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Long Island winery wine grapes harvest

A ripening vineyard on the North Fork of Long Island. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

The first day in 1973 that my then-husband, Alex, and I arrived on the farm we’d bought in Cutchogue, on Long Island’s North Fork, to plant the region’s first vineyard, our neighbor Jeanie Zuhoski welcomed us on our long farm road bearing a home-baked pie. That was over 40 years ago. Since then, much has changed here. But the land and the community’s deep connection to it are still the same.

It made all the difference for us to be welcomed so warmly to the North Fork. We were young upstarts with plans for a crop no one else was growing. Inspired by our love of Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, we wanted to plant vitis vinifera, the kind of grapes that all the world’s best wines are made from. If we couldn’t grow cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot, chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, we didn’t want to grow grapes at all.

We had spent the previous two years exploring the East and West coasts, trying to find an ideal location. We soon learned that other, more established regions had their own limitations: excessive heat in California; rain and frost in the Northwest; subzero temperatures in upstate New York; and disease issues in Virginia. Although no one had grown wine grapes commercially here, we concluded that the East End of Long Island, with its maritime climate and friable sandy loam soils, offered the greatest potential to produce the kind of elegant, balanced wines we favored.

Not only did the East End have a uniquely temperate climate and fine geological features for grape growing, it was an active, committed farming community that had been faithfully tending crops for generations. We were thrilled by the welcome we found among our neighbors, whose work, like ours, was dictated by the rising and setting of the sun each day.

Over the past 40 years, as others joined us in producing fine wine and we bonded together as an industry, the East End of Long Island has grown to become a prominent wine region. The East End — especially the North Fork — has been transformed into a wonderful destination for lovers of authentic, artisanal, world-class food and wine, all in a beautiful seaside setting.

The vineyards and wineries, in concert with our other farming neighbors, have helped protect the rural quality of the East End by preserving active farming, and along with it open space. Together we have helped the region’s farming evolve from commodity-based to value-added crops, enabling agriculture to survive in an area where land prices continue to rise and there is increased pressure for development.

This is crucial: The preservation of farmland comes with enormous property tax benefits for the community. Where there is little or no residential and commercial development, there is little or no need for roads, sewers and other costly municipal services.

Our wineries have had a positive impact on other local businesses, attracting customers for restaurants, hotels and bed and breakfasts, thereby bringing additional revenue for the community. The wine industry on the East End is responsible for generating an estimated $150 million in non-wine expenditures, including food, accommodations and retail purchases.

These businesses have given the local community a way to showcase the pride and beauty of our region through their products. Eastern Long Island has the ability to create wines that are balanced, long-lasting and complex, yet fresh, vivacious and approachable — a combination that makes them able to compete with wines from around the world. Our wines offer distinctive pleasures: When you smell, taste and sip these wines, their flavors and aromas continue to evolve, offering ongoing delights.

Both residents and visitors can appreciate that, through the East End’s metamorphosis, wineries continue to protect the land that has provided for us so fruitfully. The wine industry has led the way in environmental stewardship through a new program of certified sustainable practices. These are safer for the environment, safer for the community and protect the land for our future.

As our vineyards and wineries strive to preserve and protect this unique place where they have planted their roots, their owners may not expect to be greeted, as we were in 1973, by neighbors bearing pies. But they do count on the continued support of our community — with a shared love for, and great pride in, all the positive benefits the wineries have brought here, characterized by their wines: lively, complex and distinctly delicious.

Louisa Hargrave pioneered the Long Island wine industry and has remained an active and engaged community member for over 40 years. She is one of several notable East End community members who wish to express support for the local wine industry and its positive impact on our region through a series of guest columns slated to appear in Times Review Media Group publications. The Long Island Wine Council invites the feedback of residents and local business representatives. Responses can be sent to [email protected].