Empire State Grapes Take on the Big Apple

Why you shouldn’t ignore a message in a bottle.

 

Suddenly New York wine is everywhere you turn: A special class at the Astor Center. A bustling stand at the Greenmarket. Critically acclaimed in the Times and Food & Wine. Poured at Le Bernardin, Eleven Madison Park, Blue Hill and Gramercy Tavern.

Available at the click of a mouse on Fresh Direct. Heck, even the esteemed 1,001 Wines to Try Before You Die lists four Long Island bottles, the same number listed from Italy’s Alto Adige.

And yet in certain circles, otherwise-esteemed Empire State wine gets a bad rap. Just as some imbibers see glasses of rosé through altogether unrosy glasses–thanks to a long-ago bad trip on white zin–others view New York vino via out-of-date injustices, blisslessly ignorant of the fine wines produced just a two-hour trip from midtown. I came across such plain-faced prejudice last Labor Day over a double-date dinner on Shelter Island when I suggested a lovely local selection. The other woman drew back frowning.

“Oh. Do you not like Wölffer?” I asked, surprised.

No, it’s just…a Long Island wine?” She wrinkled her nose.

And there it was.

Raised on eastern Long Island, I admit a little “be true to your school” loyalty at times has me rooting like an over-caffeinated cheerleader for the hometown team. Still, I was confounded by my dinner companion’s mistaken discrimination. Perception can be treacherous, based on hearsay or a hunch, a few stitched together scraps of facts sewn up into an ill-fitting suit that nobody should be wearing. Her remark left me wondering, long after the meal was done and the bill was paid: How many New Yorkers still think like that?

New York State’s 250 wineries and 1,400 vineyards aren’t the first to experience the vagaries of regional profiling. Back before Stags’ Leaps, Screaming Eagles and other culty California cabs were fetching gasp-worthy prices, the notion of transforming an old Napa walnut orchard intro a serious vineyard sounded about as likely as turning Danny DeVito into a prima ballerina (or a limoncello maker).

“It took the longest time for people to develop a taste for California wine,” says Rory Callahan, who studied at California’s wine-centric UC Davis in the late 1970s, runs the development company Wine and Food Associates and has become one of the state’s wine industry’s biggest marketeers. “And then [it happened] for many reasons, largely marketing reasons. A parallel thing is happening now with New York wine.”

Channing Daughters’ winemaker Christopher Tracy agrees. “It’s the same struggle as any wine region,” he says, pointing out that the Hargraves, the pioneering vintners of the region, won Parker raves in the Wine Advocate way back in the ’80s, a mere decade after they planted their first vines at the same time the Napa Valley was blooming. In fact, some of the country’s oldest red wine grapes are found right on Long Island. But it’s taken a while for the region to establish a respectable reputation.

One hurdle has been that New York wines are a very small fish in a very, very, very big and well-stocked pond: Gotham ranks among the leading wine consumption markets on earth and the world’s wine regions spend many millions promoting themselves here. (The rest of the country’s close behind: Last May the United States became the world’s second-largest wine-consuming nation, second only to France, beating out even Italy, on track to become the largest consumer of still wines worldwide by 2012. So much for the theory that Americans don’t drink wine; apparently, we’ve learned our way around a corkscrew.)

“The metropolitan NYC area is the second biggest wine market in the U.S. after Los Angeles, and number one in imported wines, consuming 30 percent of America’s total,” explains Trent Preszler, chief operating officer for Long Island’s Bedell Cellars. (In case you couldn’t tell from the stat citations, he’s currently working toward a PhD in viticulture at Cornell.) “This is both a blessing and a curse for small, independent New York wineries: Their brands are legitimized when served in taste-making upscale NYC restaurants. Yet competition for [those accounts] is fierce.”  Still, says Preszler, Long Island wines in particular have proven competitive with the best of them.

Indeed all those marketing millions make Goliaths of imported wine, but as local quality has surged, education and experience have become the rock-and-slingshot combo to take down formidable, well-funded foes.

Many local vintages are great, with widespread progress made each passing year, says Gramercy Tavern wine director Juliette Pope, whose much-lauded wine list offers over 20 New York homegrown bottles: “My impression is there’s been a ton of progress and now there’s a higher portion of better wines. I’m so pleased with how often locals and foreigners and domestic far-away tourists are simultaneously surprised and pleased to see the New York wines that we have on our list. I’m really proud to support that.”

