Sounding a Barbaric Yawp over Long Island's Wine Country
I never believed in New York City. Sure, I've seen the opening shots of Saturday Night Live and The Late Show. I've heard of Madison Square Garden, Times Square, Greenwich Village. I know about Hell's Kitchen, or at least I know of it. Heck, I've read my Whitman and O'Hara. I've seen Wall Street and a few Seinfeld episodes. All the clam-digging, hotdog-vending, leather-treating, immigrant-welcoming, heavy-accent-speaking, Armani-suit-wearing, cheap-art-studio-renting clamor of the big city: it's supposedly all there.
Honestly, I spent nearly 29 years of my life smug with my West Coast theory that New York City was actually an elaborate hoax, a sham. That we'd all been hornswoggled, duped, had the wool pulled over our eyes. But folks, New York City does in fact exist. Yep, it's what you have to pass on the way to Long Island wine country.
Luckily my friend Mary Ann has experience negotiating the tight, towering megalopolis of Manhattan. She bandies those mythic names so easily -- 5th Avenue, Broadway, Brooklyn Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel -- as we weave in and out of one-way streets and littered thoroughfares. Her dilapidated Honda wheezes into each gear, its U-joint rattling almost in sync with the techno-pulse emanating from the Dodge Stealth next to us. I catch a mere crack of blue between the skyscrapers before we enter the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. Say goodbye to New York City, and enter -- Long Island.
I don't think I knew Long Island was an island until my late teens. We West Coasters tend to lump all those Eastern-sounding names together. Boston, Providence, Queens, The Bronx, D.C., heck even Philly: they're all, you know, up there with the snow and tollbooths. Is Rhode Island an island? I might well have thought of the whole North and New England as an island. Imagine my surprise, then, as we headed out on Long Island in search of a heap of history and some yankee wine.
Things aren't as close as they might seem on maps when battling stop-and-go traffic on 495. Indeed we bid adieu to New York's massive skyline for nearly an hour as we slither through the maze of suburbs in Queens and beyond. Urban sprawl slowly peters out, being replaced by beautiful green pastures, scattered farms and sleepy towns. After nearly two hours of driving from New York City we reach Riverhead, a lively New Englandesque town. There, Long Island splits into the North and South Forks, around Peconic Bay. At this point Long Island wine country begins.
"Long Island's Whitman-crazy," Mary Ann says. "There's even a Walt Whitman Mall here somewhere." I nod. By now, though, all traces of America's super-pseudoculture have dissipated, leaving us with something more akin to what old Walt perhaps saw a century and a half ago when he was writing his poems. "They should name a winery after Whitman instead of a mall," Mary Ann quips. "Seems much more like him. Let his name endorse cabernet and syrah instead of Radio Shack and The Gap."
Mary Ann's a poet...a poet without a tape deck or CD player in her car. Radio loses its charm after four hours of driving, so to pass the time she recites bits and pieces of poems that she's memorized, intermixed with excerpts from her latest Dionysian revelry in essay form. Among my favorites are her scattered long lines of Whitman -- a real Long Islander -- and this quip from Baudelaire: "Get drunk! On wine, on poetry, it doesn't matter." With all her talk of Dionysius and poetry, all my quick previews of the wineries we'll be hitting, we've worked ourselves into our own pagan wine frenzy. We've consumed the bagels we bought in Manhattan. Our last bottle of wine was days ago.
Must. Find. Wine.
Make Palmer your first stop on the North Fork. We did. Located just past Riverhead, in the town of Aquebogue, the 18th century style tasting house is a treat, as are all the different events -- from bluegrass festivals to culinary projects -- held at Palmer. Palmer is the name on Long Island. Seems they've been marketing well and doing all the things that make wineries get big and famous, including hook-ups with Disney and American Airlines. All the hoopla can't undermine the wine, though, and at Palmer it doesn't. Native Long Islander and winemaker Tom Drozd is an instant pal of mine once I learn he was initally an Italian language and art snob. Yeah! Luckily for the wine biz, Tom gave those passions up and turned to making souped-up grape juice. Since then (1988), Palmer's been living up to the winery's own slogan: "Not all great American wine comes from California." A 20,000-case annual production of more than 12 wines makes Palmer Long Island's second largest winery and a fairly substantial project.
After the jazzy, self-paced tour of the winery, we get down to business. Of the six whites Palmer produces, we try the 1998 pinot blanc, the 1998 estate chard and the 1997 reserve chard. The pinot blanc -- a cool rarity out here -- is a great opener: light, refreshing, not too dry. This is a great summer wine. And while it's still chilly out, the heat from the popular (and populous) tasting room approximates summer for us. Both chards are wonderful and not overly oaky. (Remember this trend, as it'll repeat with gleeful regularity.) Staying true to its motto, Palmer, like many other Long Island wineries, attempts to steer clear of its West Coast rivals by making European-style wines that are lighter in body and more elegant. Mary Ann loves the '98 chard. The flavor, she says, lingers like a good Whitman poem. I prefer the '97 reserve. While it isn't the oak monster from the other coast, it does manage to keep much of the force -- the power -- I associate with California wine.
