The East End of Long Island is really one of the most beautiful places. The steel-gray Atlantic Ocean pushes up against the shores of the Hamptons, where “city people,” as the locals call them, have built fantastic homes and hold even better parties.
Travel a few miles inland, and you’ll hit an agricultural belt supported by what is called “Bridgehampton Loam.” Generations of potato farmers used this now very valuable land to make a living that increased once the Long Island Rail Road made it to Greenport, on the East End’s North Fork, in 1844, and to the Hamptons in 1870.
North of the Bridgehampton Loam are woods in which herds of deer used to stay out of sight. Much of those woods are gone and now filled with houses; the deer eat the expensive landscaping.
Go north some more and you’ll reach water again: the Peconic Bay, home to the tiny scallops that also once supported an industry. Smack in the middle is Shelter Island; sheep farms used to cover it. It’s now a quiet rural residential area accessible only by ferry. Miss the last ferry and you’re sleeping in your car.
The North Ferry takes you to the North Fork, where most of our story takes place. Bordered on the south by Peconic Bay, which technically has at least three names—Great Peconic, Little Peconic and Gardiner’s—and on the north by Long Island Sound, the North Fork’s growing season starts a good two weeks before the South Fork’s. Potatoes and cauliflower once ruled here, but now green-houses growing decorative plants and sod farms stand next to vineyards, which in the wine region’s 41st year cover 3,100 acres of flat arable land warmed by what wine geeks call a maritime climate. The bay and the sound have frozen only in the memories of a few remaining old-timers (there are stories of driving trucks to Gardiner’s Island just off the northern tippy top of East Hampton, home of most of the working class) and in winter can be warmer than the air. This keeps the vines from succumbing to winterkill, which is good because replanting is expensive.
Though the bodies of water warm the vineyards, they don’t actually make Long Island a warm place. Long Island’s challenges and advantages stem directly from its clear four-season year.
It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer; the shoulder seasons, as they are known in resort areas, are somewhere in between. Even given the erratic weather brought on by climate change, it’s springy in the spring, when the region’s vines break open their buds, and fall-y in the fall, when harvest starts around the beginning of September. This isn’t to say the weather’s predictable: It can be hot and humid, warm and wet, or cold and dry in any combination except the dead of winter—March is the dreariest—and the height of summer, when for a few weeks in August everyone’s clamoring for air conditioning. In November the trees are bare and the snow hasn’t started, if it will at all; it rivals March in drear.
In other words, this ain’t Northern California where good weather is a foregone conclusion. A cool growing climate keeps you on your toes, but it also produces wine in the style of some of the most venerable wine regions in the world. Bordeaux, which butts up to the other side of the Atlantic, has to deal with rain during harvest, just as we have to deal with the threat of hurricane season in September and October. And we know they make good wine. Rías Baixas in the northwestern corner of Spain, just above Portugal, also borders the rocky cliffs of the Atlantic, and their albariño is famous worldwide. Germany isn’t exactly a destination for sun worshippers, but their rieslings excel. It is an extremely short growing season in Champagne. New Zealand has a cool climate and so does Tasmania. I could go on.
In other words, cool climates are just as viable for growing great wine as the perfect Pacific-cooled vineyards of Chile or the sun-baked vines of Sardinia. They don’t make better wine. They just make a different kind of wine.
In 2008, Stony Brook University organized a symposium called “The Art of Balance: Cool Climate/Maritime Wines in a Global Context.” Among the guests were winemakers from Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, Germany and the Santa Rita Hills in California, where geography performs the trick of creating a cool climate south of Death Valley.
From the press release:
For two days of talks, tastings, and networking, participants will focus on wines with the unique balance, finesse, and energy fostered by cool and maritime climate viticulture. The current consumer trend away from high alcohol, heavily oaked wines makes this symposium especially important for wine producers, aficionados and intelligentsia who want a better understanding of the more refined wines from cool terroirs.
What do you know? Six years ago the wine community was talking about the same thing we’re talking about today. Balance has overtaken fruitbomb in the race for ratings, high alcohol has caused nationwide palate fatigue and 200 percent new oak is now a joke.
But the press release, written by Louisa Hargrave, who was director of the now defunct Center for Food, Wine and Culture at Stony Brook, was more than a sop to a consumer trend. She had staked her livelihood on the success of cool climate wine on Long Island in 1973, when she and her then-husband, Alex Hargrave, planted 17 acres of cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc in a former potato field in Cutchogue on the North Fork. Forty-one years later, she can look back at an industry that now employs thousands of people, draws 1.5 million tourists a year and produces more than 500,000 cases annually; there are 57 members of the Long Island Wine Council, a trade group, and 35 wineries open to the public.
Behind the Bottle: The Rise of Wine on Long Island will be published in April 2015 by Cider Mill Press. Preorder on Amazon here.