Cheers To The Lenz Winery

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In 1976, three years after my then-husband, Alex, and I planted our first wine grapes in Cutchogue, I was inspired by a dinner at A Moveable Feast, a Westhampton-based restaurant that had just earned four stars from the New York Times food critic Florence Fabricant. She extolled “this gem, every facet polished,” and called the owners, Patricia and Peter Lenz, “People of consummate taste.”And the chef was a woman! To this day, I can recall the brilliance of Pat Lenz’s cuisine: her witty, aromatic interpretation of French classics, emphasizing herbs and vegetables at a time when other restaurants’ idea of cuisine was a chunk of meat, a baked potato in foil and a limp salad of iceberg lettuce.

Fast forward to 1978, and I was thrilled to find the same couple, Pat and Peter Lenz, planting merlot and gewurtztraminer on a 30-acre farm in Peconic, just a mile away from Hargrave Vineyard. The Lenzes had shut down their restaurant at the peak of its success, seeking (Pat recently emailed me), “the challenge of making wine to pair with the food we loved.” Having taken their vineyard search to the Napa Valley, they were discouraged (as we had been) to find that the wine industry in California then was having a very hard time.

Not wanting to be very small fish in a big pond, Pat and Peter settled on the North Fork, bought his-and-hers tractors, raised a goat they named “Julia Child” and devoted themselves to becoming vintners.

“The patience it took to wait years to taste the fruits of our labors was not easy considering the immediate gratification of a restaurant,” Pat said. “But wait we did. And it was worth it. We are extraordinarily proud of Lenz Vineyard wines and the choices of grape varieties we planted.”

Happy as the Lenzes were with the success of their wines, by 1988 they were ready for change again. Back in California, Pat returned to her first avocation, sculpture. Then the pair opened an avant-garde motel (Motel Duchamp) in Sonoma, followed by a Syrah-only winery, also called “Duchamp” after Pat’s artistic muse, surrealist Marcel Duchamp. Peter runs operations there, while Pat continues as artist-in-chief.

As Pat, in a 2003 interview said, “I am the starter … I do the creative part, then [Peter] makes it a business. I find maintenance painful.”

I understood when the Lenzes left Peconic, but I sincerely missed them. We had worked together to establish the Long Island Wine Council, to bring quality standards to our new industry, and they had held the standard of both quality and innovation high.

Fortunately for the world of wine, The Lenz Winery was taken over by Peter and Deborah Carroll, a Manhattan-based couple with equally high standards, who had planted grapes on their nearby Dorset Farms in 1985. As investors, the Carrolls might have pushed for profitability at the expense of quality but instead they gave their vineyard manager, Sam McCullough, their winemaker, Eric Fry, and their sales manager, Tom Morgan, freedom to reduce yields more, age wines longer and niche-market wines more than the bottom line might dictate. The result has been that, with the same team making the wines for almost three decades, the wines show tremendous consistency, depth and complexity.

Interviewed for this column, Peter Carroll reflected, “When I got into the business I thought that making wine would be very hard, growing grapes would be fairly hard, but selling wine would be easy. Now I realize that it’s the other way around! Selling wine is very hard, especially to wine stores, 90 percent of whom only really care about price.”

Echoing Pat Lenz, he said, “Something else I’ve learned: patience. Everything takes ages in the wine business and you just have to get used to that.” He added, “When I got into the business, I also thought that if you made a really, really good wine, it would sell itself … [but] the ‘wine establishment’ is a powerful, conservative—reactionary even—entity; it isn’t really in the business of heralding new wineries. To a large extent the wine establishment is in the business of manning the ramparts to deny access to upstarts like Lenz!”

As frustrating, slow, and costly as it has been for the Carrolls, Peter has maintained his enthusiasm.

“What a total delight it has been to be involved at Lenz in this emerging industry,” he said.

Here’s a toast to 35 years of total delight at the Lenz Winery in Peconic.

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