Of the Palmer reds, we try all '97s -- merlot, cabernet franc and reserve cabernet. Mary Ann describes the merlot as smoky, chocolaty and peppery. I agree. Lots of flavor in this one. All you woodsy types will love it. The cab franc's another rarity out here (and in the wine world at large). This one's elegant, nice and light. By using this Bordeaux/Loire grape, it seems that Palmer's really punting for a comparison with France. Indeed, it makes its French connection explicit in its literature, illustrating how its microclimate approximates that of Bordeaux. Finally, the reserve cab -- the one I've been waiting for -- doesn't disappoint. Aged one year, this reserve hangs with any wines from around the world in terms of depth of flavor. Again, it isn't a full-bodied monster, but it does have elegance and nice toasty oak, without being overbearing.
Without saying (again), the wines at Palmer are wonderful, the winery's brilliant, and the people are friendly and helpful. If you only have a little time to kill while in Riverhead, get out to Palmer. Ask for Tom. If you speak Italian, try to sweet-talk some perks out of him.
When you're in Aguebogue, don't miss Paumanok Vineyards. Talk about good wine. Charles Massoud is unobtrusively making some of Long Island's finest. Perhaps his quiet 3,000-case production will grow as people grab hold of these gems. I love the '98 barrel-fermented chard. To me it's a taste of California on Long Island. Breaking with other Long Island wineries a little here, Paumanok's chard is more for buttery chard lovers: lots of flavor, lingering taste, oaky loveliness. The '97 merlot's no slouch either. Again, a bit out of the area's character, the merlot's bold and full of oak. Not overpowering, rather it's, let's say, assertive? Confident? Ah, whatever it is, it's big, deep and full of that plummy goodness everyone seems to want in merlot.
Aside from the big varietals, Paumanok devotes both time and energy to the specialty wines. The '98 late harvest riesling's a winner. I love it because of the clean finish. Syrupy dessert wines can be like Kool-Aid a la a preschooler: super sweet and not quite mixed together completely. This one, though, is the perfect sweet toother's companion. Heck, I'd sip on it after dinner, or before; okay, perhaps even during dinner.
Paumanok is a welcomed partner to the bigger wineries here, at least in my book. Let's hope it doesn't go too corporate on us. While going big can enlarge a winery's scope and goals, it can also take away from some of the "old world" appeal. I just hope we continue to have a mix and leave room for the small guys like Paumanok. Give Massoud the time and he'll impress you. Paumanok is for real.
The North Fork of Long Island is a series of tiny towns. To tell you the truth, we aren't sure where one ends and another begins. Rather than bother with all the town names and winery addresses, quietly working yourself into a non-wine-loving-conducive anxiety, print out the handy winery map from the New York wine Web site, http://www.nywine.com, with its witty slogan "Uncork New York" shining everywhere. Lots of helpful maps, contacts, history and charm await.
At Riverhead, where Long Island forks, we took the North Fork, where most of the wineries are located. (All counted, there are 20 wineries, only two of which are located on the South Fork.) Anyone spending more than an afternoon could easily stop at most North Fork wineries. Believe me, the North Fork's set up for touring. If you want the full bug, visit all 18 North Fork wineries, then take the ferry across to Shelter Island in Peconic Bay. You'll end up on the South Fork, Sag Harbor and your last two Long Island wineries. You'd even be smack dab in the middle of The Hamptons. Bring money.
The Lenz Winery, located just past Pindar in Peconic, is another must-see and must-taste on your North Fork jaunt. Tom Morgan, Peter Carroll and company are impressing the big boys of the wine world with their Chablis-esque chard. What does that mean? It means that Lenz -- at least their white wine -- is staying far clear of the overt oak and knock-you-over qualities of their California competitors. I know you're getting tired of my saying this, but it remains the key to appreciating these wines. Lenz's '97 chard, as well as its '96 Gold Label chard, are both shooting for a light, refined crispness that's rare in many other areas of the world.
I especially love the '96 Gold Label. Clear color, super crisp, this is for all you fume blanc lovers who want to wade into the chard world. Mary Ann goes for the '97, a good sign when the less expensive version of the same varietal is worthy of such praise. She calls it "austere," and while it's a bit snobby, I love the term. They really are austere: no oak, just grape flavor and crystalline appearance.
As for Lenz's reds, the '96 merlot is strangely more akin to something from California: dark, smoky, oaky and full-bodied. This is the wine Mary Ann's been waiting for. You give up a little elegance, but you gain it back in strength. The '97 Bordeaux-style blend is my kind of wine -- heavily influenced by cabernet sauvignon. This is in sharp contrast to the merlot in its lighter color and body. There's a wine for everyone here, even those who love an uncharacteristically dry gewurztraminer (yet another oddity in the wine world -- an oddity I love to see). They even make sparkling wines. Go figure.
