The always-beautiful spot next to the pond at Pugliese Vineyards
By Lenn Thompson, Executive Editor
If you're like me, when you first move to a new wine region, you intrepidly explore it -- visiting different tasting rooms every weekend and sampling different things on their tasting menus each time you go. Everything is so new and so exciting. Will that small place down the road have something killer you've never tasted before? Nena and I used to ask that question often.
But over time that non-stop exploration slows. You've tasted most of the wines at most of the wineries and then even further into your wine country journey, you've identified your favored producers -- ones you know you can count on for wines that will consistently hit and please your palate in all the right places.
Unchecked, this comfort zone can become complacency. It can become a tasting room rut. Or in my case, a tasting room canyon.
To climb out of that canyon, our cheese editor Aaron Estes and I did a little tasting tour Saturday, focusing on places I hadn't been to in years and places I knew no one would know me. We didn't set out to visit tasting rooms that appear to be on some sort of unofficial Long Island limousine and bus circuit, but it worked out that way in several cases.
We started our day at Duck Walk Vineyards North in Southold. Pulling into the parking lot, there were a total of 10 cars -- including ours -- and seven of them were limos or party buses. Undeterred by the expected crowds, we stepped in -- and shouldn't have worried at all.
The tasting room was busy of course, but not overly so, and with groups both inside and out, the limo-delivered groups were dispersed to the point that you'd never guess how much mass transit was out in the parking lot.
Clearly the folks at Duck Walk are well set up to accommodate throngs of people without it seeming that way.
Of the limo-friendly wineries we visited, Duck Walk was also the best tasting experience we had. The young man pouring for us was friendly and knowledgeable about the wines, sharing just enough information without inundating his customers. We were the only ones spitting and dumping wine, but he didn't draw attention to it.
The whites and rose were the winners for me, all showing fresh acidity and good balance. The stainless steel fermented Duck Walk Vineyards 2009 Chardonnay ($11) stood out in particular it's lively nature and it's price point. The reds did not impress nearly as much, tasting dilute, a bit oaky and underripe.
Heading back west, we stopped at Pugliese Vineyards mostly because I wanted to taste their current sparkling wines -- even though they incorrectly label them as Champagne. Again, we were greeted with several limos, including the first stretch Hummer of the day.
The outdoor area along the pond was packed, so we figured the tasting room might not be. Wrong. When Aaron opened the door, we saw a mob, looking mostly like bachelorette parties, four-deep at the bar. The only place we could have stood inside was literally just inside the door. We didn't even try to weave our way through the crowd. Without a single sip of bubbly, we left and were on our way.
McCall Wines was next -- and it was like an entirely different world. No limos. No buses. Barely any people at all, in fact.
The un-air conditioned tasting room is in a barn looking out over part of the vineyard (as at left) and within it, we tasted some of the best wines of the day.
Skipping the 2007s, which I've tasted before, we tasted a beautifully tropical and ripe-yet-balanced 2010 Sauvignon Blanc ($24) made from fruit grown by Claudia Purita of One Woman Wines, a refreshing and versatile 2010 pinot noir rose ($19) and a fresh, slightly spicy 2009 Pinot Noir ($24).
I went home with a bottle of the sauvignon. Aaron bought a bottle as well, along with one of the 2009 pinot.
Next on our jaunt was Laurel Lake Vineyards, a tasting room I hadn't been to in years.We were again greeted by multiple buses and limousines, but the tasting bar was mostly empty. The groups were out on the deck.
I remember linking several of the wines there, particularly the reds, but on Saturday the wines were underwhelming. The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc ($20) was a bit boozy and not balanced, a 2009 Riesling ($19) tasted of stale flowers and not much else and two 2007 reds were disjointed at a bit hot as well.
To top it off, the person pouring for us was more bartender than anything else, not telling us anything about the wines. When we asked him for a spit bucket, he looked puzzled and then rummaged around under the bar for a minute to find one.
Shouldn't every tasting room have one on top of the bar?
After grabbing lunch and visiting Greenport Harbor Brewing to taste some local beer -- the Spring Turning Rye Saison was the standout -- Aaron and I headed to Vineyard 48 on the way back towards my house.
As we approached the winery from the east, however, we noticed three full-size charter buses and at least one tour van parked on the road out front with limos in the parking lot. Mass transit on full display, I was reminded that they have a DJ and a weekly dance party on Saturdays -- and we just kept on driving. That is not the environment in which I want to taste their wines.
Re-Thinking Buses and Limos
Looking back on the day's events, I've decided that I need to re-think my sometimes-snobby attitude about wineries that cater to limousines and tour buses.
Over the years I've scoffed at wineries with more than one in the parking lot at a time, but clearly some wineries, like Duck Walk, can handle the groups with aplomb and space them out enough as to not alienate people genuinely interested in tasting and evaluating the wines. Even if some of the wines disappointed, we had a great experience at Duck Walk.
Others, like Pugliese -- at least on Saturday -- aren't nearly as good at accommodating both large groups and those of us just looking to enjoy a relaxing day tasting wine. It's also clear that Vineyard 48 doesn't want my business at all on a Saturday afternoon -- and that's okay. Clearly what they do works for them.
Based on what I saw on Saturday, the bus and limo style of tasting room isn't easy to do. I didn't see a single person visiting in one of those big groups buy a single bottle of wine. I'm sure it happened and I didn't see it, but you need to move a lot of people through the tasting room -- paying tasting fees or group fees -- to make the finances work.
Is it how I'd personally operate a winery if I owned one? No. But I've clearly been too hard on those that do. It gets people excited about and visiting wine country. Perhaps the wines they enjoy will be gateway wines and open them up to the greatness of the region's best wines.