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January 10, 2006

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» Long Island Merlot? from Basic Juice
Lenndevours contributing columnist (and Long Island Winemaker), Charles Massoud, poses an interesting question: Should Long Island be associated with a particular variety? Charles posits that Merlot Long Island wine go together like Sonny Cher, like de... [Read More]

» Should Long Island Pin Its Identity on Merlot? from
An interesting commentary about Long Island and whether it should promote itself primarily through its Merlot production by Lenndevours guest columnist Charles Massoud. Charles seems to be opposed to this idea as do most of the people who have added ... [Read More]

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There is definitely a balance to be struck between limiting one's self unnecessarily, and providing a solid "message".

Every successful wine growing region I know of has one or two primary varietals. Given this correlation, one of two things must be true: varietal specialization is necessary for success, or success naturally leads to varietal specialization.

That doesn't actually prevent you from growing secondary varietals. This isn't France; it's ok to grow P. No. in a Merlot region, and still put the region on the label.

I don't know whether it will make it harder to market them though, in an absolute sense. Specialization may just make marketing the specialized varietals easier, without affecting the others.

Personally (and I'm no LI wine expert), I think it would be a big mistake to try and associate LI reds with Merlot. Not that there's anything wrong with Merlot, but styles change, tastes change, and the history of wine on the island is still young. It seems to be that the single varietal style pendulum will swing back to blends with unique character. Additionally, wine drinkers are likely to continue to become more sophisticated, which means they'll actually understand what Long Island Meritage/North Fork Red/Bordeaux Blend is.

Then again, from a marketing standpoint, it's much easier to beat the LI Merlot drum. But I think that would be selling the region's potential short.

I have to agree with Beau and Charles on not limiting LI to premature identification with one variety. It's way too early in the region's history to try to peg it so narrowly. I know they're searching for a marketing hook, but that's not the way to do it. A general positioning as a cool-climate terroir might be more convincing in the long run: America's Loire or some such analogy.

Well, anyway. Maybe the wineries should be worrying a lot more about distribution and not some facile hook.

Personally, I like the whites I've had a lot better than the reds, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc especially. For what that's worth.

I think the Finger Lakes wineries have also grappled with this question in regard to promoting Riesling as 'The Finger Lakes Wine". For the Finger Lakes, I think the notoriety has not come from a specific marketing plan to promote Riesling, but just from a natural progression of winning major awards and honors for their Rieslings and the subsequent publicity and media coverage. I believe that now the wineries are trying to build on that Riesling publicity and craft many other types of wine that will be judged favorably. Marketing as a Group of Wineries is very tricky because each member of the group wants to accomplish different things through the marketing, and many variables affect the marketing needs of wineries; small wineries perhaps have a more local focus and those wineries that are less Merlot-oriented obviously do not want to spend their marketing dollars to heavily promote Merlot. It really sounds like this type of marketing would be better done by the local tourism organization. But, in my opinion, any publicity that will focus the media and public on your region and promote the wine has to be considered a good thing, but some wineries may benefit more than others from Merlot-focused marketing.

Kudos to Charles for bringing the topic out for this blog to dissect. As one of the founding members of the Long Island Merlot Alliance, I’m far from giving an objective opinion, but I thought I could add to the discussion by clearing up some misinterpretations (or as our POTUS would say, “misunderestimations) of our group…

For one, the group is a Quality Alliance - the first of its kind assembled on Long Island; we are not a trade organization so our mission is quite different. Nor are we saying that all anyone should grow is merlot or that we are proponent of “homogenized agriculture.” That would be nonsense. On the contrary, we require all members to the Alliance to practice Sustainable Agriculture. All of our members also practice what would be termed artisanal winemaking techniques. If anything, making wine from grapes that have a good affininty to a terroir results in even less human intervention and manipulation (like adding acid, sugar,and, whoops -even water! - sorry California) and enables winemakers to produce a more natural,higher quality product.
There are surely some grapes that grow better than others on L.I. - as in any other region – and all of us produce a number of wines other than Merlot in our cellars. In fact, most of us believe that the best Merlot wines on Long Island are not 100% varietal but contain some percentage of other Bordeaux reds. But we also believe that (on Long Island) the dominant varietal in any great red blend – in most years – will consistently be Merlot.

After 30 years of history, it is not too early for us to be able to recognize that some grapes are simply more successful than others. Every great wine region in the world has recognized this over time. Name one great wine region of the world and you can name the one or two signature wines they are known for. At the same time, these regions make many other wines which can also be extremely good. (see Oregon, New Zealand, Germany, Australia, etc.)The fact that merlot is the most widely planted grape on LI was never about a market issue - it has always been about the ease with which this variety is managed in the vineyards, the level of ripeness it can achieve on a consistent basis, and the quality of wines it produces.

The founders of the Merlot Alliance did not come up with this idea on our own. If you go to our website at www.longislandmerlot.com you will see a sample of the hundreds of quotes taken from the wine press at large, praising the attributes of Long Island Merlot. Many of the top wine writers in the country use the term “signature grape variety” in their description. To a large extent, we are just following what has already been happening – that merlot has been recognized as one of the better wines made on Long Island. All of us in the merlot alliance want to make wines that are even better.

Many regions in the world can grow lots of different grape varieties so we are not so unique in that ability. However, we feel that in order to take the region to the next quality level, we need to start recognizing what we do best. This involves focusing attention on a variety that does wonderful things in our terroir - one of the few varietals we make that can possibly rival the best in the world. You can’t say that about too many of the wines grown on Long Island - I think that’s the main point. Diversity is great thing. But let’s remember to also apply the concept of diversity to the expression of opinions in this regard. I think there’s plenty of room on Long Island for both. Do we have lofty ideals? Sure we do. But if we weren’t crazy dreamers we wouldn’t be in the wine business!

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