Our last winery is Pellegrini Vineyards, back in Cutchogue. I have high hopes for Pellegrini, having heard about the beautiful grounds and architecture of the winery as well as the wine -- all partly due to owner Bob Pellegrini's background in graphic design. Even the view from the road promises a different experience. The vaulted roof of the tasting room and pillared porticoes beckon even the most skeptical "Wine on Long Island? Impossible!" types.
We enter the tasting room and are immediately welcomed by the tasting staff, who intuit my Wine X-ness. Immediately they're on the phone to Bob P. While we wait, we take in the surroundings. The architecture's stunning. Like I said, the vaulted ceilings, the all-wood interior, the view onto the courtyard -- all make for a setting that's surprisingly cozy, unpretentious and inviting.
Within moments, Bob enters and we start a personal tour of the grounds. Very jovial and, I sense, a bit unused to such formalities as tours for wine mag writers, Bob churns out information almost immediately on case production, acreage and other numbers while graciously opening doors and smiling. Mary Ann's spinning, perhaps as much from Bob's barrage of numbers as from the wine we last drank. Out back with the vines and a quaint gazebo in view, he continues in what slowly evolves into an impassioned soliloquy about finding the right grapes, the right conditions, the right spacing between rows, the right everything. Talking to Bob, you quickly get the impression that he makes wine for all the right reasons, most importantly because he loves it.
At this location on the North Fork, walking a few hundred yards in either direction will find you at water's edge, and Bob's the first I've heard today to talk in depth about what Long Island has to offer, how to choose the right grapes, how to fall in love with wine. Refreshing. More on that later.
We see the kitchen where notable chefs from New York City and elsewhere come to give classes, pair wines, do all that snobby stuff that wineries are supposed to do. Honestly, I'm not against it, especially when the passion's there. We spy a beautiful room up a staircase to the left. "That's where we host tastings for our staff," Bob adds. "In fact, we just had one last night on merlot. Would you like to see the room?" he asks with child-like enthusiasm. In fact, throughout the tour, I feel as if all the technical talk's thinly veiling a boyish excitement and eagerness to show off what he's so proud of.
In the cellar, he breaks out glasses and we set to tasting a few merlots straight from the barrel. "The '95's still a little tight, but you can taste where it's going," Bob says, looking to Mary Ann.
"I have to say, I'm pretty much a novice at all this wine talk," Mary Ann replies.
"Hey, we all are," Bob says.
The cellar's magnificent, even down to the arcane lock on the gate, which Bob can't ultimately figure out as we leave. "I'll close that later," he says.
We return to the tasting room. It's getting late. The winery has closed to the public for the day, and we've spent the greatest half-hour with a winemaker who's seriously inspired. At this point I'm almost afraid to taste the wine, fearing it won't live up to the grand opening act. Bob stays on to pour. Though we're invited to taste all 10, we opt only for a few; we do have miles to go tonight before we sleep. That said, we start with the 1997 chardonnay. For $13 it's wonderful. Again, chardonnay seems to be the powerhouse out on Long Island, or at least the grape that's doing well for everyone. For a bit more cash ($22.50), the 1997 Vintner's Pride Chardonnay is even silkier, though maybe not worth the price difference.
The reds shine. The 1996 cabernet ($16), though confessedly not the blockbuster California can produce, is rich and affordable; the 1994 Vintner's Pride Merlot ($24) proves worthy of its name and, given the ludicrousness of merlot prices worldwide, the price tag seems modest enough for a vintner select. The real treat, though, is the 1995 Vintner's Pride Encore (Bordeaux Blend). Bob's big on cabernet franc and adds it to this wine. At $24, this stuff can play with the big dogs and has twice the body of some of the other blends we tried. Again, what Bob told us, and what I surmised, is that Long Island wineries can't, and in fact don't want to, produce what California produces. Wines made here are less likely to blow you away with body than they are to create wonderfully subtle symphonies of flavor. (Excuse the snob-job.)
By this time both our heads are spinning a bit. I've already told Bob "No more wine." We originally said three tastes, and now we've finished five. "Just one more. Please," Bob says. "You have to try our Finale, and then I won't bother you anymore."
Mary Ann's quick to respond with a nod. She's taken to the array of dessert wines and wants a go at the ice wine. Bob looks at me. I've already said "No," especially no dessert wines. But I give in. Echoing Whitman I mutter to Mary Ann, "Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes."
At the end of the day, though, most of what I contained was alcohol-based. But more than the chewy tannins left over from Bob's Encore, I left with that affirmation, that silent poetics of someone impassioned by what he does. At Pellegrini, the grounds, the people and, most importantly, the wines seem to give off that aura of humility, elegance and just plain honest hard work. If you visit Long Island, even if you're not a wine freak like me, visit Bob at Pellegrini. Not only is he making the most inspired wine we tasted, he's also putting personal touches on the whole process.