I Don’t Like It

When you go into an American winery’s tasting room, in Long Island, California or elsewhere, you are likely to be offered tastes of a significant number of wines.  Some will be on a less expensive list of the winery’s most popular wines and others may be on the “reserve” list, which they consider to be their best wines.

A few visitors may have such a broad appreciation for wine (or maybe a lack of appreciation) that they like everything they try.   Most other people will like some wines and not others.  And unfortunately, there may be some tasting rooms where some people don’t like anything.  We’re sorry to say that in the past there were some wineries in Long Island that fell into the latter category, but in recent tastings we have found at least a few praiseworthy wines at all the wineries we visited.  Still, there were none where we liked everything.  With scant exception, the same can be said of almost every winery we have ever visited in the United States.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  No winemaker can please everyone and, we suspect, few even try.  They aim to please themselves and we, the consumers, can either go along with them or buy someone else’s wine.  When we are standing at the bar in a tasting room, we ought to use wines we don’t like as learning experiences.

  • Be polite. Remember what your mother told you and if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.  Pour out your wine and maybe ask the person you’re with what they thought.  Move on.
  • Is the wine okay? Maybe the wine has just gone bad. On more than one occasion, we’ve been served corked wine in a tasting room, especially on busy days when the server may have been too rushed to check the bottle.  The wineries are grateful if you point out that one of their purveyors is selling them tainted corks.
  • Ask yourself why you don’t like it. Maybe the wine is just not made in a style you like.  For instance, we prefer deeper, rich Pinot Noir’s than the thin, acid ones that are popular in some regions.  That doesn’t make us right, but it does validate the consistency of our taste. The point is to identify what it is about a wine you don’t like, so you can avoid wines like it in the future.  It can be even more instructive if one person likes a wine and the other doesn’t.  That enables both to pinpoint the offending (or positive) characteristics of the wine.
  • Try to remember other wines from that winery. They might just have had a bad year.  For example, there is a world-renowned winemaker in Napa Valley whose 2011 offerings just didn’t make it in our opinion.  It was a tough harvest across the region, so this winery wasn’t able to overcome the reduced quality of their grapes.  They still make great wine in other years.
  • And if you don’t like anything…Not everyone who grows or buys grapes knows what to do with them. Because you are a wise and discerning wine taster, this winery must simply be sub-par.  Oh, wait, there’s somebody down the bar buying a case.  Well, there’s no accounting for taste, yours or theirs.

At the very least, figuring out what you don’t like will save you time and money in a wine store when you get home.  Unfortunately, it may also cut you off from some good wines that might come with another harvest.  Still, one of the reasons to go wine tasting is to figure out what you like…and what you don’t.

Macari Vineyards

Once you leave New York’s Long Island Expressway on your voyage to Long Island’s Wine Country in the North Fork area, among the first wineries you will come to is Macari Vineyards (www.macariwines.com).  It offers a warm welcome and some of the better wines we have tasted in the region.

Macari’s vineyards were once a potato farm, as is true of much of the North Fork. It is still family-owned and run and it is, in a sense, still a farm since they raise a herd of cattle as well as growing grapes.  They are exponents of biodynamic wine making,(which we don’t really understand, but we must say that biodynamic vineyards often produce excellent wines).

Macari has two tasting rooms: the original one in Mattituck and another in Cutchogue.  The latter is only open in the summer tourist high season; Mattituck is open year-round.  It is this one that is the basis for our comments, although the wines are the same in both locations.

The tasting room is quite large, with a high-vaulted ceiling that can absorb noise when things get busy on summer weekends.  Yet despite the massive stone fireplace and all the exposed wood there’s somehow a sense of intimacy to the place.  Displays of bottles of wine on boards stretched between barrels reinforce the rusticity of the setting.

The wines available for tasting shows Macari to its best effect.  The reserve list includes a very creditable Sauvignon Blanc, a Syrah and the stars of the show: Macari’s Cabernet Franc and their Bordeaux blend, Bergen Road.  These last two have depth and power that show how far Long Island wine making has come in recent years.  Interestingly, although the blend of the Bergen Road differs from year to year, in the 2014 available now they have four of the five Bordeaux grapes, except Cabernet Franc.  Also, for those like Lucie who enjoy a glass of Rosé, make sure to taste theirs.  She loved it and find that it tastes like a rosé from Provence, which is quite a compliment.

They are well aware that Cabernet Franc is their flagship grape.  Over the course of the summer, Macari hosts several events highlighting their twenty years of Cabernet Franc.  This is the same grape that is used in the majority of the wines made in Pomerol, and unfair comparison to be sure, but an indication that Macari is aiming high with the wines that have garnered them their highest praise.

Macari’s porch and the pizza truck

Macari makes it easy to spend an extended time at their winery.  As you enter their tasting room, there is a refrigerated cabinet with cheeses and charcuterie, which you can eat on their spacious and well appointed porch.  If that’s not enough, the winery has arranged for a pizza-making truck to pull up alongside the building.  And of course, you enjoy it  with a bottle of Macari wine!  We don’t think we’d make a special trip from Manhattan just for a pizza and a bottle of wine, but if we had a vacation home on the North Fork or the Hamptons, it would be a very tempting way to while away a baking hot summer afternoon in the shade of Macari’s porch.

Macari is one of the Long Island wineries that gives evidence to the potential of what the North Fork can produce.  Macari Vineyards  is offering a fine wine tasting experience today and the future of this winery is yet to discover.

