The Boston Phoenix October 5 - 12, 2000

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Island sound

Wine country is closer than you think

by David Marglin

As you read this, grapes are ripening on the vines for what could be one of the greatest years ever for Long Island winemaking. This sounds like a half-hearted compliment, but it's not: these days Long Island, located within about three hours' travel from Boston, is great wine country.

I recently spent a weekend visiting many of the 22 North Fork (and three South Fork) wineries, and quite frankly, I was blown away. I feel like the rock critic who caught Bruce in the early '70s and claimed to have seen the future of rock and roll. Right now Long Island is the hottest wine region east of the Pacific states, and it may well be the most quickly improving anywhere.

The reds have just been released from the 1997 vintage, which was the region's best vintage to date, and marks Long Island as world-class. And I'm not alone in thinking so. At a blind tasting in Manhattan, a very professional panel of sommeliers and restaurateurs rated wines from a North Fork stalwart, Lenz Winery, higher than French counterparts from Pétrus, Château Latour, and Le Montrachet. This is remarkable - it calls to mind the 1976 tasting in Paris where California cabernets beat the great French wines in blind tastings, putting California on the wine world's radar screen.

Lenz wines are not yet available in Massachusetts, but don't fret. Many other Long Island wines, such as Pindar, Jamesport, Wolffer Estate, and Pellegrini, are distributed here. But what you need to do, given that the harvest is happening now, is jump in your car, drive to New London, and hop on the ferry. An hour after that, you will be on Route 25, with more than 20 wineries ahead of you.

In my next column, I'll get more in-depth about Long Island winemaking - the grapes, the history, and so on. For now, these tips and strategies for navigating its wine country should come in handy.

1) Map it out. You cannot seriously visit 20 wineries in a day, or even in two. To do a winery justice, whether it offers a tour or just tastings, you need to spend about an hour there. Five wineries is a fine number for one day; seven is a lot. Long Island has great brochures to help you pick your spots, and the www.liwines.com Web site is loaded with information.

2) Choose your poisons. Every winery will have several wines open for you to taste. Usually, you'll be able to try a number of wines for free or for a single charge; a handful of reserve wines will cost a few dollars per taste, or as a flight. You do not need to try every wine. Pouring staffs generally know what their best wines are. Do not stick exclusively to your favorite grape varieties. One of the reasons to visit wine country is to discover new wines.

3) Spit and designate. Every tasting room has some receptacle into which you can - and should - spit wine. You are wine tasting, not wine drinking, and if you swallow you will soon be a) totally blasted, and b) unable to taste well. Even if you're not the designated driver, if you want your day to be memorable, spit.

4) Purchase wisely. Make a budget, and then do not blow it all at the first winery you visit. Many wineries sell wines on their premises that you will not see anywhere else. Prices tend to be retail, with normal case discounts. You will want to buy wines that stand out, and by the end of the day, you will wish you had more money to spend. Forgo the volume discount - buy a bottle here, a bottle there of the wines you like the best. Each one you will remember well - if you followed the first three steps - when you serve it later.

Here are the wineries I particularly enjoyed, listed from north to south (the Ferry drops you far north).

North Fork

Lenz Winery. Wine-in and wine-out, the best winery between California and Europe. Awesome room, too.

Pindar Vineyards. Bigger and showier, with jazz and hundreds of people. Open until 6 p.m. Great sparkling wines, and it's usually worth it to pony up for the reserve wines.

Bedell Cellars. Michael Jordan allegedly loves its merlot, which is served in his Grand Central Station steak house. Quality talent and top-notch fruit ought to lead to plenty of bigger, better things. A champion. Hargrave Vineyard/Castello di Borghese. The Hargraves pioneered the Long Island wine renaissance in 1972, and they recently sold their winery to the Borgheses (descendants of Italian nobles from Tuscany) for about $4 million. But the Hargraves remain on as consultants, the wines remain excellent, and their future is bright.

Galluccio Estate Vineyards, Gristina Winery. This was simply called "Gristina" before being sold to Vincent Galluccio, a "force of nature" who worked for IBM and British Telecom. The tasting room is truly lovely, with a great spot for a picnic lunch.

Pellegrini Vineyards. Beautiful room reminiscent of a monastery, splendid wines, helpful staff. Pellegrini is often the top-rated Long Island wine (its 1997 merlot got a 90 from the Wine Spectator). Try the Finale, a delicious dessert wine.

Jamesport Vineyards. The tasting room is an old converted barn, with a beautiful party area out back. They were playing Phish on the stereo when I tasted, and the staff, though busy, found the time to go through the extensive selection with me. Try the white port and the succulent cabernet franc. The best selection.

Palmer Vineyards. On Route 48, pretty much the most westerly winery on the North Fork. Very solid.

South Fork

Channing Daughters. Right in the cornfields, this winery is up-and-coming, with a sauvignon blanc that's the best I have tasted east of the West Coast. Lovely place and, along with Wolffer, worth the hour or so drive to the South Fork.

Wolffer Estate. My favorite Long Island winery in terms of the setting. People have weddings here every weekend, and you can see why. Great tasting room, with stained glass and ornate wood carvings, located right in the vineyards. Really good wines, too, and a friendly staff.

David Marglin can be reached at wine@phx.com.


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