07/19/11 5:32am
07/19/2011 5:32 AM

VERA CHINESE PHOTO | LIRR employee Bryan Jecklin pours a glass of Nautique Esprit de Blanc for part-time Southold resident Ed Meredith

Long Island Rail Road passengers boarding the Greenport-bound train from the Ronkonkoma station Friday nights now see a menu on their seat offering refreshments for purchase during the long ride out east.

But other than soda and water, options are limited to two choices — red or white.

The 5:21 p.m. eastbound train from Ronkonkoma, now dubbed the “North Fork Wine Train,” will feature a white and a red wine from six different North Fork wineries each week. The idea is to encourage travelers to use the train and to familiarize North Fork visitors with the region’s wineries.

“This is a kind of pilot project,” said Long Island Wine Council executive director Steve Bate. “But it does seem to be quite popular.” The promotion was made possible through a collaboration between the MTA, the wine council and the North Fork Promotion Council.

This week’s selection on the wine train were Peconic Bay Winery’s Nautique Esprit de Rouge and Nautique Esprit de Blanc.

Other participating wineries include Jason’s Vineyard, Duck Walk, Macari, Pindar and Laurel Lake.

The wine train began Memorial Day weekend and will run until Labor Day. The wine is $5 per glass.

A steady stream of passengers lined up at the bar cart last Friday and more than two-thirds of the wine was gone before the train reached Riverhead. The cart was reportedly out of vino before stopping at Riverhead the Friday before the July 4 weekend. That train carried about 300 passengers, LIRR officials said.

“I think it’s really cool,” said Ed Meredith, a part-time Southold resident who takes the train nearly every weekend. “Now I don’t have to buy beer at Penn Station and keep it cold.” He noted that driving after his trip would not be a problem as his daughter planned to pick him up at the station.

Part-time North Fork resident and LIRR rider Dorothy Rooney enjoyed a glass of wine Friday night, though she said she didn’t need another incentive to take public transportation.

“It’s so much more relaxing on the train,” she said. “I love it.”

For some, it was their first-ever encounter with Long Island wine.

While waiting on line for a glass, Patrick Mahon of Brooklyn said he was so unfamiliar with the area he did not know the name of the place where he and his wife were staying that weekend. But he did say he might come back to visit a vineyard and to taste some more North Fork wine.

“It’s an opportunity to promote our local wineries,” said county Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches), who came up with the idea and sought its implementation. “I have a lot of other ideas I’d like to push in trying to promote the wine industry.”

Mr. Romaine called the promotion “a right step” for the MTA, after the transit authority proposed cutting virtually all LIRR service east of Ronkonkoma, save for summer weekend trains, as a cost-saving measure last year.

Mr. Romaine said he would eventually like to see Saturday and Sunday wine trains working in connection with tour buses to shuttle visitors to the vineyards and local bed and breakfasts.

The LIRR does offer some tour packages, though not for overnight trips and only in the summer.

The wineries do not make much money off the promotion, it’s main benefits come from the advertising, Mr. Bate said. The vineyards sold the cases of wine to the MTA at a discounted rate and the transit authority keeps the proceeds. An LIRR employee mans the cart and pours the wine into small plastic cups for customers.

Though the MTA has reportedly broken even so far with wine sales, officials say it is too early to tell if the promotion has increased ridership.

“The LIRR’s North Fork Wine Train has been well-received by customers. They have been very enthusiastic and positive with their comments,” said MTA spokesman Sal Arena. “It’s too early to make a fair comparison to ridership on the same train last summer without the wine available. But the data is coming in and we will have that answer later in the summer.”

The promotion sits especially well with East End public transportation advocates, who have been calling on the MTA to explore ways to make public transportation more attractive for years.

“It’s like the first time the LIRR has done something for the North Fork,” said Jim Ellwood, a Riverhead resident who sits on the Five Town Rural Transit Board. “I’m just happy they’re offering these amenities.”

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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.

06/14/11 4:36am
06/14/2011 4:36 AM

Remember that wine you enjoyed last weekend but couldn’t find a tasting room for?

