The best place to find a winemaker?
I rode my bike to the post office this morning, thereby engendering the usual number of stares (it was about twenty degrees so needless to say few people travel around the North Fork by bike in February- unless they have to). Just as I was about to ride away, a young man with a backpack approached. Did I know where he might find a taxi? He had a pronounced German accent. I did not. In fact, I didn’t know if there was a taxi service in town (there is not.) Why did he want a taxi anyway? “I want to visit wineries,” he said, unfolding a map that I recognized as the work of the Long Island Wine Council. I shook my head. That was going to be difficult. He waited hopefully. Where was he from? “I’m visiting New York with my friends,” he said. He’d taken the train to the North Fork (there are only two – one in the morning and one at night) in hopes of seeing some wineries. Back home, he was studying at Germany’s prestigious Gesenheim Institute, home to one of the best oenological programs in the world. He and his brother had their own winery in southern Germany, not far from Alsace.
First, I called Charles Massoud, at Paumanok Vineyards. Charles is not only a terrific winemaker and a true gentleman but he happens to have a (wonderful) bonafide German wife, Ursula. The Massouds also regularly host students from Geisenheim as their interns. “Bring him over!” Charles said, sounding delighted. I explained to Ulrich (that was his name) my plan: I’d ride my bike home, get my car and take him to meet a few winemakers I knew. “Wait in the library- I’ll be back for you.” I said to Ulrich, who looked a bit dubious. Ulrich just nodded as if it were perfectly normal to be accosted by a woman at a post office and taken about the countryside. “I’m a journalist,” I explained, as if that made it that much more logical somehow.
On my way home I called Eric Fry, the winemaker at Lenz. I told Eric I’d found a German winemaker at the post office. “You have all the luck,” Eric replied. Was he being facetious? Eric promised he would give Ulrich a good tasting. Could I bring Ulrich by in ten minutes? Sure, Eric said. (Eric, in addition to being a very good winemaker, is a very good sport.) Eric said he would also call Roman Roth, the German-born winemaker at Wolffer Estate and maybe a few other winemakers too. Perhaps they’d want to meet Ulrich as well. I ditched my bike and got into my car. I drove back to the library and found Ulrich waiting by the videos. “You have a German car,” Ulrich said, looking relieved. He got in my Audi and we drove away. (To be continued).
A few months ago, I decided to form a wine tasting group, the East End Wine Lovers. It was partly personal- I wanted to meet my new neighbors – and partly civic-minded- I wanted to bring the region’s wine lovers together. Its success (so far) has a lot to do with the enthusiasm and energy of the group’s 65 members, not to mention Carolyn Iannone, general manager of Love Lane Kitchen in Mattituck, who I’m convinced knows Everyone Worth Knowing On the North Fork.
There have been two meetings, er, meetups, so far of the East End Wine Lovers. They’ve both been BYOB and both have taken place at Love Lane Kitchen. The first one was a general “bring a wine that you love” and the meetup this past Monday night was dedicated to the wines of Northeast Italy. That seemed to cover a pretty broad range of possible wines that people could bring and that would also pair well with the pastas that Love Lane Kitchen’s chef had prepared.
A stormed churned through just hours before we due to meet (up), with fifty mile an hour winds and rain that slanted sideways (i.e., typical East End weather) but almost forty people showed up. They sported Barolos and Barbarescos, Gavis and several Dolcettos, including a delicious 2007 Prunotto. But the wine of the night wasn’t from Piedmont but the Veneto: The Allegrini Palazzo della Torre- a ripe, robust red made mostly from Corvina (the main grape of Amarone) with a little Rondinella and Sangiovese thrown in for good measure. Four people had chosen to bring it along- making Corvina clearly the new favored grape of the North Fork – and as Allegrini bottling proved, at $20 a bottle, a very good buy.
