11/20/11 4:00am

For the past few years, I have tried various alternatives to turkey for my Thanksgiving dinner. It’s not that I don’t like turkey, but I don’t love it, and love should be part of Thanksgiving. Once, I roasted a loin of pork, decorating it with a paper turkey head and tail. Another year I served lobster on the theory that any food consumed by the Pilgrims was fair game for Thanksgiving. I’ve made Peconic Bay scallops, too, as a turkey substitute. Notice how a scallop shell looks like a turkey’s array of feathers?

No matter what I serve as an entrée, as a wine writer I’m always faced with writing about wines that go well with turkey. Honestly, the topic frustrates me. Turkey is an ambiguous beast, with both dark and light meat, so it’s hard to match. Better to pair the wine with the style of gravy (cabernet franc with giblets, chardonnay with cream gravy) or the stuffing (pinot noir with sausage or mushrooms, sauvignon blanc with oysters and cornbread).
Truth be told, some wines really are better with turkey than others, but Thanksgiving is a celebration, not a wine class, so you might as well drink whatever you like.

For winemakers, Thanksgiving usually marks not just the end of harvest, but also the end (or almost the end) of fermentation and pressing. On Long Island, we usually have a hard frost in the second or third week of November. Once the leaves are off the vines, the grapes can’t ripen any more; even the latest-ripening varieties like cabernet sauvignon will have to be brought into the cellar.

White grapes are usually harvested before the reds, sometime in September or October, and are pressed as soon as they are picked. That means the winemakers are up late at night pressing out the fruit that came in during the day. The white wines ferment in closed containers for a few weeks and need to be monitored, racked and cold stabilized.
When the reds come in, they are simply crushed, then fermented on their skins for one to three weeks. They must be pumped over or punched down several times a day so that the skins, which float to the top under pressure of carbon dioxide released by yeast, don’t overheat, killing the yeast. Right about the time the winemaking team is exhausted from all this work, the reds need to be pumped into presses and moved to tanks or barrels. Pressing is slow, often dangerous work. Pumps inevitably fail, hoses burst, augurs jam up. November is often fraught with the major and minor disasters.

Winemaking has much in common with childbirth: It follows months of anxious anticipation; it causes pain and fatigue; and once it’s over there is little to be done to alter the result (except for upbringing, which may be why the French refer to what happens to wine after fermentation as “élévage”). There may be postpartum depression. But as every new parent and every winemaking community knows, the overriding expression at the end must be joy. Hide any disappointments; it’s time to celebrate and give thanks.

Ask a winemaker what he or she plans to drink for Thanksgiving, and it will probably start with beer. During harvest, the saying goes, “It takes a lot of beer to make good wine,” and many of the late nights throughout harvest have been fueled by beer, soda or water, not wine — and certainly not booze. Once the food comes out, there may be a special bottle from an old vintage that has been kept to share with friends.

Vineyard managers get to take it easy a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. Once the fruit is safely in the cellar, bird nets are tidied up and equipment cleaned. Preparations are under way for winter’s pruning, which may begin as soon as leaves are off the vines, though in this climate it’s better to wait until the vines are fully dormant in January. Once the sap retreats into the roots, there is less risk for plant diseases to be spread through pruning cuts.
Some of the growers I know like to take this pause between harvest and pruning to do a little fishing or hunting. People who work outside all year tend to want to stay there, even when it’s cold. Autumn on Long Island may lack the brilliant colors of New England, but the lowering light is still gorgeous. Taking a rest from the year’s labor, the vintner strolls through the vines, toward the woods … hey! What’s that? A wild turkey?

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.

10/27/11 12:01am
10/27/2011 12:01 AM

When Moravian wines took top gold medals this year at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition, most people had to run to a map to locate Moravia, at the far southeastern corner of the Czech Republic, on the border with Austria. But wine has a long history in Moravia. The 10th Roman Legion made wine here around 89 A.D. Pruning knives left here by fourth-century Roman settlers, echoed by two pruning knives on the 17th-century crest of the noble Moravian Dietrichsteins, also attest to the vine’s importance here.

