Battling traffic on the Long Island Expressway (LIE) towards wine country, about 120km east of Manhattan, you’ll find references to the layered history and various peoples who have inhabited the land in passing village and landmark names – Native Americans, Dutch and English settlers all left their imprint on New York’s Long Island. Visual cues also give away proximity to wine country. You’ll know you’re close to the promised land when the multi-lane highway falls away, suburbia thins out into flat, open farmland, and green signs marked with arrows and a cluster of white grapes pop up pointing ‘that-a-way’.
Wine production begins where the island splits, or forks into two peninsulas, at the town of Riverhead on Peconic Bay. The warmer, temperate climate (in comparison with New York state’s other wine regions) creates richer, more full-bodied reds from mostly Bordeaux varieties. The vibe differs, too. Here, weathered cedar-shingled homes frame moody grey water views, while clam shacks and ephemeral summer farm stands, bountiful with stone fruits and berry pies, dot country lanes.
Long Island has three American Viticultural Areas (AVAs): North Fork of Long Island, The Hamptons, and a broader Long Island AVA, with 57 wine producers across all three. The North Fork AVA, established in 1986, remains the most relevant for wine tourists. It spans approximately 400km2 across the northern peninsula and includes the Robins and Shelter Islands.
The South Fork, defined by its enviable trim of sandy beaches along the Atlantic ocean, developed into a glitzy real estate enclave called The Hamptons. Due to land prices and labour costs, only a few wineries operate there. The North Fork, hemmed in by the Long Island Sound to the north and Peconic Bay to the south, evolved into a sleepier agricultural hub.
Wine tourism has always factored into the region’s development. Most wineries, being small or medium-sized, sell locally or regionally. Many move special cuvées, experimental projects and small-production varietal bottlings through direct-to-consumer programmes, from walk-ins to wine clubs. As Swiss wine stays in Switzerland, so Long Island’s wines tend to stay put, too.
How to get there
There are frequent domestic and international flights to NYC’s three airports. Rent a car for the 160km drive to Greenport. Long Island Railroad (LIRR) trains depart New York Penn Station for Riverhead and Greenport, but you need a car to visit wineries.
In 1973, Louisa and Alex Hargrave planted Long Island’s first vines. Vineyards started sprouting in earnest in the 1980s and ’90s, replacing farms with rows of French grapevines. Well-drained sandy loam soils suit the flat terrain. The moderate climate invites a range of varieties. As a New World region, flexibility is the rule rather than the exception. However, producers must adhere to one regulation: 85% of the fruit bottled and labelled with an AVA must be grown within the borders of said AVA.
Surrounded by water, the vineyards here are both blessed and vexed by a mercurial maritime climate. A fickle spring, followed by spikes and drops in the summer heat, heavy rainfall and high humidity, combined with a long growing season, bring mould, mildew and pests. These challenges have become more acute with climate change. Long Island offers an honest accounting of the vintage in every bottle.
On the wine route
Despite the proximity to New York City and the uber-wealthy second homeowners of The Hamptons, Long Island’s wine tourism industry once chased the low-hanging fruit of party buses and high-volume ‘tastings’. The pandemic gave the industry a chance for a hard reset. Many have swapped their decor from a rustic country kitchen to modern farmhouse. Seated tastings in private tents, charming patios and flower-filled gardens have flourished. Many tasting rooms have turned away from buses, opting to serve small, more serious groups instead.
Recent years have seen several properties change hands, many of the region’s founders selling to successful neighbours (such as Palmer Vineyards to Paumanok), as well as moneyed developers and TV personalities. Serious financial investment has flowed into building renovations and vineyard expansion. Luxury touches nearly every wine region in America, so a strain of affluence has seeped into the North Fork.
To get a taste of innovation in a traditional country setting, head to Paumanok in Aquebogue, a 10-minute drive east from Riverhead. Paumanok pays homage to the Algonquian word for Long Island, which translates roughly to ‘the island that pays tribute’. Local pioneers Ursula and Charles Massoud planted vines in 1983. As the second generation, Kareem Massoud has earned accolades as a forward-thinking winemaker, praised for showcasing the potential of Chenin Blanc on Long Island. In 2018, the family acquired Palmer Vineyards, where Massoud makes the wine, including one of the region’s best Albariños.
Paumanok offers several tasting experiences. At the top end, Kareem leads a VIP flight during which he shows his line of minimal-intervention wines and explains regional vintage variation. ‘We had our best vintage in years in 2022,’ he recently declared. Book the deck of the weathered farmhouse with a wine flight and vineyard views for a relaxing afternoon.
