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Long Island Wine Country

When Roanoke Vineyards announced a couple weeks ago that it’s Sound Avenue tasting room would become a wine club member-only space at the end of 2015, it sent a quiet ripple through the local wine community. Members of Roanoke’s rabid wine club love the idea of course. They have exclusive access to the wines they already love so much. Among non-members, reaction was a bit more mixed. Some people – myself included – signed up for the club right away. More of that will happen as the last days of public access dwindle this fall.

A small, but vocal, minority complained about it, apparently forgetting that Roanoke’s popular Love Lane location in Mattituck will remain open to all – member or not.

For what it’s worth, it’s hard to imagine a winemaker who doesn’t like this model – a model that turns away from tourism and “good enough” wine and toward increased quality and effort in the vineyard and cellar. My guess is that most would love this to happen at their wineries. Good luck finding many who would say that publicly, though.

The change has me wondering – could we see more of this, if it goes well for Roanoke? What other changes might we see in the region over the next 10, 20 or 30 years?

I’ve been exploring Long Island wine for more than a decade now — and writing about it for nearly as long. A lot has changed in those 10 years.  It may be cliche to say that “Long Island wines have never been better,” but it’s also true. Growers have honed their practices to make the most out of Long Island’s diverse growing seasons. Winemakers have started to embrace Long Island terroir rather than trying to style their wines like those from Bordeaux or California. The “good” wineries of the past are pushing into “great” territory. And the lesser wineries are pushing into mediocre — at least most are.

The fact is, I don’t know what Long Island wine country will look like 10 years from now. No one really does. But that won’t stop observers such as myself from making predictions.

A few guesses:

Wine Country Will Splinter

Roanoke Vineyards is uniquely positioned to close their primary tasting room. They have a second room that will remain open and they are small enough – with a big enough wine club — to regularly sell out of wines before they are even released to the public.

But the idea of refocusing on wine quality is a noble and important one. Tourism and foot traffic keep many local wineries afloat, but it hasn’t done the region any favors in the greater wine community. Maybe a quality-focused winery finds a way to balance a large-enough wholesale business with a club-only tasting room. Maybe a tasting room or two moves to an appointment-only model. It will be interesting to watch.

On the other hand, agritourism is here to stay. There will always be wineries unable or unwilling to change business models — and that’s okay. They’ll offer a different experience for the people who want that.

Some Large Wineries Will Close
It is expensive to make wine on Long Island — very expensive. Land is expensive. Manpower is expensive. And growing grapes in this climate can be very expensive. Long Island’s winery community has grown over the years with the help of owners who made their money in other industries and bought into the region. That isn’t happening anymore though and it’s commonly accepted that some local wineries are not consistently profitable. And, the fact that several wineries are for sale and have been for years, leads one to believe that outside investors don’t think that it’s easy to make money here either.

No one wants to see wineries closing, but I think a few will over the ten years. And I think it will be some of the larger ones, with larger overhead, that are big for the region but not big enough to really benefit from economies of scale.

Smaller Vineyards/Producers Could Flourish
If those larger wineries are the Bordeaux Chateau model, I think – and hope that — we will see a move to more of a Burgundian one in coming years. Smaller plots. Owner-vigneron doing most, if not all, of the vineyard and cellar work. That model takes “handmade” to the extreme and offers a level of connectedness to consumers that larger, corporate wineries just can’t offer. Plus, with far lower overhead, this model may be more financially sustainable over the long haul – if local governments continue to support these start-up operations.

Less New Oak
This tide has already started to turn. You’ll find less over oak flavors coming from many of the region’s top wineries – places like Bedell, Macari and Raphael. Cutting back on the new oak allows the unique, distinctive qualities of Long Island wine shine brighter. That matters now more than ever to a growing number of wine drinkers. Winemakers are starting to take note. And hey, maybe it makes sound financial sense too. Those barrels are expensive.

More Focus on White Wines
Even the most reliable red grape, merlot, can be difficult to ripen on Long Island in those cooler, grayer years. And with the extra vineyard work and applications red grapes sometimes need — plus oak barrels in the cellar — costs go up and are eventually passed along to consumers, who sometimes complain about Long Island wine prices. Consider the low yields that are often required to get adequate quality and the need to store reds for at least two years before release and you can understand why Long Island reds can be pricey for folks accustomed to buying sub-$20 wines from other regions.

Aromatic white wines don’t require oak barrels, ripen earlier in the season and can be sold more quickly after bottling, making them cheaper to produce. And what goes better with Long Island’s seafood bounty than crisp white wines?

Improved Regional Marketing
Some wineries do a fine job marketing themselves, but regional marketing has lagged behind. Amy Zavatto taking over as executive director of the Long Island Merlot Alliance and Ali Tuthill focusing on marketing for the Long Island Wine Council, roles that both women assumed in 2015, gives me hope. Maybe they can help unite the region under a singular message (or maybe one for each organization) and execute an innovative, fresh, long-term campaign to promote that message.

Is that message a single grape? Is it diversity? Is it something else? I don’t know — but Long Island wine, as a whole, is deserving of more attention from more journalists. Wineries need to be able to work collaboratively to make that happen.

Lenn Thompson