The first commercial Long Island wines (my own Hargrave Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc) were harvested in 1975, 40 years ago this coming autumn. Since then, Long Island’s wine industry has expanded to include 3,000 acres of vineyards, with over 60 licensed producers of which more than 40 are open to the public for tastings.
Beer and spirits have followed, along with the development of a regional farm-to-table cuisine. Tourism supports the perpetuation of our agricultural enterprises; at the same time it challenges the serenity of our wide-open spaces. Last year, an estimated 1.3 million people visited our wineries.
How Long Island wine will grow and prosper will depend on the industry’s successful transition from the hands of producers characterized by pioneering spirits and missionary zeal to new and street-savvy visionaries who will parlay their social connections into internationally recognized businesses. The inevitability of change has been underlined by the loss in the past few months by some of our leading vintners, including Dan Damianos of Pindar, Ann Marie and Marco Borghese of Castello di Borghese Vineyard and Charles Smithen of Sherwood House.
How do some of the winemakers who have been here for decades see the coming years? Eric Fry, the winemaker at The Lenz Winery since 1989, called this the “graying of the North Fork.” He said, “I see a tectonic shift here. There are two North Forks: the old guard, like me, who are more traditional, and the new guard, like Regan and Carey Meador, Tony Nappa and Kelly Urbanik Koch.”
Fry said, “The new guard are shadowed by the old farts so they do goofy stuff to get attention.”
If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not. He said, “It’s fun, and it’s so much healthier” than if the newcomers continued making wines with standard, traditional formats.
Regan Meador, who has assisted Fry as an intern at Lenz, has used Kickstarter to fund his family’s new Southold Farm + Cellar, planting “weird” grapes like lagrein, teroldego and goldmuskateller.
Tony Nappa makes traditional wines for Raphael while creating his own blends with anti-varietal names like “Sciardonne” (pronounced chardonnay) and “Anomaly.”
Many young consumers prefer to experiment with a range of craft beers and exotic mixed drinks. When I asked Fry about how this affects his outlook, he said, “Beer and cocktails — it’s the fight we always fight. My wine requires significant income so it’s usually the middle-aged crowd that can afford it. The young guys [winemakers] are going for the young crowd.”
Fry is being modest. The wines Fry makes at The Lenz Winery are more than fairly priced in their category of premium wines. And at $15, I find the Lenz White Label Chardonnay among Long Island’s best “value” wines. Still, these are indeed “traditional” wines.
At Wölffer Estate, in his 25th year as winemaker, Roman Roth continues to make traditional wines (including a landmark Christian’s Cuvée Merlot, which, at $100, is sold out) while adapting to the changing market with new products. Christian’s Cuvée honors the winery’s founder, Christian Wölffer, who died in a swimming accident in 2008.
Now two of Christian’s children, Joey and Marc Wölffer, are partners with Roth and have injected their own energy into new projects. Last summer, Wölffer’s Summer in a Bottle Rosé sold out in 3 1/2 weeks. Joey’s inspired sparkling ciders, with fanciful labels, sell for $4 per 355 ml bottle — perfect for the beach. Then, there is the quaffable, nonalcoholic Verjus, for $11. Soon, Wölffer will add a distilled gin and brandy to its product line.
Roth is excited by the trend to diversify Long Island’s beverages. He said, “The more people focus on what they drink and want to experiment, the better it is for artisanal wineries, like those of us on Long Island. Interest in locally made craft products gives us a chance to tell our story and show our unique wines that are much more interesting than mass-marketed producers.”
The emphasis on “local” radiates out from the wineries to other businesses here, embracing tradition and innovation. I like Long Island Wine Council’s president Sal Diliberto’s idea of the council and its affiliate members as a “flock of eagles.” Eagles (like the independent businesspeople here) don’t naturally flock, but through our friendships and associations we’re able to “help each other, to educate each other and to strengthen the wine/tourist industry of the East End.”
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.