In 1976, three years after my then-husband Alex and I planted our first wine grapes in Cutchogue, I was inspired by a dinner at A Moveable Feast, a Westhampton restaurant that had just earned four stars from the New York Times critic Florence Fabricant, who extolled “this gem, every facet polished,” and called the owners, Patricia and Peter Lenz, “people of consummate taste.”
And the chef was a woman! To this day, I can recall the brilliance of Pat Lenz’s cuisine: her witty, aromatic interpretation of French classics, emphasizing herbs and vegetables at a time when other restaurants’ idea of cuisine was a chunk of meat, a baked potato in foil and a limp salad of iceberg lettuce.
Fast forward to 1978 and I was thrilled to find the same couple, Pat and Peter Lenz, planting merlot and gewurtztraminer on a 30-acre farm in Peconic, just a mile from Hargrave Vineyard. The Lenzes had shut down their restaurant at the peak of its success, seeking (Pat recently emailed me) “the challenge of making wine to pair with the food we loved.”
Having taken some time to explore the possibilities in Napa Valley, they were discouraged (as we had been) to find that the wine industry in California then was having a very hard time.
Not wanting to be “very small fish in a big pond,” Pat and Peter settled on the North Fork, bought “his and hers” tractors, raised a goat they named Julia Child and devoted themselves to becoming vintners.
“The patience it took to wait years to taste the fruits of our labors was not easy, considering the immediate gratification of a restaurant,” Pat said, “but wait we did. And it was worth it. We are extraordinarily proud of Lenz Vineyard wines and the choices of grape varieties we planted.”
Happy as the Lenzes were with the success of their wines, by 1988 they were ready for change again. Back in California, Pat returned to her first avocation, sculpture; then the pair opened an “avant-garde” motel (Motel Duchamp) in Sonoma, followed by a syrah only winery, also called Duchamp, after Pat’s artistic muse, surrealist Marcel Duchamp. Peter runs operations there, while Pat continues as artist-in-chief. As Pat said in a 2003 interview, “I am the starter … I do the creative part, then [Peter] makes it a business. I find maintenance painful.”
I understood when the Lenzes left Peconic, but I sincerely missed them. We had worked together to establish the Long Island Wine Council and to bring quality standards to our new industry, and they had held the standard of both quality and innovation high. Fortunately for the world of wine, The Lenz Winery was taken over by Peter and Deborah Carroll, a Manhattan-based couple with equally high standards, who had planted grapes on their nearby Cutchogue vineyard in 1985. As investors, the Carrolls might have pushed for profitability at the expense of quality, but instead they gave their vineyard manager, Sam McCullough, winemaker Eric Fry and sales manager Tom Morgan freedom to reduce yields more, age wines longer and niche-market wines more than the bottom line might dictate. The result has been that, with the same team working together for almost three decades, the wines show tremendous consistency, depth and complexity.
Interviewed for this column, Peter Carroll reflected, “When I got into the business I thought that making wine would be very hard, growing grapes would be fairly hard, but selling wine would be easy. Now I realize that it’s the other way around! Selling wine is very hard, especially to wine stores, 90 percent of whom only really care about price.”
Echoing Pat Lenz, he said, “Something else I’ve learned: patience. Everything takes ages in the wine business and you just have to get used to that.”
He added, “When I got into the business, I also thought that if you made a really, really good wine, it would sell itself … [but] the ‘wine establishment’ is a powerful, conservative — reactionary even — entity; it isn’t really in the business of heralding new wineries. To a large extent the wine establishment is in the business of manning the ramparts to deny access to upstarts like Lenz.”
As frustrating, slow and costly as it has been for the Carrolls, Peter said, “What a total delight it has been to be involved at Lenz in this emerging industry!” Here’s a toast to 35 years of total delight at the Lenz Winery in Peconic.
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.