spgpond vinyards, sagaponack

It’s been said that East End, Long Island wines are “young”. Well, that’s true, compared to wines from Europe and even California. But hard work, good weather and yes, time, may be paying off…md

 Merlot Made From Hamptons Vineyard for $100 Beats Saint-Emilion

By Gillian Wee

May 9 (Bloomberg) — After making wine since 1992 surrounded by the mansions of the Hamptons, Roman Roth got the ingredients for the ideal vintage last summer: steady sunshine and little rain.

“It was a dream year,” said Roth, 42, the German-born winemaker at Wolffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack on Long Island’s South Fork, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) east of New York City. “The growing conditions were close to perfect. You knew when you started picking grapes. So we made really ripe, great lush wines.”

roman roth

Roth’s most expensive product, a 2004 Premier Cru — or first growth — Merlot sells for $100 a bottle at his tasting room, which is preparing for its peak period from Memorial Day, the May 26 U.S. holiday marking the start of the summer season, to October.

The 2007 vintage follows one in 2005 praised by Wine Spectator magazine Executive Editor Thomas Matthews. They show that Long Island’s boutique winemakers can compete with U.S. West Coast and European producers, Roth said.

“I think 2007 is going to be the exciting year,” said Gary Vaynerchuk, 32, who runs Wine Library, a retailer in Springfield, New Jersey, and hosts a Web TV show on winelibrarytv.com. “Weather has everything to do with everything when it has to do with wine.”

While New York is the country’s third-largest wine-and-grape producer behind California and Washington, two-thirds of the harvest is turned into grape juice, said Jessica Chittenden, a spokeswoman for the state agriculture department. Long Island’s vineyards produce only 1.19 million gallons of wine, worth about $100 million annually, equivalent to 0.2 percent of California’s output, said Steve Bate, 49, executive director of the Long Island Wine Council.

3,000 Acres

Long Island’s first vineyard was started with 17 acres (6.9 hectares) in 1973 by Louisa and Alec Hargrave. Sixty vineyards, many former potato fields, now cover about 3,000 acres. They benefit from growing conditions similar to the Bordeaux region, Bate said. Long Island’s largest winery is the family-run Pindar Vineyards, sitting on almost 550 acres.

What sets Long Island wines apart from California offerings is how well they pair with food, said Jim Trezise, 61, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. Grapes grown in New York’s cooler climate produce vintages that are light and acidic, he said.

The island, known for its white beaches, relies on summer visitors who buy wine where it’s made.

`Attractive Region’

“They are such an attractive region for tourism that they’re able to sell a large percentage of production from the wineries,” said Matthews, 54, whose favorites include offerings from Wolffer, Pellegrini Winery and Bedell Cellars, owned by Michael Lynne, a former head of Time Warner Inc.‘s New Line Cinema. “That has allowed them to flourish without being forced to compete on retail shelves and restaurant wine lists with wines around the world.”

High real-estate prices and a lack of marketing also hamper the industry’s expansion, said Eric Ripert, 43, executive chef of the New York restaurant Le Bernardin. He owns a house in Sag Harbor, about five miles from Wolffer Estate Vineyards, and has been drinking Long Island wine for 10 years.

“In New York, we are snobbish about the region,” said Ripert, who likes Wolffer’s 2007 Rose. “They need to have a cooperative of vineyards working together to work on their image and create the right marketing and PR campaign around their product. That will take a few years.”

During a 2003 blind tasting by 50 wine critics at Le Bernardin, 35 “thought our Premier Cru was French and compared it to Chateau Peby Faugeres and Chateau Angelus,” said Wolffer’s marketing director, Sue Calden. Both make Saint-Emilion from the country’s Bordeaux region.

Untested Territory

Roth moved to Long Island in 1992, drawn by the challenge of making wine in untested territory. That was the year of 13 rainy weekends, he says, making it difficult for grapes to ripen. He made only 3,000 cases. He now produces more than five times that.

Started by Hamburg-born venture-capitalist Christian Wolffer, 70, the estate features an airy tasting room looking out onto a 50-acre vineyard where Wolffer grows Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes.

Wolffer’s vineyard staff grows and picks the grapes. The harvest for the lighter rose and Pinot Gris wines comes in October, while reds and late-harvest Chardonnay go into November.

“All of Long Island fits into one tank of Gallo,” Roth said. “We may need a famous Paris tasting. A small industry like Long Island’s doesn’t have big budgets. Good wine is our billboard.”

Gulf Stream

Long Island’s wineries benefit from well-drained sandy soil and proximity to the Gulf Stream, which keeps temperatures stable and allows grapes to ripen evenly, said industry pioneer Louisa Hargrave, 60.

The wine industry on Long Island grew in spurts over the 1980s and 1990s, tempered by real estate prices, said Hargrave, director of Stony Brook University Center for Wine, Food and Culture.

Last year’s vintage and the Hamptons’ celebrity summer residents may give Long Island producers the publicity they need, just as director Alexander Payne made a star of Santa Barbara, California, wine country four years ago in the hit movie `Sideways.’

“Long Island needs its moment,” Vaynerchuk said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if P. Diddy buys a property in Long Island and plays up the Hamptons. That would create awareness, just like “Sideways” was tremendous.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Gillian Wee in New York at gwee3@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: May 9, 2008 00:01 EDT