Let’s Get This Party Started
COMPARED TO THE WINEMAKING traditions of other regions of the world, Long Island’s is still in its infancy. But it has reached a point where it’s garnering major respect and has been recognized as deserving a place on the stage with the finest from Bordeaux and Tuscany.
Some serious oenophiles will insist it’s better or easier to get a cheaper wine from France, Italy, or Australia than from our own backyard, but the wines of the North and South Forks of Long Island are without a doubt a treat for those of us who are intrigued by the idea of pairing regional wines with regional foods.
If nothing else than just for fun, make your holidays all-local on the wine, beer, and cocktail front. It’s certainly no huge challenge as the choices are plentiful, and the wine, beer, and spirits are superior.
A group of sommeliers, winemakers, and merchants gathered recently to taste some of the best Long Island has to offer, focusing on reasonably priced reds especially suited for the holidays, and several dessert wines to cap off a festive evening.
Among the connoisseurs at the sampling were: • Louisa Hargrave, the godmother of North Fork winemaking.
She and her her ex-husband, Alex, were the first to grow European wine grapes on Long Island, beginning in 1973.
• Michael Cohen, the sommelier at 1770 House in East Hampton.
• Julie Berger, the general manager and sommelier at Nick and Toni’s in East Hampton.
• Evan Flatow, a professor of orthopedic surgery and president of Mount Sinai West — but, more important, a member of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin de Bourgogne (the “brotherhood of the knights of Burgundy”!) and, clearly, a devotee of Burgundy.
• Michael Cinque, the owner of Amagansett Wines and Spirits and an all-around enthusiastic booster of local wines.
Everyone loves rankings. And it would have been entertaining, for example, to have thrown a Burgundy or a California pinot into the mix to see how the group might have responded. But there were none of those shenanigans. What’s more, it was agreed oh so politely beforehand that no clear winner would be chosen.
Which is no fun, of course. But several of the tasters are wine sellers, and relationships must be preserved.
There are more than 50 wineries on Long Island, so choosing six reds and three sweet wines was our first challenge. We sought reds, as they are best to accompany winter-holiday meals, and dessert wines because it’s always a delight to begin and end a meal with something a bit sweet.
There are many good options, but we narrowed our choice to six: all blends, all with some percentage of merlot grapes, in addition to cabernet sauvignon, malbec, petit verdot, and cabernet franc, depending on the winery. In that sense it wasn’t an apples-to-apples test.These are all on the pricey side and are each winery’s premier offerings. Excellent less expensive ones abound.
As at many a blind tasting, the atmosphere started with silent reverence.
Thoughtful sniffing and sipping ensued, notes were scribbled, and wines were discussed. By the end there was much jollity around the table, along with a few stray bits of pizza crust.
It was evident right away that Louisa Hargrave knows her subject. She offered the most measured and comprehensive opinions and history. She suggested that it was best to judge on the third sip and by “aromatizing.” Wine descriptions — from “plummy, violet, earth, smoke, bell pepper, and bramble berry” to “chewy, garden hose, cartoon character, and decay of the ocean” — were tossed about.
Michael Cohen said he is pleased to put local wines on his wine list, which must meet the expectations of welltraveled, sophisticated customers.
“They come in and say ‘we’ve just traveled through Burgundy or Napa Valley, now we’d like to try your local wine.’ It’s a trust issue, you can’t recommend something you don’t believe in. We don’t put bad wines on our list.” Ted Conklin, the owner of the American Hotel in Sag Harbor and creator of one of America’s most respected wine lists, was spied nearby during the tasting, which was held at Nick and Toni’s restaurant. Asked how he felt about Long Island’s wine industry and how it compared to the rest of the world, he answered: “Serious oenophiles should rekindle their early interest in top-tier Long Island wines. They can be exquisite!
Try the finest of Paumanok, Lenz, Bedell, Wölffer, Channing Daughters, and several others. Our wines can be the measure of any in the world.” Sure, you can get less expensive wines from other parts of the world, but once you’ve tried a crisp Long Island rosé with Montauk Pearl oysters or a cabernet franc blend with Mecox Bay Dairy cheese, you may become a more dedicated locavore and oenophile.
The results? There wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch. Some were “big and beefy,” while others emerged more subtly.