Long Island’s North Fork Wineries…Today

For New York City residents and Long Islanders, a wine tasting trip to Long Island’s North Fork was and is the primary destination that didn’t require an extensive journey.  The roads on the North Fork are a bit of well-groomed Americana; the vineyards are beautiful; and the people in the wineries are eager to demonstrate that Long Island belongs on the viticultural map.  However, in the past the wines, to our taste, with few exceptions did not rise to the quality that the winemakers wished to credit them with.

We are pleased to report that a lot has changed in recent years, much for the better.  There are more wineries, with more interest in improving the wine tasting experience and, again to our opinion, there are more wines worth a two-hour drive on the Long Island Expressway.

How have things changed, or not?

Tasting near the vines at McCall Wines.

Many of the experiences of wine tasting on Long Island have not changed.  Once you get past Riverhead, there is village after village with wineries, either on Route 48 to the north or Route 25 to the south, with more on the latter road.  The homes are gracious, huge trees overhang the roads (again more so to the south) and the wineries are well marked so that finding your way is simple.

But certain changes are more evident.  Visitors don’t belly up to the bar and taste a broad selection of a winery’s offerings.  In most cases, wines are available in preselected flights, or by the glass or bottle.  Thus the atmosphere is a little more like being in a bar than a winery.

And even where there is a bar – some wineries don’t even have one! – most people take their tastes outdoors, on a patio, on a lawn or even right up next to the vines.  This works spectacularly well on beautiful summer days (which we have been fortunate to experience) but might not be so enjoyable on a grey, muggy or rainy one.

The tasting room at Sparkling Pointe.

Another noticeable difference is that the food trucks are gone, at least on weekdays.  Many of the wineries now offer food to pair with their wines.  Mostly it’s cheese and charcuterie that are available, with some making more memorable repasts than others.

The pioneering wineries are still there and, based on some sampling, we can say that they are much as they were: not terrible but nothing to write home about either.  But people with money have begun to open or take over wineries.  They have invested in more architecturally pleasing tasting rooms and better winemaking equipment.  With money, they can afford to invest in crafting better wines: dropping more fruit, hiring more workers to prune and care for the vines, and letting the grapes reach the fullest maturity.

The result has been a distinct heightening of the quality of the wines of the North Fork.  To our tastes, Paumanok, McCall’s, Mattebella and Sparking Pointe lead the way.  (Mattebella is reviewed in this issue.  The others will be in focus in later editions.)  We’re sure that others are coming to the fore as well.

In a few words, the North Fork has gone from being a pleasant diversion to a wine lover’s destination.

How to Go Wine Tasting on Long Island

The headline might seem a bit facetious.  You taste wine on Long Island just like anywhere else: lift glass, swirl, sniff and sip.  Sure, but there are wrinkles to wine tasting on the North Fork that are somewhat unique.  Before heading out, give some consideration to these issues.

Workers tending the vines at Paumanok Vineyards, where visitors will soon sip wine.

  • Try to visit on weekdays. Of course, wineries are busier on the weekends everywhere.  But many of them on Long Island work on the presumption that they can make more money from partiers than serious wine drinkers.  You can expect to find rock bands, food trucks and a lot of louder than usual people Friday through Sunday.  Early in the week, even the most popular wineries are fairly empty, giving more time for individual attention.
  • Take off early. If like us you are starting from New York City, you can expect delays on the Long Island Expressway, mostly in leaving Manhattan and putting Queens behind you.  Generally, but not always, it’s smoother sailing once you get into Nassau County.  (The North Fork is at the extreme east of Suffolk County.)
  • Consider making appointments. They are certainly a necessity on weekends, and although we haven’t been turned away on weekdays, we’ve been told by some tasting room managers that they have done so if they find they can’t accommodate walk-ins.  Of course, this means you need to know where you are going before you set off, which eliminates serendipity, the delightful discoveries that make wine tasting trips so rewarding.
  • Think about lunch. Almost no wineries allow picnicking any longer.  Many sell food, but it’s more snacks than meals.  There are places to stop for lunch, mostly along Route 25, but only a few where you can dine, rather than grab a quick bite.
  • Plan on staying over. We used to take day trips, but then we realized that we were spending four to six hours on the road for four or five hours of tasting.  Plus there was the danger of driving back having consumed alcohol.  There are many bed-and-breakfasts and some hotels, mostly in Riverhead and Greenport.  They can run a bit expensive but an overnight stay really adds to the trip.  And it gives you a chance to sample the local cuisine, which leans towards seafood.
  • Try places you don’t know. If you’ve never been to the North Fork or last were there many years ago, then everything will be new to you.  Today, new owners are buying up familiar wineries and changing their names (and, to an extent, the quality of the wines.)  For example, Shinn is now Rose Hill; Laurel Lake is now Ev&Em.  Even more so, some people have invested serious money in new wineries.  These are often the best places to stop.
  • Now, as before, the North Fork offers glimpses of small-town America. You’ll find that spirit in Greenport and Southold.  You’ll notice the plethora of churches of every denomination.  They are indicative of the roots of many of these towns going back centuries to America’s earliest European settlers.  And the names of many of the the towns – Cutchogue, Mattituck, Peconic, Paumanok – evidence the influence of the First Nations.

