Long Island Wine’s Hunt for a New Identity

Long Island wine has long been stymied by a number of factors—most notably its initial Bordeaux aspirations. But despite the odds stacked against it, that's changing. Jon Bonné meets with the winemakers, both new and established, who are charting a new path ahead.

In 1993, deep in the Joey Buttafuoco era, Ron Rosenbaum wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine in which he tried to get at the heart of Long Island culture. He was hoping to understand why the island, where he grew up, was so insular and so utterly different from the rest of the country. Among his postulations was the Gullah Theory—a nod to Carolina lowcountry inhabitants—which boiled down to this: “Nothing goes through Long Island to get to somewhere else.” And that made Long Islanders a bit … different.

At the time, that theory perfectly encapsulated Long Island for me. But I hadn’t thought about Rosenbaum’s work in years, until I turned onto State Route 25 last month to drive up the North Fork, home to the majority of the island’s vineyards.

Those vineyards—nearly 50 of Long Island’s 56 wine producers are on the North Fork—are planted past a sort of point of no return: They begin just past Riverhead, where the island forks. You either drive east along Route 25, toward Orient and the land’s end (and the animal disease center at Plum Island just beyond), or turn back whence you came.

That isn’t my cute way of implying that Long Island wine is at the end of the line; aside from being trite, the sentiment is untrue. But the island’s wine industry, once eminently hopeful, appears stuck in a constant struggle between two divergent forces. At moments, it appears marked by a dead-ender’s quality, mostly in its willingness to keep making the same cookie-cutter wines that left me unimpressed a decade ago. Its vineyard acreage has actually shrunk, down to 2,000 acres from around 2,400 in the mid-2000s, and the economics of making wine there have become far more fraught than in New York’s Finger Lakes, which are enjoying a boom as the state takes an ever-greater interest in its own wines. Meanwhile, too many overly self-conscious wineries still dot the North Fork, selling back-vintage wines and hosting weekend weddings. To borrow from Rosenbaum, there’s too much klassy with a K.

Yet, in other moments, Long Island shows great promise—hints of that essential desire of any maturing wine region to claim its own identity, rather than simply to adopt someone else’s. A handful of winemakers—both newer talents and a handful of long-established producers, like Paumanok—are working to answer some important questions: How do you get past the growing pains and figure out what types of wine you might uniquely contribute to the world? And what, in fact, does Long Island taste like when it’s not trying to mimic another place?

Certainly, things have changed since I’d last visited about a decade ago—several new wineries have arrived, and a growing number of wines seem to accommodate today’s fashion: fresh, modest reds; zesty, clean whites; and enough rosé to nearly slake the Hamptons’ thirst. Vineyard work is slowly improving, too. Shinn Estate farms biodynamically, and Macari Vineyards, one of the island’s largest producers, incorporates biodynamic practices across its 200 acres.

That sense of currency is a happy shift from the mid-2000s. Back then, the dream was that Long Island might become its own private Bordeaux. Vintners flouted all the usual (flawed) comparisons: maritime influence, climate, latitude. And they fell into the usual traps: too many expensive, pretentious bottles; too much oak; too many attempts to make more wine than the grapes could give. It’s not an unfamiliar story (see also: Washington, the Languedoc), and that insular view persists today.

“So much is geared to, ‘What do I need in my tasting room?’” Regan Meador tells me. “Versus, what does the world need from Long Island?”

It’s Meador who renewed my interest in the island. A Texas native, he and his wife Carey founded Southold Farm + Cellar in 2013, two years after moving east from New York to Carey’s hometown of Cutchogue, on the North Fork. The couple funded their endeavor via Kickstarter, enticing backers with promises of “weird” grapes like lagrein, and generally suggesting that they, and Long Island, had more to offer the world than chardonnay.

They’re still completing a winery building next to their house, so I meet Regan on a warm October afternoon at Lenz Winery in Peconic, where he’s currently making wine in a big open tent in the backyard. Unlike most of his neighbors, he’s done with his harvest, which is fermenting along in several rows of blue plastic bins. And depending on how you define weird, there is, as promised, an ample supply: teroldego, a grape native to Italy’s Trentino but here planted right by the Meadors’ house; lagrein, another Italian native, made using carbonic maceration; an early-picked cabernet franc fermented in whole clusters. (Regan also makes very good, not-weird chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.) Lenz owner Eric Fry, who worked in California for Robert Mondavi before settling on Long Island in 1988, doesn’t pass up the opportunity to walk by and roll his eyes whenever possible.

