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Wineries in Long Island? The land of Amy Fisher? The runner up for gold-chain-adorned, muscle-shirted, overly-tanned cheeseballs (clearly the Jersey Shore takes the #1 slot)? Am I seriously telling you that there are vineyards there…that you should visit?
Yes, I am.
And I’m the perfect person to tell you about them because I am a Long Island refugee. I grew up there. I know the history of the wine industry there because nearly the entire thing was conceived of and grown in my lifetime.
I’ll admit, I can be very critical of my homeland from time to time but I’m here to tell you that trashing the wines is not something I can do. They’re really good and the vineyards are in one of the most beautiful parts of my former stomping grounds.
If you don’t know Long Island at all and you’re like the people I went to college with (at a snotty Connecticut university – they should have known better), it’s big. Shaped like a fish, on the West End are the New York City boroughs of Queens in the north and Brooklyn in the south. If you head east, you bump into Nassau County, where many of the stereotypes about Long Island derive.
I think the previous time I was there, I was about 8 years old and the vineyards were formerly pumpkin patches. They’ve come pretty far (and I taste no hint of pumpkin in the wines, BTW).Heading east is Suffolk County, the larger county that includes the very famous Hamptons and Montauk, and the less famous hometown of Elizabeth Schneider, Port Jefferson. At the eastern end of Long Island, the land splits into a fishtail with a South Fork abutting the Atlantic Ocean, which contains the Hamptons and Montauk, and a North Fork on the Long Island Sound, which is where most of wine country lies.
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The area is about 100 miles east of New York City and is a 2-hour drive from there. From Manhattan, you can also take the Hampton Jitney, a bus service made famous by Sex in the City, which costs about $40 roundtrip. Another option: take the Long Island Railroad, which will set you back about $62 roundtrip and involve changing trains a time or two.
For both of the above options, to get to the wineries you have to get a car service, cab, or do an organized tour, so factor that cost in too. If you are coming from Connecticut, it’s an easy and beautiful but expensive (over $100 roundtrip to bring a car on) ferry ride from New London, CT, to Orient Point, Long Island, about 25 minutes east of wine country.
If you don’t want to do the exhausting trip back to New York, I’d love to offer you the option of travelling halfway and staying with my mom in Setauket, but there’s no room at that Inn. In lieu of that, I’d recommend staying at one of the many fabulous bed and breakfasts or inns in the area.
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They range in price, from the very high end Jedediah Hawkins Inn (with a James Beard Award Winning restaurant) in Jamesport and the on-winery premises Shinn Estates Farmhouse, to the more modest The Greenporter or Soundview Inn (both in Greenport). Good eats in Greenport include The Frisky Oyster and Noah’s, and The North Fork Table in Southold. Farm-to-table is pretty big here (you’ll see a ton of farmstands along your drive out here), so even the more casual places generally have fresh food. It’s hard to go wrong.
So now that we’ve hypothetically gotten you there, let’s talk about how this po-dunk, really far away from everything place wound up in wine.
Let’s flashback to 1973 (imagine wavy Scooby Doo graphics). A couple in their 20s, Louisa and Alex Hargrave decided to plant some vines on the North Fork and see what happened. With a maritime climate and soils that are kind of like Bordeaux in France, these pioneers made an educated go of it. A few others followed.
Most of us from parts further west laughed.
I remember in the late 80s when Pindar, a winery from Peconic, opened a small shop in my town (of course, with our accents we pronounced it “Pin-DAW”). It failed pretty quickly – people weren’t looking for novelty, they were looking for good wine and it just wasn’t there. I remember there being lots of bottles filled with pink stuff in the window and my parents scoffing at the thought that Long Island could produce anything drinkable.
Well, who has the last laugh now? With some learning about the soil, winemakers “out east” as Long Islanders call it, have come a long way. They are growing some outstanding grapes, some in the vein of Burgundy – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc, but most of the great ones in that of Bordeaux – Cabernet Franc and Merlot are pretty stunning, with some excellent Sauvignon Blanc as well (yes, that’s also a Bordeaux grape).
I was completely astonished the last time I was visiting my parents and we explored this lovely area. I think the previous time I was there, I was about 8 years old and the vineyards were formerly pumpkin patches. They’ve come pretty far (and I taste no hint of pumpkin in the wines, BTW).
We hit four wineries, all with very good to excellent wine and were wowed by tasteful buildings and beautiful vineyards flanking routes 48 and 25 – the main drags that run parallel to each other.
We loved Lieb, which had great flavorful, citrusy Pinot Blanc and fresh Pinot Blanc-based sparkling wine and a cool, modern tasting room. Jamesport Vineyards was a very rustic setting, and some of the spiciest, fruity, most unique Merlot I’ve had in a long time. Lenz also had some impressive and delicious Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and great Chardonnay. Peconic Bay Winery was the least impressive of the bunch, but I’ve had Bedell’s Merlots and I’d definitely recommend a trip there too.
For the armchair wine traveler, never fear. If you can’t get to the g’Island, as I affectionately call it, but you live in a state where you can receive wines in the mail, most of these places have wine clubs and can ship a bottle or two to you if you’re interested in sampling. If you’re in New York City but can’t spare the time to go east, many of the better restaurants and wine shops have Long Island wines, so give it a go and let me know what you think of them!
For more great information about Long Island wineries, the Long Island Wine Country Web Site is a great site for planning.