Maybe someone should tell Chris Tracy, who makes terrific wine from Italian varietals like Tocai and Lagrein on the South Fork (Channing Daughters winery) how much we North Forkers are loving Corvina …
A Corgi Christmas
I spent part of my Christmas at the home of my friend Aimee, who lives on Park Avenue. Aimee, who is a very good cook, makes an Orphans Christmas Dinner each year and this was my second or third time at her holiday table. I’m not an actual orphan as my family all lives in Texas (which makes me a spiritual orphan I guess) but I’m definitely a culinary orphan since my friend Aimee is a much better cook than anyone who is related to me. Moreover, her friends never pick fights with me- or one another, like families do. In fact, the only downside to the otherwise-perfect dinner was that Rudy the corgi (see above) had to stay at the hotel across the street. (Rudy, short as he is, has a bad habit of grabbing food off plates which has resulted in semi-permanent exile from Aimee’s place though he has hopes of returning one day.)
The food was first rate: Aimee made an enormous whole roast salmon along with cornbread pudding and cheese biscuits shaped like stars – quite appropriate for this time of year. Her friend Carol contributed a kind of cauliflower casserole and I brought the wine, including the 2006 Oremus (a great dry white from Hungary), a few other less memorable whites and two North Fork reds, the 2007 Paumanok Cabernet Franc and the 2006 Sherwood Cabernet Franc. The former was bright and juicy- very Chinon-like while the latter was a bit earthier and chewier. Both paired beautifully with the salmon and my fellow guests commented more than a few times on how much they liked the wines. Aimee and our mutual friend Sylvia (who makes a mean beef bourguignon by the way) even promised they’d come out to visit. I promised more North Fork Cabernet Franc- as long as they’d cook!
Parades are a more commonplace sight on the North Fork than Pinot Noir vines. The former is natural fit to this civic- minded community while the latter is a decided challenge, given the region’s rather marginal growing conditions. But this past weekend, I managed to fit in both my first North Fork holiday parade (in the rain, in Greenport) and my first taste of a very nice North Fork Pinot Noir.
Of the parade, there isn’t much more to say than there seem to be a lot of marching bands on Long Island – some of which have a surprisingly high number of female musicians- and of the Pinot Noir, well, it was a very pleasant surprise. They came from Russ McCall’s vineyard in Cutchogue (he makes two- one “basic” Pinot and one “Reserve”). The former was pretty and juicy with lively strawberry notes, the latter more deeply colored and intense. Neither wine is on the market- at least not yet. And whether or not they portend some future promise for Long Island Pinot Noir, I just don’t know (though I think, given the fickleness of Pinot, probably not.) In the meantime, the delicious 2008 McCall Vineyard rose is very much around- I’ve seen it on several North Fork wine lists, including A Mano and the North Fork Table and Inn.
The Slow Food Holiday dinner at the North Fork Table & Inn last Friday was truly one of the culinary highlights of my week. I secured a spot on the wait list and thanks to a cancellation, an actual place at the table. The dinner featured local foodstuffs like sweet Peconic Bay Scallops, Long Island Duck, local potatoes, Wickham apples (in Claudia Fleming’s outrageously wonderful Caramelized Apple Napoleon) paired with Long Island wines. Seated at the same table as Louisa and me and All the Hargraves (Zander, Julie and Anne) was my friend Paulette Satur, whose farm was the source of the dinner vegetables as well as a lively foursome of Pat Mundus, daughter of famed Montauk shark fisherman Frank Mundus, her husband Earl, Barbara Close, founder of the holistic health care company Naturopathica, her beau Courtney, a Bukowski fan, sailor, chef and a sort of hardware mogul who I think specializes in selling (thousands of) doorknobs to hotels.
Each of the courses was paired to a particular wine, including the 2008 Social Club white produced by Brooklyn Oenology, the 2008 McCall Vineyard Pinot Noir Rose (which I tasted again just last night with the vintner himself– a story for another day) and the 2007 Wolffer Estate Late Harvest Chardonnay. The true vinous star of the evening, however, was a wine that was not listed on the menu at all: a delicious 2007 The Vineyard Merlot served alongside the Roasted Hudson Valley Ringneck Pheasant Breast.