Long Island could use a few more dreamers like the Meadors. It’s not just that they are running in the opposite direction from those Bordeaux dreams; it’s that they see a wonderfully modest—and, to my mind, sustainable—path forward for the island. One that is more concerned with Tuesday-night wines. They’d love to have a few more small farms as neighbors, like those that have set down roots in the Finger Lakes (Bellwether, Bloomer Creek) and even the Catskills (Eminence Road). Though it comes with its own set of complications, it’s not a bad idea: These wine-minded homesteaders are the ones winning the hearts of New York’s influential wine buyers.

Yet the Meadors have spent much of the year tangling with neighbors and the local town council, which cited worries about traffic and tourists in barring them from opening a tasting room in a barn no bigger than the Little Rascals clubhouse. Why would a tiny newcomer with minuscule production face such resistance? The answer, I think, is that dead-enders’ mentality tugging Long Island backwards: Better to keep making the same old, uninspired wines than take a hard look at why Long Island’s dreams haven’t quite worked out as planned.

The island’s other challenge is more literal: There is simply nowhere to expand.

I’m not only talking about being surrounded by water. There’s also a dicey bit of economics that remains largely undiscussed where the island is concerned. While I’ve often quipped that Napa Valley is the Hamptons West, the joke isn’t funny on Long Island: The Hamptons, with their outlandish property values, literally collide with the last remaining slivers of the South Fork’s vineyards.

What does the Loire do, that Long Island could also do? Make a lot of bright fresh reds and vibrant whites. Even more to the point: The Loire thrives less on prestige than on slaking Paris’s thirst. The island’s vineyards, just two hours from New York City, could also do the same, albeit in smaller quantities (and at slightly higher prices).

The North Fork has it slightly better: Weekend homes are trying to coexist with what’s left of New York’s version of down east—a rural culture of fishing and farming. But there, too, the economics are grim. As you move from the Finger Lakes to the North Fork, “you add a zero” to land prices, in the words of Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards; he estimates $3,000 per acre in the Finger Lakes (today probably closer to $10,000), versus $30,000 or $40,000 on the North Fork. While land preservation measures have spared island farmland, acreage still comes at a steep cost.

Head to the South Fork and multiply by 10; vineyard land is at Napa levels. “You literally can’t farm there unless you’re a multimillionaire,” says Massoud.

Although Paumanok, founded in 1983, is one of the island’s stalwarts, Massoud is keenly aware of the need for progress. He makes a lovely, shiso-scented chenin blanc, thought to be New York’s only version, plus “Minimalist” editions of several wines using indigenous yeast. And, in the sort of twist on tradition I can’t resist, Massoud’s mother taps her familial roots in Germany’s Pfalz and serves fermenting juice during harvest alongside the onion tart known as zweibelkuchen. Macari’s winemaker, Kelly Urbanik Koch, does something similar with Early Wine, a vibrant, early-picked chardonnay. All taste more like something inherently Long Island than the wines I’d drunk in the past.

If anyone can mainstream this lower-key sensibility, it’s Joseph Macari Jr. He and his family (his son Joe manages the vineyards and his daughter Gabriella sells the wines in New York) have every reason not to change the status quo, yet they clearly want to break Long Island out of its habits—if a bit more gently than the Meadors. They’ve planted friulano. They make a pét-nat. In addition to biodynamics, they’ve become major advocates of natural compost in a region addicted to chemical fertilizers. Joe looks crestfallen, even angry, when he admits he’s had to revert to Roundup after 14 years without it; the island’s rainy weather is a nasty foe. (Although that’s true of many East Coast regions.)

And while Macari enjoys its waves of tasting-room traffic—it can see 800 people on a busy Saturday—the family seems to have concluded what Regan Meador has: Never measure success at the tasting counter, or by counting bachelorette-party limos. (Just ask Temecula.) This is, perhaps, an acceptance of some advice from 2007, when the island’s vintners howled with outrage after writer Lisa Granik publicly reprimanded them for their $40-a-bottle ambitions, instead suggesting they should be competing with “less exalted European wines that show character and complexity for well under $20.”