The Lichtenstein family, under the fiefdom of the Hapsburgs, also cultivated vines in Moravia’s gently rolling hills, around spectacular gardens, fish ponds, follies and castles (later mimicked by Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom).
Wine has thus been central to the culture and economy of this part of Europe except during such times of extreme political disruption as the Thirty Years War (1618–48). Occupation by Hitler’s army during World War II, and the subsequent domination of the region from 1948 to 1989 by Soviet communists, reoriented Moravian vintners away from quality toward quantity, and it is only since the Czech “velvet revolution” of 1989 that Moravians have been able to reclaim their heritage of fine wines.

The difficulties inherent in changing from the communist centralized system to individual and corporate capitalist control are more complex than simply handing the property deeds back to whoever owned the land before the communists claimed it. The Moravians detested their Soviet-dominated government, and did their best to subvert it. Although known in the 1930s for their dynamic, industrious creativity, under a communist system that massed all their properties into huge, government-owned and managed collectives, Moravians learned to feign work, cripple productivity and disable equipment. They also leaned how to frown, avoid eye contact and say “No” with a satisfied smirk.

Under communism, Moravians could produce wine for family use, but they couldn’t sell it. The rural roads around the vineyards of Mikulov and Valtice are lined with odd, bunker- or mausoleum-like stucco buildings that are still family-owned wine cellars, with ancient brick caves containing old barrels and little hand-operated presses. These roads are also lined with fruit and nut trees, numbered and rented to families that can still be seen picnicking under the boughs while harvesting the apples, pears, walnuts or plums for their own use.

It has taken time for the Czechs here to open up, smile and gather the resources, both economic and psychological, to recreate their once-great wine region of Moravia. But a popular biking and hiking Prague-Vienna Greenway; a new National Wine Center and Wine Salon located in the Lichtenstein’s family seat, Valtice Castle; the restoration of hundreds of gorgeous castles and gardens; and the revitalization of many village wine festivals have opened the region to new visitors whose expectations have raised the standards and the mood of viticultural Moravia.
The adoption of European Union winemaking standards and the designation of several UNESCO Biosphere reserves have helped growers and winemakers here make the transition from a communist to a free-market economy. While there are still some extremely large, production-oriented wineries, the best wines are being made by a handful of producers who are aware of international winemaking trends and have invested in new technology while also limiting crop size, picking and sorting by hand and fermenting in small batches. They respect their traditional grapes like Veltlínské zelené  (Gruner Vetliner) while understanding that the international market wants pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc (which, incidentally, they have grown for over 40 years).

I recently visited several Moravian wineries. Most impressive were Sonberk, a new 150,000-bottle winery in one of the most stunning winery buildings I’ve ever seen, with stylish wines to go with the modern image; the larger, cutting-edge Nové Vinarství, whose delicious unoaked chardonnay could set the standard for the variety; and the widely applauded Reisten, whose vineyards benefit from a rare form of Palava chalk soil (biomorphic metamorphic calcium).

Reisten is owned by Radek Nepras, a leading Czech architect and visionary who has played a formative role in revitalizing Moravia’s wine and tourist industries. His wines are made in a traditional, ancient cellar, but Radek’s viewpoint is truly contemporary. His pinot blanc has extraordinary depth and texture; his pinot noir, while deceptively frail, yields all the velvety dimension pinot lovers seek. The day I visited, he and his son broke ground for a new winery.

Wine judges love these wines and, soon, the rest of the world will, too.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.

10/09/11 12:32pm
10/09/2011 12:32 PM

For Long Island’s vintners, the vintage of 2011 has been one of the most difficult in 30 years. Beginning with a fierce winter that made pruning vines in drifting snow a reminder that viticulture is a test of humans’ desire to dominate nature, the growing season proceeded with one challenge followed by another. Relentless spring rain followed by soaring heat spawned unfriendly fungi and delayed ripening. Localized hail damaged some clusters. Worse, the ripening ability of many vineyards was badly affected by salt spray from Tropical Storm Irene, which caused leaves to shrivel and drop while berry sugar counts were still too low to make wine.

