "meal in a glass."

So, while this grape is probably most ideal to be grown on the East End, winery owners look at the tepid sales of, for example, Chinon or Saumur-Champigny from the Loire and shy away from planting it. Rather than listen to what nature tells them, they listen to bleached blondes chewing gum in their tasting rooms. This is a shame but, hey, it isn't Hanes's nickel on the line here so it's easy for him to say.

The most unfortunate aspect of the East End wines remains their strategy for compensating for lighter bodied, underripe wines. Why, yes, you guessed it! They oak the living bejesus out of their wines! Grapes not fully ripened? Concentration and length a little lacking? No problem! Just age the wines in 100% new toasty oak and, voila, instant richness. To Hanes's fearsome palate, no wine region suffers more from over-oaking their wines than Long Island. Spice, vanilla cream, toffee, caramel, buttered toast, none of these flavors exist in grapes. One could offer the argument that the oak is used to provide balance and stuffing as the wine ages. However, most of these Long Island wines do not have that kind of a shelf life and should be consumed within 1-3 years of release. This complaint levied, Hanes fully recognizes that most of these wineries' clientele love oak-driven flavors in their wine so he should just keep his big mouth shut.

Now, even though Hanes has just bombed the Long Island wine industry back into the stone age, there are plenty of perfectly potable wines being produced if you don't have any alternatives at hand. Some of the bigger names are Bedell Cellars, Channing Daughters, Gristina, Lenz, Macari, Palmer, Pindar, Paumanok, Pellegrini, Schneider, and Wölffer Estate. Which ones you choose is up to you — the best Hanes can do is wish the rain stays away during your weekend in the Hamptons and that you can sit on the beach sipping an ice cold beer.