Livin’ la Vida Local

Years ago, eating and drinking locally usually meant taking a walk to the neighborhood pub. Today, being a locavore means eating and drinking food that was grown and produced within the town, county or state where you live. Consumers are embracing the farm-to-table movement. More and more restaurants are serving food from local farm stands and filling their cellars with wines produced down the road.

It takes work, and the chefs who support local agriculture are much recognized and rightly praised for their commitment to “locology.” Aside from the fact that local wines can be absolutely delicious— and, in full disclosure, I’ve been producing wines in this region for the better part of three decades—there are a number of good reasons to buy them, not the least of which is sustainability.

Here is my list of reasons for drinking locally produced wine—no matter where you are from, and no matter where you sit on the locavore spectrum.

10. Freshness Yes, you read that right. Many people don’t think of the term “fresh” when they are buying wines, but it definitely applies when you’re talking about local vino. Enjoying a wine made close to home means you’re getting a product that hasn’t been jostled and shipped thousands of miles. Consequently, local producers have the ability to make wines with little or none of the additives typically needed to ship wine long distances. Local wines are the freshest you will ever taste; many are released soon after the vintage and still exhibit a slight “spritz” from fermentation.

9. Carbon Emissions and Transportation In a recent study by Tyler Colman and Pablo Päster (a wine educator and a sustainability tracker, respectively), an economic model was developed for measuring the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine. Their study showed it’s more “green” for New Yorkers to drink wine shipped from Europe than wine from California that makes its way east by truck. This held true all the way to Columbus, Ohio, the point where a wine from Bordeaux and Napa have the same carbon footprint.

Reading this study, it was clear to me the authors didn’t consider a world-class wine region is less than 100 miles from the Big Apple. Clearly for a New Yorker, drinking wine from Long Island is the most sustainable choice when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint. The bottom line is that less fossil fuel is consumed and less carbon is emitted to get local wine to market. No other wine is fresher or quicker to market than the one made 90 miles away—especially when you pick it up

8. Land Use Due to the increase in global demand for wine, new vineyards are being planted all over the world on land that was previously used for “traditional” agriculture or was otherwise in a natural state. Much of California’s vineyard land has been converted from prime agricultural land or from land that was once forested. In either case, such change often results in more CO2 released into the atmosphere. In the case of Long Island, many vineyards were planted on land that was previously farmed but was perilously close to being developed.

The majority of local vineyards were planted during periods of tremendous economic growth, replacing more traditional crops like potatoes. Long Island vineyards were not planted on forested land or in areas that were not previously farmed. One could easily make the case that the local wine industry was primarily responsible for preventing further development of the North Fork and conserved our precious agricultural heritage.

7. Farmland Preservation Development pressure in the Northeast has replaced farms with homes and shopping malls. Housing developments remove native groundcover and trees, release more carbon, add to water-table depletion and are the major cause of nitrogen runoff into our waterways. With the advent of farmland preservation programs, the ability for growers to purchase and plant vines was greatly increased—all within 100 miles of the nation’s largest city. With the establishment of the wine industry, the North Fork alone has preserved more than 3,000 acres.

6. Irrigation The majority of West Coast vineyards are heavily irrigated due to lack of rain during the growing season. Thus, as vines require a large amount of water, it is difficult to grow grapes commercially without drip irrigation. Not only can irrigation lead to the depletion of local aquifers, its pumps also require energy while carrying excess agrochemicals into surrounding waterways.

Although many Long Island vineyards have installed drip systems, the size of these vineyards is relatively small compared to the vineyards of California. Many of these systems are used only in cases of extreme drought as our natural rainfall and low yields create less of a need for artificial irrigation. In most years, we get plenty of rainfall providing our vines with all the water they need to grow and prosper, and without putting the pressure on Long Island’s aquifer that many other row crops do.

5. Economics Buying local wine contributes to the local economy. Long Island wineries employ local workers, everyone from field hands to tasting room employees. The wine business requires a lot of diverse employees, from harvesters, cellar workers and salespeople to the numerous staff required to host wedding receptions. Young people working at vineyards and wineries can learn a number of important skill sets that can help them later on in life. Tasting rooms add a substantial amount of revenue to local coffers, in the form of both property and sales taxes. In this economy, we need to keep our business local.

4. Low-Impact Agriculture Our vineyards on Long Island are using some of the best growing techniques in the world. Most vineyard managers are incredibly careful about being responsible stewards of the land, whether it involves soil-conservation practices, promoting biodiversity, weed-control strategies or management of deer, starlings and other pests. Across the state and the region, Long Island vintners are leading the way in sustainable and organically based vineyard practices. A new certified-sustainable winegrowing program, Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, debuting in May 2012, will be the first of its kind on the East Coast.

3. Value Almost every kind of wine can be found on Long Island: red, white, rosé, dry and sweet, and most made on a small scale. Plus consumers can visit our wineries to meet the winemakers and taste what they are offering. Where else can you walk into a place of business and try something before buying? Local wineries allow people to taste and tour while getting a feel for the business. One truly can’t compare Long Island wines to the giant, mass-produced and aggressively priced concoctions that flood the marketplace.

Even so, Long Island still presents itself as a cost-effective choice. Research by Trent Preszler, a Cornell-trained agricultural economist (and CEO of the winery where I work), published in 2009 showed that New York wines were on average about half the price of French and California wines on New York City restaurant wine lists, and the average price of California reds was almost $95 per bottle. Contrasted against similarly produced, small batch, hand-harvested and sustainably grown wines made from other regions, Long Island wines are not only world-class, but a great value.

2. Local Flavor You’ve probably heard the term terroir used to describe the flavors of wine. In a nutshell, it loosely means that authentically made wine reflects the characteristics of the environment in which it was grown. This is a fundamental concept of how biological systems work—whether it’s applied to grapevines or to people. In North Fork wines you can find aromas and flavors of native fruits like blackberries and cranberries and indigenous flowers like honeysuckle, roses and violets. Most all of our wines show a distinct saline minerality that evokes our maritime climate.

Whether you think our wines are better doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that the aromas and flavors of Long Island wines are found nowhere else in the world—a distinction definitely worth celebrating!

1. Style In a recent article in the New York Times about local wine in restaurants, one San Francisco wine director explained his preference for European wines over the local choices found in nearby Napa by stating, “at our restaurant, you need low-alcohol, high-acid wines, and they don’t come from the New World.” Seriously? Too bad the guy never heard of Long Island wines. Matt Kramer’s recent article in Wine Spectator also made the case that America’s wine palate is slowly trending toward lower alcohol, crisp and elegant wines.

Those are exactly the types of wines we make—a style of wine that with climate change is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve in California. If you want to taste something that is the most fashionable wine craze in the world right now, open a bottle of North Fork vino. So let’s celebrate our good fortune and our life on the East End. We are blessed to be surrounded by so many wonderful things to eat and drink. Not only is local wine fresh, delicious, stylish and sustainable, it’s all our own and can’t be found anywhere else in the world. I’ll drink to that.

Richard Olsen-Harbich has been making wine on Long Island for over 30 years. He lives with his family in Mattituck and is the winemaker at Bedell Cellars, where he chronicles his thoughts on winemaking at