When I hit the North Fork in search of farm-fresh produce, I don’t go to just one farm stand. I have my favorites for certain things. If I’m buying tomatoes, I usually go to Sang Lee. We get fresh goat cheese at Catapano. When it comes to sweet corn that you can eat raw, right off the cob, even without the typical butter and salt, I head to Harbes Family Farm in Mattituck. Picked in the morning and on my plate that evening, it doesn’t get any sweeter.
Because of the never-ending fall festival atmosphere at the farm, I can never just stop in, grab my sack of corn and go. My kids want to do the barnyard adventure in the back of the property, the pig races, games and other activities that are tough to resist. It’s great and my kids have a blast there, but the sometimes-crushing throngs of people get less and less appealing for me every year.
What is a wine-loving, somewhat curmudgeonly father supposed to do?
After a recent visit, I can whole-heartedly recommend a stop at the air conditioned tasting room — a newly renovated potato barn that combines comfort with the type of bucolic rusticity that the North Fork is still known for.
And guess what? The wines are good. Far better than they need to be, given the foot traffic the Harbes family draws to its property. They could get by with mediocrity in the bottle and still sell a ton of wine.
Lucky for those of us who care about the wine we drink and love our children and want them to have fun — these wines are better than that.
Ed Harbes IV, who has a degree in agriculture, makes the wines with the help of winemaker Erik Bilka at Premium Wine Group, a custom-crush facility that allows “wineries” to make their wines without investing in all of their own equipment. The pairing appears to be working. I enjoyed everything I tasted a couple weeks ago.
“Erik is fantastic to work with,” Harbes told me in an email. “He is a great winemaker and has a great palate. We collaborate to decide on the wine styles we’d like to make for the upcoming year, and Erik then uses his artistry to make us amazing wines. Our wine program would definitely not be what it is without his expertise and input.”
It’s probably not surprising — the family has been farming on Long Island for 13 generations, after all — that the Harbeses do grow some of their own grapes. Their five-acre vineyard, half chardonnay and half merlot, was planted in 2003.
“My father meticulously researched the clones before planting and chose to plant Dijon chardonnay clones that have a reputation for being more difficult from a growing perspective but that provide quality fruit. Having different clonal selections from the varietals gives a symbiotic relation to the wine,” Harbes said.
In discussing the wines, I came right out and asked Ed what pushes him to make wines that are better than they really need to be.
His response: “Our products are a reflection of ourselves and our brand, so we strive to make the best wine that we can! We’re farmers at heart, and as farmers we strive to grow the best fruit possible. I strongly believe that fine wines are produced in the vineyard and that the winemaker’s role is to guide well-grown fruit to achieve its potential.”
The wines all have an easy-drinking polish to them. You won’t find a lot of angular edges or envelope-pushing technique. Just tasty wines that you want to drink — with food, on the beach or by the fire on a cool fall evening.
That straightforward style is intentional. Harbes told me, “We try to make wines that follow the natural quality of our fruit. With consistent fruit quality, we try to make approachable and elegant wines that display the strengths of each varietal. And I think it’s been working. We try to illustrate the versatility of the chardonnay and merlot grapes that we’ve planted. For example, from our chardonnay grapes we’ve produced a steel-fermented style, an oaked style, an ice wine, a blancs de blanc and a chardonnay-riesling blend.”
He’s right. It is working. I’ve come to not expect much from wineries where the wine is only a small part of the overall “experience.” Harbes has forced me to rethink this perception. We bought a bottle each of the crisp, clean, 100-percent-chardonnay Harbes Vineyard Blanc de Blancs — their first-ever sparkling wine — and the 2013 dry rosé, which was taken home, chilled well and enjoyed with grilled pork chops, Sang Lee tomato salad and some of that delicious Harbes sweet corn.
If it grows together, it goes together, as they say.