East Meets West in Wine Country
By Dawn Watson
Having recently taken a tasting trip to several vineyards in Paso Robles, California, I was struck by the similarities of that emerging wine region to our own and came away from the experience with a newfound appreciation of our what our land has to offer.
Despite the differences in terroir, acreage and varietal output, the great grape stories I heard during my time there were surprisingly akin to those told about our own wine climate here on the East End. Both coastal regions found their industry footing around the same time; they are also each mostly made up of small, family growers who focus on quality, not necessarily vast quantities; and both are part of aspirational lifestyle communities that embrace and celebrate their contributions. And even though the western wine country is famous for its reds and our eastern Long Island vineyards are best known for their whites and rosés, it’s clear that the burgeoning regions have much more in common than might first meet the eye, or the palate.
The Franciscan Friars planted the first vines in Paso Robles in 1790, though the modern wine world was born in the late 1960s and early 1970s when approximately 2,000 acres of cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah were placed in the soil. In 1983, the Paso Robles American Viticulture Area was created, comprising just over a dozen vineyards.
Today, there are more than 40,000 vineyard acres and approximately 200 wineries operating in the Paso Robles AVA, which was named Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine in 2013 and Best Wine Region in the West by Sunset Magazine in 2016. Approximately one million-plus visitors arrive in Paso Robles each year to experience that region’s wine country, which has exploded from a once-sleepy town into a bustling community with a great variety of restaurants—many of the farm-to-table variety—upscale shopping and luxury real estate.
Though habituated by Native Americans, and eventually settled by the white man in 1640, the East End was slower to embrace the grape. Wine pioneers Alex and Louisa Hargrave planted the first vines—cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc—on 17 acres in 1973 in Cutchogue, opening their winery, Hargrave Vineyard, in 1975. In 1984, winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich authored the Hamptons AVA, the first on Long Island. The North Fork AVA, also authored by Mr. Olsen-Harbich, was created the following year, in 1985. Today there are four wine producers on the South Fork, 47 on the North Fork and five in western Suffolk.
In recent years, several East End wineries have earned high scores by Wine Spectator magazine, boasting “wine of superior character and style,” and “best of” awards from the national press, as well as from New York State. All told, the area produces half a million cases of wine a year, or 1.2 million gallons, and brings 1.3 million visitors to the East End.
Another commonality between the two wine regions is proximity to water, which wine experts generally agree is the best location for planting vines. The climates and soils, however, are distinctly different.
Located between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Central Coast of California features diverse microclimates and soils, in combination with warm days and cool nights, which are what make the Paso Robles grapes so distinctive. Temperature swings of up to 50 degrees in a 24-hour period are not out of the question there.
Nestled among fertile valleys and rolling hills, cut by small canyons, the earth in Paso is primarily calcareous soil, meaning that it’s loaded with calcium carbonate and chalky in texture, high pH levels—from 7.4 to 8.6—and low acid, with good mixes of clay, sand and loam. Growing conditions there are ideal for producing cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and other reds, such as syrah, viognier and zinfandel.
A more generous growing season leads to longer “hang time” on the vines, leading to more intense varietal character. Their voluptuous fruitiness, velvety mouth feel, deep coloration and seemingly non-existent tannins generally characterize the wines of Paso Robles.
Our East End terroir is derived from our glacial soils, cool maritime climate and native flora, resulting in lower pH levels—between 6 and 7—than in Paso, with just a touch of acidity. Heavily influenced by the Atlantic Ocean and Peconic Bay, the rocky soil here has been ground into gravel, sand, clay and silt-sized particles. These most common soil elements are beneficial during drought times and particularly conducive to encourage vines to dig deep for their water sources.
Our rolling and sloping land is made up of soils that are quite well drained and very sandy. Though some areas here have been particularly well-suited to farming (think potatoes and corn) they have also been called out for their excellent temperament for vines, according to world-renowned viticulturist, Dr. Richard Smart, who announced that they “are among the finest soils for grape growing that I have ever seen in the world.”
Our moderate nautical clime, punctuated by ocean breezes and extended days in the sun, leads to bright, crisp and clean whites that refresh and perfectly pair with the brininess of bounty from the sea. Due to the temperate weather, vinefera grapes grown here—mostly merlot, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc—don’t generally get the chance to over-ripen and as a result are fairly balanced, not too earthy, not too flabby and with nary a trace of fruit bomb boldness.
Both the tight-knit Paso Robles wine community and the vintners of the East End share the concern of putting out good products while protecting the source—the natural environments which create the opportunity for quality vine growth. Calcareous Vineyard winemaker Jason Joyce articulated this during my visit to the west coast.