Well, soon it could be available at the Winemakers Studio on Peconic Lane in Peconic, a cooperative tasting room made for individual winemakers who previously did not have a concrete location to feature their varietals.

This central North Fork locale is a wine-lover’s destination for previously disregarded bottles that have long been searched for, but seldom found.

Anthony Nappa, the winemaker for Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck and the owner of Anthony Nappa Wines, along with his fiancé, Sarah Evans, who is a chef at North Fork Table and Inn, took over the building earlier this month and aim to open it before Fourth of July weekend.

The Winemakers Studio will kick off by featuring wines from four different cellar masters.  Anthony Nappa Wines will have its popular white pinot noir, dubbed “Anomaly,” as well as Suhru Wines’ pinot grigio and syrah from Russell Hearn of Pellegrini Vineyards and Premium Wine Group, several bottles by the Grapes of Roth from Roman Roth of Wolffer Estate Vineyard and also the Leo Family from John Leo of Clovis Point.

They also plan to headline a rotating group of wines from other local wineries.

Tasting room manager Chris Fanjul expects to have local and tourist-heavy clientelle.

“When you come to the North Fork you are constantly looking for wines that will blow your mind,” Fanjul said.  “We will have them here at the Winemakers Studio.  No doubt about that.”

The Winemakers Studio is set to open upon the arrival of a satellite retail license, which they hope to have in place by the end of June. It is expected to open before the 4th of July weekend and regularly from Monday through Friday until late summer, when service will expand to seven days a week.

“I think this place is going to be a hit for experienced wine drinkers,” said Amanda Falcone of Aquebogue.  “I’ll definitely be coming here to find a wine out of the ordinary.”

JANE STARWOOD PHOTO | Winemaker Roman Roth poured his Grapes of Roth label at The Winemaker Studio preview event.

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.

06/01/11 12:33pm
06/01/2011 12:33 PM

It’s hard to think of something more evocative of summer than one of our local farm stands. After all, Suffolk County ranks No. 1 in the market value of its crops. Suffolk also tops the list in the Empire State in terms of the number of acres dedicated to nurseries and sod production. Suffolk is even king when it comes to raising ducks.

Farms are also important to Long Island because, as our friends at the Long Island Farm Bureau put it, they also provide a buffer against suburban sprawl and maintain the traditional rural character of the East End while providing the landscape and scenic beauty that help promote tourism.

However, the days of the East End as a leading agricultural region may be numbered, unless we get serious about protecting farms here and around New York State.

Over 613,000 acres of New York farmland have been lost to development in a single decade, and now a farm disappears every three and a half days.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farms in Suffolk County decreased by 10 percent between 2002 and 2007. While total farmland acreage has remained stable for now, smaller farms under 50 acres — the vast majority of all farms — are the ones most likely to be hurt by the effects of skyrocketing fuel costs.

We need to strengthen the safety net for Long Island’s farms before this situation gets any worse. That is why Albany needs to help protect farmers and promote New York State products by allowing for the sale of wine in grocery stores.

These issues may seem unconnected. However, New York League of Conservation Voters and our partners at the American Farmland Trust have persuaded lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate to include provisions in the recently submitted Wine Industry and Liquor Store Development Act to help New York’s farms and wineries at the same time. Let me explain.

New York State currently has a Farmland Protection Fund that gives grants to municipalities to purchase development rights from farmers. Farmers can then re-invest the funds to maintain their facilities, buy more land, upgrade their equipment and stay economically viable (rather than succumb to development pressure).

The Farmland Protection Fund, however, has been battered and bruised through years of budget cuts and now receives just over $10 million a year, a meager 6 percent of the estimated need.

Besides being underfunded, the Farmland Protection Fund has actually made promises it can’t keep. The fund has a backlog of $75 million and a long list of farms that were promised help but never received it. This list includes farms in Jamesport, Southold, Calverton, Shoreham and Riverhead.

If all of our farms are going to survive, we have to look to new, creative ways to protect them.

There has been talk about allowing the sale of wine in grocery stores for several years. But for the first time, this issue is being connected with helping our farms in three ways.