The Hargraves actually sold their vineyards and winery (now Hargrave Borghese) ten years ago and this was the first wine they’d produced since the sale. (Technically it can’t actually be called Hargrave hence The Vineyard moniker.) Louisa stood up to explain that the wine was her gift to the dinner guests: it was made by the Hargraves with an assist from Eric Fry from grapes grown in Russ McCall’s vineyard in Cutchogue (harvested by all Hargraves) making it perhaps the single-most communal North Fork product consumed that night- not to mention a wonderful legacy for Zander, Julie and Anne.
Louisa Hargrave, vintner (photo Bruce Jaffe)
This past holiday weekend was one of wild weather, good wine and music. In exactly that order. The first part came with the Nor’easter that blew in. (Why doesn’t anyone ever spell it out properly with all of its letters intact- “NorTHeaster” ?) The winds reputedly reached 50 miles an hour – which meant a pretty sleepless night for me and Rudy the dog. It also kicked up quite a big surf – the picture below is what the Long Island Sound looked like afterwards…
Long Island Sound (and some rough surf) photos by Bruce Jaffe
If this was what November is like, what is like in January? I asked, Tom, a guest at the same dinner party I attended Saturday night. “The winds are about as bad as they’re going to be any time of the year.” Tom replied. (He and his wife Sue have had a house on the North Fork for many years.) I wasn’t sure if that was a comforting piece of information or not. But the dinner party itself, hosted by the lovely Peggy Lauber and her charming husband Paul was enough to drive all thoughts of bad weather away. There was great food and wine- including wines from the North and South Forks (Wolffer Estate Chardonnay- the winery where Peggy works- and Pellegrini Petite Verdot. But the true highlight of the evening for me (aside from the great wine, food and company) was when Peggy sat down at her harp. It was like something out of a Merchant and Ivory movie.
Peggy plays the harp beautifully
John Levenberg, Master of Merlot
When wine critics or journalists make proclamations about a particular wine, it is only a taste of a moment in time. The wine that they’re tasting is a changeable thing, subject to alteration over the years- good or bad. I was reminded of this fact when I had winemaker John Levenberg and his lovely wife Lea to dinner and they brought along a bottle of 2005 Bedell Cellars Reserve Merlot that John had made (he has since left Bedell and is a successful consultant.) When I first tasted it, I declared the Merlot “too oaky” and wrote about it as such. And it was – back then. And now, two and half years later, he’d wittingly or otherwise, brought along a bottle of the same wine to dinner last week. “I think this is the wine you didn’t like,” he said.
The uncorking of the bottle was a tense moment. We tasted the wine. It was terrific. The oak was fully and seamlessly integrated, the fruit clean and bright. It was simply a lovely wine. The passage of time had performed exactly what it was meant to do- and sometimes does – or does not. John professed to be as surprised as I was though- I am sure he was being humble, of course.
This actually isn’t so terribly uncommon- the great wine critic Robert Parker has gone back and tasted wines that he has declared to be one thing or another- and had the boldness and the grace to revise his findings and sometimes his score. Thanks to John, I had that opportunity – and I’m on the lookout for another bottle of that wonderful Bedell.
The leaves are brown but there are still a few unpicked grapes around
The last time I saw Eric Fry, winemaker at Lenz Winery, I was washing the just- harvested grape detritus from plastic bins. A lot had happened since then- that is, Eric and his crew had harvested all their white grapes and most all their reds (save for the Cabernet Sauvignon). Eric had called a few times since then to ask when I saw coming back “to get dirty.” Yesterday was the day that I answered the call.
“We’re pumping over and punching down,” Eric had said. “You should come over around eight am.” Pumping over isn’t shorthand for a winery fitness routine but the process by which the fermenting red grape skins, which have formed a cap, are pumped over with a hose (Eric uses hoses though some wineries use other techniques like sprays.) Pumping over mixes the skins with the juice and extracts flavor and color. It also prevents the cap from drying out, which could allow bacteria to develop.) Punching down is basically the same idea but performed with other methods like rakes – or feet.
I climbed a few ladders and pumped over a few tanks (i.e. held the hose and wetted the cap thoroughly for up to fifteen minutes or so – though later in the week it would take longer). “Is this dangerous?” I asked Eric from my perch atop the rickety ladder. “Only if you fall into the tank,” Eric replied.
