Wine Column: L.I. wines match for super-premiums

With a frank sense of humor but serious intent, the creative team led by Scott Sandell at Roanoke Vineyards in Riverhead recently hosted the first major blind tasting event at which wines from Long Island were tasted and scored against highly rated, super-premium wines from California and France.

Styled on the famous “Judgment of Paris” of 1976 (which gave the California wine industry a boost when some Napa wines beat out some top French wines at an event held by wine merchant Stephen Spurrier in the City of Lights), the Judgment of Riverhead had as its adviser George Taber, the sole journalist who bothered to cover the Paris event and the author of a riveting book (“Judgment of Paris”) that recounts its drama. When the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon beat out a Pugligny-Montrachet and Mouton Rothschild, one furious French chateau owner told Spurrier, “You’ve spat in our soup!”

At the Judgment of Riverhead, I was one of nine wine professionals on the judging panel, which included two winemakers, two restaurateurs, the leading U.S. importer of Bordeaux wines, one Court of Masters sommelier, two wine writers and a New York wine retailer. In two separate flights of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon/Meritage wines, we blind-tasted 18 wines altogether: three each from Long Island, California and Bordeaux in each flight. These wines were all priced from $19 to $140 and had received 90+ scores from a national wine publication (or were newer vintages of wines from the same producers that had earned 90+ scores).

For this tasting, we scored the wines using the same (pre-Robert Parker) 20-point scale as the 1976 event. An audience of 91 wine lovers also had an opportunity to taste and score the wines, creating a more participatory, theatrical event than the original.
Top Chardonnay went to the 2007 Pellegrini “Vinter’s Pride” Chardonnay (my No. 2 pick, after a 2008 Meursault “L’ormeau” Boyer-Martenot) and the 2008 Palmer Vineyards Chardonnay Reserve came in third. Second place in the whites went to a 2008 Paul Hobbes Russian River Chardonnay that I admired — it had all of the fruit and classic French oak that anyone could ever want, and it was my No. 2 tie with Pellegrini.

In the reds, the wines that tied for first place (the 2007 Roanoke “Blend One” Cabernet Blend, my first choice, and the 2007 Detert Family Napa Valley Cabernet, which I personally marked down for being too blooming sweet) were stylistic opposites. The Roanoke (L.I.) could have been French in the way its plush berries integrated seamlessly with well-tempered but spicy oak. The Detert was a Napa fruit bomb, with intense blueberry and thyme aromas. I knew it would show well but it was stylistically 3,000 miles away from the wines influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, including the Bordeaux.

A couple of wines that did not do as well in the final combined judges’ tally as in my own scores were the 2007 Macari Vineyards “Bergen Road” and the 2004 Grapes of Roth Cabs. I loved the purity of the Macari, which was delicate and graceful, with intriguing cranberry aromas. The Roth Cab was unresolved, and needed time to breathe. It showed much better by the end of the tasting, but by then it was too late for us to adjust our scores.

To me, the camaraderie of the judges and guests made the evening as much of a success as the final scores. Although there were a few of the usual cranks who circulated the room, trying to influence the audience with personal barbs, there was an honest air of excitement in the air, a real reverence for the wines and a desire to get behind the stimulus error of wine labels or regional designations to explore the true essence of the wines. Overall, the importance of the tasting was that trained professionals scored Long Island wines on a par with top Bordeaux and California wines.

Tom Schaudel, a Long Island restaurateur who has included L.I. wines on his lists since the ’80s, had the last word at the Judgment of Riverhead, saying, “We’re on the front line of this ‘Long Island wines suck’ business, and I have one thing to say — put your fist in the air and tell [the critics], ‘Drink one!’ ”

The French have said the same thing for centuries: “Goutons voir si le vin est bon (Let’s taste to see if the wine is good).”
We did; it was.

For complete results of the Judgment of Riverhead, go to: roanokevineyards.com.

Happy holidays to all my readers!

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