However, much winemaking is romanticized. Ultimately it is like every kind of agriculture; growers must always countenance crop losses. Global climate change, as predicted, has brought heavier than normal weather events. Experienced winemakers become philosophers, taking the good with the bad and making the most of every situation. Some are luckier than others; where one vineyard is denuded by salt spray, another may be favored by a sheltered location and sustain little damage. Many fine wines will still result from this vintage; the lesser wines will be light quaffing stuff, consumed and forgotten by harvest 2012.

While vintners all over the world deal with the vagaries of nature, I found on a recent trip to far-flung parts of the world that some of the oldest wine-growing regions have different challenges, caused by customs, politics and religion.

In modern Turkey (a secular nation created in 1923 from parts of what used to be Byzantine and Ottoman empires), the wine industry has roots going back to 4000 B.C. Noah’s biblical vineyard was located there, and the Greek god of wine, Dionysus (or Bacchus to Romans), was born there. Although the Ottoman Muslims prohibited winemaking during the 500 years of their reign, Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, founded a commercial winery in 1925 in his efforts to westernize Turkey. By 2009, wine consumption in Turkey reached 20,906,762 liters, with national production currently at over 275 million liters.

Increased acceptance of and international investment in Turkish wine were spurred by the introduction of international grape varieties in the 1990s. But even as that wine industry has grown, the secularization of Turkey has met with fierce resistance from its increasingly radicalized Islamic community. Today, its government is run by a Muslim prime minister who has hindered the Turkish wine industry by taxing alcohol and prohibiting restaurants from serving wine in outdoor spaces. I was shocked to find the cheapest wines sold in Turkish restaurants priced at $40 and up due to exorbitant taxes on alcohol.

In contrast, in the (formerly Soviet) Republic of Georgia, the Western-friendly government encourages its wine industry, which has been favored by new infusions of capital. There, the obstacles have more to do with custom than religion. Georgians have made wine for over 8,000 years; their wines are part of their identity.

While it was a state of the Soviet Union, Georgia’s winemaking was centralized and production driven by volume, not by quality. In the Kakheti region, a broad fertile valley under the Caucasus Mountains, households historically made their own wines in buried pottery amphorae, kveris, which were filled with grapes and left to develop, unopened, for several years. Thus, traditional Georgian wines differ greatly from modern, stainless steel fermented wines. They are dry, textured and tannic. I found some I tasted to be compellingly complex and not as oxidized as I expected, but many are just plain funky.

When I went to Vinoterra Schuchmann, a new Georgian winery funded by German investors, I saw how difficult it is to merge this ancient winemaking technique with new methods. Their assistant winemaker, Roland Burdiachveli, grew up in a winemaking family and was educated in Germany. He showed me how new kveris are used to ferment some of the fruit, then removed to French oak barrels for finishing rather than being sealed up for years. The result is a hybrid style that needs to find understanding and acceptance both at home and abroad.

With 60 percent of its wine made in modern tanks, with new technology, and 40 percent made the old way, Schuchmann is betting on both sides of the fence. For them, the search for identity is as much a challenge as an opportunity. They have to train their workers to change both techniques and attitudes. And they, like vintners everywhere, have to contend with weather, too.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.

09/26/11 9:45am
09/26/2011 9:45 AM

In a recent wine quiz I included a question about the change in State Liquor Authority regulations regarding how many charities a New York farm winery may support with donations of wine. Although New York law had limited these donations to five per winery, per year, the state Legislature recently changed the law so that wineries may now support an unlimited number of charities via wine donations for charitable events.

