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Local striped bass — like this dish at the Preston House with chanterelle mushroom and leek emulsion — calls out for chardonnay or bubbly. Credit: David Benthal

There’s an old adage in the wine world that says “if it grows together, it goes together” — the idea being that the foods of a region should be enjoyed with the wines that are also grown and made there. If this is true — and it mostly is, though I’m not going to offer you barrel-aged Long Island merlot with a raw oyster — then we’re lucky to live where we do. 

The bounty of produce, meats and fish grown or caught locally is amazing given how small a sliver of land the North Fork actually is. And, the wines grown here do in fact pair beautifully with a wide array of foods for two primary reasons: their freshness and the savory edges they often display.

Freshness, a function of Long Island wine’s lower alcohol levels and bright acidity, is important with almost any food. It enlivens the palate and whets your appetite. It can help cut through richer foods match the acidity found in things like salad dressings. 

Think of it this way: There is a reason we squirt lemon juice on seafood. A citrusy sauvignon blanc or steel-fermented chardonnay can do the same thing for you. At Thanksgiving, we enjoy sweet-and-sour cranberry sauce with the meal. A rosé can fill the same role. 

Across the wine world there’s been a push for (or more accurately, a return to) wines that pair better with food. Even in regions where bigger has been seen as better for many years — more extraction, more new oak, more of everything — there’s a turn back to less clunky, less overt wines.

Here on Long Island, wines are typically fruit-forward, but many have more savory, umami-driven aromas and flavors at the periphery. Think about the herbal edge found in many of our cabernet francs and other reds or the lemongrass note I often find in local sauvignon blanc. Even the saline vein in some of the white wines. These are flavors that we find in our foods already. Having them in the wine we drink only accentuates them.

Don’t worry too much about pairing a specific food with a specific wine. Wine pairing isn’t nearly as complex as many so-called experts would have you believe. Do “perfect” matches — meaning pairings where both the food and wine are elevated beyond what they are on their own — exist? Sure, but that needn’t be the goal. If the “perfect pairing” is the bullseye, almost without exception I’m perfectly happy just hitting the board. 

Drink the wine you love with the food you love and you’ll never go wrong.

With that in mind, I asked some of my favorite people in the local wine world about seasonal foods they love, how they like them prepared and for a suggested wine pairing from their current portfolio. I also offer an additional suggestion if a side-by-side comparison is something you might like to try at home

Fresh oysters — these are from the Preston House and Hotel in Riverhead — pair well with a stainless-steel aged sauvignon blanc. Credit: David Benthal

Robin Epperson-McCarthy, winemaker, Chronicle Wines 

Oysters + Saltbird Cellars 2019 Sauvignon Blanc

“Most of the time I am eating oysters raw with just a squeeze of lemon. Especially if they are coming out of the deepwater farms. The deepwater oysters are briny, sweet, and really fresh which is a lovely pairing with a stainless steel sauvignon blanc. When it comes to food and wine pairings, I like to think about what ingredients would be complementary to the dish and then look for those aspects in a wine. With oysters, you are looking for an acid component and that is one of the beautiful aspects of grapes grown in our cool maritime climate which have naturally high acidity. The delicate aromatics, lower alcohol and zesty acidity play with our local cuisine rather than demolishing the dishes with a fruit and alcohol bomb.”

LENN’S BONUS PICK: Corey Creek Tap Room 2020 Melon de Bourgogne 

Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker, Bedell Cellars and Corey Creek Tap Room

Duck + Bedell Cellars 2019 Cabernet Franc

“For me, wines that pair best with food are brightly structured and have little to no noticeable oak. Oak treatment needs to be completely integrated into a wine and should provide an unassuming, nuanced structure. If I can taste it outright, it’s a flaw to me. That’s why I love using mostly older neutral barrels, which allow extremely restrained and slow oak character into a wine while still providing the much-needed slow oxidation to round out the tannins and soften the mouthfeel. I prefer old-school roast duck, slow-cooked all the way through with crispy skin and served with a fruit-based sauce. I think North Fork red wines are really the perfect match with this super local dish. Of the wines I have right now, I would totally go with the 2019 Cab Franc. It’s one of the best I’ve made over the years and perfect with duck.”

