When you mention New York wines to people who are familiar with wine, they will almost always think of the wines from the Finger Lakes region of the state. And with good reason. They have been making wine for much longer than Long Island, and some of their wines – particularly Riesling – are internationally famous. But we are talking Eastern Long Island, where the vineyards are barely 30 years old. How do they stand up?
Being a central Floridian, I was leery about visiting New York in December. In fact, anywhere north of Jacksonville gets too cold as far as I’m concerned. But our younger son, who works in Manhattan, assured me I would not freeze to death. So my wife and I headed north. The good news is that this part of Long Island is not crowded in December, so the tasting rooms were a pleasant experience.
We visited 9 wineries in Long Island, and because of limited time, I missed a couple I wanted to see. But 9 is a good cross section, and we found some very good wine. My son came back with a mixed case. The next article will have my opinions of individual wines. For now, some overall impressions of the area and the wines, and how they compare to other east coast wines I have tried.
First of all, Long Island wineries are unusual because of the maritime climate. Long Island Sound is on one side, and the Atlantic Ocean is on the other. This produces challenges that inland vineyards don’t experience. Vintages matter on Long Island. For instance, 2010 was an excellent year there, and 2011 was so-so. The wines are very old world in style. Wines from Maryland and Virginia are of this style as well, but Long Island may be even more so. If you are one who gets upset about overblown new world wines, head for the wineries in Long Island.
Before leaving, I did some research, and I learned that the first few years of winemaking on Long Island left much to be desired. We are an instant gratification society, and if the first couple of attempts are not good, we move on. My impression is that is what happened here. But the wines have gotten better, and over the past 7-8 years more attention is being paid to Long Island wineries. Location matters as much with wine as it does with real estate, and vintners are learning which grapes do well.
There are 2 big similarities in Long Island wineries and Maryland wineries. One is the sheer number of grape varieties planted in a relatively small area by wineries with small production. The other is distribution, or rather the lack of it. Distribution costs money, and with small production it is prohibitively expensive. A smallish California winery may produce 6 or 7 thousand total cases from 2 or 3 grape varieties. On the east coast, a winery may produce a total of 2,000 – 3000 cases from 8 or 9 varieties. About 70% of their total sales comes right out of the tasting room. The rest is mail order and possibly through local restaurants or retailers.
This is not a recipe for growth, and it seems the people who own most wineries in Long Island are fine with that. There are some who want to grow and distribute nationally, but they are in the minority. Small production and a large number of varieties is one reason the wines on Long Island – and in Maryland as well – are on the pricey side. Each variety normally requires its own fermentation and storage/aging. If there is blending, it takes place afterward. When a particular wine has only 200-300 cases available, it is not a production model that can take advantage of economies of scale.
This is an observation, not a criticism. I am not a production consultant, and it is not my place to tell these folks how to run their businesses. I’m interested in the wine. Next time, we’ll take a look at some of the wines of Long Island.