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Long Island - Enjoying a New York state of wine


"I think we may be the only wine region on earth that's so close to a major urban center, which means you can come out from Manhattan, see the wineries and then go back to New York City in time for dinner and a Broadway show," says Trent Preszler, vice president of operations at Bedell Cellars, one of the better-known wineries on Long Island's North Fork.

"True. But savvy travelers have discovered that Long Island's charming wine country (which has grown since the 1970s from one lonely vineyard to more than 30 wineries, yet is only two hours from midtown Manhattan) has enough of its own attractions to prompt a longer, more leisurely visit-especially during summer months. Why rush back to a hot, overcrowded city when you can while away the days sipping wine, go hiking and biking-or just lie around soaking up the sun at one of the area's many beautiful beaches?

"Today, Long Island's North Fork boasts more than 3,000 acres of vines sprinkled throughout the quaint towns that line Main Road from Jamesport to Orient Point. And when you visit the area in summer, you'll be among the first to taste the vineyards' newest whites (traditionally bottled in spring) and get an early glimpse of the vines, which are just starting to sprout grapes. Best of all the weather is about as close to perfect as you can get, with pleasantly warm temperatures and crystal-clear skies.

"CLIMATE CONTROL

""This is the sunniest area in New York state," confirms Brandon Andrews of Raphael, one of the North Fork's biggest wineries-and certainly the only one built to resemble an Italian monastery, complete with grand beamed ceilings, medieval tapestries and a catacombs-style wine vault. "We also have the most moderate climate, because we're surrounded by water on three sides and the South Fork, which is on the ocean and acts as a barrier."

"Indeed this temperate weather-with mild winters, dry summers and long, warm autumns is one of the reasons Merlot and Chardonnay grapes grow so well here. Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Meritage-style wines also are being produced by some of the more forward-thinking vintners.

"Taste-wise, Long Island wines tend to be more European in nature-lighter, more complex and subtly nuanced-than their West Coast counterparts. That is a result of the North Fork's glacial soil, which has been likened to that in Grave, France. (Think: a sandy top layer with a bed of gravel underneath.) This produces wines that have much more in common with Bordeaux region varietals than with those heavy, big-bottomed beauties associated with California.

""Long Island wines are much more French in style-higher in acidity and tannins and minerals┐and less obvious than wines from a hot climate like California, which tend to bang you over the head with fruit," explains Preszler. "Our wines are a little more elegantly structured and subtle, so they go much better with food."

"BLAZING A WINE TRAIL

"At Raphael this translates to a pleasantly light Sauvignon Blanc and a rich and silky First Label Merlot that would pair beautifully with steak. Raphael's Merlot is produced under the guidance of consultant Paul Pontallier, managing director of France's Chateau Margaux. And Raphael is one of the few East Coast wineries to hand-harvest 100 percent of its crop.

"Though it's just minutes away, Peconic Bay Winery feels like it's in another world. Unlike Raphael's sprawling 28,000-square-foot tasting room, Peconic Bay is housed in a relatively modest refurbished barn, complete with country-cute decor.

"But beneath its rustic-kitsch exterior beats the heart of a serious winery: Peconic Bay's La Barrique Chardonnay was named Best Chardonnay in New York State at the 2004 New York Wine & Food Classic. Several of their other varietals also have won awards, both local and national.

It is at Peconic Bay that visitors eager for a wine tasting lesson will be pleased to make the acquaintance of Tasting Room Manager Melissa Erb, who wants to make sure all guests get the most out of their wine-country experience. According to Erb, the difference between a $16 bottle of wine and a $60 bottle often has to do with the scarcity or abundance of that particular crop of grapes and the amount of labor that went into producing the wine. But that doesn't necessarily mean the more expensive bottle is better than the cheaper bottle, or that you will┐or should┐prefer one more than the other. "Either is OK," she says. "It's apples and oranges."

After your Wine Tasting 101 lesson, amble over to Palmer Vineyards and take the self-guided tour, which offers visitors a behind-the-scenes peek at the winemaking process from vine to table. That's something available at many vineyards here, though only Palmer is set up with explanatory signposts so guests can walk through the vineyard on their own. Most North Fork wineries are, in fact, family owned and operated, which means you're as likely to meet the folks who actually grow and bottle the grapes as not-something you won't find in most bigger wine regions. "There's a more intimate approach here," says Preszler.

Indeed. At Paumanok Vineyards, for instance, it's not uncommon for owners Charles and Ursula Massoud or one of their three sons to offer a tour of their high-tech facility. They might join guests in a tasting that could include their Sauvignon Blanc-a crisp, clean, super-dry white-and their Assemblage, a peppery, full-bodied red.

"When we bought the vineyard in 1983, it was a potato farm and we planted right away," Charles Massoud, a former IBM executive, explains. "In the beginning the challenge was knowledge, given that we didn't have any prior experience growing grapes-just sheer passion and enthusiasm. We really know a lot more today about how to grow grapes and make great wines on Long Island, and we continue to try and sharpen our act, so to speak."

At Shinn Estate Vineyards, owners Barbara Shinn and David Page spend weekend afternoons walking visitors through their 22-acre vineyard. They are passionate, hands-on winemakers, and they produce a classically traditional Bordeaux-style Merlot that blends Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec grapes. "It's a complex, full-flavored wine, but it┐s not flabby and big like a California Merlot," says Page. "It's much more elegant, I think."

Ros and Chris Baiz own the spectacular waterfront winery, The Old Field, a small, but equally hospitable operation. It is the second-oldest winery in the area, having been established in 1974 on land that has been in Chris' family for four generations. After offering a tasting of their Burgundy-style Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sparkling 2000 Blanc de Noir┐the latter won top champagne honors at an Atlanta wine competition-Roz and Chris might encourage you to drive through the vineyard to take in the breathtaking view of the bay from the rolling expanse of lawn in front of their house. It's a popular spot for weddings and other events, so picturesque is the setting.

Bedell Cellars, now owned by New Line Cinema co-Chief Executive Officer Michael Lynne, is a decidedly more grandiose operation. The art-filled tasting room and already modern winemaking facility underwent a multimillion dollar expansion last year. But the day-to-day operations still are overseen by original founder Kip Bedell and his former wife, Peggy. Their tasting room pourers are as friendly and insightful as they come.


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