Making the list at such respected palate palaces carries major cachet–a golden seal of approval that says unequivocally, yes, this is delicious and you should drink it. “I mean, I’m buying one or two cases of wine a year from this or that producer,” allows Pope, “and it’s not paying anybody’s mortgage or buying a new tractor, but it means a great deal to them to say they’re on our list. Sometimes I forget that. I don’t enjoy power in any way, but it’s nice to influence things in this direction.”

But it can take extra effort to open doubting minds and mouths.

Paul Greico, the wonderfully opinionated mad genius behind the wine lists at Hearth, Insieme and the beloved quirky little wine bar Terroir, knows this well, and delights in pouring patrons their first, idea-changing sip. “As a sommelier, given an opportunity to purchase a battery of French wines, Italian, Spanish, German or Long Island, where I know I’m going to have to get in there and do a big speech and a hard sell, why not just buy what I know is going to sell?” he asks, playing devil’s advocate. He says some somms, if they buy local wine at all, probably won’t buy more than one or two, which inevitably get buried in the list. His advice to peers? “Make a commitment. You have to have five to eight on your list to show consumers that, oh my god, they are making good wine out there!”

Greico admits the young industry is still ripening. “There have been a small handful of incredible wines, two handfuls of very good wines and an incredible amount of mediocrity.” He feels some wineries are trying to be all things to all people. “They believe their customer base wants one-stop shopping–they must have chardonnay and they must have pinot noir and they must have merlot and they must have cabernet. But you can’t do all of those things well. You should specialize. Don’t chase your consumers–let them come to you for what you do well.”

Hearth’s list has a page devoted entirely to Channing Daughters’ 2006 Meditazione, a blend of tocai friulano, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and a few other Vitis vinifera white varietals. The top of the page proclaims it The Greatest White Wine in America.

“You come across that page and think, ‘Well, what is it?!’ How could you flip past it when you’re trying to figure out what wine to have with dinner and not read this goddamn thing?” His enthusiasm has converted many. “Chris only made 26 cases the first year, and we sold three cases a month. Did everyone love it and think it was the greatest white in America? No. But at least 75 percent of them said, ‘Holy shit! This is one of the best white wines I’ve ever had, and certainly the best I’ve ever had from Long Island.'”

Others remain unconvinced. At a recent high-end dinner in east midtown I was taken aback when the head sommelier rolled his eyes and ranted about Finger Lakes rieslings. I cited several with great reputations–the region has long produced world-class rieslings–but made little headway.

Says Heron Hill winemaker Thomas Laszlo, whose riesling is on several venerable wine lists: “It’s tough in the Manhattan market. We still have an image problem—we still grow a lot of varieties. Riesling is not even 10 percent of what’s grown in the Finger Lakes. It’s something I push in the Finger Lakes–that someday riesling might need an appellation to separate itself out from all the sugary, sweet junk wines being made. We produce world-class riesling.”

Steve Kelley, a sales rep for Lauber Imports, which represents Long Island’s Bedell and Raphael, adds that price can be problematic. “For top cuvees especially, there’s a big resistance. Very often the answer is simply, ‘A wine from Long Island shouldn’t cost that much.'”

It’s a plight Louisa Hargrave remembers well. Back in 1973 she and her then-husband, Alex, planted 10,000 of the first commercial vines on Long Island’s North Fork, making her the de facto matron saint of East End vintners. “The restaurants that carry Long Island wines will very often just carry the lowest end,” she says. “Say somebody
buys one. They’re going to taste it and say, “Well, that’s pretty average.’ Well, yeah! It’s not the winery’s best wine. Few restaurants actually put the best wines on the list. They’ll say ‘Who’s going to buy a $60 bottle of Long Island wine?’ Well, I don’t know, but who’s going to buy a $60 bottle of wine from San Luis Obispo?”

