Roots

The story of how Long Island became the wine region that it is today begins, rather inauspiciously, with two twenty-somethings, a potato farm, and a Volkswagen Beetle full of Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the early months of 1973, Louisa and Alex Hargrave, a young couple in their mid-twenties, bought a farmhouse and a large piece of land in Cutchogue on the North Fork of Long Island. The Hargraves, who met at Harvard, had almost no farming experience and little in the way of scientific training. Alex had been an Asian studies major, Louisa studied government. After a year of post-graduate aimlessness, during which the Hargrave’s traveled around the country, living out of their car or crashing with friends, the couple felt they wanted a place to land.

Well-educated and ambitious, it would not have been difficult for the Hargraves to find jobs. But it was the seventies, the counterculture movement was in full swing and Alex and Louisa were eager to forge a path that was different from the cerebral careers of their parents (publishers and lawyers, respectively). So, they headed back to the land. “It was a way for us to work with our hands and the challenge of doing something new was very exciting.”

Young and in love and eager for the pastoral life, Louisa and Alex had a dream to grow grapes. While it may be tempting to imagine that those who came before us started out with lofty or world-changing ambitions, that is not always the case. Louisa admits that their decision was not too carefully considered. “It was a pie in the sky idea, really. A highly romantic notion.”

At the time, the North Fork was a predominantly agricultural economy, supported by crops of potatoes, corn, and cauliflower. While indigenous grape varieties did — and still do — grow wild in the untamed fields and woodlands of both forks, the noble European grapevine (Vitis Vinifera) from which wine is made, had not been cultivated. Ambitious, and undeterred by poor odds, the Hargraves packed up their belongings and their first rootstocks (grafted roots used to propagate vines) into the trunk of their Volkswagen Beetle and moved to Cutchogue. Those root stocks would become the the first commercial Vitis Vinifera ever planted on Long Island—17 acres of cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir.

That first year wasn’t easy. Grapevines are notoriously difficult to grow — susceptible to viruses, mildew, and pests — and the Hargraves were academics who had never grown so much as an herb garden. “Although we were full of bravado, the fact is that we had to learn everything from scratch,” says Louisa. “Ours was a total do-it-yourself operation.” Without proper tilling equipment, the Hargraves spent that first summer hoeing the Cutchogue vineyard by hand to keep the weeds at bay. Exhausted and out of their depth, they read every book on viticulture that they could get their hands on for guidance. “There really weren’t many good, instructive books back then though,” Louisa recalls, “there were a million books about wine drinking, but very few that explained how the hell to make it.” So, the Hargraves became resourceful (which is another way of saying they had to wing it). At one point, finding their vineyard overcome with mice and rabbits, they used empty milk cartons borrowed from a nearby dairy farm to barricade their fledgeling vines from pests. These tribulations and more are recounted with frustrating beauty, in Louisa Hargrave’s book, The Vineyard, a must-read for anyone curious about Long Island winemaking.

While Louisa and Alex were the first to break ground, they were not alone in their vision. Maybe something was in the air, but around the same time, several other growers were interested in exploring the potential for wine grapes on the North Fork. David Mudd, a retired air force pilot and another big name in Long Island wine, soon became a friend and colleague. Legend has it that the Hargraves first met Mudd at an agricultural auction where they were bidding against each other over irrigation piping. When the Hargraves introduced themselves and explained that they were planting grapes, Mudd responded “that’s not a bad idea.” Mudd Vineyards was planted in nearby Southold in 1974.

Mudds’ knowledge and local expertise quickly established him as a name in the industry. If you wanted to grow grapes on Long Island, Mudd was the guy to call. He consulted on many of the new vineyard developments cropping up across the East End, and single-handedly contributed to the growth of the region. Today, people in the wine industry speak about both the Mudds and the Hargraves with the special reverence typically reserved for religious figures.

To give credit where it is due, the Hargraves did have some help. They received a fair amount of help and advice from Mike Kaloski — a local farmer and son of Polish immigrants — and John Wickham, a veteran fruit grower. “We weren’t farmers and we didn’t really know what we were doing.” Louisa recalls. “These guys didn’t know about wine, but they knew about hard work and they could see we needed help. I’ll never forget John called us up one morning while we were still in bed and said ‘You’re farmers now. You can’t wake up at 10am anymore!’ After that we were up and out by six every day.”  

So, the region was born. But it’s progress wasn’t a straight line. The early years were clumsy. Other vineyards were planted in the area, but many were poorly maintained and had to be ripped up shortly thereafter. Several acres in Southold sold as chardonnay turned out, upon closer inspection, to be pinot blanc. The market for Long Island wines didn’t exist yet and there was very little money coming in. The Hargraves stuck it out, though the wind was against them. They had trouble finding consistent help and were often sold bad rootstocks and equipment. “Wholesalers assumed that we were out in the boondocks and didn’t know what we were doing,” Louisa explains, “and they were kind of right.”

