Take advantage of the post-Halloween, pre-Thanksgiving lull in “pumpkin traffic” (how Long Island locals refer to day-trippers who jam up roads by the u-pick patches), and spend a day in the vineyards of the North Fork. The Fork starts just past Riverhead, and depending on traffic, entails an hour-and-a-half- to two-hour drive. November sees crisp yet cooperative weather, crimson and gold foliage, and farm stands stuffed with seasonal bounty. Plus, winemakers and their teams have finished harvest — they’ll be more relaxed and accessible for a chat if you wish.
There have been longstanding complaints that the wines of Long Island are too expensive for the quality. Although I found truth in this grievance as recently as five years ago (and I have been visiting for nearly 15), the wines, especially the reds, have grown-up immensely. Cab Franc — once a scrawny, green, awkward teen here — has plumped up and developed curves, finding a home in the North Fork as deserving of the grape as the Loire. I have asked winemakers about the changes I’ve noted in the wines over the years, and many attribute it to the inevitable learning curve that comes with a new region (the first commercial vinifera vines were planted here in 1973; many sites are much younger). Unfortunately, given the proximity to NYC and the Hamptons, real estate costs are exceptionally high, and that drives bottle prices into the cumulus above.
But proximity to NYC comes with the perk of access, making the exploration of our attractive grape-blessed backyard doable in a day. Trade a city day for one filled with country farms and vineyard rows that run straight to the edge of the stony shores of the Sound. There’s a desolate beauty to the Fork’s autumnal aquatic vistas, when slate gray clouds, pierced by intermittent beams of sun, hang low and foreboding over the water. The quaint, seaside town of Greenport, near the eastern tip, has a charming mix of boutiques and five-and-dime sundries shops, as well as classic seafood dives like Claudio’s Clam Bar juxtaposed with modern, perennially popular Noah’s. The North Fork is replete with enough worthy wineries to fill several consecutive days or a series of weekends. Although an afternoon itinerary could be written a multitude of ways, the one suggested below is modeled off my recent visits. Feel free to veer off-course and explore. Often the finest discoveries are those you make on your own.
One of the initial wineries encountered on the route heading east, boutique operation Roanoke makes an excellent first stop to stretch your legs and warm up your palate. Notable winemaker Roman Roth (also of Wölffer Estate) has crafted the wines since Roanoke’s inception in 2000. The spacious, wood-beamed tasting room on Sound Avenue flanks the vineyards out back, where you can enjoy the patio during pleasant weather.
Roanoke offers a line-up of whites, rosé, and reds, but the Cabernet Franc is particularly attractive. Look for Gabby’s Cab Franc, a wine produced from the ultra-manicured vines of 83-year-old vineyard master Gabby Pisacano’s easternmost block “Twelve Rows.” The 2010 is structured, juicy, and inflected with cherry, herbs, and bitter Mexican chocolate; it sells for $43. The less expensive 2010 Roanoke Vineyards Cabernet Franc at $34, is more rustic in texture but a pleasure to drink as well.
Although not officially certified as biodynamic, the Macaris have managed their working farm and vineyard according to the spiritual-ethical-ecological tenets of Dr. Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic anthroposophy since the vineyard’s first plantings. The 500-acre waterfront estate has been in the family for over 50 years, but the winery wasn’t founded until 1995 by Joseph Macari Sr. and his wife. Currently, son Joseph Macari Jr., his wife Alexandra, and their children helm the operation. The winemaker is Kelly Urbanik, former assistant at Bedell Cellars (just up the road), and one of very few female winemakers in the North Fork.
Popular at the winery is the annual Early Wine Chardonnay for $17 (2013 the most current), which harbors a touch of sweetness; it’s released shortly after each harvest as a fresh expression of the vintage. The 2012 Katherine’s Field Sauvignon Blanc ($23) offers bright grapefruit and lime with a slight herbaceous note and mouthwatering acid — try swapping your regular go-to Sauvignon Blanc for this one. There are higher-priced reds worthy of your coin, but don’t miss the Sette NV (non-vintage) for $19. The Macaris sought to create an affordable everyday drinking wine blending Cab Franc and Merlot, and it works. Don’t let the lack of vintage throw you off — the wine’s approachable cherry, plum, and spice notes make it a no-brainer for an easy Sunday night pasta dinner while watching another Carrie Mathison meltdown on Homeland.
It’s hard to believe ,but Kontokosta, a brand-new operation near Greenport overlooking the bluffs of Long Island Sound, is the North Fork’s first tasting room and winery with a waterfront location. The main facility is also LEED gold-certified–it’s a sustainable, wind-powered beauty. The airy interior is filled with flowing light from high ceilings, rows of paned glass windows, and brilliant white walls trimmed in black–the space exudes a chic, modern barn aesthetic. It’s the most stylish tasting room I’ve seen in New York.
Do the wines live up to the setting? That can only be answered with time. For now, the wines in the tasting room seem an afterthought to the otherwise impressive and well-intentioned environmental goals of the winery. Owners (and brothers) Michael and Constantine Kontokosta engaged Gilles Martin, local winemaker for Southold’s Sparkling Pointe Vineyard, as consulting winemaker. But the property’s 23-acres of vineyards have been producing varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc (the two best wines I tasted) since just 2006, so the vines are still young. But between the excellent 2013 harvest and Martin working the grapes, next year’s release will be a better barometer of the winery’s future success.
The Winemaker’s Studio by Anthony Nappa Wines
Anthony Nappa is both winemaker and proprietor of the Winemaker’s Studio, a cooperative tasting room in Peconic. I love this venue — the concept is novel for the area. You can taste four well-known winemakers’ private labels by the glass (or purchase bottles) until 7 p.m., which is after other tasting rooms have closed. Plus, happy hour pricing is in effect from 5 to 7 p.m. (glasses are 30 percent off), and the newly opened, adjacent Provisions store run by Nappa’s wife chef Sarah (former sous chef at North Fork Table & Inn), is stocked with New York cheeses and Italian charcuterie. You can easily while away a few hours hanging out, working through the various limited-production, esoteric, and unusual wines on offer. This spot doesn’t sell or promote commercial wines: These are strictly small projects, often experimental.
Nappa established his eponymous brand in 2007 while making wine for Shinn Estate. When he departed in 2011, he redirected his energy into the studio. This year, Nappa signed on as winemaker for Raphael, but he will continue producing his wines, including Anomaly ($19) — the bottle that fomented his cult success out east — a Pinot Noir made like a white wine (no skin contact, no oak). I tasted through his entire line-up, enjoying the lime-mineral-chalk of his Luminous ($18), Riesling from the Finger Lakes, and the Bordo ($20), a rustic Italian-style Cab Franc. Nappa prices his wines refreshingly low, he says, so “people can buy and enjoy them. Too many Long Island wines are priced out of reach for day-to-day consumption and just in general.”
In addition to Anthony Nappa Wines, you can taste-drive: Suhru Wines from Russell Hearn (winemaker for Pellegrini), The Grapes of Roth by Roman Roth (Wölffer, Roanoke), and Leo Family, made by John Leo (Clovis Point).
Other wineries I’ve enjoyed visiting in the past (either for the wines, the experience of the tasting room, or both): Shinn Estate, Lenz, Lieb Cellars, Jamesport, Paumanok, One Woman Vineyards, Sherwood House, Matebella, and McCall.