The Evolution of Long Island Wines

By Gwendolen Groocock

It’s an exciting time for Long Island wine. Our region is now on many “destination” travel lists, from TripAdvisor and Condé Nast to top industry publications like the Wine Spectator. We’re right up there in popularity with Sonoma, CA, and the Finger Lakes, NY, thanks to our 60-plus producers and the more than 1.3 million visitors a year that enjoy their wine. And coming off the 2014 harvest, which was an historic vintage for both quality and quantity, 2015 is shaping up to be the biggest and best wine tourism season yet.

So what’s new out there? I watch the wine industry closely, and perhaps the most exciting trend is a rise in small, independent labels.  Like the region’s new farm-to-table food producers and craft beer makers, artisans with their own unique visions are turning their hands to wine. These individuals buy grapes, then make the wine or have it made at a custom facility like Premium Wine Group in Mattituck. They choose the style, design the labels, and market the product themselves via websites, social media and good old-fashioned pavement-pounding and personal pitching to wine shops and restaurants. Some band together at communal tasting rooms on the wine trail, like The Winemaker Studio in Peconic.

These independent labels are part of the continued evolution and diversification of the wine industry. Fifteen years ago, after founding wineries like Hargrave/Castello di Borghese, Pindar, Duck Walk, Bedell, Wölffer, Raphael, and others were already well established, it still wasn’t clear what direction the industry would take. But like a grape vine, once LI wine found its roots, it began to branch out. Smaller enterprises sprung up, like The Old Field, a charming vineyard right on the Peconic Bay, Clovis Point, Sparkling Pointe, Mattebella and Croteaux Vineyards. The region grew more popular and more productive, able to withstand storms like the economic recession of recent years. Happily, Long Island wine found market niches in high-quality, restrained, complex reds like merlot and cabernet franc, and fun summer wines like dry rosés and sauvignon blancs that pair perfectly with our local farm produce and seafood. Agritainment appeared; now there is music, beautiful outdoor spaces like at the new Kontokosta Winery which is right on the LI Sound, sales of wine by the glass, and most recently, nibbles such as cheese, oysters, brick oven pizza and food truck fare. It turns out that people are more than willing to pay for quality and the experience of being out here on the beautiful North Fork.

In the farming and production side of the industry, parallels to the négociant system have emerged. That’s a French term for buying grapes and/or wine from small producers, blending it all together and selling the end product under the buyer’s label. This is common in large wine regions, and it ensures a market for small growers/producers; conversely, it can also depress crop prices and encourage a quantity over quality approach. This system is why you can buy inexpensive wines from large regions, but it is biased against small, independent labels.

Here in the Long Island wine region, our “négociant” system works a little differently. The established vineyards/ wineries buy and sell amongst themselves now; at harvest time, truckloads of grapes can be seen on the roads, traveling to places here, in Connecticut and upstate New York. This means that, these days, a would-be artisanal winemaker who knows a few people can also buy grapes. 

That’s how Robin Epperson-McCarthy, who has made her career in the wine industry all over the world, launched her new label, Saltbird Cellars. It’s named for the shorebirds that she loves to spot when sailing on the Peconic Bay. She was inspired to get creative by the great 2014 harvest: “All this amazing fruit was around,” she said.  “I just had to have some of it!” 

With encouragement from friends, and “plenty of unsolicited, but much appreciated advice,” she took the plunge. She made the wine exactly how she wanted to, as opposed to winemaking for a client or as an employee of a winery. She used a long, cool fermentation, aromatic yeast strains and neutral oak. Saltbird Cellars is a small collection with an excellent sauvignon blanc as its signature wine. She sells online at www.saltbirdcellars.com. 

Race Wines is a new, independent label by Greg Gove. A veteran winemaker for several major wineries, Gove has decided to strike out on his own. His new label started when he “rescued” wine he had made for a producer that went out of business, which gave him the opportunity to finish it the way he wanted to. Now, he uses his experience to make wines that he feels are the natural expression of the best Long Island grapes. You can find Race Wines at Greenport Wines and Spirits, a shop on Front Street that has a strong focus on Long Island wines, and at Race Wines on Facebook.

Coffee Pot Cellars is a venture by Adam Suprenant. He’s the winemaker at Osprey’s Dominion, and has branched out to make his own line of wines named for the iconic lighthouse off Orient Point. Winemakers for large wineries often create their own labels because they wanted to have creative freedom and express their “voice,” but Suprenant has gone a step further. He runs a charming, down-to-earth tasting and sales shop on Route 25 in Cutchogue, which is also home to the Blossom Meadow honey company owned by his beekeeper wife, Laura Klahre. Find them at www.coffeepotcellars.com.

Brooklyn Oenology is another independent label/retail space hybrid. Owner Alie Shaper purchases her fruit from Long Island and upstate every year, and crafts her wines herself at Premium Wine Group. The wines are sold primarily at her Brooklyn Oenology wine shop/café, a fun and popular spot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Find her at www.brooklynoenology.com.

Other small labels are out there, and new ones are in the works. They are totally original, high quality, often quite different from what you might expect, and represent the best efforts of some very talented people. They’re like little gems hidden among the wines from the larger producers, and if you’re interested in a unique tasting experience, they’re worth seeking out.