Think Globally, Drink Locally

Some years ago, Steve was visiting his friend Adrian at his vacation home in Southold, in the middle of Long Island’s North Fork.  One late afternoon, sitting on the veranda and sipping a local wine, the two fellows engaged in a hearty discussion about the value of Long Island’s experiments with wine production, still novel at that time.

Steve stated that the wines produced on the North Fork were nowhere near the quality of similarly priced wines from California, France or Australia.  So what was the point of paying top dollar for poorer wines?

Adrian’s response was that it was worth supporting the local industry precisely so that the wine makers would have the opportunity to improve over time.  At that point, many of the vineyards – and thus the vines – were ten years old or less.  If no one bought their wines in their youth, the vineyards would never have the opportunity to reach maturity and potentially great wines would never be made.

Bedell Cellars

As we say elsewhere in this issue, we are finding that North Fork wines are beginning to meet the test of time, albeit more so at some wineries than at others.  But the question at the heart of Adrian and Steve’s conversation remains: if there are better wines at similar prices from the world’s great wine growing appellations, is there any purpose for drinking wines from “lesser” regions?  What in fact makes one particular section of Wine Country better or worse?  Is it not just a matter of what we’re used to?

The original subject was Long Island’s wines but the same can be asked of, say, Santa Clara vs. Napa, Puglia vs. Tuscany or Languedoc vs. Bordeaux.  Why not limit yourself to the best?  In particular, for those of us who enjoy traveling for the purpose of wine tasting, is there any reason to make a trip to any but the “best” regions.  We have come to the opinion that yes, it does make sense, with some reservations.

As a general statement, these regions are lesser known, rather than simply of poorer quality.  In any given year, there are some great wines made in vineyards that are unlikely to show up in the pages of Wine Spectator, or if they do they’ll be in the voluminous lists in the back not the news articles up front.

In our recent voyages, we have discovered wines from regions we had previously either not known of or had disliked, such as Minervois, eastern Sicily and California’s Central Coast.    In most cases, there will be a greater concentration of top-quality wines in better-known regions, so with a little homework in advance you can raise your odds of trying the better wines and skipping the underachievers.  But if you don’t go, you won’t know.

Moreover, who’s to say what’s better and what’s worse?  Tastes, especially in wine, change over time.  It’s not that long ago that no one cared about Pinot Noirs from the Santa Rita Hills, Ripassos from Valpolicella or Shirazes from the Barossa.  Now these are highly prized wines, attracting buyers and visitors from everywhere fine wine is appreciated.  If nothing else, taking a wine tasting trip to a little known corner of Wine Country gives you bragging rights when and if that area gets recognition.

“Ah, yes, I remember when the growers were virtually giving away the wine and it was just small producers serving wine in their barns”.  That’s us, talking about Napa Valley a few decades ago.  Who knew then what a big deal it would be today?

Where Once Potatoes Grew

For many years, Long Island was famous for certain agricultural products, specifically ducklings and potatoes.  Then, 45 years ago Alex and Louisa Hargrave thought that the soil and climate of the North Fork of eastern Long Island would provide the right terroir for wine grapes.  Today, there are 38 wineries in the North Fork AVA.  The fact that they exist is a testimonial to the Hargraves’ vision, but from the perspective of a wine tasting enthusiast, it is only recently worth the trip to try the wines.

We have been visiting the North Fork Wine Country for roughly 25 years and for most of that time, we would have had to say that wine tasting in this region amounted to a pleasant day in the country.  It was not an expedition for the purpose of serious wine tasting.  The wineries were ambitious and the wines showed promise but they were, in our opinion, mostly poorly made and overpriced.  Growers were and still are planting too many varietals, most of which are not supported by the terroir.  Based on some recent tastings, we are pleased to say that the quality has improved sufficiently that a visit to the North Fork can be rewarding in terms of the wines themselves, while still offering attractive surroundings and attractions other than wine alone.

  The tasting room at Bedell Cellars

While there are still too many varietals at almost every winery, a consensus seems to have been reached as to what the North Fork does well: Sauvignon Blanc in the whites and Cabernet Franc in the reds.  We guess that there is a market for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, since they are still being produced, but they do not measure up to the quality we have sampled of the two varietals we mentioned.  It would seem that there has been more investment in wine making technology as well.

We certainly didn’t like everything we tasted, but we could say the same thing about Napa Valley, Bordeaux or Tuscany.  Not that Long Island’s wineries are at the level of those exalted regions, but it is fair to say that tastes differ and that the North Fork has established itself as an area with some well-made wines.  There are also charming villages that take advantage of Long Island’s agricultural and maritime traditions that can round out a visit, beyond wine tasting.

There are still some negatives that should be mentioned.  It is a long trip from Manhattan to the North Fork, at least two hours each way.  We have decided that in the future we will not go there for day trips but will stay over at a hotel or an inn.  That will give us the opportunity to try some of the restaurants that are open only in the evenings or for lunch only on weekends when this sector of Wine Country can be quite crowded.  Many wineries feature live music and picnicking in the summer, placing more emphasis on tourism than on the wines for their own sakes.

Is the North Fork AVA a destination for wine tasting adventurers?  We would say “yes”, especially if they have other reasons to be on the island, outside New York City.  (It takes an hour to leave the city.)  A degree of open-mindedness is still called for but a visit there can provide some rewarding new tastes.