The first commercially viable vinifera grapes for viticulture on Long Island were planted in 1973 by Louisa and Alex Hargrave. The Hargraves were recent Harvard graduates full of the energy, zeal, and the optimism of youth. Undaunted by the challenge of over three centuries of consistent failure to produce European grapes on Long Island they planted their vines using Virgil’s treatises on agriculture and a basic text on viticulture from UC Davis as guidance. They figured much of their craft by trail an error and raw enthusiasm.
The North Fork of Long Island, at that time the Hargraves planted their first vines, was dominated by potato farms. The spud industry was made possible by technological innovations and by the Long Island Railroad which made it possible to transport them cheaply and make them competitive around the world. Many of the same soil characteristics that make now wine grapes thrive also benefited tuber agriculture. It was important that there was a history of agriculture and the availability of labor and transportation to support the beginnings of this new agricultural product.
The great European style grapes had defied the efforts of Americans vintners east of the Rocky Mountains for over three centuries. Dr. Konstantin Frank had demonstrated that it was possible to commercially make wine from vinifera less than two decades before the Hargraves planted their first vines. The early efforts by Long Island vintners were brave and fraught with error. Having no history to use as a guide they modeled their approach on California and Finger Lakes. Neither of which were good models for the region. California was too hot and the Finger Lakes too cold to be provide appropriate guidance. As time when on they began looking east to Bordeaux for models for their red wines. The great wine growing region had a lot of similarities to Long Island and proved to be a better archetype.
The region struggled in its early efforts producing inconsistent results at best and more often vegetal herbaceous wine. Farmers had trouble with getting their grapes to ripen fully because of poor vineyard management techniques. Canopy management in particular was a problem as the leaves were allowed to grow to the point that they shaded the grapes excessively. The youth of the vines themselves was also responsible for many of the difficulties these pioneers contended with.
Long Island Merlot's Development
The first Long Island Merlot was planted in 1974 independently by the Hargraves and David Mudd. The Hargrave's winery is now Castello di Borghese. Mudd went on to found a vineyard services business which, among other achievements, was responsible for setting up an estimated half of the vineyards on the island. The Mudd Company was very enthusiastic about the possibilities of Long Island Merlot and frequently recommended its planting. The first mention of Merlot was the 1978 Hargrave Cabernet-Merlot Blend. The first varietal release was in 1980, again by the Hargraves. Since then it has become the dominant red varietal on the Island.
David Mudd, a recently retired airline pilot for the then Eastern Airlines, began his vineyard in 1974, one year after the Hargraves. He had a farm in Suffolk County that was planted in grasses for hay for horses. At the encouragement of the Hargraves he planted a small stand of vinifera grapes. Today, the Mudd family runs the premier vineyard management and services company on the East End. They are responsible for the setting up many Long Island wineries and manage some of the best in the region.
John Wickham, a local fruit farmer had been growing European table grape varieties for his farm stand since the 1960's. His family had been farmers on Long Island from the seventeenth century. Wickham had studied to be an engineer but when his older brother died he took over the family farm. He planted table grapes, about a third of which were vinifera, for his fruit stand. While searching for land to start their vineyard and being interested in planting European varietals, the Hargraves consulted with Wickham. He was not particularly encouraging stating "Don't be pioneers. They're the ones with the arrows in their backs." Wickham proved, however, that the fragile vinifera grapes could be grown in the region and provided encouragement by example. The Hargraves disregarded his explicit advice and went forward with their enterprise. They purchased a 66 acre farm about a quarter mile from the Wickham farm. Wickham was generous with his time and experience with farming on the North Fork and help with their success.
French Influence on Long Island Winemaking
Long Island has been likened to the Boudreaux of North America, but it took a while for the new region to discover this about itself. The Bordelaise themselves helped bring about that realization. In 1988, a two day symposium of Bordeaux wine researchers and producers was held on the island. The event has become known as the Boudreaux Symposium. The outcome of the symposium was to bind in the minds of the participants the similarity of terroir between Boudreaux, and in particular Medoc, to that of the East End of Long Island. The Bordelaise recognized that the region had significant potential but was still trying to find its way. Recommendations were forthcoming that helped to advance local viticulture and established the practice of old world and artisanal techniques which characterizes the Long Island wines today. The symposium was instrumental in the process of the maturing wine industry on the Long Island. The Bordelaise focused most of their investigations on the vineyards and not the cellars. The locals had been more concerned with winemaking than grape growing. Thereafter they changed the focus resulting in the steady increase of quality to the conditions seen today. A second conference was held in 1990 focusing this time exclusively on Merlot which was seen as the most promising red varietal on the Island.
Enlightened Amatures and Big Quality Wines
The '90s saw an increase in the development and expansion of wineries on the East End. If the '80s could be characterized as being dominated by pioneer farmers the next decade became distinguished by people coming to winemaking from successes in other pursuits. Typically they came with deep pockets and either bought existing wineries or purchased farms growing other crops and converted them to vineyards. Sales of existing wineries were bringing in multi-million dollar prices and banks were beginning to pay attention and lend money. These new participants often hired consultants from famous Bordelaise winemakers to help produce high quality wines. The newcomers were not that different to the those that entered the California winemaking business in the '70s. Mostly they came from successes in other occupations. They focused on the production of high quality wines and they had the means to achieve those ends. These newcomers were doctors, media executives, real estate developers,
baked goods moguls, and others. They brought cash, business acumen, and a drive to produce quality wines, to the region.
With the infusion of new blood, the acquisition of expertise from other established wine growing regions and the accumulation of plain experience had a profound effect on the East End appellations. Ten years after the Bordeaux Symposium, upstart East Enders from the Lenz Winery held a competitive blind tasting of their wines against some of the most famous and prestigious wines from France. The judging was conducted by industry experts at the Harbor Rose restaurant in Sag Harbor. The judges tasted chardonnays, merlots, and sparkling wines. The merlots included a Chateau Petrus, probably the most famous wine in the world. Surprisingly the Long Island wines bested their French counterparts in almost all of the categories. The event was an eye opener to the New Yorkers as much as to the rest of the wine world. It began the process of taking themselves much more seriously.
The 21st century has been a continuation of the efforts begun in the final decade of the previous century. The wineries are maturing; new people come to the industry from success in other business pursuits bringing fresh capital coming into the region and a drive to produce high quality wines. With new developments there is the beginning of recognition of the region beyond the locals and tourists. The state is beginning its first small and faltering steps to put money into marketing its wine. New York City is beginning to become a market which holds a significant potential to complete the process begun by the Hargraves in 1973.