On L.I., quality and price go hand in hand: Uncork the Forks

Photo by Katharine Schroeder

Even if you’ve only been drinking Long Island wine for five to 10 years, it’s obvious that — on the whole, region-wide — the wines have never been better. Not that long ago, there were local wineries whose wine I wouldn’t drink even if they were the last wines on earth.

That’s not true anymore. Even wineries outside of the top tier have at least one wine worth drinking today. Most have more than one.

And yet, there is one outdated complaint about Long Island wine that still remains: that they are overpriced and not good values.

I don’t hear this as often as I once did, but last week I saw a post in a wine lovers’ group on Facebook asking for advice and suggestions about Long Island wine. I jumped in, of course, with my two cents. I listed some of my favorite producers, some of the grapes to focus on and suggested a few places to eat when one is visiting. Then I saw more than a few people — to a person from the West Coast — chiming in with comments like “A few good wines, but everything is overpriced.” Or “Don’t bother. The wines are terrible values.”

I understand that I’m not the “average wine drinker,” whatever that really is. I’m willing to spend more money on a bottle of wine than most of my friends. I also understand the business side of the wine business at least a little better than most people going into a winery or wine shop.

But it still frustrates me to hear people make these sorts of generalizations about Long Island wine, or any region, for that matter. It’s silly. But it’s also not uncommon for younger regions to hear this sort of complaint from afar.

“Oregon wines were long criticized for being overpriced, especially in the first 20 years of their region,” Bedell Cellars winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich told me in an email. “So for newer regions, this is a common evolution — especially for regions where small hand-crafted terroir wines are in play.”

There are local wines that are expensive. Some are very expensive, in fact. But those are a narrow sliver of the overall production on Long Island. For every bottle of $75 reserve merlot sold in the tasting room, a Long Island winery is probably selling many cases of $18 steel-fermented chardonnay, at least some of that as wholesale, marketing to restaurants and shops.

“I have always said that ‘eventually the market places you,’ ” said Lieb Cellars winemaker Russell Hearn. “You can talk about any wine or winery all you like, but if the price-to-quality isn’t there you will only sell that [wine] as a curiosity/tasting room wine. There are plenty of overpriced wines in Barossa Valley or Willamette Valley, but they also are not seen in the wholesale market.”

The question I always have is, what can be done to battle this lingering reputation?

Anthony Nappa, winemaker at Raphael and his own eponymous label, said it simply: “We have to compete locally with quality, not price. Beyond that I do not know what the answer is.”

Hearn, on the other hand, points to regional marketing.

“As a group, the Long Island Wine Council — or some future derivation of it because currently it is dysfunctional — must return to promoting the industry out here as a competitive-quality and -priced wine region. We have struggled having a unified voice over the years, unfortunately due to varied opinions as to what this industry group should be and the egos involved.”

Maybe the region’s wineries need to just keep doing what they’re doing — making good wine at fair prices. Olsen-Harbich seems to think so.

“What can the region do? We’ve already done it. Our wines are now better than ever and have never been as good a value. Most Long Island producers I know sell out of everything they produce — so that alone is the only argument we need to support this discussion,” he said.

Lenn Thompson has been writing about American wine — with a focus on New York — for nearly 15 years. After running newyorkcorkreport.com for 12 years, he launched thecorkreport.us in 2016 and The Cork Report Podcast soon after. He lives in Miller Place with his wife and two children.