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Northforker file photo
Northforker file photo

I don’t listen to music in the car much anymore, mostly just NPR. But I have started listening to a handful of podcasts, including food celebrity Alton Brown’s “The Alton Browncast.” A recent episode featured George Peterson from the Monterey Bay Aquarium – associated with well-known seafood website Seafood Watch  — which touched on what it means for a fishery to be sustainable.

I’m paraphrasing a bit, but Peterson described a fishery as encompassing a place, a species and the industry itself. He also said a fishery’s sustainability level can be determined by answering the question: “Will this fishery, if it continues operating as it does today, be here in 20 years or 30 years?”

Their discussion got me thinking about the sustainability of the Long Island wine industry.

When examining the region’s longterm viability, we can break it down into three pieces – the vineyards, the employees and the businesses.

Is Long Island’s wine industry, as it exists today, sustainable?

I can’t say for sure – but I have some thoughts on each of those three pillars.

Vineyards

Long Island vineyards are cared for in a more responsible manner than ever before.

In part, we can thank market pressure for organic, biodynamic and “natural” wines for that. One also cannot talk about vineyard sustainability without tipping one’s cap to Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, a not-for-profit group that provides education for growers as well as certifications for sustainable viticulture. More than a dozen wineries have had their vineyards certified by the group, or are in the process of doing so.

All of those wineries are doing at least a baseline of good things to their land. There are non-members who are doing the same and more, as well.

It’s fair to say that from the perspective of being responsible stewards of the land where the wine grapes are grown, Long Island is sustainable or at least is moving that way.

Employees

I’ve never worked at a winery – beyond volunteering for harvest or related work here and there – so I don’t know the rate for hourly workers or the salary ranges for more permanent positions.  Many lead sales, general manager and winemaker positions have been filled by the same people for some time, so I think we have to assume they are making enough money to support themselves in the long term. There is a lot of turnover in tasting room staff, but a lot of that is just younger people moving into careers after pouring wines for a few years right after school.

Even without direct, firsthand knowledge, I think the industry is sustainable on this front too, although many wineries seem to be short staffed a lot of the time.

Businesses

This is where things get a bit murkier, but this isn’t another anti-agritourism rant. It’s apparently here to stay, so I’m not going to rail against it.

The Long Island wine industry has changed significantly in the 10+ years I’ve been writing about it. Growers understand their vineyards better now than ever. Winemaking is better overall, too. Or at least cleaner.  It’s rare that I taste a flawed wine today. That wasn’t true a decade ago. With those advances, you’d think there’d be more, better wines overall, but in a generic sense, wine quality seems to have plateaued.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still wineries pushing the envelope and striving to make better wines with every vintage. The best wines have never been better — but wines that are “good enough” have become, well, good enough for many producers.

There are several possible reasons, but we’ll focus on one today — one that many won’t consider a bad thing at all — not charging enough for the wine.  There seems to be a push for every winery to have at least a couple sub-$20 wines. Most of them aren’t great, but some are good – and should cost more.

We all want to be able to afford wines that we love, but everything that goes into the wine is expensive on the East End — land, labor, viticulture, etc.

This isn’t a “cheap wine” region and it shouldn’t be.

Wineries should charge more and make sure the wines are good enough to still over-deliver for the money. That’s the path to sustainability, not “good enough” wines with live bands and cover charges on weekends.

And to the wineries who would argue that their customers won’t buy their wines if they raise prices, I’d suggest that maybe they don’t have the right kind of customers. There is a winery here selling an un-aged, stainless steel-fermented white wine for nearly $30 and it sells out every single year before the summer is over. That seems much more financially sustainable than a $15 merlot that costs more to make and isn’t great because of heavy crop loads. 

Lenn Thompson is the founder of NewYorkCorkReport.com. He writes about the wines, beers, ciders and spirits of New York from his home in Miller Place which he shares with his wife, two kids and trusty dog Ben Roethlisbeagle. 

What do you think? Tell us in the comment section below.

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