More than two decades ago, The Lenz Winery’s winemaker, Eric Fry, and North Fork chef John Ross had an idea that would profoundly influence Long Island’s wine industry.
Bemoaning the lack of collegiality among Long Island’s winemakers, Fry and Ross organized a monthly wine tasting dinner at Ross’s Restaurant in Southold. No press, no spouses, no vineyard managers, no hangers-on. Only those who actually made wine professionally would be allowed to attend.
The format was simple: each winemaker would bring a bottle of wine, hidden in a paper bag, for the group to taste blind, score and discuss. The wines could come from anywhere BUT Long Island. The losers would pay the dinner tab of the winemaker who brought the winning wine. That made the competition meaningful, and prompted everyone to bring good wines. Back in the kitchen, Ross would taste all the wines before orchestrating a series of food pairings appropriate to each wine.
My husband, Alex, and I, who worked as a winemaking team, took turns attending, along with others, including Fry, Rich Olsen-Harbich, Kip Bedell, Roman Roth, Larry Perrine, Charles Massoud, Russell Hearn, Greg Gove, Tom Drozd, Adam Suprenant and Charles Flatt.
As these evenings progressed, there was always rollicking joviality, but sometimes, intense jealousies came to the surface. Cabals formed to influence wine scores. Arguments grew heated over the merits of different wine styles, and sparks flew as wine and testosterone-fueled rivalries energized the dining room.
What made these dinners so revolutionary, so important to Long Island, was that in tasting together and discussing a broad range of wines from all over the world at the same time, we were defining our own wines. We came to share an understanding of and a vocabulary about wine. Beyond the gossip and tales told out of school, personal antagonisms dissipated. A new sense of collegiality fostered loyalty and cooperation beyond the dinners.
When Ross’s closed in 2000, the winemakers’ dinners ended, except for sporadic get-togethers in other venues. But on July 11 this year, history repeated itself one more time, when Eric Fry and chef Dennis McDermott organized a winemakers’ dinner for Ross’s alums, this time, at McDermott’s The Riverhead Project.
McDermott is himself a visionary whose first North Fork restaurant, the Frisky Oyster, started a serious foodie vibe in Greenport. Now in downtown Riverhead, in a 70s-era steel and glass space built for the old Chemical Bank, McDermott carries on his mission to bring together those who enjoy food and wine without pomp or pretense. In his private catering room, fitted out as a vault, the Ross alums cited above gathered, plus John Ross himself and Channing Daughters’ winemaker Christopher Tracy. An empty chair paid silent tribute to Charles Flatt, who died in 2011.
McDermott’s kitchen was fully up to Ross’s high locavore standards, sending out six courses including local and international cheeses, heirloom beet salad, sea scallop ceviche, smoked pork belly, lamb loin and something gooey made of chocolate.
We served ourselves tastes from 14 different wines—their identities all hidden until we had discussed their merits. I guessed correctly that a strangely brass-colored, weirdly tannic wine was from the Republic of Georgia, and a plump, fruity white was a pinot blanc from Alsace.
We had a lush white Bordeaux and a tight, petrol-scented riesling from the Finger Lakes. A creamy Pouilly Fuisse was followed by a gigantic California chard (“smells like wasabi.” “No, it’s Mae West in a wet tee shirt” were the comments). Reds followed (a peppery, “septic” Chinon); cabernets (“high alcohol things”) from Australia, California, and Bordeaux; a seamless pinot from Pommard and, to finish, a sweet German riesling.
This time, there was no scoring—hence, no rivalry. But we filled that void with stories, some reminiscent of early days when certain winemakers arrived to the North Fork without basic knowledge of sanitation (thinking that Zen chants would cure spoilage). Others recalled audacious behaviors of now-absent vintners, like the one who emerged from an elevator at a wine conference, stark naked excepting for a paper bag over his head, accompanied by two similarly under-dressed women (one was his wife).
However irreverent, such legends among these winemakers who are entirely dedicated to their wines have contributed to making a distinctive terroir on Long Island.