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Photo credit: Long Island Wine Country

At first, a building is just land and a thought.

Then the ground is cleared, a hole is dug. You see something taking shape, but it looks like a bit of a mess. Then concrete is poured, beams go up, floors are built, rooms divided. Windows are framed out to bring in the light and air, a roof goes on to protect from the elements. Landscaping, a driveway, a mailbox, a welcome mat to make it inviting. Suddenly, nothing becomes something. A hole in the ground becomes a tangible, solid thing.

2023 is a big year for Long Island Wine Country, marking 50 years since the first wine-centric vines were planted in the ground — those first holes dug on a plot of fallow potato farmland. Like the beginnings of anything, it didn’t look like much, either. And a lot of people scratched their heads at this crazy idea: Making wine on Long Island? Yeah, that won’t last!

But it did. Not only did it last, but it has also overdelivered on any great expectations (or prediction of ultimate doom, for that matter — take that, naysayers!) and has traveled beyond our regional borders.

A big part of that success was learning to seize upon what’s right under our noses on Long Island. “At Raphael, I don’t add anything to any of our wines,” says Anthony Nappa, winemaker for both Raphael Winery and his own labels, Anthony Nappa Wines and Shared Table Farm. “We’re more like Europe in that sense: the grapes here match the climate and they naturally ripen and have balanced chemistry. In California, they have to adjust acid levels just to be within the parameters of making wine before you even start thinking about quality and flavor or anything else.” 

Today, Long Island’s 3,000 acres of planted vineyards produce over a half-million cases a year, with a reach that has conquered more than 26 states and about a dozen countries, not to mention countless wine lists in some of the most storied and selective restaurants in New York City and beyond. 

“We’re really working to build the international brand of New York wines and [Long Island wines] are a really important partner in telling that story of New York as a high-quality wine region,” says Sam Filler, executive director of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. “They deservedly are getting international recognition for being innovative and also for doing a very good job making wines in a traditional style, too.”

“The Long Island wine industry is strong, vibrant and thriving. It’s growing, and that’s exciting!” says Kareem Massoud, president of the industry association Long Island Wine Country and second-generation winemaker for Paumanok Vineyards, the winery started by his parents, Charles and Ursula Massoud, in 1983. 

That glass-very-half-full assessment has been grounded in digging in to do the hard work involved and embracing Long Island’s geographic reality rather than creating an alternate one. 

“We’re small. Always have been, always will be,” Massoud continues. “We’ll never, ever be as big as Napa or Bordeaux or other revered names in wine. We simply don’t have enough land. But from the earliest days, and this is certainly true of my parents, our regional aspiration has been to produce quality wines because we knew couldn’t compete on quantity.” And really, from day one, that’s how it began.

If you grow it well, they will come

The names Louisa and Alex Hargrave are certainly familiar to those with knowledge of Long Island’s wine industry — and they should be outside that, too. If Long Island wine has grandparents in its family vineyard, they’re them — perhaps along with John Wickham, the farmer who, in the early 1960s, worked with Cornell’s Geneva-based research lab to find cold-sensitive vinifera table grapes that he could grow in our northeastern climate. 

The Hargraves are often portrayed as a couple of dreamy kids who hadn’t a clue what they were doing and — whoops! — made some good wine. And sure, while they had the earnest hope, energy and bravery of youth on their side, they also did their research, traveling to a multitude of vineyards to learn and study before putting everything they had — body, soul and finances — into establishing Long Island’s very first winery in Cutchogue in 1973. 

“There’s sort of this old narrative going around that Alex and Louisa were a couple of hippies who didn’t know what they were doing, flopped down and figured it out one way or another. The fact of the matter is we came with a sensory goal — we actually came with an idea of a flavor and aroma and committing to a sensory experience that we wanted to achieve,” says Louisa Hargrave, whose grown son, Zander, is now the winemaker at Pellegrini Vineyards, not far from where his parents established Hargrave. “I was in the vineyard and the winery and the cellar and I loved it. We wanted to build a family and be part of a community, and we wanted to be the best we could possibly be.” 

And they were. Sure, Hargrave says, they made mistakes, but they also made good wine that got recognized by publications like the venerable wine publication, Decanter, which called their 1978 blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon “… utterly astonishing. I would have been sure it was from Bordeaux, not the United States … absolutely elegant.”

Long Island wine, know thyself

That word, “elegant” — it became for a while a bit of a double-edged sword. For every critic or wine lover who enjoyed the regional cool-climate reflection of what was in their glass, there was another who instead of comparing and contrasting with, say, western European regions with similar weather, would put Long Island wines, and reds in particular, up against California’s high-alcohol, hot-and-dry climate, big gulp blends. Not exactly the best touchstone for understanding one or the other, for that matter.

“I think what was exciting was everything was new on Long Island. If you made a chardonnay, it was new; not like making chardonnay in California where there are 8,000 other versions out there,” says Roman Roth, part owner of Wölffer Estate Vineyard, where he’s been the winemaker for over 30 years. “In general, a big a part of our style was being elegant — less alcohol, more balance. It was a style at the time that was by and large new to America. And we’re such a small, boutique region. Everything, good or bad, has an impact on our reputation and in breaking prejudice. That’s a challenge that certainly kept me going and many of us going.” 

