Merlot for Snobs

A Long Island winery is challenging Merlot's deservedly dismal reputation

At twilight on the North Fork of Long Island I tasted firsthand the cliché that the vineyard makes the wine. I was walking through deep-green fields of vines just days before this fall's harvest, and couldn't keep my fingers out of the nets newly tied against starlings. The grapes I was serially stealing from Shinn Estate Vineyards were lesser-known varieties associated with Bordeaux (Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Semillon, Malbec), planted because the North Fork has similar growing conditions: sandy, loamy soil in a maritime climate. The Malbec was particularly sweet and fruity. Earlier I had tasted freshly squeezed Sauvignon Blanc juice, which seemed perfectly balanced on its own—sweet yet acidic, concentrated and intense. Having consumed a generous glass of Shinn Estate's very fresh-tasting 2004 Sauvignon Blanc—Semillon at lunch, a wine that went perfectly with exceptional fresh goat cheese made just down the road (see box), I could imagine how good the vineyard's Sauvignon Blanc will taste next spring.

Wine grapes often taste good, but seldom that good. Usually they're interesting: perhaps oddly acidic, perhaps slightly funky, even when they will be the base for a wine that is smooth, balanced, and fascinating. Balance and fascination generally come from blending—the skill French winemakers perfected to compensate for climates that can't be counted on to produce grapes at the same level of ripeness year after year. I had always assumed that the French habit of grouping wines by the name of an area—Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne—and naming individual wines for a vineyard or a certain hillside was regional and proprietary pride gone wild.

How short-sighted of me to accuse the French of chauvinism! Like the cool-climate growers of France, Long Island winemakers are at the mercy of the elements and of their own skill at cultivating grapes and blending wines made from them. The place they make their wine, and the way they grow their grapes, really do make all the difference.

Falsely modest vineyard owners often trot out the cliché to signal the special superiority of their land. But those who are particularly proud of the state of their soil use it as well. Over lunch at Shinn Estate Vineyards, Barbara Shinn and David Page, the owners, described the compost tea and liquefied fish they apply by hand and the soil's perfect pH level, with an ideal balance of fungus to bacteria (mushrooms in soil, which make it basic, are good for grapes; bacteria, which make it acidic, are better for vegetables). They allow grasses and clover—fifty-five native plants, they say—to cover the ground beneath the vines ("We're the only no-till vineyard on the East Coast," Shinn says), where other vineyard owners use Roundup to clear away weeds. They cut off leaves that will shade lower clusters of grapes on their perfect-looking vines, but let enough remain to shade the upper ones. They pluck off, one by one, grapes that have stayed green, so that not even a hint of unripeness will mar their wine. They do every bit of pruning themselves, they said, passing each day through their fifteen acres of grapes. By the end of our long walk through flat fields where corn and rye used to grow, Long Island Sound in the distance and McMansions across the road, I was convinced that the couple recognized every cluster if not every grape.

This happened to be an excellent year for ripening grapes—so sunny and dry that a downpour that late-September afternoon, Shinn and Page told me after measuring the rainfall, represented a full third of the rain they had received all summer. But Long Island is usually cool, and summers can be wet; in such years grapes are less sweet and many more clusters must be sacrificed to enable the fullest possible ripening of the remainder. It is then that blending becomes essential, and that the varieties of grape that grow well in this climate—some full and heavy, like Cabernet Sauvignon; some light and acidic, like Malbec—come in handy to balance out the wine.

Little of this is true in California, of course, where the hot climate of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys produces perfectly ripened grapes that taste the same year after year. Thus California has been able to blast the European competition with powerful wines made from big, thick-flavored grapes suited to warmer climates, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Australia, South Africa, and other countries with hot, dry climates and cool evenings have followed California's lead, and the expanding international wine market has left France looking like a hidebound, overpriced relic.

My new respect for France, whose wines inspired Shinn and Page at the start of their winemaking adventures, grew from my surprise at tasting a remarkably distinguished Shinn Estate wine made from a grape that in Californian hands has acquired a deservedly dismal reputation among wine snobs, most famously the one played by Paul Giamatti in Sideways: Merlot. In California, Merlot ripens fast, with high sugar content (resulting in high alcohol levels) but less flavor development than in warmer-climate grapes. Shinn Estate Merlots are soft and inviting—as are California Merlots (and nothing more, the Giamatti character might add)—but also structured and complex, like great wines. Like, in fact, Pomerol or Saint-Emilion—legendary French Bordeaux made principally from the recently reviled Merlot.

Shinn and Page are leaders of a second generation of Long Island winemakers. When the first winemakers began planting on the North Fork (the pioneers were Alex and Louisa Hargrave, in the mid-1970s), only the South Fork, home of the Hamptons, was fashionable, and the cash crop on both forks was potatoes. Now there are thirty-four wineries along a finger of land roughly five by twenty miles, with Long Island Sound or Peconic Bay never more than three miles away, and as many acres are planted in grapes as in potatoes (about 3,000 acres of each). Predictably, the people who can now afford to start wineries are not academic couples with dreams of France, like the Hargraves, but millionaires like Mike Lynne, the co-CEO of New Line Cinema, and the Entenmann family.

When Shinn and Page, who owned and ran a tiny and adored Greenwich Village restaurant, bought a farm, seven years ago, the land was just affordable. Page, who has the profile of a Founding Father and a gray ponytail to go with it, is from Wisconsin; Shinn, the kind of long-limbed, casual American beauty the designer Claire McCardell had in mind when she made American sportswear internationally popular, grew up in Ohio. The couple met in the Bay Area, where they worked in restaurants and took busman's holidays to spend time in vineyards in the Napa Valley. When they opened Home Restaurant, in 1993, they wanted to bring the California approach to Manhattan, but not "California cuisine"—that is, they wanted to use as much local produce and wine as possible. Produce wasn't much of a problem, and became less so as other New York restaurants began looking to duplicate the Bay Area farm-to-kitchen-door experience.

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Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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