LENN’S BONUS PICK: Paumanok Vineyards 2019 Petit Verdot 

Thomas Spotteck, winemaker, Lenz Winery

Striped Bass + Lenz Winery 2016 Estate Selection Chardonnay

“My favorite way to have striped bass is over risotto with a beurre blanc made using the wine being paired. The bass can be baked or pan-fried depending on the mood, but my wine to choose would be our Estate Selection Chardonnay, which I have been making specifically with this dish in mind. My fiancée has been working on perfecting this dish for many years, and I’ve been working to create the perfect wine to pair with it. The 2016 Estate Selection Chardonnay is a blend of barrel-fermented/sur lie aged chardonnay, blended with a crisp, fresh style of chardonnay fermented in steel, with no secondary fermentation. The barrel chard adds a nice rounded rich texture, subtle oak and vanillin texture and flavors while being complemented by the crisp, almost tropical fruit and lemon-like characters from the steel fermented chard. The combination pairs perfectly with the acidity of beurre blanc, and balances the fish dish out perfectly.”

LENN’S BONUS PICK: Sparkling Pointe 2016 Brut Nature 

A great burger like the one at Preston House is even better with McCall’s smooth Bordeaux-style blend or a classic North Fork cabernet franc. Credit: David Benthal

Suellen Tunney, general manager, McCall Wines

Burger + McCall Wines 2017 Field Blend

“I love our Charolais beef burgers off the charcoal grill, seared and crunchy on the outside, but nice and rare on the inside. I only season with a dusting of salt and pepper. I adore a good quality, sharp cheddar, dill pickles, super-ripe tomatoes and Boston bibb lettuce on a brioche bun with a smear of ketchup, mustard and mayo. One of the best McCall Wines to have with burgers is our Field Blend. It’s a Bordeaux-style blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petit verdot. I have nicknamed it our ‘Baby Ben’ after our award-winning Ben’s Blend of the same blend of grape varietals. It’s the perfect summer red, as it’s fruity and light, with soft tannins but exceptional flavor — definitely bold enough for a McCall burger.”

LENN’S BONUS PICK: T’Jara 2017 Cabernet Franc 

Alicia Ekeler-Valle, director of tasting rooms, Lieb Cellars 

Lobster Roll + Lieb Cellars 2018 Estate Sparkling Pinot Blanc

“I am totally on team ‘cold lobster roll.’ The hot lobster roll definitely has its time and place, but in this heat, it ain’t it for me. There are some ideal conditions that have to exist for the cold lobster roll prep for me to drop the ol’ MP [market price] on one. First is the mayonnaise-to-lobster ratio. The mayo should be enough to bind the lobster salad and keep it from just being a pile of naked lobster pieces but it shouldn’t be so heavily globbed on that you can’t see the pink of the lobster meat. Secondly, the bread must be a humble bun, preferably a split-top potato roll, and should be buttered and kissed by a flat-top for optimal performance in both sturdiness and deliciousness categories. Seasoning-wise, the simple combo of lemon, salt, pepper, and minuscule pieces of celery are enough to earn my nod of approval. Bonus points for the presence of a summery herb like tarragon, dill or chives. I am personally inclined to drink very cold, very dry, bubbly with any cold seafood or raw bar items, so my recommendation is the 2018 Lieb Cellars Estate Sparkling Pinot Blanc. Shout-out to our 2019 Estate Chardonnay too though! Because of its restrained oak program and lees-stirring, it has just the right buttery-malo-y character to play nicely with a buttered bun without dominating the whole situation. Lobster still shines (and it better for that ol’ MP)!”

LENN’S BONUS PICK: Macari Wines 2019 “Lifeforce” Sauvignon Blanc