First, if the sale of wine in grocery stores is allowed, East End wineries can dramatically increase their market presence in the Empire State. That will strengthen Long Island’s $65 million viticulture industry and the 4,000 jobs it provides.

Second, by dedicating a percentage of the tax revenues from the sale of wine to farmland protection, the state can begin to clear the backlog of projects and honor future commitments.

Third, by protecting farms from development, we can retain the East End’s rural character and protect precious open space. As we all know, undeveloped land is critical for the environment because it protects our drinking water and provides wildlife habitat.

The economic stakes for the East End could not be higher. Suffolk County farms constitute a $201 million industry that employs thousands of people. By allowing the sale of wine in grocery stores today, our elected leaders in Albany can help keep this economic engine running for good.

Residents of the East End will also be able to continue to enjoy those amazing farm stands every summer, as will our children and our children’s children.

Ms. Bystryn is president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. She resides in Remsenberg.

05/26/11 8:56pm
05/26/2011 8:56 PM

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Jim Waters with the label-less wine bottles.

Vintners spends months, if not years, perfecting the wines they bottle and sell, and somewhere near the end of that process, they attach a label to let the public know what’s so special about what’s inside.

Though that piece of paper might seem a small thing, several North Fork winemakers find themselves caught up in the federal budget crunch this spring, when staffing reductions at the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau left the agency with just a few employees to approve new wine labels.

As a result, winemaker Jim Waters of Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue has 100 cases of 2010 rosé that lack labels and so can’t be sold.

“It used to be a 48-hour turnaround online, and I’ve been waiting for about six months,” Mr. Waters said during an informal discussion between Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and members of the Long island Wine Council at Macari Vineyards last Friday afternoon.

Mr. Waters said that winemakers do not need approval from the TTB if they simply change the year on the label or the alcohol content. But any other design changes need approval from federal regulators.

In his case, the new labels he’s requesting are for a bottle that is shaped differently from those he’s used in the past. He also planned to add the word “dry” to the wine description.

Mr. Waters isn’t the only North Fork winemaker regulators have over a barrel.

Long Island Wine Council president Ron Goerler, who owns Jamesport Vineyards, just this week received labels for two 2007 reserve wines — Jubilant, a cabernet franc blend, and a Syrah — after applying for them in February.

“You’re looking at a four-month backlog,” he said. “It used to be if you submitted them, they’d look at the graphics and wording and send you back an email within a couple of days. The whole process normally would take a couple of weeks.”

Mr. Goerler said that after the labels are approved, the TTB assigns each wine a number used to identify each when pricing information is sent to the State Liquor Authority, further complicating the headache of the federal approval backlog.

Mr. Bishop, unaware of the problem until it was brought up by the winemakers, said that he hopes to involve his Washington staff in interceding with the TTB on a case-by-case basis on behalf of local winemakers.

Jon Schneider, the congressman’s district director, said Wednesday that the office is working with the wine council to develop a list of labels wine council members are waiting for.

“We are going to set up a meeting in Washington with TTB to address those issues within the next few weeks,” he said, adding that Mr. Bishop plans to appoint a member of his Washington staff to work on expediting wine label approvals.

Mr. Goerler said that he’d like to go to Washington to help make the wine council’s case, but for now he’s just relieved to have received his labels.

“I have 400 to 500 cases waiting, and you want to be able to get wine into the market,” he said. “Now that the summer’s here, we’re good to go.”

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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.

05/15/11 4:22pm
05/15/2011 4:22 PM

Jim Waters, 22-year winemaker and owner of Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue, demonstrates in this video how to make two and a half cases of red wine in your own home.

Mr. Waters teaches a two-day Vine University class on home wine making and provides a kit with the necessary ingredients and equipment. The next class, which is packaged with a two-night say at a North Fork Bed & Breakfast, is June 18.

Fore more information on Vine University, call (800) 551-0654 or go to vineuniversity.com.

[email protected]

SAMANTHA BRIX PHOTO | Jim Waters, owner of Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue, demonstrates how to make red wine at home using a starter kit.