It was in this environment — and with the patient, dogged work of the pioneers — where a burgeoning wine region took shape. People like ex-pilot and dairy farmer David Mudd and his son, Steven, a couple of enterprising, agricultural smarties who came out to Southold from Missouri in the 1950s, planted vines for wine grapes in 1974, and ultimately became the region’s game-changing viticulturists. 

“It’s pretty rewarding to see where we are now, but it took a long time to figure out how to grow better grapes,” says Steven Mudd, who works with producers here as well as up and down the East Coast to set up wineries for success. “We screwed up more than anybody,” he laughs, “but the secret to life is to just do that once.” 

Mudd is downplaying his family’s pivotal role in the history of the region. Not only are the vines on their land — the source of the fruit in many of your favorite Long Island wines — some of the region’s oldest, Mudd Vineyards was where several of the region’s most respected vineyard managers and winemakers got their start. To name a few: Richie Pisacano, owner of Roanoke Winery and vineyard manager for Wölffer Estate Vineyard, and Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker for Bedell Vineyards (whose founders, Kip and Susan Bedell, first planted vines in 1980) and founder of, among other projects, Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, focused on creating safe, healthier growing and farming practices for the long haul. 

Olsen-Harbich worked a few summers at Mudd and, building on that experience, stepped in as winemaker for Bridgehampton Winery right out of college at the tender age of 22. There was a big learning curve, for both Olsen-Harbich and winery owner, Lyle Greenfield, who planted the first vines on the South Fork in 1979. But learn they did.

“Time is the great educator when comes to vineyards and winemaking,” says Olsen-Harbich. “This is part of the evolution of understanding our terroir and really learning to embrace it rather than trying to copy what other people and places were doing. Back then, that’s all we had to go by.” 

Back in the ’70s, knowledge (and plants) by and large came from the California wine industry. But while certain basic tenets of viticulture are what they are, climate plays an enormous role in how the ultimate plan pans out. 

“There was not a text or guidebook or extension flyer for how to grow grapes on Long Island. There wasn’t any information here. There was plenty from the West Coast and places like U.C. Davis, but none of that was applicable here. Our conditions are more Old World than New,” says Olsen-Harbich. “But with good information, research, trial and error and dedicated, passionate growers, we were able to get where we are today in 50 years, which is a very short time in the grand scheme of wine regions.” 

Growing up, growing out

It’s thanks to the Mudds, to Cornell Cooperative Extension and dedicated grower-researchers like Alice Wise, to early risk-takers who studied and put every ounce of physical and financial collateral into building it like the Hargraves, and other early pioneers: Greenfield of Bridgehampton Winery, Ray Blum of Peconic Bay Vineyards, Bob Kohler of Osprey’s Dominion, Pindar’s Dr. Dan Damianos, Kip Bedell, Peter Lenz, Jerry Gristina, the Bidwell family, Bob Palmer, Ralph and Pat Pugliese and the Massouds of Paumanok among the brave ones in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

The later ’80s and early ’90s saw the scaffolding of a burgeoning wine region click into place — Wölffer (briefly Sagpond Vineyards until Christian Wölffer smartly renamed it with his own iconic surname); Pellegrini, Lieb, Jamesport Vineyards, Macari, Diliberto, Martha Clara (now RG|NY), Shinn (now Rose Hill), Laurel Lake (now Ev & Em), Raphael, Channing Daughters and Sherwood House. 

From the aughts to today there’s been a dizzying, exciting, brick-by-brick, fill-in-the-details flourishing of all that came before. Accumulating layers of knowledge and know-how, confidence and new experimentation based on an understanding of who and what our region is. 

Clovis Point, McCall, Waters Crest, Sannino, Harbes, Croteaux, Anthony Nappa Wines, Saltbird Cellars, Brooklyn Oenology, Mattabella, Roanoke, Kontokosta, Bridge Lane, Suhru, Coffee Pot Cellars, Sparkling Pointe, One Woman, Leo Family, Onabay, Grapes of Roth, Poppy & Rose, Montauk Daisy, Influence and dozens of other small-label spinoffs from winemakers who came up through the ranks of many of these storied spots or through the island’s genius custom-crush facility, Premium Wine Group, founded by the forward-thinking winemaker Russell Hearn. 

And a healthy handful of many of the new faces are even the bearers of old names, the second and third generation of the pioneers believing and building broader, thinking bigger — siblings like Joey and Mark Wölffer, Gabriella and Joseph Macari; Zander Hargrave, Giovanni and Allegra Borghese (whose parents bought the original Hargrave Vineyards); the children of winemakers like Gilles Martin and Miguel Martin busily studying oenology in college; Hearn’s daughters, Kylie Hearn and Shelby Hearn Ulrich, the latter now wearing the mantle of vice president of Long Island Wine Country.

“I can count the number of times over the last five years that I have run into someone who turns up their nose at Long Island wine. That has gone down exponentially,” says Shelby Hearn, now general manager for the family label, Suhru Wines. 

“Now, the conversations I’m having in the tasting room are different,” she says. “They want to dissect and dive into what is it that makes our wine here so good.”