For those of you who are heading for the phone to ask a winery to donate to your own favorite cause, please pause a moment to consider that there are still many hurdles posed by the SLA to wineries and charities that wish to join forces for a noble purpose. The winery must give the SLA 15 days’ notice of any “off premises” event being held away from the winery. Furthermore, at a charitable event, an official agent or representative of the winery must do the pouring. If you figure that the retail value of most of these wines is around $18 a bottle (often much more), and any employee sent to pour will cost the winery a minimum of $10 per hour, it’s not an insignificant cost for a winery to donate and pour its wines at any charitable event.

Even the donation of a single bottle for a wine raffle bears a requirement that the charity accepting the donation must obtain a permit to raffle it off.

Most charities are well intentioned when they ask wineries for donations, and have no idea how much cost and effort are involved in these donations. The usual request for a donation goes something like this: “Hi, I’m calling from United Tearjerkers. We’re having a bike-a-thon tomorrow and we’d like to serve your wine to the bikers as they wobble en route. It will be great exposure for you. We only need 50 cases. These are real connoisseurs, so we’d like you to send your Exquisite Reserve Merlot.”

If you are chuckling now, you probably think I’m exaggerating. If you work for a winery, you know I’m not.
At Roanoke Vineyards, Scott Sandell says, “We get a lot of requests for donations, mostly from Wall Street and the film industry.” Those would not ordinarily be considered “charitable” organizations, yet their principals still feel somehow that a nice little (10-acre) family winery like Roanoke is just waiting to give away wine to people as rich and powerful as they are. (Remember, celebrities rarely pay for anything.) Like most wineries, Roanoke is selective. This year, they have chosen to provide wine for Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Library’s “One for the Books” dinners, and are “absolutely ecstatic about the contribution.”

McCall Vineyard is also small, with only 10 acres of merlot and 11 of pinot noir grapes, yet owner Russell McCall — who says, “Land preservation is my favorite project” — gives wine to several local charities, including Peconic Land Trust and Eastern Long Island Hospital. He also hosted this year’s ELIH benefit at his ranch.

A representative of Macari Vineyards — which is generous with donations, giving wine or gift certificates for wine tastings especially to local businesses, charities and schools — told me, “We receive fax/email/phone solicitations about 20 times a week. We also receive quite a bit of walk-in solicitors that are visiting multiple wineries.”

Because there are so many requests for donations, many Long Island wineries prefer to work cooperatively with their colleagues and give wine to events coordinated by the Long Island Wine Council. The Sept. 17 “Harvest” event, for example, featured auctions to benefit three local charities: Peconic Land Trust, East End Hospice and the Group for the East End.

Apart from the wines given to charitable events, most winery owners have personal pet charities to which they give money. For example, Ursula and Paul Lowerre of Peconic Bay Winery have for several years sponsored Kebba, a African boy whose schooling in Gambia ended when he was orphaned and could no longer pay for school. Kebba lived literally on Gambian garbage, hunting for addresses of Americans or Europeans whom he randomly wrote to requesting assistance. When his letter reached the Lowerres, they checked out his story and found it was entirely true: Kebba was young, brilliant, abandoned and destitute. Now, with the Lowerres’ help, Kebba has finished high school and college, and entered business school in Switzerland. Meeting him recently when he came to Cutchogue, I saw in him the true value of charitable giving.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.

08/31/11 11:25am
08/31/2011 11:25 AM

When wine grapes were first planted on Long Island in the 1970s and ’80s, most growers chose to plant the most important grape varieties of France, including chardonnay and pinot noir. The chardonnay was universally successful as a variety that consistently produced high quality fruit on plants that were easy to tend, but pinot noir proved to be far more challenging, and many acres of this grape were ripped out, replanted to merlot, cabernet franc or more chardonnay.

Experience here proved pinot noir’s reputation as the “heartbreak grape.” Even in Burgundy, where the medieval monks who cultivated the Cote d’Or selected, bred and celebrated pinot noir as their finest red wine grape, the variety is difficult to ripen and even more difficult to make into great wine.

