By Lenn Thompson, Founder and Editor-in-Chief
(Note: A version of this column will appear in the 7/23 issue of Dan's Papers)
I don’t typically pay much attention to the awards, scores and medals bestowed upon Long Island wines by a seemingly un-ending list of publications, festivals and fairs. Most of these competitions are flawed and I just don't think that the results can be seen as authoritative.
Over the past 5 years that I've been writing about New York wines, I’ve seen too many great wines “win” bronze medals while obviously inferior wines get gold.
I still think, and I hope that I always will, that it’s best to pop a lot of corks and taste for yourself. Trust only one palate — your own.
Regardless of my personal opinions about competitions, the results of these tastings can be interesting and help emerging regions (yes, Long Island is still emerging) position themselves in the marketplace. I guess I’m saying that there is some value there, just not as much as the organizers and wineries would have you think.
Recently, some Long Island wineries, including member wineries of the Long Island Merlot Alliance (LIMA) shipped an assortment of local merlots to the Napa Valley in California to be tasted by Appellation America, an online publication and wine shop that “seeks to study and define in detail the flavors and aromas unique to the terroir of American wine regions so expert tasters and consumers know what to expect from wines produced there.”
As a part of the website’s “Best of Appellation” program, Clark Smith, Vice President of Best-of-Appellation Evaluations for Appellation America, led a panel of experts through a semi-blind tasting (I say semi-blind tasters knew that the wines were all from Long Island) of more than 50 local merlots — including 39 from LIMA members. 35 of those wines were awarded “Best of Appellation” status (see the full results), winning either gold or double-gold medals, an impressive showing even in the eyes of a competition cynic like me.
After tasting the wines, Smith said that Long Island merlot “…consistently produces tasty offerings, even in cool years when the wines drink well young, and somehow consistently avoid the grainy, vegetal crudeness of Bordeaux’s poor vintages. Merlot is either great or just good here…. Long Island Merlot has achieved a very high standard of consistent trueness-to-type which, in my opinion, surpasses most of Bordeaux, dollar for dollar.”
Despite Appellation America’s America-centric focus (bias?) for a moment, that is still quite a statement. For an ‘outsider’ (someone not in the local wine industry) to make such a statement speaks volumes about the quality and consistency of Long Island merlot.
Smith went on to say that Long Island merlots have a “delicacy and elegance” and are “a very refreshing respite from our California amped-up offerings.” To hear a wine expert — and one from California — make such a statement is refreshing. Especially because I happen to agree with him.
Then again, does anyone really like California merlot?
But here cdomes the admitted cynic in me: As wonderful — and potentially important — as these results are, they need to be kept in perspective.
First, only a handful of Long Island wineries even sent wines out to Napa for this tasting. Wines from many of the best producers on the East End — places like Bedell Cellars, The Lenz Winery, Paumanok Vineyards, Roanoke Vineyards and Shinn Estate Vineyards — weren’t included in this tasting. As such, this only represents a sliver of the true merlot story on Long Island. If the Appellation America panel had tasted a wider range of producers, their findings would be more credible and authoritative.
Second, this wasn’t a true blind tasting, so commentary about Long Island merlot versus merlot from Bordeaux or California should be taken with a grain of salt — as one man’s (Smith’s) opinion. It would be great to see how this set of 50 wines would fare in a double-blind tasting with wines from California, Bordeaux , Washington State and other top merlot-producing regions of the world. Maybe we should organize such a tasting this fall.
That all said, the results of this tasting are encouraging and not without merit. As Donnell Brown, director for LIMA told me in an email, the results mean that “Long Island is a bona fide wine region making world-class wines that deserve greater recognition” and “Merlot is a varietal that has a consistent and consistently good expression on Long Island. It represents us well.”
Those two statements are fact, at least in one man’s opinion — mine.