At Wainscott Main Wine and Spirits’ weekly wine tasting workshop last Wednesday Eileen Duffy read from her new book “Behind the Bottle: The Rise of Wine on Long Island,” published by Cider Mill Press in Kennebunkport, Maine last month.The book is based on a column in Edible East End, where Ms. Duffy is an editor and I am a writer. If you want full disclosure, she and I go back twenty years, when Long Island wine was just coming into its own.
“Those vintages are enshrined in Long Island lore because their beautiful hot weather made great wine,” Ms. Duffy wrote in the chapter on Roman Roth, the winemaker at Wölffer Estate Vineyard.
“Roth arrived in Long Island just in time to experience the disastrous vintage of 1992, the year fallout from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines let very little sunlight reach the vines.”
I would never have guessed that a geographical event so far away could affect crops here but “ash might as well block the sun” and “Long Island got nothing but rot and unripe grapes,” Ms. Duffy noted. Thankfully, conditions improved quickly and the following three vintages, 1993, 1994 and 1995, put Long Island on the map.
The book is divided into four sections: “The Pioneers,” “The Craftsmen,” “A Vision of a Sustainable Island,” and “The Future of Long Island.” Within each section, people who shaped the local wine industry were asked to discuss their own “milestone” vintages.
Mr. Roth, a pioneer, chose Wölffer Estate 1997 Chardonnay and 2012 White Mischief Chardonnay for whites and Grapes of Roth 2008 Merlot and Wolffer Estate 2005 Christian Cuvee Merlot blend.
Unlike the chardonnays, which were appreciated early on, Long Island reds had a pretty bad rap for being over-priced and just not that good. Ms. Duffy likes to point out that the wine industry is diplomatic and prefers to use the word “challenging” when discussing the misses.
Nowadays, there are more hits, like another one of “Roman’s favorites,” Wölffer’s 2010 Fatalis Fatum, named after one of the late Christian Wölffer’s horses, chosen by Wainscott Main manager Chimene MacNaughton for the class to taste. The red is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Historically, reds here have been blends but single varietals such as Cabernet Franc, are gaining momentum every year.
Wölffer wines are labeled “Hamptons” according to the American Viticultural Area of Long Island, which is divided into the “Hamptons” and the “North Fork.”
The East End is the warmest part of New York, much similar to the Bordeaux region of France, also a four-season, “maritime climate,” with 210 growing days and a 120-day “hang time” on the vine. A grape needs at least 100 days on the vine to ripen.
The first vines were planted 42 years ago by Louisa Hargrave on potato fields in Cutchogue. The North Fork, surrounded by shallower waters, keeps the air warmer longer than the South Fork’s cold ocean breezes.
“Do not plant your vineyard in a low-lying area where fog rests and overnight dew doesn’t evaporate,” Ms. Duffy wrote in the chapter on winemaker and Long Island native Richard Olsen-Harbich, who experimented in Bridgehampton in the early 1980s.
“In other words, site selection is important when deciding where to plant vines: a lesson local winegrowers still talk about and have taken to the center of their heart,” she said.
One vineyard can have completely different terrains. For example, one part could be gray clay and another pure sand. Geography, soil, weather and human touches all contribute to a wine’s “terroir.” (I learned a new word and I liked it.) Terroir, a French term, means “sense of place” and is used to describe how a wine is connected to the exact area of growth.
Today, “3,100 acres of flat arable land” make up the Long Island wine region, producing 500,000 cases of wine a year and attracting 1.5 million tourists to 35 wineries. Vineyards on the East End have had their share of ups and downs, not to mention a late start in the game, but there is no denying Long Island wines stand among the best in the world.
“The best wines in the world are grown in regions that aren’t perfect,” said Mr. Olsen-Harbich, another pioneer, “It makes it that much more of a triumph for us.”
“Behind the Bottle” is a triumph for Ms. Duffy. Reading it has given me a much deeper look into the local wines that I love, but you don’t have to drink wine to enjoy the stories about people who were drawn to the East End from all over the world, helped each other forge ahead with their dreams, and made a lot of people happy along the way.
Ms. Duffy wrapped up the last Wainscott Main workshop of the season, but the weekly wine classes will begin again in October. “Behind the Bottle,” is available at BookHampton in East Hampton and Canio’s in Sag Harbor. She is reading and signing books at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill on May 9 at 2 p.m. and Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack on May 17 at 1 p.m. after their first Sunday Brunch on the Terrace.