Reveling in Red

The year 2004 wasn’t the best time to be in the merlot business. Sideways had just come out, and you could never be sure if there were some newly minted merlot snobs in the room. But that was the West Coast—after all, Miles and his buddy were working Santa Barbara wine country. On the East End, however, a group looking to form a quality alliance decided the best way to do it was to focus on merlot as the signature grape of the region. This way, improving the quality of the variety would bring more attention to the region and so on. “Oregon has pinot noir,” says Richard Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue. “Austria has grüner veltliner, which is what put them on the map.”

Thus in 2005, Long Island Merlot Alliance was founded by Olsen-Harbich, who was then the winemaker at Raphael, Roman Roth of Wölffer Estate, Russell Hearn of Pellegrini, Barbara Shinn of Shinn Estate Vineyards (who later dropped out), Gilles Martin, winemaker for Sherwood House and Peggy Lauber, national sales manager at Wölffer and founder of Corey Creek Vineyards (now owned by Bedell). Also intimately involved in the alliance’s creation was Ben Sisson, who worked as the vineyard manager at Raphael. Sisson died in 2009. Since the beginning, quality initiatives through research have been ongoing, and now the alliance will be hosting its third annual event, HARVEST, in conjunction with the Long Island Wine Council, late this August.

The collaboration with the wine council is just one example of how the alliance is still evolving. When the group first brought the idea to the council in 2004, they were met with skepticism, says Steven Bate, executive director. Many council members believed the promotion of one grape would be at the expense of others. Charles Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards, which makes award-winning merlots, believes it’s a gimmick. “Bordeaux does not have a signature variety,” he said earlier this summer, “and they’re doing pretty well.” (He added that, according to a census he conducted in 1998 when he was the president of LIWC, on the 2,000 acres growing wine grapes on Long Island were 32 different varieties and the most planted was chardonnay.) “Yes, merlot does well here,” he says, but “the striking thing about Long Island is its diversity.” However, Lauber of Wölffer says that consumers rarely can hold more than one varietal in mind once learning of a region. The reason for pushing merlot, she says—looking back on her nearly 20 years of selling Long Island wine here and abroad—is to provide an entry. If consumers understand that merlot from Long Island is recognized as special, they are more willing to try other wines once that first bottle is empty.

Another example of the evolution is that earlier this year the alliance changed its name to Merliance and defines itself as “an alliance of Long Island producers of top-quality merlot and merlot-based blends.” And members know their goals will take time. Roth says “merlot and merlot blends will be the image and the future of the reds of Long Island.” “You can’t force anything on people,” he says. “But there’s an energy that slowly pushes people forward; it’s gaining a momentum and a tension.” The structure of the alliance encourages this, he says, by not requiring a joining fee. Funds come from the sale of a collaborative wine, a 100 percent merlot bottling called Merliance, for which each member must donate two barrels. The first vintage, 2004, was released in 2008. Alliance members sell it from their tasting rooms, and it sells out each year.

However, many top merlot producers in the region—Lenz, Bedell and Paumanok—are not members, something that is still keenly felt. Merliance executive director Donnell Brown Stires says the board is discussing creating different levels of membership that could allow the smaller wineries, which have trouble letting two barrels go each year, to join. They are also considering making Merliance itself a blend with a minimum of 75 percent merlot. New members could then donate barrels with wine that includes some cabernet franc or petit verdot.

This coupled with education—in June, French oenologist Jacques Lurton visited Long Island to taste and consult with Merliance members—and research—members are conducting leaf-removal trials to test the effect on finished wine (they intend to pay for a full chemical analysis of Long Island merlot’s aromatics to help define what makes Long Island merlot Long Island merlot and not merlot that’s like what comes from Washington State or the right bank of the river Gironde in Bordeaux)—are catalysts to move forward.

For now Merliance has six members: Clovis Point, McCall Wines, Raphael, Sherwood House Vineyards, T’Jara Vineyards and Wölffer Estate Vineyard. Louisa Thomas Hargrave, who first planted vinifera grapes on Long Island in 1973, is an honorary member. T’Jara is founding member Hearn’s brand of 100 percent merlot bottlings he makes with Jed Beitler. He acknowledges that the alliance could get more done in terms of research if there were more members, but his enthusiasm for a focus on merlot and merlot-based blends has not dimmed after seven years. He also notes that many of what wineries call their premium wines, like Paumanok’s Assemblage or Bedell’s Musée, are merlot-based blends. (Although in some years the Assemblage can contain an equal or higher percentage of cabernet sauvignon.) This is part of the long view. “In a generation it will be crystalized what variety is good for Long Island,” Roth says. “We believe it will be merlot.”