Hint, Hint: A dry Long Island rose is perfect with holiday flavors. Photo: Lindsay Morris
A few weeks ago, a big comparative tasting was held at the Union Square Ballroom pitting Long Island wines against vino the globe over, and as I walked through the door of the massive room set with long tables and easily over 100 seats, I developed a nervous pit in my stomach. As a born-and-bred eastern Long Islander, when I hear people guffawing at New York wine—and Long Island wine in particular—I react in the same way as if someone just said my mother was ugly. It’s fightin’ words.
This isn’t to say I’m a knee-jerk judge of character; I’m pretty okay with admitting when something’s not good; and not all of it is good. But when a region is so small, the not good tends to stand out in ways that it wouldn’t in a larger region like, say, California, which in Sonoma County alone would hold the amount of wineries we have more than five times over. Still, if the emperor’s got no clothes, there’s no way around the fact that the man is naked. But Long Island wine is good. Sometimes, very good, and it’s really exciting to watch a wine region within driving distance grow, change, and continue to get better. I am more than ever happily surprised to see at least a few local wines on NYC wine lists more and more often. A week ago, I had Channing Daughters Mosaico at DBGB; just last night, I stopped in to check out the fried chicken at The Redhead in the East Village and, lo and behold, there was Shinn’s “Red” by the glass. What I wondered at the Big Tasting, though, was how the local vino cognoscenti would react that day.
Put together by Cornerstone Communications, an NYC public relations firm that specializes in wine, the room was impressively full with some pretty important names in the wine-journo world—Mary Ewing Mulligan, Ed McCarthy, Howard Goldberg, Sam Gugino, Lettie Teague, Tyler “Dr. Vino” Coleman; e.g., People Who Know Things. Before the tasting, Linda Lawry, Director at the International Wine Center and self-described Long Island fan, gave a brief talk on the region and introduced the panel – Steve Bate, Executive Director of the Long Island Wine Council; Larry Perrine, CEO/Partner of Channing Daughters Winery, and Kip Bedell, founding winemaker of Bedell Cellars. They spoke about their early experimentation (said Kip, hotter climate varietals like Petit Sirah and Zinfandel that, of course, ultimately failed); their decades of history of viti- and viniculture in ELI’s maritime climate, which Larry pointed out is actually cooler than Friuli, Italy—a big surprise to me, but explains why some oddball, aromatic northern varietals are kicking ass— that our mild winters and moderate summers produce balanced, fresh, food-friendly whites and reds that don’t kill you on the alcohol.
Then we moved onto the blind tasting, where bag-covered bottles of Sauvignon Blanc, oaked and unoaked versions of Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc were poured to pit against wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, New Zealand, the Loire, and California. The results were surprising, for myself especially when I couldn’t always zone in on LI; I thought in all cases I’d be able to peg them. In fact, I correctly identified maybe about 60% or so. That to me, however, indicated, yes, there is a definite style and (I’m going to say it!) terroir that identifies this place (making me ever-more excited about Raphael winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich’s continued commitment to wild yeast); but sometimes winemaker style seemed to trip me up, like the Sauvignon Blanc and oaked version of Chardonnay, and also one ringer–a St. Emilion Merlot where in my notes I scribbled, “This screams Long Island to me!” So much for that, although maybe it says something about the sometimes debated comparison to Bordeaux climate and style. Still, the unoaked Chard, other Merlot, and Cab Franc were identifiable—and really excellent examples of what’s good and great out east, especially the latter: a slightly muscled, peppery, proud Cab Franc from Bedell and Shinn’s pretty yet racy version that had more of that tell-tale green note the grape is known for, but with some nice, balancing aromas and flavors of blackberry and dark chocolate.
But here’s what was weird: Whereas at regionally-skewed tastings like this there are often a glut of questions, the room was mostly, oddly, silent. I turned around at one point to better hear a comment made by Barbara Shinn about the differences between working with Cab Franc (which she finds doesn’t always express ripeness and can be inconsistent—no surprise there) and Merlot (Shinn finds this grape easier to work with), and saw a very well-known magazine writer and, if you will, wine personality sitting behind me doodling. I don’t know what that says, or if it says anything at all, but in the last few weeks I’ve run into a few industry folks who were there and asked for their thoughts. I got extremes—one respected somm said off the bat that he wasn’t impressed, but in the end his major comment was more that he felt like the whole tasting moved too fast for him and he didn’t have enough time to properly consider what was in front of him; another seasoned journalist said he was excited about the quality, especially the Cabernet Franc. But the room wasn’t completely silent: The thing I remember about that tasting were the murmurs during the reveal; the surprise, at times, when something was LI that wasn’t expected. On the whole, our region went all five rounds and hung in there like a champ. It wasn’t exactly the Judgment of Paris, but Long Island vintners walked away with heads deservedly held high.