It was a very good year.
“It’s been dry, hot, great sunshine, no humidity. The berries are smaller and more concentrated, which means more flavor, giving us a window to make more powerful, elegant wines,” said Roman Roth, head winemaker at Wölffer Estate in Bridgehampton. Roth is particularly excited for the pinot noir this year, though the winery is best known for a Long Island rosé gulped down like water on hot summer days in the Hamptons.
“This vintage is my 41st on the East End, and I’ve rarely seen better,” said Rich Olsen-Harbich, head winemaker at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, known for its sustainable, small-batch wines and sprawling estate with a farm chic, cathedral-roofed pavilion hosting weddings at up to $20,000 a pop.
Wine country on the East End has been transformed in recent years, attracting big-ticket investors, adding fancy tasting rooms and bringing in world-class winemakers to steer the process, as the Wall Street Journal reported last week. These improvements, plus climate change-fueled warming trends, have the region’s major players optimistic. The upcoming 2023 vintage they say, will be the best ever. Industry experts, often skeptical of Long Island wines, aren’t quite so easily swept away in the tide of excitement.
“Here is the thing, a good wine maker, in good locations, in a good environment, can make the best wine in any vintage,” said Alice Feiring, wine writer and author of the book, “Natural Wine for the People: Where It Is, Where to Find It, How to Love it.” “The difference between a good vintage and a bad vintage is how hard the winemaker has to work.”
If Long Island winemakers were going to make truly great wines, Feiring says, they would have done so already.
“One of the problems for me with Long Island is they never worked really hard to find their own identity and they tried to model themselves on European destinations,” Feiring said. “Maybe they should be growing other things and try to discover what works here?”
And then there’s the matter of cost — still very much an up-and-comer, Long Island’s wines are rarely cheap. Wölffer’s Long Island rosé commands $26 a bottle, often roughly double the cost of similarly-reviewed French, Italian, or West Coast equivalents in respected publications like Wine Enthusiast.
Nothing, however, from inability to compete on price, to pessimistic critics, has stopped East End wine country from explosive growth in recent decades.
In 1973, the area had one commercial winery; there are now 83. The region, known for sandy soils and moderate temperatures aided by the omnipresence of water, has gained a reputation for producing classic varietals such as Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot; over the years some wineries have been able to achieve high scores from trusted sources like Robert Parker Wine Advocate. (Wölffer currently offers a Cabernet Franc with a 91 rating from the publication, with 90-95 considered outstanding, and 96-100 extraordinary. It sells for $37.)
Grant Reynolds, a sommelier and owner at the tony Parcelle wine bar on the Lower East Side, is another expert less than moved by news of the 2023 vintage. Good weather or no, Reynolds says, Long Island soils simply can’t yield like those in a marquee wine region — not that there’s anything wrong with that.
“If [they] didn’t try to compete with Bordeaux, [if they] made simple, organic, delicious wines you could have in a bistro, I would drink that stuff all day long,” he said. “Where they get weird is when they try to be ambitious. They don’t have the raw materials to make wine in that style.”
“You can grow great grapes, but it doesn’t mean the grapes have the potential to taste as
complex and interesting as fine wine from other parts of the world,” he added. “The reality of this is you can make bad wine even in really good vintages.”
Still, Reynolds is happy for the wineries that they had such a great vintage, because it means the winemakers don’t have to throw out as many grapes and can produce even more product — even if it is, as Feiring sniffed, “made for tourists.”
“A good vintage means they are making a lot of wine, and that is a reason to celebrate,” Reynolds said. “We want our local businesses to do well.”
The wineries, for their part, are not waiting for the critics’ signal to celebrate. At Wolffer, patrons were treated to an elaborate party last weekend to welcome the harvest, featuring unlimited wine, barrel races, and live music.
“Christmas has come early this year,” Roth joked to guests, “Luckily, Wolffer wine doesn’t give you a hangover.”
If this isn’t Long Island’s big year just yet, Roth insisted that it’s coming.
“One day we will get a 100 point score, and it might be this year,” he said. “We have to break the prejudice and a great vintage can do this. You will see.”