A Bordeaux blend that delivers earthy Eastern Long Islandness.
Mark Tobin was a little bit baffled that we wanted to talk with him about his Mattebella Famiglia Red. Not because it’s not great—it is, and he knows it is—but because days before we spoke, his other red, the 2005 Mattebella Old World Blend, was awarded a 90-point rating from the often Long Island–shy Wine Spectator.
“Are you sure it’s not the Old World Blend that you want to talk with me about?”
It is, of course, very exciting when one of our own gets this kind of national, respected recognition, but the wine industry on Long Island has grown far beyond reaching for the stars; we know we can do that.
What’s really cool is to celebrate the everyday goodness; the simple meal made from your own garden or the clams you got when you went out treading on Sunday afternoon or the great hunk of cheese from Mecox or Catapano, where you actually got to pat the head of the milk-giving creature.
And that’s what this wine makes us think about when we swirl and smell and sip it, so full of demure, elegant black fruit and other classic Bordeaux-blend aromas—blackberries, black currants and fresh tobacco, namely—along with that “how do you put your finger on it?” Long Island typicity that can only be experienced by rolling down your window when passing by a just-tilled field in the spring and inhaling. That right there? That’s the stuff: earthy Eastern Long Islandness.
In your mouth, the Famiglia—which is often a bi-year blend of mostly merlot from left-bank Pomerol clones and a little (5 to 6 percent, Tobin says) cabernet franc—is beautifully lean and wonderfully food-friendly. And while its under-$ 15 price tag makes this one to grab for a simple weeknight bowl of pasta, it would be equally apropos with meals that take a little more effort—a days-marinated coq au vin or even a slow-simmered osso bucco. Or a little Long Island pan-seared duck breast, perhaps.
Tobin’s path to winemaker status is a story of love—for his wife, Christine, and her Italian heritage; for embracing her welcoming family who made wine in their garage in Westhampton Beach; and for a bottle of 1993 Lenz red that forever changed Tobin’s idea of what Long Island wine was and could be.
“That ’93 blew me out of the water. A wine from Long Island! I just kept bringing it to the finest sommeliers in the country and stumping the hell out of it. The producer was Lenz and it was the house wine for Jamesport Country Kitchen. I’ll never forget it—I went there and had a chicken potpie and they had this [wine] on the menu, and it freaked me out. I bought the whole case from them—took the whole damn thing. And I took it to Miami, to New York; I kept showing up with brown bags with this wine in it and everybody swore it was Old World—and that was instructive to me.”
From there, the Miami Beach native likes to say, he made a whole bunch of bad wine. “I went around and met the winemakers, including Eric [Frye of Lenz] and many others, and they were extremely gracious, not competitive and very compassionate. I’d bring cheese and crusty bread and taste with them and bring the wine I made in my garage. We’d laugh about it and they’d give me tips and I’d go back and I’d make mistakes and make it better; they’d give me guidance and I realized there’s a congeniality and a shared passion. And then I pulled the trigger in ’05 and bought a vineyard.
The tip came from Jamesport Vineyard’s Ron Goerler, who got wind of a vineyard called Silver Nail in Southold that was up for grabs. “That was a moment of insanity—I definitely understand the criminal defense now of temporary insanity,” laughs Tobin, who is by trade a 23-year veteran trial lawyer with the national firm Akerman & Senterfitt. “At first, my wife and I had made the decision that we were going to plant, because when you buy someone else’s vineyard you buy their mistakes, but then we found this through Ron, who I tremendously respect. He helped us make our wine at first, and we got started.”
Today, Tobin oversees the winemaking of the 1,500-or-so case operation, and makes all the final decisions, but he brought in Palmer’s Miguel Martin to consult. “I’m the winemaker and make all the calls, but of course I’m just smart enough to know that it’s important to surround yourself with people who know more than you do, and Miguel is a great winemaker.” Christine oversees the vineyard management, which both Christine and Mark are very passionate about maintaining with as low an impact on the landscape as possible. They use no herbicides. Liquid fertilizers are limited to an eco-friendly fish emulsion. “People may call me and my wife insane—which they’d be entirely correct about—but our goal is to make European-style, food-friendly wines by strictly sustainable viticultural practices. And for value.”
With the aptly named Famiglia, they have done just that.