THE WINE EXPERIENCE /THE WINE CULTURE – A CHEF’S PERSPECTIVE

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Is it possible that an area like the North Fork of Long Island could become the next serious wine region of the country? What differentiates the Napa Valley, Paso Robles and Sonoma County of California from the Willamette Valley of Oregon, Walla Walla, Washington from the Snake River Valley of Idaho, and the Finger Lakes of New York, or the North Fork of Long Island? All of these areas and many more are becoming common fodder for conversation among those who are connected, in some fashion, to a growing interest in wine. In many cases, these picturesque parts of the U.S. have become meccas for wine enthusiasts, and attractions for vacationers and weekend wine revelers.

The wine experience has taken hold of the U.S. as never before, and with this need for wine entertainment comes a real thirst for knowledge about this agricultural product. Enthusiasts line the highways and back roads of agriculturally rich areas whose soil and weather is conducive for the growth of grape varietals and production of wines that reflect this terroir. Astute winemakers have taken the opportunity to convert their grape farms into destinations with spectacular buildings, tasting rooms, event facilities, restaurants, and gift shops. Limos holding small groups of wine drinkers taking advantage of designated drivers and bus loads of wine tourists have transformed once quiet farm lands into destinations for adults that rival the excitement of the theme parks that brought them thrills in their youth. Weddings, reunions, business events, team building exercises, and corporate retreats are now the core business that is supported by the foundation of wine.

So, what is this phenomena and what does the future hold for those who make a life of wine? In the past the rule of thumb was that it takes a large fortune to make a small fortune in wine. Have winemakers found a solution to this limiting reality that may have kept all but the truly serious away from wine making – Is something lost in the process?

A wine culture differs from a wine experience in that those involved in the culture are as passionate about the agricultural product and the process of wine making as is a chef about the source of ingredients and transitioning them through cooking, an artisan bread baker is about wheat and how when mixed with water, salt and yeast can make one of life’s greatest treasures, a cheese maker is to the process of fermenting milk curd, and a farmer is to the care for his or her crops and the soil that they are nurtured in. In other words, those involved in the culture of wine are totally dedicated to this incredible, ever-changing, product that must be fully understood before it can be controlled at any level. Those involved in the wine experience are astute business people who understand the draw of wine and its potential (there is nothing wrong with this).

I have spent the last few days with family in the North Fork of Long Island. The area is a far cry from the intense hustle and bustle of the Long Island that I knew years ago. The commuter traffic of Nassau County moving en masse to New York City for the workweek is replaced with ocean vistas, views of the Long Island Sound, beaches, and lots and lots of grapes. These once fertile farm lands that were filled with cauliflower and potatoes have been replaced with turf farms and vineyards. The result is a thriving community of wine makers, increased evidence of wealth, and a totally different type of traffic.

My first reaction was to dismiss Long Island wine (based on my non-existent knowledge of the product) as something that couldn’t possibly be worthy of consideration.   For years I held the same feelings about wines from the Finger Lakes – “these could not be serious wines that would be worthy of consideration on a restaurant menu”. Traveling from vineyard to vineyard I was struck by the “experience” portion of a wine community – noting that many of these winemakers had done a spectacular job of creating the destination feel of a place that was certainly worthy of a visit, but could the wines be any good? My mission was to discover the underlying wine culture of the region beyond the wine experience. As a chef, were the wines of Long Island strong enough to hold up to the scrutiny of wine enthusiasts who patronize established restaurants? I had already discovered, on previous trips to the Finger Lakes that these Central New York wines, although limited (for the most part) to certain white wine varietals, were actually very good (especially the Rieslings) – now I wanted to spend some time with those produced on the North Fork.

Keep in mind that my wine knowledge is acceptable as a chef, but certainly not anywhere near as sophisticated as a sommelier or even a true wine advocate. My approach was from the standpoint of a typical chef who was in search of new wines to complement a restaurant menu – something that I would enjoy suggesting to a restaurant operator or a thirsty, and discriminating guest.

