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.

But wine was. A chance trip to visit an artist friend on the North Fork led to their falling in love with the area, and the success of their restaurant allowed them to buy a house on the water (then conceivable for arty but practical types) and, later, the farm. This summer, five years after they first planted grapes and three years after they released their first wine, the couple sold their beach house for a vast profit. All of it will go into a winery—they have been making their wine elsewhere—and a four-room bed-and-breakfast they will create next year in the former farmhouse. Page insists that running a winery at a profit is possible; he points to his own start and to the fact that he and Shinn do almost all the work other than harvest. They have no salesmen, no business manager, no greeter or even cleaner at the tasting room they open on weekends.

Styles in wine have changed greatly since the first wine was bottled on the North Fork—to Shinn and Page's advantage. When the first generation was getting started, the revolution was in California, and Robert Parker gave his highest ratings to powerful, high-alcohol wines. But lately an appreciation of cooler-climate wines, which are higher in acidity and lower in alcohol, is growing. These wines go better with food, and Shinn and Page, chefs at heart, wanted to make food-friendly wines. In their first years on Long Island they played at making blends in friends' cellars, using beakers as if they were measuring cups, taking 80 percent of this and 10 percent of that from other winemakers' barrels, and bottling the blends they liked under the Home label, to be sold at the restaurant. This cook's apprenticeship informed the way they built their own vineyard and their own wines.

Shinn and Page make winemaking sound both simple and appealing. "It's like cooking," they told me. "Taste through every barrel, over and over again. It's like anything you taste—if it tastes good, you know it's right." At the new bed-and-breakfast Page will cook late breakfasts (he has grilled quail in mind, he told me) and the couple will offer "wine camp," in which guests will help them prune and then try to make blends of their own.

I intend to enroll, and I already know my benchmark: Shinn Estate's reserve Merlot from 2002, the first vintage the couple released. (The lower-priced Merlot long ago sold out; the reserve is available for about $40 a bottle from This is the distinguished wine that changed my opinion of Long Island and made me assume I was drinking a very good French wine. My reaction is just the one Shinn and Page want to eradicate. "I don't want to make a wine that tastes like France," Page told me. "I want to make a wine that tastes like Long Island."

Subtle Chèvre
Another North Fork treasure

Good fresh chèvre should be pure white and spreadable, without the chalky, dry, crumble-to-bits texture of many logs. You can seldom find it so pure, because fresh goat-cheese logs are so often flavored with things like jalapeño or cracked peppercorns. As with many mild foods people monkey with, if the flavor is subtle, varied, and good on its own, there's not much point to piling on extra ingredients.

Catapano chèvre, a fresh white cheese from the only goat farm on Long Island, is sold in small plastic-wrapped discs resembling cream cheese in looks and texture. It would be very good on a bagel. Mild as it is, the chèvre has a tang and a salty bite. As for the goaty flavor that puts many people off aged goat cheeses, it's barely detectable in fresh chèvre. The lactose-sensitive are increasingly turning to fresh goat's milk, which they can digest more easily (Catapano doesn't sell it, because fresh milk requires a different license). For them, or for anyone who wants an interesting and satisfying cream-cheese alternative, Catapano chèvre is ideal.

You'll have to visit the farm to get it. Last July the American Cheese Society, the country's leading group of artisan-cheese producers, gave Catapano top honors in the category of fresh, unripened goat cheese, and demand for it only increased. "If the goats aren't milking, I don't have it," Karen Catapano said when I visited recently. Once, she told me, after she had sold out, a man kept her from leaving by standing in her driveway with his arms folded, insisting that she give up a square from her hidden reserve. She finally convinced him she didn't have one.

Catapano, a former nurse, and her husband, Michael, a doctor at a local walk-in clinic, bought their small goat farm in 2002 and turned to cheese-making partly as a form of occupational therapy when their son, Patrick, was sent to Iraq. Michael read veterinary textbooks, and Karen decided to learn to make goat's-milk soap after she tried a bar at a goat-cheese workshop and found that it made her skin feel softer and healthier—and after a large batch of her husband's yogurt failed to set. Their backgrounds equipped them for cheese-making, which requires extreme fastidiousness; goat's milk in particular easily picks up off flavors. "My husband likes doing the same thing over and over," Karen said. "He's a scientist. I'm a salad person."

Although their fresh chèvre sells out fast, the Catapanos make other cheeses, including feta and gouda. When I visited, they were living in a suburban ranch house, which had cabanalike wooden outbuildings that made a quaint but odd setting for cheese-making. (They have since moved the goats to a larger farm, where visitors can observe milking.) It seems in character for an area where people are still teaching themselves to make good food and wine on a homely scale. And the therapy worked. Patrick, whose picture was displayed in the tiny wooden shop along with accounts he sent from Iraq, came back last spring.

Five Northeastern Goat Cheeses

Catapano Dairy, Mattituck, NY (631-298-0043; Fresh, spreadable chèvre, salty and with a slight tang, available only on the premises at Long Island's sole goat farm.

Coach Farm Dairy, Pine Plains, NY (518-398-5325; The largest goat-cheese producer in the Northeast, and a national leader. Light, subtle fresh logs and many variations, including lemon and lowfat.

Hillman Farm, Colrain, MA (413-624-3646; One of several New England farms specializing in aged rather than fresh goat cheeses. Its Harvest wheel is a fine introduction for anyone already sold on, say, aged manchego, the Spanish sheep's-milk cheese.

Twig Farm, West Cornwall, VT (802-462-3363; Another good introduction for goat skeptics: tomme, a mild-flavored, semi-hard cheese usually made with cow's milk but here made with all goat's milk (Twig Farm also makes a mixed-milk tomme).

Westfield Farm, Hubbardston, MA (978-928-5110; Expertly made fresh Capri on a French model, delicately flavored but a bit denser and more crumbly than other fresh logs.