The viticultural problem with pinot is that berries in its clusters are tightly packed, so that if one single berry is damaged by insects, birds or fungus, the entire cluster will quickly rot. It also ripens sooner than most varieties, which should be an advantage, except that it’s the first to attract marauding pests like finches, robins, raccoons and bees. Given a choice between ripe pinot noir and slightly unripe anything else, you can guess where the pests will go. This applies to people, too; pinot noir fruit is exquisitely delicious, and a vineyard planted along a road where pilgrims stroll will be soon denuded, as happened along the route to Santiago de Compostela in medieval times.

When pinot noir succeeds as wine, there is nothing to compare with its aromatic allure, its finesse, subtlety, complexity, silken mouthfeel and nuanced finish. Unfortunately, these qualities do not come easily or automatically as the fruit, even undamaged fruit, is transformed by fermentation into wine. In many ways, it is highly unstable, and the techniques that might be used to stabilize one desirable quality may harm another desirable one.

The deep blue-black color of pinot noir fruit is a cruel ruse because the pigments (anthocyanins) that give it this gorgeous hue exist in equilibrium with a colorless version of the same pigment. Pinot noir is different from most other black or red vitis vinifera wine grapes in that it lacks amylated (stabilized) anthocyanins. I’ve seen a tank of pinot wine that was pitch black when it was first crushed but transformed into the equivalent color of cranberry juice after six months’ aging.

To add insult to injury, pinot’s tannins (astringent particles derived from skins and seeds) have shorter molecular chains than most wine grapes, and are bitter. Many winemakers cold soak pinot noir fruit before fermenting it, in order to extract softer tannins. But in reality, heat and alcohol are needed to maximize color, and the extra time in cold soak also gives the fruit extra time in contact with its seeds, which are the bitterest part.

Most pinot noir is encouraged to complete a secondary fermentation, transforming its sharp malic acid into buttery lactic acid. This effectively softens the wine, but also raises the pH, which further damages its hue. Barrel aging smooths out the edges and adds the flavors and aromas of oak to the wine; it also steals some of the delicate fruit aromas, and accentuates harsh tannins, thus requiring more time in the bottle to soften again.

Despite these challenges, or maybe because of them, the temptation to make great pinot noir has obsessed many winemakers, myself included. After trying for 27 years, with a few years of triumph and many of settling for a blanc de noir or Beaujolais style, I am still obsessed with how to make what every pinot fancier wants — that “iron fist in a velvet glove.”

On Long Island, a few wineries (including Borghese, Laurel Lake, Jamesport and Osprey’s Dominion) persist in producing pinot. The Old Field, Lenz and Sparkling Pointe grow it for rosé and sparkling wines.

In Cutchogue, Russell McCall has 11 acres of mature pinot noir, planted 15 years ago. He believes that the cluster stems must be brown before he harvests so he waits, anxiously, while birds and botrytis threaten his crop. He sorts berries for soundness and ferments in small containers, with punch-down of skins also done by hand. Following the methods used by Burgundian monks in the 13th century has, for him, proved to be the best way to create wines that are subtle, meriting meditation.

What better way to explore one of the world’s most compelling wines?

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.

06/20/11 3:52pm
06/20/2011 3:52 PM

Last year, Americans spent $2,026,986,920 in retail shops on chardonnay, making it by far the most popular white wine variety on the market. The dollar value of the next leading white variety, pinot grigio, was $751,972,054, followed by sauvignon blanc at $412,531,384.

While chardonnay’s appeal is broad and deep, there is a small backlash, the “ABC” (anything but chardonnay) movement. Chardonnay today is not the same as chardonnay was 40 years ago; some of this trend can be understood by looking at how this grape has grown in popularity while changing in style.