I did a little punching down as well (Petit Verdot) in a big plastic bin. Then we tasted all of the wines out of tank – components of Chardonnays and Gewurztraminers and even a bit of foamy, still-fermenting Merlot. “I’ve already read comments from other winemakers about the quality of wines they expect from this year’s harvest-what are your thoughts?” I asked Eric , who just snorted. “There’s no way to know anything right now,” he replied (though in truth his reply was a tad – saltier.) That certainly made sense to me- after all, he hadn’t even put the wines together – that would happen later this winter in what Eric called the “intellectual” component of winemaking.
After three hours, my back was killing me and I had (other) work to do still – so I took my leave – and on the way out, bought a couple of bottles of the excellent 2002 Lenz sparkling wine (Eric is particularly gifted at making sparkling wine). “We’re harvesting Cabernet most of next week,” said Eric in lieu of good-bye. I promised I would give him a call (though maybe when the pumping over was through?)
*with apologies to Jane Austen
… that the cheapest wine on the list will always get more attention than perhaps it might otherwise warrant- were it not cheap. And when the cheapest wine turns out to be pretty mediocre, that’s not good -for the restaurant or the winery, since more people than average will be drinking it – and disappointed by it as well. And when that wine turns out be from Long Island (the North Fork) well, it feels like a triple sort of disservice since so many people (ie New Yorkers) have misgivings about these wines anyway.
I was at the Redhead restaurant in Manhattan last night, having dinner with some friends. Winewise, we started with a simple Gruner Veltliner (the bright, crisp Austrian white) while foodwise we sampled the signature pretzel (which was good). We liked our main courses as well- especially the fried chicken and the mushroom pot pie. It was only when it was time to choose a second wine (red) that things went awry. We decided that a Long Island red was worth trying- it was the cheapest wine on the list ($21) after all. “And besides, it’s made where you live, after all,” said my friend Kate, enthusiastically. (Kate’s standard mode of expression is great enthusiasm- it’s one of her many endearing traits.)
Alas, the wine didn’t prove much of an ambassador; the rest of the evening most of it remained in our glasses. While we’d all liked the Gruner- nobody said much about the Long Island wine at all. Were my friends now wondering if I’d been making up the fact that there’s good wine where I live? Did they believe me when I said there are “much better Long Island reds”? Like the Merlots from Lenz and from Paumanok and Rafael- not to mention the super-Merlot from Grapes of Roth. But when we parted company and I said, “Everyone is welcome to visit – anytime,” they simply nodded. “Sure- sure … sometime,” they said – a bit evasively, I thought. I’m going to issue the invitation again- and promise to serve them lots of good wine.
The harvest continues back home
I heard from my friends the Massouds that they’ve been harvesting Cabernet Franc these past few days- the weather has been uncommonly warm and sunny – at last. But I’ve been in Manhattan this week so I haven’t been around to enjoy it. But the North Fork is never far from my mind. Nor are its wines. In fact, I found a great selection of North Fork wines on Sutton Place yesterday at First Avenue Vintner (www.firstavenuevintner.com) a shop on First Avenue and 54th street that I just happened to walk past, on my way back from lunch with a friend.
The map in the window tipped me and my friend Tony off. “What a great map of Long Island wineries,” I said, and pointed out the vineyards that were my closest neighbors. “Let’s see what kind of wines he has inside.” Tony was skeptical. “Do they really have good wines out there?” Once inside, Tony gravitated to a wine with a violently orange label. “See, this is the kind of wine I would buy,” he said. (Tony drinks more vodka than wine by his own admission so his taste in labels can be discounted.) I ignored him and made a beeline for the back where the North Fork wines were arranged.
There were about a dozen wineries represented - including Jamesport, Lenz, Shinn Estate and Croteaux Vineyards, and about twice as many different labels on display. When I commented on the depth of selection to Rob, the store’s manager, he nodded. “The owner, Mitch, has a house in Orient Point.” And the map, where did it come from? It was a particularly nice map of the North Fork. Could I buy a copy of it for myself? “Oh you can’t buy that; Mitch had it made,” Rob replied. Perhaps when I got home I’d track Mitch down to ask for his cartographer’s name.