Love Lane, Mattituck

Yeah, the name of this place to visit when you go wine tasting on the North Fork is just too, too cute.  Evidently, back in the mists of time, it was a simple trail that came to be known as the local lovers’ lane and the name, with a little editing, has stuck.  For the visitor to the North Fork, primarily interested in wine tasting, it offers several reasons to stop.

First, and perhaps foremost, it’s a place midway between Riverhead and Greenport where you can get something to eat.  Of course, if you’re going to be sipping wine all day, it’s important to put some food in your stomach.  So if you’ve visited one or two wineries already, you’d better stop and Love Lane is really the only place to go.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

There are two dining spots to choose from, Ammirati’s and Love Lane Kitchen.  With no criticism of the former, we keep going back to Love Lane Kitchen.  It’s the sort of eatery where everybody seems to know everybody, welcomes one another by first name and always has time for a cup of coffee.  There always seem to be a few moms with youngsters trying hard not to be noisy.  The menu is primarily sandwiches and salads, although breakfast can still be had through lunch time.

Oh, and the cakes are made by Mom.

Besides the food, there is an attraction to Love Lane that is more atmospheric than commercial.  The street is three blocks long but everything you might want to see is on only one of those blocks.  It hearkens back to a small-town America that may never have been quite so shined up for the tourists but that nevertheless was and still is real.  Trees line the street.  There are places to park.  The shops have old-timey storefronts.  And there’s a charming white clapboard church at one end of the street.

The shops on Love Lane do reflect the sensibilities of wine tasting tourists.  Lombardi’s Love Lane Market is the sort of gourmet grocery that would be right at home in New York City.  So are the cheese shop, the boutiques and the sweet shop(pe).  But they don’t have the feel of bits of Manhattan that people have dragged with them out to the country.  Locals patronize here as well, and they all stay open in the winter.

Sure, lots of countries have small towns.  In Bordeaux or Burgundy there are also little villages, each with un café, une épicerie and une église.  But those are French cafés, groceries and churches.  This is unmistakably an American small town, with a vibe more New England than Big Apple.

The other end of Long Island is Brooklyn, definitely urban.  The North Fork is rural and Love Lane is a corner of that lifestyle, only two hours away.  It is a destination in the sense that you would come there to have lunch and then stroll around.  If you don’t pop into every store or the wine tasting room that’s right there, you can see it all in ten minutes.  But those are ten well-spent minutes.

Mattebella Vineyards

When we first arrived at Mattebella Vineyards (www.mattebella.com) we were a bit flummoxed.  For one thing, we couldn’t see a winery from the parking lot.  What we did see was a statue of a large red dog guarding the vineyards.  Had we stumbled on at the home of Clifford the Big Red Dog by accident?  But no, a few feet further along there was a statue of a large blue dog, and this one had an air tank in its back.

A statue of a large red dog stands in front of the vines.

A bit further on, there was a quite inviting garden, with tables, umbrellas, gazebos, sofas and people seemingly at an elegant party, sipping wine and snacking on charcuterie from large planks.  Had we crashed a private party?

In a short while, someone led us to an empty table besides rose bushes and, in time, a woman came by offering us the tasting list.  (We didn’t know at the time that the woman was the co-proprietor, Christine Tobin.  Her husband Mark is the winemaker and the winery is named for their children, Matthew and Isabella.) This was not the usual offering of the latest releases of the winery’s production.  There were red and white verticals available!  A rosé described as Provencal.  And the aforementioned platters of meats, cheeses, olives and baguettes.

But where was the tasting room?

A tasting at Mattebella is like being at an elegant garden party.

By this point we realized that visiting Mattebella is all about the wine tasting experience, exactly what Power Tasting stands for.  When you go into Wine Country, it should not be for the purposes of drinking.  You should be there for sipping, savoring, exploring wines.  It’s for tasting them in an atmosphere that you would hope to be in when you open a bottle with friends and loved ones, surrounded by beauty.  You should be encouraged to make the wine the center point but not the totality of a sensual encounter: yes, the taste but also the aroma, the visual pleasure of your surroundings, a whisper of a breeze in the trees.  This is what Mattebella delivers.

Of course it would all be for naught if the wines weren’t worthwhile.  Fortunately, Mattebella’s are quite good indeed.  And the way in which they are presented, along with the little lecture introducing the wines to you, doubles the pleasure.

We were very impressed with a vertical of their Chardonnays ranging from 2013 through 2018.  First of all, who serves verticals these days?  And who serves what any other winery would call library wines?  We were told that they use both oak and steel containers to age their wines, to provide balance and aging potential.  It was eye-opening (well, more tastebuds than eyes) to see how in each preceding year the Chablis-like austereness of the wines gave way to a more rounded finish, with the oak more distinct.

There is a small building that they refer to as a tasting cottage, so you can visit Mattebella when the weather doesn’t cooperate.  (Except, so they warn, when it snows.)  But reservations are made for the gardens, and a rainstorm would definitely spoil the experience.

This was our first time visiting Mattebella.  We are quite certain it won’t be our last.  We walked in without a reservation and were lucky to be seated because it was towards the end of the day.  Next time, we’ll reserve.