But those mistakes were the first wobbly steps in an ongoing journey of figuring out how to do something that had never been done before. David’s son, Steve Mudd, said it best: “No one made more mistakes than us. How do you know what to do until you go out and screw it up?”

And, while there was plenty of screwing up to go around, there were also moments of triumph. Louisa recalls the 1977 vintage: “It had been a hard season with bad weather and we were feeling really beaten down. There was one wine in particular that I wasn’t very confident about but when I went into the cellar to taste it in midwinter, I was totally astonished. It was better than anything I could have imagined - aromatic, balanced, beautiful. It reminded me of French wines I had tasted while traveling. I just broke into tears. Finally, here was the thing that all of our work was for.”

Before long, the Hargrave’s reputation began to blossom. In 1984, the wine critic Robert Parker (famous for his controversial point-based system) wrote a rave review of a Hargrave chardonnay that essentially put the whole region on the map. Over the next decade, more vineyards were planted across Long Island: Bedell Cellars, Palmer, Lenz, and Paumanok on the North Fork, Wolffer Estate and Channing Daughters following suit in the 1980s on the South Fork. “Momentum built quickly after word spread of the Hargraves,” says Steven Bate, president of the Long Island Wine Council. “By the end of the 70's there were 6 vineyards, by the end of the 80's there were 26, by the end of the 90's there were 38.” The latest count is over 60 licensed producers on Long Island.

In 1985, the North Fork of Long Island was formally established as an American Viticultural Area or A.V.A.. The man responsible for creating it, Richard Olsen-Harbich, is now the winemaker at Bedell Cellars and an experienced viticulturist. At the time, Olsen-Harbich spearheaded the creation of both the North Fork and The Hamptons as official appellations, a huge step in establishing local credibility. An A.V.A. is a federal designation given to a particular wine-producing region. It is, in essence, a badge, a way of recognizing a given area for significant wine production. The formation of the Long Island A.V.A.s gave the authority to the vineyards, signaling to the outside world, “We are here and we are making wine.”

The A.V.A.s also helped to differentiate between emerging subregions on Long Island, namely between the North and South forks. While the twin forks are relatively close to one another, there are several significant differences in their climates that impact vines. For one, the soils are quite different. Created by two distinct glacial events, the soil types on the north fork (sandy, coarse, quick draining) and the south fork (deep, fine, loamy) provide different nutrients and growing environments for vines. Additionally, the growing season on the North Fork is slightly warmer and longer than the south’s. “About two weeks on average” says soil scientist Larry Perrine, “which can make a difference in what varieties can ripen up there.” While these may seem like insignificant differences, grapes are very sensitive to temperature and sunlight, so even small differences can have a big impact on the outcome of the wine.

While not technically an island, the peninsula of Long Island is surrounded by three bodies of water — the Sound, Peconic Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean. Our maritime climate has a moderating effect on seasonal temperature, meaning it is cooler in the summer and milder in the winter compared to more inland regions of the state, where summers can be scorching and frost hits hard in early October. Long Island soils were formed by the glacial outwash from the retreat of the Wisconsin-age glaciers of 10,000 years ago. The combination silt-loam soil type provides excellent drainage—a necessity for grapes, which are sensitive to overwatering—and good fertility to nourish healthy vines. This combination of coastal temperatures and glacial soils bears striking similarity to regions like Bordeaux in France and Friuli in Northern Italy, both renowned for their wines. These environmental elements all contribute to produce our unique landscape and ‘terroir’.

The concept of terroir in wine is difficult to sum up. It means, in essence, place. But, embedded in the word are other associative meanings: terra, earth, soil, character, identity. It might be better translated as the taste of place.

Terroir refers to the set of factors—soil type, climate, sunlight, slope, location—that make a particular vineyard unique, as well as the distinct characteristics imparted to wines grown in that vineyard. While there are concrete attributes that make up terroir, the term still retains a touch of mystery, even magic. Because, even for soil and viticultural scientists, it is difficult to pin down what exactly produces the identifying qualities that we associate with terroir.

At the end of the day, terroir is really about the connection between the wine and the land. It reminds us that, when we sip a wine, what we taste is influenced not only by the obvious things—grape variety, producer, vintage—but more subtly by the specific soils and microclimate of the region where the grapes were grown. Here on the East End, we have warm summers, mild falls, and salty soils that have been shaped by thousands of years of geological, biological, and meteorological history. That identity is detectable in the salinity, minerality, and crispness of our wine. As a region we may be young, but our land is not.

The last 40 years have been a time of great growth and experimentation in Long Island wine. One of the things that makes American winemaking exciting, and sets it apart from long-established regions in Italy and France, is the freedom we have to grow and blend whatever grape varieties we want, in whatever styles we want. In Suffolk County alone, more than 40 different grape varietals are grown, from German riesling and gewurztraminer to Italian ribolla gialla, Spanish albariño, and French muscat ontonnel. But with that freedom comes a fair amount of questioning: What varieties grow best in our particular climate? How do we best express the terroir of our land?

