Two questions for Long Island wineries: Uncork the Forks

What does the future hold for Long Island's wine industry? Our wine columnist an't say for sure. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

What does the future hold for Long Island’s wine industry? Our wine columnist can’t say for sure. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

A friend of mine — someone in the wine industry but not here on Long Island — recently asked me where I thought Long Island wine would be five or 10 years from now. I thought about it for a moment and then told him, “I really have no [expletive redacted] idea, brother.”

And it’s true. Looking around at the industry, local governments and the market at large, it’s nearly impossible to know where things might go and what might be next for the region. There is so much happening and yet things seem a bit stuck. The industry isn’t stagnant — there is still a group of producers doing great things and trying new ones, pushing quality and making stunningly delicious, expressive wines.

But for the rest of the industry, there is a lot of the same going on. And it all feels a bit precarious at times if you’re really paying attention.

It’s a complicated situation, but I think it boils down to two main questions: What does the wine industry want to be and what will the wine industry be allowed to be?

Long Island wine, by and large, is all fine enough, right in the meaty middle of the quality bell curve. One could argue that’s to be expected. This isn’t a new region anymore. We know what it takes to make good wine here. These days, there are very few outright bad wines here. There are very few wineries whose wines I simply won’t put in my mouth.

But there is very little “new” happening. Very little overt push to make things better. Maybe it’s because some in the region feel that Long Island is no longer an emerging region, that they’ve arrived. I don’t think that’s true. There is so much more to be explored and refined.

Maybe the “sameness” is due in part to the fact that there are about half as many winemakers as there are wineries — with some winemakers making wine for up to four or five wineries. There is very little outside winemaking talent coming into the local industry, thereby limiting new ideas and new approaches. There is even less opportunity for young assistant winemakers to find head winemaking jobs.

Then there is the ongoing issue of whether Long Island will be a wine region — a district known for the quality of its wines — or an agritainment region known for live music, festivals and the like that just happen to take place at wineries. This isn’t a tourist-or-not proposition, as I once thought. Now it’s a battle for what types of tourists the region wants to and will attract. This chapter is very much unwritten and it may not be sorted out for decades to come.

At the same time all of this is going on, local governments are making life more challenging for the wineries by instituting policies like a two-week minimum stay for AirBnB rentals. There is also, of course, Southold Town’s rejection of Southold Farm + Cellar’s request for a variance to build a small winery on its property, a decision that will cause one of the region’s most innovative producers to leave the North Fork.

I don’t know any members of local government personally, so I have no direct knowledge of their feelings, but from where I sit, they don’t seem to be interested in working with the industry to nurture its growth. That’s happening in wine regions across the country. NIMBY attitudes from a vocal minority of residents don’t help either. Maybe everyone would be much happier with more mansions and fewer farms — and fewer tourists.

A lot of writers — particularly in the wine world, it seems — are fond of making declarations. We always want to at least pretend we know what’s going to happen. That’s not the case here. I have no idea how this will play out. When and if these two questions can be answered, we’ll be on our way to finding out.

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