As it happened, that was pretty sound advice—and Long Island had, and still has, the base material to make it so. The region’s Bordeaux dreams brought lots of cabernet franc and merlot, both of which can be interesting in the light, sandy, moraine-derived soils—at least when made in a modest way rather than a self-important one. And the gentle terrain and maritime aspect evoke another region of France: the Loire. What does the Loire do, that Long Island could also do? Make a lot of bright fresh reds and vibrant whites. Even more to the point: The Loire thrives less on prestige than on slaking Paris’s thirst. The island’s vineyards, just two hours from New York City, could also do the same, albeit in smaller quantities (and at slightly higher prices).

But there’s still this question of what Long Island tastes like—and what it makes it unique. Even tinkerers like Christopher Tracy, the winemaker at Channing Daughters, haven’t quite answered this bit, which may be why Tracy opts to play in all the pools, making around three-dozen wines. Like Paumanok, Channing Daughters is one of those beneficiaries of getting to the party early. Founders Walter and Molly Channing first planted grapes in Bridgehampton in 1982, at a time when the appeal of the Hamptons was more about its luminous skies than its celebrity caché.

Tracy, who made his first wines there in 2001, has tapped into the cross-section of every wine trend of the moment. We taste, and taste and taste: There’s Envelope, a skin-fermented mix of chardonnay, gewurztraminer and malvasia bianca. There are four rosés, two pét-nats, lagrein, blaufränkisch. A ramato (slightly skin-fermented) pinot grigio. I finally cry uncle after the six seasonal vermouths. These efforts succeed to varying degrees, but for sure Tracy comprehends what New York City wants in its glasses right now.

I love what Channing is doing, conceptually, but I’m also clear-eyed about the fact that another Channing isn’t likely to come along, at least not on the South Fork and not without hedge-fund intervention. And I get nervous when Tracy tells me: “I think diversity is Long Island’s greatest strength,” by which he means an embrace of lots of different varieties. That diversity helps nascent regions, but in a more established one, it runs the risk of becoming a liability—a signal that you don’t know what you want to be.

That said, a bit more tinkering would be welcome. It may not transform Long Island wine overnight. But it also happens to be intrinsic to the island’s soul; in fact, it might even be a salvation from that sense of isolation. Rosenbaum realized this when he visited Levittown, the nation’s first mass-produced suburb. Levittown has for decades been a synonym for conformity, but what he discovered was a “veritable frenzy of individuation.” Each originally identical house was customized almost beyond recognition. Long Islanders have always been saddled with the rap of not really being from somewhere. And yet, he concluded, it’s in their nature to fight to make themselves distinctive.

New-School Long Island:

2013 Paumanok North Fork of Long Island Cabernet Franc | $30
Not to overlook Massoud’s chenin blancs (or very good rosé), but this is the sort of cabernet franc that seems intrinsically Long Island—mineral, with a tomato-water aspect and tangy fruit, a New York version of what Saumur can do well. [Buy]

2015 Macari Early Wine North Fork of Long Island Chardonnay | $18
Chardonnay, repurposed. Macari’s Austrian winemaking consultant proposed a harvest wine like those found in Vienna. The forthcoming vintage is full of juicy grapefruit and green clover-like aspects, and the faintest touch of sweetness. Also keep an eye out for their No. 1 Sauvignon Blanc. [Coming Soon]

2014 Southold Farm + Cellar Counting Stars North Fork of Long Island Sparkling Petit Verdot | $28
Meador’s latest interpretation of a Lambrusco-like red. Petit verdot is a curious choice, adding a raw, beet-like side, but the mild fizz and candied violet aspect make it ever more interesting as it sits in the glass. And don’t miss his Flying and Falling, one of the best versions of Long Island cabernet franc I’ve tasted. [Buy]

2013 Anthony Nappa Wines Reminisce North Fork of Long Island Sauvignon Blanc | $22 
When not making wine at Raphael, Nappa is one of the winemakers pioneering with his own label. He has a hand with sauvignon blanc—it’s aggressively grassy but also balanced by mineral and citrus-peel austerity, a serious combo. [Buy]

2014 Channing Daughters Rosato North Fork of Long Island Pétillant Naturel | $26 
Pét-nat is having a modest moment on Long Island (a major step toward making everyday wines) and Christopher Tracy hasn’t missed a beat. This is all merlot in pinkish form, with a tea-like nuance to its spice, bright cherry flavors and just a bit of sweetness. [Buy]