In 1989, several local growers organized to form The Long Island Wine Council, a group intended to help promote the development of the region and address some of the questions about its identity. Historically, one of the most common ways for a region to establish a commercial identity is to associate itself with a particular varietal. This can be seen all over the world — Burgundy has pinot noir, Napa Valley has cabernet, New Zealand has sauvignon blanc — and many believed merlot would become synonymous with Long Island. Though originally from France, merlot grows very well on Long Island, producing ripe, elegantly textured reds. Several champions of the grape even got together to form a Long Island Merlot Alliance (LIMA) in 2003, but the campaign never really got off the ground.

While it is unclear exactly what killed it, the failure of the merlot effort is often attributed to the untimely release of the Alexander Payne film Sideways in 2004, in which a snobby pinot-loving sommelier (played by Paul Giamatti) declares “I hate merlot. If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!” Trite though it may seem, the film had a remarkable impact on the wine industry, boosting pinot noir sales and devastating merlot producers. Even more than a decade later, the reputation of merlot has not fully recovered from what’s known as ‘The Sideways Effect.’

So, in short, the question of Long Island’s regional identity is still being determined, and probably will continue to change and evolve for many years. But, with several decades under our belt, we are already being recognized for producing delicious, subtle, world-class wines (fucking merlot included). In recent years, our wines have climbed state and national rankings, competing with other New York regions like the Finger Lakes. Long Island wines have made their way onto restaurant wine lists from Boston to Chicago to California.  

As we are start to produce more and better wines, attention has turned toward our methods and vineyard practices, specifically to how our practices impact the environment. As we enter our fifth decade as a wine producing area, winemakers and growers are recognizing the need to act more mindfully in their relationship with the land and the natural resources they depend on.

In 2012 came the debut of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing Council, a consortium of growers committed to promoting sustainability in the industry. It created a list of guidelines for everything from pesticide use to pruning techniques, to hold wine producers to higher standards of environmental sustainability and promote best practices for the health of the land. Vineyards who comply with L.I.S.W. recommendations receive a sustainability certification that appears on the bottle, allowing consumers to make more informed choices about who they patronize. Overall, L.I.S.W.’s work has helped to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, promote biodiversity, conserve the health of topsoils, and protect against agricultural runoff into sensitive waterways. The formation of the group was a collective effort that included Richard Olsen-Harbich, Larry Perrine (Channing Daughters Winery), Barbara Shinn (Shinn Estate Vineyards). and Jim Thompson (Martha Clara Vineyards). Alice Wise, from Cornell Cooperative Extension, was an advisor and helped write the guidelines.

Beneath their technical aspects, these guidelines urge us to be more conscious of our relationship to the land and ecosystem. Here are a few words from the mission statement: “Just like the English settlers who started farming on Long Island in 1640, and the Native-Americans 10,000 years before that, we are ensuring the sustained agricultural use of these lands for many more generations.”

We have come a long way in the 45 years since the Hargraves loaded those rootstocks into the trunk of their Volkswagen. Today, Long Island wineries produce somewhere around 500,000 cases (1,200,000 gallons) of wine each year, attracting nearly 1.3 million people to our tasting rooms annually. We have won awards for our wines and become a model for sustainable practices in winegrowing nationwide. Long Island wines are sold and consumed all over the globe.

The story of the Hargraves and of Long Island wine is uniquely American— in the best sense of the word: It is a story of naïveté and romance, vision and hard work, resilience and reinvention. Our wines reflect our way of life and, in that way, it is possible to understand the building of a wine region to be somewhat analogous to the building of a community, of a culture and collective effort that are tied to the land and the people who cultivate it.

Now in the second generation of Long Island viticulture, it is heartening to see how many of the vineyards are being passed down from father and mother to son and daughter. While the Hargraves sold in 1999, their vines are still there, producing grapes for the Borghese family. Following in their footsteps, their son, Zander, is the winemaker for Pellegrini Vineyards. David Mudd’s son, Steve, now heads up the operation at Mudd Vineyard, and there is a third generation in training. Others, including Wolffer Estate, Palmer, Channing Daughters, and Bedell, are still owned and operated by the families who started them. Those crazy pioneers gave us more than just good wine, they gave us a heritage that can be passed on.

As much as anything else, good winemaking is about time and, while we have a lot to be proud of, the East End is young yet. With growing interest in Long Island wines and innovative vintners leading the way, our best years are still ahead of us. Cheers.
 

Nina Channing

Our associate editor at EAST, Nina has written this year about land preservation, Montauk ghost stories, and Trump helicopters. Born and raised in Bridgehampton, she graduated from Wesleyan University in 2016 and is now an MFA candidate at Stony Brook Southampton. When she’s not working, she can be found driving to the beach in her Volvo station wagon with her dog, Tucker, riding shotgun.