A Long Island harvest to be thankful for: Hargrave Column

Harvest 2014 was a "tsunami' of grapes for vintners like Bedell Cellars winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich pictured above.

Harvest 2014 was a “tsunami’ of grapes for vintners like Bedell Cellars winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich pictured above. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch file photo

Harvest 2014 was “a tsunami” for Long Island’s vintners. That’s what Russell Hearn, co-owner and manager of Premium Wine Group, told me as he orchestrated the winemaking activities of 18 producers at the Mattituck custom crush facility.

On the day I spoke to him, he had one load of machine-harvested fruit being crushed in one stemmer-crusher while another batch of hand-picked fruit went into a second crusher and separate loads of ice wine went into the facility’s two presses. The winery’s fermenters were filling rapidly and the red grapes had only just begun to come in. Several other winemakers I questioned also called it a “flood,” “deluge” or “tsunami” of wine. In both quantity and quality, 2014 is proving to be a year of great abundance.

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This outcome came as a happy surprise to most of the region’s vineyard watchers. Vintage 2014 began with unseasonably cold, wet weather. All expectations were for a retarded harvest, with potential losses due to disease pressure after the humid springtime. Although July and August remained cool (never exceeding 90 degrees), now the tables turned so that dry weather prevailed.

The East End once again proved to have its own, very distinctive climate when, on Aug. 12 and 13, almost 14 inches of lashing rain fell in 24 hours at MacArthur Airport in Islip, while 40 miles away, the North Fork experienced a dribble amounting to barely half an inch. The next East End rain, on Labor Day weekend, spoiled some picnics but plumped up the ripening fruit and refreshed the vines at the perfect time for them to move sugar from leaves to berries.

Vineyard managers scout their vines to predict crop size beginning in June, when the clusters bloom. But somehow this year all predictions were off by the time harvest began, about a week later than usual, at the end of September. Maybe it was that Labor Day weekend rain, or a couple of later dousings; maybe the new bird netting discouraged birds that otherwise would gobble the grapes, but whatever caused it, the berry size was big and the fruit just kept on coming for overworked crews in both vineyard and cellar.

There is usually a hiatus between harvests of white and red grapes, but with the late start to picking no one has had a minute to rest in this most memorably hectic harvest. Thinking about the prospect of staying in the winery many late nights to press out the last grapes (generally gathered after November’s first hard frost and fermented two or three weeks before pressing), one winemaker said to me, “I’ll get a day off at Christmas, maybe.”

Or maybe he’ll get a few minutes free to celebrate Thanksgiving. With such a bountiful harvest, there is certainly much to be thankful for. Personally, having traveled in recent years to some of the world’s most noted wine regions, I am increasingly aware of how special our own region is, how beautiful and generous our land.

It’s poignant to imagine those first Pilgrims, not too far (by boat) from where we are, on the similarly sandy shores of Plymouth, explicitly giving thanks for it. In 1623, their Governor Bradford reported a season not unlike 2014: “The Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing.”

The Pilgrims had cod, eels, lobster and bass; they had venison, duck and wild turkey. Any of these foods, though less plentiful now by far, are happily appropriate on our Thanksgiving table today. The Pilgrims would have had beer, too, except that the sailors who delivered them to Cape Cod dropped them there instead of Virginia because the Mayflower’s beer supply was running short and the sailors wanted to save what was left for themselves. The Pilgrims had to drink water, a beverage abhorrent to most Europeans.

By the 1630s those first settlers managed to brew some beer, and imported wine thereafter. Increasing trade with the Caribbean islands soon made rum another beverage of choice and hard cider became popular as orchards prospered.

Today, now that Long Island offers so many wonderful homegrown choices, we can celebrate Thanksgiving with our own delicious wine. Raise a glass in thanks with a Sparkling Pointe or Wölffer bubbly for starters, then try Lieb Cellars’ pinot blanc or Macari’s zesty sauvignon blanc. With that dark turkey meat, I suggest McCall’s pinot noir, Roanoke Vineyards’ cabernet franc or Coffee Pot Cellars’ merlot.

Cheers, and happy Thanksgiving.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.