Before the 1970s, chardonnay was the predominant white grape of Burgundy, not planted to any great extent in other wine regions and not identified on any wine labels. Few people knew that their favorite French chablis or Montrachet was made from chardonnay. But when California wine had its post-Prohibition, post-war resurgence in the ’70s and ’80s, winemakers like Robert Mondavi transitioned away from jug chablis (which, coming from American appellations, could be a blend of anything, including apple wine, and rarely had any chardonnay in it) in favor of finer varietal wines, with the grape variety stated on the label to distinguish them.

Although chardonnay is considered a “noble” grape (along with sauvignon blanc and riesling, among white grapes), genetically it is related to a noble red grape, pinot noir, and a less-than-noble white grape, gouais blanc. “Gouais” means “peasant”; this grape was grown in the Middle Ages on inferior sites by peasants (as opposed to monks or nobles, who controlled the best land) in France. It was easy to grow and had high yields, but its wine was so coarse that it was banned several times.

Then, the peasant grape had a romantic liaison with the nobler pinot, yielding the bastard chardonnay, which was taken in and raised like a knight in shining armor by French monks and nobles. Sometimes, still, the gouais emerges, making for thin, sour and vile chardonnay.

Chardonnay grown on France’s Côte d’Or is traditionally fermented in small oak barrels, which were readily available and easy to transport by water before roads and rails were built. Burgundy is a cold region, and its vines rarely yield fruit with enough sugar to make more than 12 percent alcohol. There, chardonnay’s high acidity is naturally reduced in a secondary, malolactic fermentation, changing the apple-scented malic acid to softer lactic acid and creating buttery diacetyl (think of artificially flavored popcorn) along the way. The toasty vanilla aromas of these barrels augment the subtle citrus-pear qualities of chardonnay to make truly exquisite white burgundies.

In California, as chardonnay became more widely planted, the best winemakers tried to adapt Burgundian techniques to their own fruit. However, California chardonnay typically ripens with far more sugar and less acidity than in Burgundy. These wines therefore are more alcoholic, and are usually made with the addition of tartaric acid, which is sharper but more stable than malic acid.

After one harvest at California’s Kendall Jackson Vineyards, when there was so much sugar that it failed to ferment completely, the resulting sweet chardonnay caused a massive boost in sales to that brand; other producers began deliberately making slightly sweet, heavily oaky chardonnay with over 13 percent alcohol. This new style suited the barbecue-oriented American palate and has come to define chardonnay, though it has none of the subtlety and few of the refreshing qualities that originally made white Burgundies popular.

The backlash against big, fat chardonnay has led some winemakers, who don’t want to lose their customers or pull out their vines, to alter their approach to this variety. On Long Island (climatically more similar to Burgundy than to California), the grape is versatile, ripening well with a fine natural balance. Many Long Island winemakers are producing a range of chardonnay styles to satisfy different tastes.

Although oak-aged chardonnays are usually priced to reflect the high cost of barrels ($900 for a 60-gallon barrique), at Peconic Bay Winery in Cutchogue the consumer can choose either unoaked or “La Barrique” at the same price. There, manager Jim Silver wants to validate the taste preference of his customers, rather than signify that one chard is better than another by giving it a higher price.

At the Lenz winery in Peconic, winemaker Eric Fry has backed off oak aging; though his top-priced Gold Label Chardonnay still has the most oak, his own preference is for the less woody “Old Vines” labeled wine.

If you don’t like caramel custard chardonnay, try one of these lighter, fresher styles before you go ABC.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.

06/05/11 1:20pm
06/05/2011 1:20 PM

The photo of the little vine planted in a protective grow tube is pinot meunier.

In my last column, I wrote about Champagne vigneron Philippe Brun and his ironic take on being a “pirate” farmer. On a drive around his grand cru vine plots, Brun also instructed me in Champagne’s least-understood grape, pinot meunier.

Pinot meunier, a black grape with green pulp, is one of only three grape varieties (including pinot noir and chardonnay) permitted in Champagne’s wines. “Meunier” means “miller”; Brun described the downy new leaves of the variety as “farine” (wheat) because they appear to be dusted with flour. From that moment on, I could identify the vineyards planted in meunier as we drove past them; they looked distinctly whitish-green.

