Markets are like politics: Part beauty pageant and part actual substance in varying degrees. This is true whether we’re talking about Argentina, Northern Italy or Long Island. Tastes and trends are constantly changing and are as influenced by the winds of marketing and other forces as a bird on the wing. When it comes to the wine industry, demands for wines and so called “in wines” are made all the more fickle by extraneous forces like weather, economy and so on.
It’s no different for the wines being produced right here in our own region. In particular, the big brands of Chardonnay and Merlot. Just a handful of years ago, back in 2004 to be exact, I was penning articles cautioning our local vineyards against pursuing these wines. It seemed to me Long Island producers would be tilting at windmills trying to capture any piece of the Chardonnay or Merlot pies. Simply put, I didn’t think we were up for it. The standards against which these wines are judged were quite high and continuing to be raised by regions that were producing better and better versions each year. Merlot, which fell slightly out of fashion after one widely lauded Giamatti film (Sideways), is making a comeback. And though favored bottles continue to hail from Napa and Bordeaux, great bottles have been coming out of Mendoza, Willamette Valley, Northern Italy, Patagonia and, yes, Long Island. Likewise, Chardonnay was once thought to be the domain of producers in Sonoma and Burgundy, however plenty of good “chards” are being associated with these regions as well.
This turn of fortune is not specific to these bottles or our region, for that matter. And it’s hardly an isolated incident. A decade ago I was asked by the Slow Food Movement to judge Long Island wines with a group of other wine professionals (all wine educators, sommeliers or the like). The wines that really surprised us were not what we expected. They were a Cabernet Franc from Pellegrini and a Gewürztraminer from Paumanok. I thought we should find some other Cabernet Francs from Long Island (not easy back then). There were only a few producers labeling wine as Cabernet Franc. Even though the grape was planted in many vineyards, its role was relegated to a supporting member of the Bordeaux blends or as a bit of spice for Merlot. As for Gewürztraminer, I considered it a passionate endeavor of the winemakers that paid off (it wasn’t too bad for us drinkers, either).
And so the litany continues: Fifty years ago, there was no Long Island wine region. Yet today, we are respectable contenders in Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, two grapes we tend to consistently produce very good wines from. True, the market is a little softer for these wines, and everything is relative, but there is value in putting your best foot forward nevertheless.