So…this is what I found:

[]         THE TERROIR

Although most relate terroir to the quality or makeup of the soil, terroir can also include the climate, topography, solar days, and other unique factors in the environment that make the growing of particular grapes unique. Much of the soil on North Fork of Long Island is sandy, with clay and stone; the land is flat with a significant number of solar days during the growing season, and with the added spice of salt air.

[]         THE GRAPES

Many of the wines from the region tend to be white, but the reds that I tasted were quite excellent and worthy of a position on any mid to high-end restaurant menu. A broad swatch of grapes and wines were prevalent including Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Vigonier, Chardonnay, and some strong entrants in the sparkling wine arena. Reds ran the gamut from Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot, Merlot, and Malbec.

Painted in Waterlogue

[]         THE WINE MAKERS

Making wine is not a job – it is a calling that requires a lifetime commitment to the soil, the grape, and the process. The wine maker must have a palate that ensures that each year’s vintage share commonality with previous years while maintaining it’s unique character as defined by all of the controllable and uncontrollable factors that impact on the finished product. To this end, like with cooking, the wine maker learns more every year and matures with his or her craft. What I found in my brief encounter with Long Island wines is that the same dedication that is evident in France, Italy, California, Washington State, Oregon, and other areas is prevalent in the North Fork. Richard Olsen – Harbich and Kip Bedell from Bedell Vineyards, Gilles Martin from Sherwood House, and Anthony Sannino from Sannino Bella Vita have wine flowing freely through their veins as is evidenced through some really outstanding wines. There are more than 100 others who work with the grapes grown on the North and South Fork of Long Island – something that would take me many summers to research, but if these three are any indication then I would say, with confidence, that there is truly a wine culture building on Long Island.

[]         THE EXPERIENCE

For those who have had the pleasure of visiting vineyards in France and Italy you will attest to the lack of pretention that dominates the majority of wine houses. Farm families, some with well-trained winemakers and others with individuals who learned from their fathers and grandfathers produce the majority of wines from these countries. The look of the vineyard and tasting room (excluding some of the grand chateaus) is minimalist and focused on function vs. form. This is not the case in the wine regions of the U.S. The areas where wine has become recognizable to the consumer are destinations where a person can enjoy the vistas of grape vines, the flavors of a well appointed tasting room, the service usually reserved for full-service restaurants, food to complement the wine, ample photo opportunities, grand halls for events, manicured grounds with flowers in full-bloom, and even gift shops that could thrive in a downtown setting as well as on a grape farm. Long Island is no exception to this U.S. standard. Although the grand estates with columned entranceways and imported Italian tile may not be as prevalent as you would find in Napa or Sonoma, there is still plenty of sizzle. From the over-the-top glitz of crystal chandeliers to the rustic hand-hewn beams that infer loads of history – The North Fork provides it all. At the same time there are still enough of those unpretentious vineyards that state with pride that their focus is the wine – not the setting.

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[]         THE PRODUCT

If I had to state something simply about my experience with the product it would be “thumbs up”. From an exceptional Malbec and Petite Verdot at Bedell, to a terrific Sauvignon Blanc at Sherwood House, and even the refreshing summer Rose’s at Croteaux (there are many choices at this house that is the only U.S. vineyard that makes rose exclusively), I found all of the wines to be very good, and even exceptional in many cases. Even Robert Parker has given his over 90 score blessing to many of the wines of the North Fork.

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In a nutshell, my limited knowledge of wines was peaked and my palate more than satisfied. North Fork wines are not cheap, but definitely of high quality. My summation is that any restaurant and chef would be well served by adding a handful of North Fork wines to their list.   Long Island is now on my list and I hope to continue my research in the years to come. If you are looking for a great mini-vacation or an excuse to do some research and development for your restaurant then make sure that you include a trip to the North Fork. Well worth the trip.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

“Life is too short to drink inferior wine”

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting and Training

http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

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