Price-point might be the biggest sword drawn on the issue, but even the averages are improving. You’d be hard pressed to walk into any tasting room of the several dozen wineries now operating on the North and South Forks and not find a multitude of quality bottles around or under $20. All world-class examples? No. Perfectly delicious to bring to a friend’s house for a casual dinner? Yes. Still the quality of these everyday wines hasn’t had its due. It’s easy enough to point to the region’s shining stars, but no one’s really talking about the great under-$20 Osprey’s Dominion merlots, Macari everyday chardonnay, or even that pretty Wölffer rosé that eventually won over my dubious dining companion last summer.

Weary of conviction by anecdotal evidence, Bedell’s Preszler decided to put pricing to scientific study. As part of his doctoral research at Cornell he analyzed wine lists of over 50 of the city’s top restaurants and found that wines made in New York are by far the least expensive wines in the NYC market at the ultra-premium category. “In fact,” he explains, “imported and California reds are two or three times more expensive than Long Island reds! The mistake people often make in comparing prices is to compare Long Island wines with the huge, multinational brands from warm climates which make hundreds of thousands or even millions of cases per year. It’s a fundamental question of economies of scale.”

Great wine at a fraction of the price? Add in saving the planet. The local-foods movement has put us all on a low-carbon diet, with menus noting near–and dear–ingredients, proclaiming in print the provenance of perch and peaches. But what about the sauvignon blanc? Local food is literally on everyone’s lips these days–why would an ingredient-driven eatery pour wine from another hemisphere? A 2007 Times op-ed by Tyler “Dr. Vino” Coleman calculated that a single bottle trucked here from the West Coast emits nearly six pounds of CO2. Callahan has been working with the New York Wine & Grape Foundation–whose funding Patterson recently slashed–to promote Empire State wines at city Greenmarkets and says the program gives shoppers the ultimate farm-to-table wine-and-food pairing while at-stand tastings convert shoppers one at a time: “We’re doing bootstrap education here. It’s going to open up a door and allow us to make up for lost time.”

While taking pride in the locavore pour may seem a temporal trend, Tracy points out the opposite. “Why isn’t everybody carrying [New York wine], like when you go to Dijon and all the wines from Burgundy are on a list, or when you go to Portland, Oregon, and all the wines from Oregon are on a list. New York is an entirely different beast. It’s the most important, biggest, most competitive wine market in the world. To have the amount of Long Island wineries enjoying the success that they do is actually mind-boggling.”

Winemaker Kareem Massoud of Long Island’s Paumonok echoes Tracy’s sentiment: “NYC gives wine from all over the world so much scrutiny. Given the small size of New York’s wine regions, we get a disproportionate amount of scrutiny. In Bordeaux, there are thousands of producers, and only a few dozen, the creme de la creme, sell in NYC and so the average quality tends to be very high. New York has a smaller volume to pull from. In any region of the world, there is a large middle mass of producers making decent, but not great, wine. That really forces us to produce best quality. We can’t compete on price or volume. We can only compete on quality.”

So maybe a little bit of this is getting over ourselves, already. “What’s the plight?” said Doug Crowell, owner of Brooklyn’s locally minded new-ish eatery Buttermilk Channel, whose small but well-chosen wine list has a more than a few New York State offerings. “A lot of my customers order [New York wine] on their own. They’re aware of New York wines that are good. There’s an outdated belief that things that are domestic or local are not as
high quality. There was a time 50 years ago when the closer a beer or wine came from where you lived, the worse it was—local beer in the 1960s was swill!” he laughs. “And it was the same with New York wines. So some people still have that mentality.”

And some New York growers and winemakers are toying with this same sort of growing-pains notion. “If you have the quality in the bottle and it can speak for itself; you’re in a powerful position. There is a lot of truth going back to the whole New York thing too—the old adage that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” Maybe, in fact, we already have.

Photo credit: Stephen Munshin and Ellen Watson

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Amy Zavatto is the daughter of an old school Italian butcher who used to sell bay scallops alongside steaks, and is also the former Deputy Editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She holds her Level III Certification in Wine and Spirits from the WSET, and contributes to Imbibe, Whisky Advocate, SOMMJournal, Liquor.com, and others. She is the author of Forager's Cocktails: Botanical Mixology with Fresh, Natural Ingredients and The Architecture of the Cocktail. She's stomped around vineyards from the Finger Lakes to the Loire Valley and toured distilleries everywhere from Kentucky to Jalisco to the Highlands of Scotland. When not doing all those other things, Amy is the Director of the Long Island Merlot Alliance.