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A selection of wines at the recently redesigned Sherwood House Vineyards tasting room. (Photo Credit: David Benthal)

The North Fork is wine country, which means there are plenty of residents with deep knowledge of how to grow, make, sell and taste Long Island wine. But there are also those Elizabeth Schneider calls the “normal people”: they’re curious about wine but may have not have talked up a tasting room manager recently — if ever.

Sound like you? While you don’t need to be a professional taster to enjoy a day at the vineyards, a bit of knowledge can make it more worthwhile, according to Schneider, host of the podcast Wine for Normal People and author of the 2019 book of the same name. “It enhances your enjoyment if you know what you are tasting or what to expect,” she said in a recent interview. 

Schneider grew up in Port Jefferson when the North Fork was mostly “sod fields and potato farms,” she recalled. “We used to go out there for a pumpkin patch.” Now, when she returns home to visit her mother, she loves to take a ride out to the vineyards. To her, there’s something unique about Long Island wines — and that’s not New York-bias speaking.

“The style is somewhat fruity, but it has some components of the land,” Schneider said. “You can taste Long Island in the wines, which is unusual, especially for American wines. Long Island does not taste like everything else, and the producers are trying to always hone the style and make sure we have something that we stand for.”

If you’re one of the normal people looking to hone your wine knowledge, consider Schneider’s tips for an informative but fun day of tasting at Long Island vineyards. 

Long Island native Elizabeth Schneider is behind the book and podcast Wine for Normal People. (Photo Credit: Heather C. Johnson Photography)

Strategize Wisely

There are more than 30 Long Island wineries. Trying to hit as many as you can in one day is…not advised. Schneider suggests three.

“Do one in the morning,” Schneider said. “Stop, have lunch and support the local businesses. Take a drive to the shore. Then go to two more properties. Take your time and enjoy it.”

Limiting it to three not only prevents you from getting too intoxicated, it also gives you some flexibility in the afternoon.

“If you like one and want to go back at the end of the day, buy a bottle and sit on the [winery’s] porch, you can do that,” Schneider said.

You’ll also want to stock up on food and non-alcoholic beverages. “Get all bread,” Schneider laughed.“A baguette and some cheese is fantastic. You need something to soak up the alcohol and keep you bright and fresh and also cleanse the palette.” Pretzels, cheese slices and water are also good to have.

Opt for the reserve flight. “They are better wines, made with more care,” Schneider said. “That’s the best Long Island has to offer.” 

Pick Wines Like a Pro

Tasting menus often include three or more flight options, and some allow for substitutions or tasters to go a la carte. For the best experience, Schneider suggests choosing mostly the same grapes at each vineyard. 

“If you are actually going to learn, you do that strategy,” she said, adding that allows you to compare and contrast the tastes at each vineyard. 

The first rule: “Always have the merlot,” she said. She thinks it’s Long Island’s specialty. 

From there, choose one or two of the same wines, like a sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, at each. For the final wine, opt for the vineyard’s specialty. 

“Someone like Paumanok is the only one that does a Chenin, so you won’t find that anywhere else,” she said. “McCall makes a really nice Pinot Noir.”

You can ask the tasting room manager for a recommendation. If you (and your wallet) can swing it, opt for the reserve flight. “They are better wines, made with more care,” Schneider said. “That’s the best Long Island has to offer.” 

A tasting flight at RGNY comes with individual tasting notes for each wine. (Credit: Madison Fender)

How to Slow it Down

A day at the vineyards isn’t akin to a senior bar crawl — you want to learn about the wines. Schneider suggests using the five S’s to turn it into a sensory experience: see, swirl, sniff, sip and savor.

“Slow down and go through the process,” she said. “You don’t have to take notes or do any of that onerous stuff. But it can be really fun to ask whoever you are with, ‘What do you see?  What do you smell?’ At the second and third winery, you’ll see similarities. That’s how you really get to know a region.”

