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Robin Epperson-McCarthy at Premium Wine Group in Mattituck. (Credit: Carrie Miller)
Robin Epperson-McCarthy at Premium Wine Group in Mattituck. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

The not-for-profit Long Island Merlot Alliance is ramping up marketing of the region’s merlot — a grape that often battles a lackluster reputation— by defining what makes Long Island’s signature varietal great and backing it up with hard data from the fields.

The trade organization, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year, educates consumers on the quality of local merlot and merlot-based blends. This year, it hired Robin Epperson-McCarthy, a 1999 Mattituck High School graduate who has held a vast array of positions in the local wine industry, as a research fellow.

As part of her new role, Epperson-McCarthy said, she will examine everything from growing and weather patterns to quantifying which aroma and flavor characters are unique to Long Island’s merlot.

The data she gleans from her research will then be used to identify the traits wine lovers can look forward to when enjoying a local glass of merlot, she explained. It will also help growers manage and care for their crops by allowing them to better prepare for harvest.

“Thanks to Cornell [Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County] and some very astute vineyard managers in Jamesport, we have weather reports going back to 1988,” Epperson-McCarthy said. “We have compiled most of the data so far, and it is now time to apply what techniques were used in the vineyard.

“From the data we compile, we will be able to look back at the years that produced outstanding vintages — versus the very tough and trying vintages — to compare what growers had to do in order to deliver quality fruit to the crush pad consistently every year,” she continued.

A certified sommelier, Epperson-McCarthy has also been organizing tasting panels with vineyard managers and sommeliers and local winemakers including Russell Hearn, Roman Roth and Gilles Martin. The group will pit local merlots against varieties from California, Bordeaux, France, and Washington to see how they stack up, Epperson-McCarthy said.

“We are closing in on what aspects we consider to be varietal typicity specific to Long Island merlot,” she said. Once those specific qualities are defined, she explained, Merliance can begin to assess different vintages for the “desired characteristics.”

Deborah Brenner, the alliance’s executive director, said Epperson-McCarthy’s research is similar to work being conducted by alliances in wine regions across the country that are each working to build a name for their particular standout varietal.

“We want to help people recognize the quality coming out of Long Island but also recognize they are buying wines that can rival and mimic the blends of old class regions that people are familiar with,” Brenner said.

Securing federal funding for site-specific research has been difficult in the past, she said, since the wine industry generally competes for funding with the rest of the local agricultural and tourism industries.

“What we’re looking to do is dig a little bit deeper into Long Island [vineyards],” Brenner said. “With organizations like Cornell, we do get research, but it doesn’t get as specific as viticulturists would like.”

Another revenue source for Merliance is the eponymous wine participating growers produce each year, which sells for about $35 a bottle. The money made from each bottle of “Merliance” goes toward the organization’s research and marketing efforts.

“The concept is the more money we get, the more money that can go into the organization and the more the research fellowship program can grow,” Ms. Brenner said. “We feel this type of research is instrumental to advance Long Island as an appellation.”

Last Wednesday, Martha Clara Vineyards announced it was joining the organization. Clovis Point and Sherwood House, both in Jamesport; Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack; T’Jara Vineyards and Lieb Cellars, both in Mattituck; McCall Wines in Cutchogue; and Raphael Vineyard and Winery in Peconic are also members.

“It dawned on me, after the tonnage of merlot that came in here after harvest, that we should be a part of this organization,” said Juan Eduardo Micieli-Martinez, winemaker and general manager at Martha Clara Vineyards. Epperson-McCarthy was previously winemaker there. “We believe in producing quality red wines and quality merlot.”

Micieli-Martinez said that while managers at Martha Clara Vineyards may have had trepidations in the past about “getting behind one single varietal” when it currently produces 14 different types of wine, it agrees with the organization’s overall goal of establishing a name for the local appellation.

“I think there is a lot of valuable information that will come from [the research fellow position] — and more knowledge,” Micieli-Martinez said, adding that it will give the next generation of winemakers something to look back on. “More information is never a negative.”

“We are all making history right now, whether we realize it or not,” he continued. “Working collectively, we will get more done as a region.”

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