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Anson on Thursday: Long Island Wines

Jane Anson on why Long Island wines deserve more recognition....

Anson: Long Island Wines

We drove up and down the road several times, checking our GPS against the expected address. There were a few barns, a couple of long driveways marked by the roadside mailboxes found all over rural America, but not much else.

We only found out why the sign for Southold Farm and Cellar was missing once we had called owner Regan Meador’s mobile. He came out onto the road to meet us, and led us into his tasting room; a tiny white clapboard barn that could have dropped in from The Hamptons on the more prosperous South Fork of Long Island. And then he showed us the sign for the property, leaning against the wall behind a sofa that also clearly hadn’t been used in a while.

‘We’re selling up, sadly. Moving to Texas’.

Oh. Considering Southold Farm and Cellar had only opened its doors with the 2013 vintage, and was growing some fascinating Italian grape varieties that I had been excited about trying, this was not great news. Apparently the development had been covered in the New York Times, but I hadn’t got the memo.

I’d been wanting to visit Long Island wineries since attending a tasting in downtown New York almost five years ago, where I found a couple of interesting – and plenty of less interesting – wines. I remember the usual brace of Bordeaux blends, a few complicated wines with blends of seemingly random varieties, but also some excellent single varietal MerlotsChardonnays and some peppery, earthy Syrahs. Channing Daughters and McCall got particularly good write-ups from me at the time. Then my sister brought back a Grüner Veltliner from the brilliant One Woman Wines last summer, and my mind was made up.

‘It used to be pretty easy to dismiss Long Island wines,’ Elizabeth Schneider, sommelier, Long Island native and host of the podcast Wine for Normal People tells me a few weeks before my trip.

‘In the 1980s, no one ever believed that the potato and pumpkin farms of the North Fork could ever make excellent wine that could be championed by New York sommeliers. But today the wines are good and only getting better’.

The area is still in the shadows of the Finger Lakes – a New York region making seriously exciting bottles, but I had tasted enough to want to find out more and so persuaded some very kind friends to make the trip up to Route 25 of the North Fork with me, something close to 80 miles away from New York.

I knew that growing grapes would be challenging here from a climate point of view. They have all the oceanic climate of Bordeaux, but more humidity and heat in the summer, meaning that the day-night temperatures rarely show huge differences, barely dropping below 25°C.

But I wasn’t expecting to find challenges coming from local politicians. Meador and his wife, like Schneider a Long Island native, had bought two neighbouring plots of land when they moved up in 2011 after careers in ‘music and advertising in Manhattan’. The mistake they made was that the building and planting agreements differed between the two, and they tried to build their winery on the larger plot that had strict agriculture-only rights.

‘We thought we had done our homework,’ Meador said with a rueful smile. ‘But the zoning board repeatedly told us otherwise. We tried to find a compromise, but attitudes have hardened over the past two years. It’s hard to unpack the local town’s intentions towards the wine industry right now’.

‘There are right ways and wrong ways of going about things,’ winemaker Gilles Martin at the established (with a successful open door policy) Sparkling Pointe winery pointed out diplomatically at our next stop, suggesting that perhaps Meador could have found a compromise. And throughout the day the feedback we got was that Southold Farm and Cellar would have been welcome to stay.

Under threat?

And yet just last week Southold’s Town Supervisor suggested a moratorium on all new winery, brewery and distillery applications. Meador is far from the only person coming up against issues. So is this region, which is finally receiving plaudits for its wine, under threat?

Long Island is, in many ways, picture perfect bucolic America. You can see exactly why wineries here have grown from just one in 1973 to 38 in 1999 and up to 60 today, with over 2,000 acres of grapes. The sandy soils give the draining potential that is needed to combat the influence of the Peconic Bay, Long Island Sound and Atlantic Ocean, and sunny Autumns make slow harvests a reality most years. And you can see also why the local town councils are keen to ensure a sustainable approach to growth and to avoid intense pressure on land prices that has become so difficult over on The Hamptons.

‘The big jump in winery numbers came in 2000 with the opening of a custom crush facility that enabled new brands to establish themselves without a huge investment,’ Ali Tuthill of the Long Island Wine Council tells me. ‘But for over 40 years our vineyards have played a critical role in land preservation. The industry employs an estimated 2,000 people and generates around US$150 million for our local economy. We believe the vineyards play a critical role in protecting and preserving our local agricultural heritage’.

Let’s hope they find a compromise. There’s no argument that the North Fork’s magic lies in feeling a world away from both New York and the Hamptons. But there are exciting wines here that deserve to be better known. I finally got to visit McCall, the wine that had interested me five years previously in New York, and found a beautiful ranch-style winery run by the brilliantly wry Russ McCall and his son Brewster. This was one of those former potato barns turned into a leading winery of the island. I thoroughly recommend their unoaked Chardonnay, and superb single vineyard Hillside Pinot Noir (much better, I found, than the Pinot blended from several plots).

It would be a shame to see other talent leave. Before we left Southold Farm and Cellar, we asked to taste through Meador’s wines. I’m so glad we did, as they were easily among the best of the day – particularly a juicy, succulent 2015 from the Tereldego grape (which may not make the trip to Texas).

I don’t know the intricacies behind the zoning decisions. But I do know from tasting that Meador is a loss for Long Island. He is self-taught from books (hats off to Ian D’Agata and Jancis Robinson for providing inspiration for the right grapes to plant) together with a stint learning from the winemaker at neighbouring Osprey’s Dominion in Peconic. And he was just starting to attract interest and excitement with his bottles (and his Charles Smith approach to naming the wines, with each vintage getting baptised afresh with names from Quiet Explosion to Trust the Pain). Now he’s selling up and heading off to Texas Hill Country to plant a new vineyard, bruised a little perhaps, but still determined to make great wine. I look forward to following his story.

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