When I asked Brun what meunier does for champagne, he said, “It’s everything! We all talk about chardonnay and pinot noir because these are also grown in Burgundy [and all over the world]. But pinot meunier is the most characteristic grape of Champagne. In the 1800s, Champagne grew mostly meunier. It’s easy to grow, it gives immediate fruit, it’s round, it can age.”

Another Champagne vintner, Bertrand Lhopital of J. de Telmont, explained the importance of meunier, saying, “It is the garçon difficile [difficult boy] of Champagne, but we find it essential. It does diplomacy between chardonnay and pinot noir [in a blend]. Chardonnay can be shy; pinot noir is full-bodied, powerful, explosive.”

Champagne is at the farthest northern limits of viticulture, and pinot meunier makes up 40 percent of the region’s plantings, especially on the coldest slopes. Meunier bud break comes later (avoiding the risk of frost) than chardonnay or pinot, but it ripens earlier. It can also be found in Germany (usually known as schwarzriesling, müllerrebe and müller-traube). Other parts of the world that make sparkling wines in the Champagne style but don’t have the limiting climate conditions of northern France or Germany seldom bother with meunier, considering pinot noir and chardonnay to be more “noble” grapes.

On Long Island, where several wineries produce sparkling wines in the Champagne method (naturally fermented a second time in bottles), one producer, Pindar Vineyards, has pioneered pinot meunier, followed only this year by Sparkling Pointe’s new plantings. Pindar’s “Cuvée Rare 2009” is made from 100 percent pinot meunier. Any Champenois producer would be proud of this beautifully crafted, elegant and subtle wine. Owner Herodotus “Dan” Damianos made the decision to plant meunier in 1984, on the advice of wine guru Dimitri Tchelistcheff, who also recommended fermenting it in oak and bottling it as a single varietal. Rich Kundee, the California viticultural specialist who grafted the plants for Opus One, supplied the vines. The Damianos family’s second winery, Duck Walk, makes an unusual red wine from this grape, styled more like the German version, as a light, barbecue-friendly red.

It’s risky to plant less familiar (or less noble) grapes like pinot meunier in regions like ours, where agricultural costs are high and marketing is challenging. However, some wine consumers and sommeliers are bored with the ubiquitous chardonnay, merlot, cabernet and sauvignon varietal wines, and the door has been opened to those who dare innovate. Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue is the only Long Island grower of chenin blanc (and almost ripped it out years ago, to plant more merlot), but it has gained a cult following. I’m surprised that others have not planted it here, considering how lusciously fresh and juicy the Paumanok wine is.

At Palmer Vineyard, Spanish-born winemaker Miguel Martin has bet on albariño, the aromatic white grape of northern Spain’s Rias Baixas region, which has a maritime climate like Long Island. His first vintage, from 2010, has zingy minerality, attractive floral aromas and an intriguing point-counterpoint dynamic. Those who find sauvignon blanc too herbaceous, and chardonnay too chicken soupy, will adore this super-refreshing wine.

At Channing Daughters, the team of Larry Perrine and Christopher Tracy has proved to be compellingly innovative, going full tilt with some grape varieties like tocai friulano, muscat ottonel, dornfelder and blaufränkisch, found in no other commercial vineyards on Long Island, but common in northern Italy and Austria.

The Palmer and Channing teams owe their willingness to take extensive risks with unusual varieties to the experimental planting begun in 1993 on Cornell’s Riverhead research farm by grape specialist Alice Wise. Along with other vintners on Wise’s advisory board, Perrine has worked with Wise to choose the varieties most promising for Long Island. With close analysis of productivity, disease resistance and quality in 36 varieties, Wise’s studies have eliminated dolcetto and muscat blanc, while validating Palmer’s and Channing’s latest plantings. New varieties on trial are zweigelt, marquette, gruner veltliner, auxerrois and petit manseng.

Look out, chardonnay!

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.