“We have one of the most unique places here to make world-class wines,” he said. “We all must do what we can to protect it.”
Mr. Joyce says that the most important aspect of a winery is its place. The richly calcareous soils, combined with the maritime influence, steep topography and massive daily temperature swings make their marks on his vines.
“We’ve got big fruit and beautiful acidity because of it,” says the sustainable growing practitioner. “Our outsized wines are Paso on steroids.”
Echoing a commitment to the land is winemaker Anthony Nappa of Raphael winery, who is dedicated to sustainable growing practices. From vine pruning and leaf pulling to grape harvesting, most of the work at the 60-acre vineyard is done by hand. A sense of place is also of great import at Raphael, whose estate-grown merlot, cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc, and estate-bottled Riesling, among others, are produced using gravity flow and controlled fermentation, with little fining and filtration. The result is elegant and balanced fruit-driven wines that express the unique terroir of this place.
“We pay attention to every cluster and are as sustainable as possible in the vineyard,” he says of his grape crop, which is half whites, half reds. “We make everything very naturally. We wild ferment everything—no yeast, enzymes or tannins—though we will intervene if we absolutely have to, but fortunately, our climate allows us to make wines very naturally, straightforward and honestly without manipulation.”
Clearly, another commonality seen in both regions is a hands-on approach to tending the vines. High-touch is the name of the game for the winemakers at California’s Jada Vineyard and here at home at the North Fork’s Lenz Winery in Peconic.
Founded in 1978, the estate-grown wines at Lenz, which has nearly 70 acres and some of the most mature vineyards in the area, are produced according to exacting standards. According to vineyard manager Sam McCullough, the vines at Lenz are the subject of great personalized micromanaging and intervention—including leaf removal, shoot thinning, cluster thinning, crop reduction, triple catch wires, and super attentive pest and fungus control, which utilizes an open canopy approach to keep fungus problems to a minimum—in order to produce fully naturally ripened chardonnay, gewürztraminer, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec, petit verdot, pinot gris and pinot noir grapes of the highest quality.
At Jada, planted in 1999, the name of the game is biodynamic, according to winemaker David Galzignato, who is known for his rigorous attention to detail. Predating the organic movement, biodynamic agriculture involves the concerns and understanding of the interconnectedness of the ecological, energetic and spiritual nature of the plants in relation to nature. For example, Mr. Galzignato believes in “working like a surgeon” as he cluster sculpts each plant, removing the shoulders, wings and tails with a pair of very small scissors, and in spoon feeding each vine. His kid-glove treatments of the vines and fruit are carried out in order to create a healthy canopy and to effect the least amount of stress on the syrah, grenache, mourvedre, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, tannat, viognier, grenache blanc, roussanne, merlot and petit verdot vines.
There’s more to great wine than the taste. The setting can be just as alluring as the mouth-feel.
Our acreage here on the South Fork is limited compared to that of California’s wine country, but both Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack and nearby Channing Daughters winery in Bridgehampton share some notable characteristics with the luxury lifestyle perfected by the Vina Robles brand in Paso.
Marked by its European inspiration and architecture, the impressive California winery offers a stylistic bridge between the Old and New Worlds. It also boasts an enormously popular amphitheater, which hosts acts such as Chris Isaaks, Amy Schumer and Cyndi Lauper; a jam-packed events calendar, including an annual grape stomp; and even open lot parcels for premium new construction residential real estate at the edge of the acres of vines. It’s easy to see why it’s such a draw to the region.
Similarly, Wölffer and Channing Daughters are fine examples of living high on the vine. Both are strong draws for their respective communities.
Set in the Most Expensive Zip Code in America, Wölffer has its Tuscan-style tasting room and high-end horse farm, plus spirited evenings of live music events, and a new restaurant on Main Street in Sag Harbor. And Channing, a popular destination for fundraisers and other philanthropically minded events, is surrounded by equestrian estates and boasts its own sculpture garden. Setting the upscale tone here on the South Fork, both wineries are built on considerably smaller scales than that offered by Vina Robles, though they are both boons to their communities.
Due to the exorbitant cost of land here on the East End, as well as the limited acreage, it’s not likely we will ever become the bustling wine region that Paso Robles is, which has exploded in the past few years, thanks in large part to its tight community of winemakers. But it is possible to learn something from it. We can grow forward and better embrace the fruits of our land.
From buying the bottles and supporting the local wine industry to venturing out to restaurants that pour East End-grown varietals and embracing the vineyards that grace our villages and hamlets, it’s time we raised our glasses to the East End wine community.