Oh, and there’s actually a sixth S: spit. It may feel rude, but Schneider advises it. “Otherwise, you are going to get tipsy,” she said.

The one exception: “If you love something, swallow that,” Schneider said.

Speak the Language

Before her career in wine, Schneider worked in tech and had to learn different jargon, which sometimes felt like a different language. Novice wine tasters may feel the same looking at a label or listening to a tasting room manager. Here’s a primer on some terms you may hear:

On the nose: “When you sniff it, that’s what it smells like,” Schneider said.

Acidity: You know how your mouth waters when you suck on a lemon? The acidity in wine has the same effect on your salivary glands. Acidity is the “tartness” in a wine, and acidic wines are often lively and crisp. If you have a sauvignon blanc and your mouth starts to water, you’ll notice what acidity is,” Schneider said.

Body: This refers to the level of alcohol and acidity in a wine. “If a wine is really acidic and has high alcohol, it will come across as at least having a medium body,” Schneider said. “It will fill your mouth. If it has high alcohol and low acidity, it will feel really full.” Think of it in terms of food: A salad would be considered light-bodied (like a sauv blanc) and a steak full-bodied (like a cabernet).

Notes of Wood: You wouldn’t go to Home Depot to find wood to put in your drink, so why does “notes of wood” end up on a label? Schneider isn’t a fan of using it to describe wine. “It’s a lazy term,” she said. “It has to do with the interaction of the wood and the wine and how toasted the barrel is.”

Wine is often aged in oak or some type of wood barrel. “Wood or oak can come across in different ways,” she said. “If you have chardonnay that has been sitting in an oak barrel, it’s going to taste like vanilla and butterscotch and caramel. That’s the telltale sign of oak. If it is really oaked, you may get something that is literally sawed wood.” Some red wines may have this quality. Another analogy? Think of it like a piece of toast. “If I order a piece of toast and it’s light, you’re not going to get the toaster-oven flavor, but if I burn it, you’ll get that flavor.”

In general, don’t obsess over tasting notes. If the tasting room attendant or wine label said there’s black cherries or a highly-specific type of apple and you don’t taste it, there’s nothing wrong with your pallet. 

The tasting room at Kontokosta Winery . (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Get to Know Your Wines

The tasting room manager will likely give you some notes, but if the bar isn’t packed, consider it your chance to ask questions. Schneider suggests focusing less on the wine label and more on the process.

“One of the things that connects people with wine and the most interesting thing, especially on Long Island, is how the grapes grow,” she said. “Ask, ‘What kind of weather did you have? Why do you grow these grapes in this specific area?’”

You may be allowed to walk through the vineyard with permission from the tasting room manager.

“You will often notice a big difference in the stuff you like and where it’s grown,” she said. 

For example, you may like wines with grapes grown on sandy soils but not ones that are grown on sandy soils with clay.

Do You Have to Buy a Bottle?

After having a good conversation and experience in the tasting room, you may wonder if you have to purchase something to take home. You don’t.  

It’s wonderful to support local wineries, but don’t feel obligated to buy something you don’t like. “No guilt-buying ever,” Schneider stressed. “The tastings generally are not free. You have paid for the experience…buy the bottle for something that gets you excited.”

If you enjoyed the experience but don’t plan on buying anything, a little politeness goes a long way.

“A great thing to say is just to say, ‘Thank you so much. I really enjoyed that,’” Schneider said. “Just be gracious. Don’t get drunk. These people are dealing with raunchy and rude people all day.”

If you are going to buy something, you might want to think about a bottle that would pair well with your favorite foods. That’s where your newfound wine education will come in handy, as you’ll want to pay attention to the acidity and body.

“If you have a high-alcohol wine with low acidity, you want to do something with simple foods,” Schneider said. “That’s where you do your barbecue. If you are having a salad, go for the light-bodied stuff, something acidic, like Sauvignon Blanc or sparkling wine.”