05/24/11 4:33am
05/24/2011 4:33 AM

Philippe Brun from Champagne Roger Brun in Ay, France.

In a current television ad for Ocean Spray cranberry juice, a young man standing in a cranberry bog in rubber waders plays out the stereotype of a hick farmer as he witlessly dumps a bag of sugar into the “sugarless” cranberries. Images like this of farmers as nitwits has rankled me since, in 1973, I began growing grapes and someone asked me, “Now that you’re a farmer, what will you do with your mind?”

Even as I took on the chores of planting, tending and harvesting a large vineyard, I myself worried that those hours of hoeing weeds and tying vines might limit me. Wasn’t I wasting all those years spent in college, learning chemistry, history and foreign languages, while I toiled through mud, sleet or broiling sun just to get a silent vine to push out a few clusters of recalcitrant grapes?

Over the next 27 years, as I trudged out into the field or down into the cellar (usually in the company of a bounding dog), I came to realize that farming is as challenging to the intellect as it is to the body.

Still, the stereotype of the dumb peasant farmer persists. It is not limited to the United States, as I learned on a recent jaunt to the Champagne region of France. There I stayed for three nights in the village of Aÿ, in a B&B called “Le Logis des Pressureurs” (lodging for press workers) owned by Philippe and Sophie Brun. Philippe is a burly, outspoken vigneron, easily mistaken for a village peasant, though his family owns several grand cru vineyards, and the wines he makes, Champagne Roger Brun, have won accolades including Best Sparkling Wine in Decanter Magazine.

Philippe gave me an insider’s view of his family’s vineyards, pointing out nearby plots owned by the likes of Roederer, Bollinger and Krug. Speaking with irony of the trend to “go bio,” he said, “I farm organically 355 days a year. The other 10 days, I’m spraying.”

Pointing out a horse pulling a plow in an adjacent plot, he said, “Using a horse respects the soil, but not the horse. It may maintain tradition, but the soil here is too hard for the poor horse.”

At a tasting of six vintages of his spectacular champagne, Philippe told me of his own path back to making wine after initially leaving the family business to work as an engineer: “I’ve made plastic windows, ski clothes and rockets, but now I make wine. What I like is the uncertainty, the surprises, the discoveries, the changes over time.”

Brun described playing the part of the local peasant for the British TV crews that come to film the beginning of harvest every year: “The crews who want an aristocrat find the manager from Taittinger, who has never had dust on his shoes, and stands next to the vineyard in his yellow tie with bubbles on it, talking about magic. For the crews who want the pirate — that’s me. I go out in my beret, with four days’ growth of beard, spitting, and say the same thing.”

Here on Long Island, similar scenes play out as visitors seeking atmosphere prod the local vintners to go yokel. I’ll never forget the network newscaster who visited my winery and, looking at the immaculate cellar with stainless steel fermenters, cried, “Where are the cobwebs? Where is the romance?”

At Harbes Family Vineyard, the association with the farm is clearly emphasized, and the wines bear images of the family’s historic barns and equipment, explicitly intended to bear witness to this family’s 12 generations in farming. As much as the conversation about wine today emphasizes “terroir,” Ed Harbes points out that “a sophisticated customer is reluctant to associate wine with agriculture.”

The fact of the matter is, whether in Champagne, Napa or New York, wine is an agricultural product. But grape farmers — however much they may have dirt under their nails (or wine-stained hands), whether they wear silk ties or berets — need to be sophisticated businesspeople, too. Besides dealing with the unpredictable factors of weather, they must grow their crops, make their wines, market both wholesale and retail, and greet visitors as peasants or aristocrats, as the situation requires.

When Philippe Brun demonstrated how he doffs his beret to the TV crews while pouring me a second (OK, fifth) taste of Champagne Roger Brun “La Pelle Extra Brut,” alongside a slice of Sophie Brun’s homemade foie gras (served on gold-rimmed bone china), the image of the “dumb farmer” forever vanished.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.