Leaving Paumanok, it’s about 10 minutes to another family-owned winery, Macari Vineyards just outside Mattituck. Founded by Joseph Macari Sr in the mid-1960s, with the first vines planted in 1995, the Macari family’s waterfront farm, with its sweeping views of the Long Island Sound, is one of few in New York State to pursue regenerative agriculture and biodynamic farming.
Third generation and winery director of operations Gabriella Macari brings a global perspective to the local market. With the help of winemaker Byron Elmendorf, Macari experiments with pét-nats and skin contact whites, atypical for Long Island’s conservative-leaning approach to winemaking. She also developed new tasting experiences like the Bergen Road Bungalows; heated tents dotted among the vines. ‘I created them during Covid and expected that they would last one season, but the demand has been incredible,’ she says.
Recently, the family opened the stylish Meadowlark North Fork, a tasting bar in Cutchogue serving limited and innovative labels such as Macari’s Horses Cabernet Franc Pét-Nat 2021 and the flagship red blend Bergen Road 2020.
East of Macari by seven minutes, Rose Hill Vineyards & Inn changed hands a few years ago. Shinn Estate Vineyards, founded by visionaries David Page and Barbara Shinn, was sold to financier Randy Frankel in 2017. He took over the charming farmhouse, four-room inn and 125-year-old barn on Oregon Road and gave it a top-to-bottom makeover, dropping the ‘rustic’ and adding the ‘chic’ to the interiors. Frankel kept long-time winemaker Patrick Caserta for his skill and consistency.
Bordeaux-style blends have long ruled the house style, and the same persists today. The Cabernet Franc and Wild Boar Doe – the latter composed of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec – consistently prove that Long Island can make sensual, textural, structured reds with delineated flavours and sweeping freshness.
Though the climate of Long Island typically doesn’t suit thin-skinned, disease-prone grapes, one winery has managed the delicate art of producing fine Pinot Noir. About five minutes southeast of Rose Hill sits McCall Wines in Cutchogue. The tasting room occupies a polo horse stable, formerly a potato barn. The rustic aesthetic of exposed wood beams and worn saddles underlines the family’s long-standing roots in wine, horsemanship, and agriculture. McCall hosts only small groups of wine connoisseurs.
One winery has gambled on traditional-method sparkling wine and won. Sparkling Pointe Vineyards & Winery sits on a breezy spot about eight minutes east of McCall in Southold. Cynthia and Tom Rosicki produce estate-grown sparkling wine from 16ha planted with the classic Champagne trio of Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay.
Despite world-class winemaking, luxury experiences – whether caviar pairings, private tents, or barrel tastings – were the exception not the rule here. Now, a touch of glamour has gilded the North and South Fork’s antique barns and weathered farmhouses, attracting a new crop of wine tourists to Long Island’s East End.
My perfect day on the Long Island wine trail
I always opt for Greenport as a base to explore the North Fork. This sleepy fishing village remains a quiet holdout compared to its South Fork counterpart, Montauk – like the swish black and white The Menhaden hotel, where I wake to drink coffee in the general store downstairs. I contemplate a brisk bike ride on a hotel cruiser, but the urge for folded eggs on brioche with gruyère and sugar bacon from Bruce & Son overrides exercise.
Lunch & afternoon
Blessed with a blue sky, I drive 10 minutes west to Croteaux Vineyards. Closed over winter, the beloved rosé-only brand serves several styles on a pea-gravel patio framed in sumptuous gardens. Très North-Fork-meets-Provence. I try to catch a few more wineries with refreshed looks courtesy of new management, including EV&EM in Laurel Lake. A sleek, lounge-like tasting room replace the former era’s tired, standing- room-only tasting bars. For lunch, I head to seasonal spot Duryea’s at Orient Point. After a stuffed lobster roll on the Mediterranean-inspired terrace, a quick swim in the cold waters off the beach club is refreshing. On the way back, a break in East Marion enables a visit to Lavender by the Bay. The 9ha farm near the slate-blue sea has more than 80,000 plants for bouquets, essential oils and soaps. Visitors can walk the perfumed farm trails – just don’t pick the flowers.
Back in Greenport, I score a sunset table at Claudio’s Waterfront on the pier. A local IPA beer with a plate of mixed clams whet the appetite. Strolling back to Little Creek Oyster Farm, a humble shack in front of the iconic Bait & Tackle sign, I then stop by The Frisky Oyster and Noah’s on Front Street – you can put your name on the short wait list, then grab a glass of wine at either bar. For a nightcap, Brix & Rye on Main Street serves the best cocktails.