Martha Clara heads in a new direction: Uncork the Forks

Martha Clara Vineyards 2016 sauvignon blanc was a standout for our Lenn Thompson during a recent tasting. (Credit: Madison Fender)

When visiting wineries on the East End, my wife and I have fallen into a bit of a rut. We go to Winery A first, then we go to Winery B and if our kids — now 5 and 10 — are behaving, we may squeeze in Winery C before taking them to Magic Fountain as a reward. Wineries A, B and C rarely (maybe never?) change. We know we’ll like the wines. We know that our kids are welcome. They are the safe bets and there is comfort in that.

I’m still tasting wines from other producers, of course. My writing and obsession demand it. But the at-the-winery tasting rut remains. Or remained, until a recent two-hour tasting with Martha Clara Vineyards’ general manager and winemaker Juan Micieli-Martinez snapped me out of it.

I know what you might be thinking, particularly if you haven’t been to Martha Clara in a while, as I hadn’t. Yes, I mean that Martha Clara. The one with the petting zoo, the sweet Bernie rosé with a beagle on the label and the throngs of people — some of whom bring coolers of non-Martha Clara libations to enjoy during a sprawling vineyard-side picnic.

But here’s the thing: It’s not like that anymore. The animals have been moved to a different part of the farm, away from the tasting room. The rosé is now bone-dry and there’s no critter on the label. Outside food is no longer allowed, so no more picnics (outside wine or beer was never allowed). Micieli-Martinez has even changed the tasting room over to table service, rather than row after row standing at a tasting bar.

This isn’t your parents’ Martha Clara Vineyards.

“The old business model was about just trying to drive traffic here. Get volume. Get people here,” Micieli-Martinez said as we tasted. “I think that the mind-set at the time was maybe not as wine savvy and wine sophisticated.”

He’s clearly worked to change that in his almost 10 years with the winery.

“There has been a total overhaul of everything we do up front. I kind of see it as a more grown-up, sophisticated experience,” he said.

It’s this shift that he’s most proud of — and he should be. What he’s been able to accomplish impressed me.

Most important, at least to me, the wine portfolio has never been better. There are some truly expressive and delicious wines in the lineup. That wasn’t always the case.

We tasted two dozen wines together and several stood out.

2016 Sauvignon Blanc: Lighter in body, like so many 2016 whites, but classic with passion fruit and citrus fruit qualities accented by subtle grassy herbs and fresh, juicy acidity.

2015 Pinot Grigio: Maybe my favorite pinot grigio/gris from Long Island. Peachy and tropical with a succulent mouth feel balanced by clean, bright acidity. This isn’t the insipid pinot grigio you’re thinking of.

2014 Estate Reserve Riesling rivals the best riesling on the island. Lemon-lime and pineapple flavors are made more interesting by notes of citrus blossom and juicy pear. Focused, almost gritty acidity stretches the finish out, too. Just off-dry.

2014 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir: Unmistakably pinot noir with cranberry and red cherry fruit with layers of earth and potpourri spice. With silky mouth feel and nicely structured, it seems like a wine that should age quite well.

2013 Estate Reserve Merlot: Classic good-year merlot from Long Island. Plummy, cherry tinged and earthy with notes of dark-roast coffee and dried thyme. Mouth-filling with well-integrated tannins. Another wine that should age and develop well.

2014 Malbec Merlot: Nearly half-and-half blend that is fruit-forward and crunchy with fresh fruit acidity. Floral high notes intertwine beautifully with the berried merlot baseline. Subtle savory qualities make this a food-friendly pick.

2013 Chateau Northville: The estate’s top Bordeaux-style blend starts with aromas of mint and eucalyptus before getting into ripe berry and plum fruits, savory spice and earth, and a distinct cocoa nib note. As it’s still young, the tannins are a bit more angular, but with time those should soften.