By Contributing Columnist Charles Massoud
When Lenn asked if I would contribute to LENNDEVOURS, I was at the same time flattered, intrigued, apprehensive and I questioned if that is something I was good at. Of course to write here must be sufficiently interesting for the reader, but I was thinking selfishly about whether it would be interesting for me. Writing in a newspaper is pretty much a one way street. In that case I state my opinion as forcefully as I can. So I do not do it often.
Writing here offers a novel opportunity because it can be interactive and as such presents the possibility of, at first, anonymous dialogue in cyberspace. I have had such an experience on eRobertParker.com and I enjoyed it. I have learned from it. I then met people that have become good friends with whom I have participated in several dinners and wine tasting that otherwise I would have never discovered.
So I am hoping that this will open yet another new door I did not know existed. And my fist salvo is one where I wish to reflect on topics that preoccupy some of us winemakers on the East End of Long Island. Getting responses may or may not change my mind, it depends on the strength of the argument presented.
As an example I will kick off this dialogue with the question of whether Long Island should be identified with a particular grape variety.
As a preamble, it may help those who are not familiar with the wines of Long Island to know that ours is a relatively new wine growing region. The industry was started by the Hargraves in 1973. And right away they demonstrated that vitis vinifera is the grape species to grow here. Thereafter many dreamers, like ourselves, started emulating their example and, by 1998, a census that I conducted showed that up to 30 varieties were being grown. The largest planting was in Chardonnay, followed by Merlot, then Cabernet Sauvignon. Since then a good amount of Cabernet Franc has also been planted.
Of those thirty varieties there are some that have proven to be great success and include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Tokai Friuli in the whites, and Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Syrah in the reds. My personal experience with Pinot Noir and Zinfandel has been disappointing and we pulled out these varieties from our vineyards. Yet others have made good wines from Pinot Noir, but almost everyone agrees that it has earned its reputation as the "heartbreak grape".
Because our season comes to an abrupt end in the fall, as the weather turns cold, there is a preference for early ripening varieties which are safer year in year out as most locations can ripen them well. Yet, in spite of its small size, the East End has a very diverse microclimate and when that is taken into account other varieties such as, for example, Cabernet Sauvignon, a late ripener, can and do shine here.
To complicate things further, there are new clones of most varieties that are being introduced that offer yet another dimension as to what is possible to grow successfully and new plantings will shed light on whether this is promising or not.
So, after a long introduction, here is the subject for consideration: a number of my colleagues have come up with an idea to promote Long Island as a "Merlot" region. The case for this is based on sound underlying reasons:
- Merlot thrives on Long Island
- Merlot is an early ripening variety and ripens very well every year
- Merlot is the most widely planted red variety
- Merlot makes great red wines, as ours have come to be known as well as those of our friends
Even though, as stated, we make great Merlots, I have been very vocal about my opposition to this initiative. To me it is a solution looking for a problem. I fail to see why we should choose one against the others. Most varieties mentioned above have produced wines of at least as high a quality as any Merlot. And since this is still a growing region why close the doors so soon?
But the more important question is not what the producers would like us to believe but what is the consumer looking for. Another question is what other grape is being grown here that is generating excitement. Merlot is one of them, but there are quite a few more, named above.
In a world where supermarkets are coming under attack for being ambassadors to standardized and homogenized agriculture, movements such as Slow Foods and retailers such as Whole Foods are celebrating the diversity of our food supply and the curiosity and adventure that it stimulates at the dining table. In the process the farmer is being recognized as a vital but struggling pillar of our food supply, worthy of every support we can give him/her. The word "artisanal" is now fashionable and a rebirth is being experienced as we have more choices in tastier foods than ever before, through this movement. The East End of Long Island has a rather rare quality in that we can do the same thing with wine. It is rare for many wine regions to be able to successfully grow as many varieties as we do and to me that is the trade mark of Long Island viticulture. Celebrate the diversity and offer more choices rather than narrow down the options for the useless convenience of easy identification.
So here it is, an opinionated view seeking validation or rebuttal. Your serve!