The Art of North Fork Wine Tasting

I’ve always loved Corey Creek, a small, airy, unpretentious tasting room in Southold. For years, it’s been a mere satellite of upscale Bedell Cellars and I was excited to hear it now has its own identity. Both the décor and business model have been reinvented based on a mix of market data, a sense of place and some bright ideas. It’s a bold move by the talented Bedell team, positioning Corey Creek at the cutting-edge of the evolution—away from the ol’ sniff, swirl and sip and toward laidback tastings.

The East End is a top travel destination in large part because of its world-class wine. I live on the North Fork and I’m fortunate to be able to visit the vineyards often. A successful day winery-hopping involves creating a synergy between the intellectual and the sensual. I like to start with serious tasting and talking with owners/winemakers, then wind down in beautiful surroundings, listening to music and sharing a bottle with friends. I was curious where the new Corey Creek would fit in. Would it be hip or casual, all about real wine or just for fun? Turns out it’s a playful blend, just like the North Fork.

Related Content: Bedell Cellars Renovates Tap Room at Corey Creek

The Tap Room at Corey Creek, as it’s now called, is decked out in white, blue and natural wood, creating a beachy vibe. Agricultural and nautical touches like hand-carved tap handles on the wine kegs reference the region’s heritage. On this sunny evening, a sprinkling of bright young things chatted and drank glasses of wine on the deck. “Every element is fresh and reconsidered,” said CEO Trent Preszler. “If there was something we’ve been doing at Bedell, we asked ourselves, ‘Do we need this at all at Corey Creek?’ We tried to pare down the experience to an authentic, essential expression of the North Fork’s roots, and we did lots of brainstorming about what would appeal to a new kind of wine drinker.”

Winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich had the idea to serve small-batch, unique and pre-release wines straight from the cellar, bypassing bottles entirely by filling kegs instead. “The beauty of the Tap Room is that new wines keep showing up,” Olsen-Harbich said. “It’s a whole new way to enjoy wine, and it opens up a world of possibilities for me to explore and experiment.” Olsen-Harbich is known for experimentation, chasing Long Island terroir through sustainable practices and the use of wild yeasts.

Tasting room manager Brayan Palencia led us through that day’s selections. A light, chilled cabernet sauvignon was made by carbonic maceration (a whole-berry fermentation technique popular in Beaujolais, France). A Gewürztraminer pétillant naturel was deliciously delicate and fizzy. Sauvignon blanc, a light chardonnay and a barrel sample of merlot were all new and fresh. But the most delightful and amusing innovation was the frozen rosé churning in a slushy machine. Yes, they went there! But it’s a grown-up frosé, only slightly sweet. I went instantly from rejecting it on wine-snob principal to happily slurping it with a straw. I’m sold—we’ll stop in at Corey Creek whenever the mood strikes us.

If you live far away and choose to spend a day or a weekend at the wineries, I strongly advise that you don’t just head east and play it by ear, unless you’re okay with possibly ending up over-served, hangry and surrounded by a vibe you hate. Back in the day, going to the wineries meant tasting small samples and then going to the next place. And there weren’t that many places. But critically tasting fine wines appeals to a smaller niche, most just want to have fun. In response, the region’s wine business proliferated and diversified, feeding off the different demographics of more than one million visitors each year. Now, there are big “party” wineries, medium-sized quieter places and small barns where it’s common to find the owner eager to talk. In reality, you’ll likely visit only three or four a day.

image: bedell cellars

image: bedell cellars

I like places that offer guided tastings as well as table seating and music. Clovis Point in Jamesport combines serious and fun with admirable grace. I had a friend visiting from Belgium and I was determined to dispel any silly Eurocentric notions he might have about wine. In Clovis Point’s converted barn, the stone floor and high wood-beamed ceilings create a cool, calm feeling and there is none of the excessive bonhomie you’ll see at some places. At the bar, our server led us through an extended tasting, including the limited-release 2013 Archaeology merlot. Clovis Point winemaker John Leo is passionate in his pursuit of elegant, balanced wines and picky about sourcing the best fruit. This wine convinced my friend that New York knows what it’s doing. We took a full glass of Archaeology out to the lawn and sat next to the vines to savor it in peace.

In a way, proper wine tasting is like going to an art gallery or classical concert. If you have the right attitude, curiosity, pay close attention to what you’re seeing, smelling and tasting as well as listening to the facts about the wine, it becomes an immersive, aesthetic experience that goes way beyond just drinking. Once you get into it, you’ll understand why fine wine is up there with great art, music and architecture.

This experience is what the party people miss out on. And wineries that behave like bars do a disservice to the art of sipping. Practically speaking, tasting involves spitting and careful pacing, those in pursuit of high-end wines should do that first. As the effects of alcohol turn the mood more convivial, go to a winery chosen for a lively, casual ambience, purchase nibbles like bread, cheese and pâté and listen to music. Another important tip is to start the day with a large breakfast, bring plenty of water and don’t forget to drink it! Buy bottles of wine to take home early in the day to avoid becoming the proud owner of three cases of sweet plonk that seemed magical when you were dancing barefoot in the vines at sunset.

There are many lovely wineries and I can’t list all the ones I think strike the right balance for grown-up fun, but I have my go-tos. Croteaux Vineyards in Southold makes only rosés that are served in a gorgeous courtyard that looks like something straight out of the South of France. Every year, I have to decide on my favorite new release. This year, it’s the crisp, refined 2016 “Sauvage” Merlot 181 Rosé. Castello di Borghese in Cutchogue is an elegant yet simple winery with an Old World feel. Now owned by the second generation, youngest son Giovanni Borghese is starting to put his own stamp on the place. Lieb Cellars Tasting Room on rural Oregon Road is a very chill place with an industrial feel. The patio overlooks farm fields stretching off into the distance. Part of Bridge Lane winery, the venue has a great small plates menu and books talented, local singer/songwriters. McCall Wines in Cutchogue is charmingly rustic. Try to catch Friday nights for burgers made from their own white Charolais cattle. The highly acclaimed North Fork Table and Inn runs the food truck that McCall partners with. James Beard award–winning chef Claudia Fleming made me a burger with mushrooms and talked me into trying the parmesan fries. Paired with our excellent bottle of McCall pinot noir, it was bliss!

On the subject of dinner, (this might surprise you) I’d suggest not going out to a restaurant after a day at the wineries, unless you’re visiting off-season. It’s tedious to have to calculate tips when you’ve been drinking all day and it’s a bit of a bun fight out there, as the crowds are large and almost everyone else has been drinking, too. Besides, your designated driver has had quite enough. Go home, have some takeout and one last glass of wine on the comfort of your couch, pat yourself on the back for being reasonably sensible and turn in for the night. Victorious winery warriors need all the beauty sleep they can get.