This letter is in response to Lisa Granik's op-ed in the New York Times' Sunday edition.
Dear Ms. Granik,
After reading your op-ed over the weekend, I have two words for you:
That's right, I'm thanking you even though I'm sure that by now you've received plenty of emails and calls from those in the Long Island wine industry, telling you that you're wrong, misguided and misinformed -- and you are in much of what you say -- but I still think it's great that your words were printed in the New York Times. The best way for any industry to improve is through open and honest discussion. Too often, we only hear about how great Long Island wine is -- and clearly there is more to it than that.
That said, I think you are, in fact, under-informed in much of what you say saying and I think that your comment that "a close examination of the industry and its winegrowing environment suggests a more troubled picture," couldn't be further from the truth.
First, if you really knew the people in the region, you'd know that most of the wineries that are for sale are currently owned by people who are of retirement age who are simply ready to move on. Owning and running a winery is hard work. This is true for the owners of Sherwood House Vineyards, Galluccio Family Wineries, Castello di Borghese and Ackerly Pond Vineyards. Harold Watts, owner of Ternhaven Cellars sold his vineyard, but still has his winery/tasting room and isn't leaving any time soon. He's in his early 70s. Can you blame him for not wanting to maintain and own a vineyard anymore?
Your comments also ignore the fact that even as wineries, vineyards and tasting rooms go on the market -- other, new ones are popping up at a similar rate. Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard is opening a tasting room soon, so are Diliberto Winery and Clovis Point. Shinn Estate Vineyards just invested in its own winemaking equipment and is building a B&B on their grounds. It's easy to point out the wineries for sale...especially if you ignore the other side of the story.
Lieb Family Cellars is also not on the market. The farmhouse, which the Lieb's rarely use, is for sale as is the land it's on (which does include vines) but that's not their entire vineyard holding.
I too found it curious -- and yes, a little worrisome -- that Leucadia decided not to plant vines on the land it purchased on the North Fork. But, I'm not arrogant enough to pretend that I know why a large corporation like that has made the decisions it has. Is it possible that the wine people at Leucadia still do want to plant but the finance types are looking at it purely as a money issue? No one disputes that it's far from cheap to make wine here.
Next I'd like to talk about your comments with regard to merlot. I'm on record as disputing the fact that merlot should be "pushed" as the grape of Long Island, so that's something we agree on. But it's irresponsible to suggest that Bordeaux varieties don't do well here. You must not be tasting the same wines I taste every day. Panels of professional tasters and some of the worlds best wine critics have started lauding these wines. Of course there is a lot of bad wine being made here too -- but isn't there a lot of bad wine being made in every single wine region in the world?
Again, I agree with you about pushing merlot. Some of my favorite local wines are made with the beautiful, balanced blends that are being made. I love several of the cabernet francs. Local winemakers have even convinced me of how lovely barrel-fermented chardonnay can be -- because they aren't making them in a flabby, sweet California style.
You also say that more wineries need to experiment with different varieties. Okay, maybe. But it's easy to say that without offering suggestions. One thing to keep in mind is that many vineyards are planted with experimental grapes, clones or rootstocks, but you won't hear about them until they are a success and the vineyard can plant more. Then, it will be at least three years before you get wines from those vines.
As far as varieties they should try, I'd love to know what you have in mind. People have tried zinfandel and other warm-weather grapes. It's just too humid here. It's just doesn't make sense to invest in Tempranillo, Grenache and other grapes that love hot, dry weather. Wineries are, however, starting to bottle varietal malbecs and petit verdots. We're going to see some new varietal syrahs this year and there are also some interesting, unique blends popping up on the island. If you want experimentation, you have only to look a little more closely.
I'd like to see someone try Gruner Veltliner myself. My limited grape-growing knowledge makes me think it might thrive here.
One of the things that you and I agree 100% about is the Bordeaux comparison. I've said for quite a while now that I think Long Island should focus on itself instead of the comparisons to Bordeaux or any other region. But, I don't really hear people in the industry talking about Bordeaux much anymore either. When I first started covering the region, I heard it a lot, but now I don't. Or, if the name Bordeaux is evoked, it is in the context of "We're similar to Bordeaux, but we're further south and unique."
You also mention that "too many wines still reflect poor winemaking choices, often to mimic popular styles that will never be Long Island’s legacy."
This strikes me as a comment from a person who hasn't tasted many recent vintages. As recently as a few years ago, I think you were partially correct. There were too many flabby, over-oaked whites and may reds trying to be California in style with big, plush styles and way too much barrel time. But winemakers are always learning and I'd argue that those California or Australia-style wines are the exception rather than the rule now. Lenz Winery makes cabernet sauvignon that most California winemakers wouldn't recognize as cabernet. Several producers are focusing on aromatics these days, not oak. It's an evolution that is easy to understand and expect. The proliferation of low- and no-oak chardonnay is an excellent example of winemakers trying to capture the true essence of Long Island.
I think that Long Island's winemakers are getting better at letting Long Island happen in the wines. They are taking a step back and putting some of the new oak barrique away.
I also have to tell you that you lost me when you mentioned the "consistent style...from an Australian or Californian merlot or chardonnay." If you, or the average consumer, prefer those simple, juicy and sweet-tasting wines, Long Island may not be for you. That may be a popular style today, but I see that tide shifting. Many wine writers and critics are speaking out against those wines after many years supporting them. Like it or not, consumers follow wine critics and I think more consumers will come around to the joy of balanced, food-friendly wines in coming years.
You also write that "variation between vintages was put forward as an advantage by local vintners," and I would love to know who you've talked to. I talk to vineyard managers and winemakers every day, and it seems to me that they'd prefer to consistent growing conditions every year. It'd probably mean a lot less stress and a lot fewer sleepless nights. Vintage variation is a part of life, but it's also worth noting that improved vineyard management practices are helping to eliminate the poor vintages of years past.
Moving on to another of your points, sure, it's important to get more Long Island wines into New York City, but I doubt that moving the Long Island Wine Council office into Manhattan is going to accomplish that. I don't pretend to know what the answer is, but I know a lot of people who are working really hard to make Long Island wines easier to find in NYC.
Ms. Granik, you seem to have a negative view of the Long Island wine industry as a whole. You are looking for a "quality-at-all-costs producer to arrest the consumer’s attention and inspire the neighbors" but that ignores the reality that winemaking is a business, not a hobby. And, I'd argue that you just haven't tasted the right wines. It's easy to wonder where the quality is if you haven't tasted enough of the wines.
In closing, I'm not saying that your op-ed is off the wall or insane. In the late 1990s or early 2000s, you're comments would have been much more timely and ring more true. But as it stands today, I think you're behind the times.
I also think that you're forgetting one important thing -- the Long Island wine industry was founded in 1973 and is somewhere between a toddler and a teenager (depending on who you ask) in the wine world. The region has gone through the crawling stage and has clearly learned to walk. Some producers have gone one step further and learned how to run. Others will as well -- and soon.
What the region needs now is support and patience. Is it perfect? Far from it, but it is certainly not a stagnant -- or sour -- industry. I'd love to have you come tasting with me sometime so that I can show you my Long Island wine country. As I said at the beginning of this letter, only through discussion will things get even better.