Actually it was fifty years ago (it just seems like twenty) that The Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Not just one of the seminal moments in American television but all of American pop culture. As a teenage boy growing up on Long Island back in the 1960’s the world was a clear dichotomy of beliefs, attitudes and personal tastes. In politics, you were either a long-haired activist or a member of the establishment; in television, you were in love with either Jeannie or Samantha, in sports you were either a die-hard Yankee fan or you followed the newly formed New York Mets; and in music it was either the Beatles or the Stones. There were two distinct camps and not many fence straddlers back then. Everything was either black or white. You were either part of the solution or part of the problem. As for my Rock group allegiance, there was no doubt about my loyalties. So for me, the 50th anniversary of The Beatles invasion of America and their appearance on the Sullivan show back in 1964 were events of some significance.
Because it was the anniversary weekend of that Sullivan Show (or should I say THE Sullivan Show), The Beatles were very much on my mind the day of the barrel tasting at Lenz Winery with veteran winemaker Eric Fry. But instead of thinking about that moment in Beatles history, I was reminded of a different landmark Beatles event, their pilgrimage to India to meditate with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Although the drive to Peconic is far shorter than a trek to the subcontinent and the barrel tasting was an experience that lasted only 90 minutes, nevertheless it was as important to me as the pilgrimage to India was for John, Paul, George and Ringo. Well maybe not Ringo. As Beatles historians know, as soon as he ran out of his supply of canned Heinz beans he deserted the others and headed back to the UK. But definitely for the other three. And just like the Beatles trip to Rishikesh changed western attitudes concerning Indian spirituality, my trip to the “ashram” on the North Fork changed my mindset for the tasting & blending of wine.
Not only has he been making wines on Long Island for 35 years, but Eric Fry does consulting for countless wineries in the northeast. So comparisons between Eric and an all-knowing Maharishi is not all that farfetched. While Long Island has many wine gurus who have been influential in the transformation of Long Island from a pioneering wine region into the producer of world class wines (Roman Roth, Larry Perrine and Richard Olsen-Harbich immediately spring to mind); Eric’s level of knowledge, his experience making wine on Long Island and his strong opinions on how wine should be made and when it should be released makes him a unique voice. So, when I learned that he was doing barrel tastings at Lenz Winery on the North Fork of Long Island Wine Country for small groups during the winter I jumped at this unique opportunity to pick the brain of a master winemaker.
Even though it was another cold winter’s day and the temperature was 15 degrees below normal, we started our tasting outside. Our first obstacle on the road to enlightenment! It was clear from the start that this was not going to be an ordinary wine tasting. After explaining the rules of the tasting (spitting and participation were mandatory), we started with the 2013 Pinot Gris. Being young and unfiltered, the Pinot Gris was cloudy and foamy. “What do you see?” “What do you smell? “What do you taste?” “What does this wine remind you of?” Eric quizzed each of us. This was not going to be a one-sided tasting where he just told us about the wine. At first, we were at a loss for words. Maybe it was the cold weather numbing our senses or perhaps we were just feeling overwhelmed by Eric’s presence. Whatever the reason, we were slow to respond. Eric explained that the link between the part of the brain that tastes & smells and the part of the brain that stores memories of our experiences are not connected and that we must continuously work at connecting the taste & smell of the wine with our sensory experiences. I started the ball rolling by suggesting “grapefruit”, which is a safe adjective often used in describing many white wines. Others soon followed with equally unimaginative descriptors: “fruity”, “lemon” and “citrus”. Eric broadened our horizons by suggesting “pear”. We all nodded our heads in agreement.
After the Pinot Gris, we did the Gewürztraminer. We were a bit quicker and more inventive with our responses this time around. Somebody suggested Pineapple. Another shouted out “Cloves.” The slight effervescence and sour finish reminded me of a Lambic Beer. After we had exhausted our thoughts, Eric suggested “Ginger”. We again collectively nodded our heads in agreement. This was followed by two selections of Chardonnay, picked from the same vineyard but a couple of weeks apart. The individual characteristics and flavors of each of the Chardonnays would be blended together, much like individual notes are combined together to form a harmonious chord. We then discussed the differences between Chardonnay fermented in stainless steel vs. oak barrels and how each affects the wine. By the time we tasted the Pinot Noir, which was picked early as it was going to be used for their Cuvee (sparkling wine), we were really getting into the swing of things and the adjectives were flowing freely. “Freshly baked bread.” “White cherries.” “Granny Smith apples.” We were definitely making progress.
Those of us that remained (a few “Ringos” had deserted the group because of the extreme cold) were rewarded with a trip into the warm cellar, where the red wines were fermenting. The next level of enlightenment. We tasted the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec. And so we could understand where the wines were heading, we compared each of the 2013 barrel samples with the finished product from a previous vintage. As for our responses, we had definitely moved away from clichés. Instead of simply “dark, red fruits”, we were now tasting plums, cranberries and pomegranates. Not quite masters, but no longer novices.
The session concluded with a question and answer period. Some examples: “Why doesn’t Lenz grow any Cabernet Franc?” (Long Island does not have a long enough growing season for the Cab Franc to consistently reach maturity.) “How do you combine old and new French oak barrels?” (Each wine is fermented in multiple barrels and the mixing of wine from a variety of aged barrels is all part of the blending process.) “Why do you use older barrels?” (The strong oakiness you get from new oak, like you find in many California wines, is not something that is desired on Long Island.) “Does the shorter growing season on Long Island put at us at a disadvantage with warmer regions like California?” (Only if you intend to make a “fruit bomb” wine, which is not an objective at Lenz.) What’s your opinion of Malbec? (Malbec requires a similar climate and topography as Merlot, so it thrives on Long Island.)
While the wine tasting was concluding, we could overhear the commotion made by a particularly vocal group of revelers in the tasting room. Just as John, Paul and George had to eventually leave the tranquility of India and return to the madness of the real world, we soon left the calm of the master class for the frenzied atmosphere of the tasting room. But we were better prepared and we were now tasting wine at a different level. And as we continued our day, stopping at various wineries on the North Fork, the lessons learned from Eric echoed in our heads. We continued doing free association with each and every wine that we tasted, verbalizing whatever thoughts popped into our head. We hadn’t quite reached wine tasting Nirvana, but after our “Magical Mystery Tour”, we were definitely on the path to enlightenment.