For the past couple of years, I’ve been interviewing winemakers and winery owners in New York State for information for our blog “A Vintner’s Tale”. One of my many stock questions is to ask the interviewee about their first experience drinking New York wine. At a recent interview, one of the winemakers turned the tables on me and asked about my first memorable experience with New York State wines. Talk about being thrown a curve ball! Since I’ve been visiting NYS wineries for some 35 years, I had to give this question some thought. I know I did an early trip up to the Hudson Valley to Brotherhood Winery, but I couldn’t begin to tell you when it was or what wines I tasted. And I know I had made a few day trips up to the Finger Lakes in the 1980’s, but with a 5 hour drive each way and an obligatory walk through the Gorge at Watkins Glen our visits to the wineries on Seneca & Cayuga Lakes were only a part of the day’s activities. I remember stopping at Glenora (which was just a ski chalet back then) and I vaguely recall buying organic wine at Four Chimneys (now gone). And I have a faint recollection of a visit to Rolling Vineyards (which is now Atwater) on one of the trips. But like I said, it was over 30 years ago and we tried to pack so much in that my memory of our day trips to the Finger Lakes is rather hazy, with no one winery making any kind of lasting impression. Sorry to say, I struck out.
A few weeks later, I was going through some boxes in my attic looking for some items to put up for sale on eBay when I discovered a box full of autographed baseballs. There was a machine-generated team-signed baseball from the 1959 Yankees that I made my father buy me at my first game. I had a “Stick & Stump” baseball (Gene “Stick” Michael and “Stump” Merrill, that is) from a Yankee fanfest at the Javits Center I attended in the mid 80’s. And there were balls signed by Yankee first baseman Joe Pepitone and legendary broadcaster Mel Allen and an index card with the signature of Dennis Ribant, a pitcher for the early hapless Mets. And finally a ball autographed by one of my boyhood heroes, Phil Rizzuto. Then it hit me! That’s was my very first at bat with the wines of Long Island.
Being a longtime fan of baseball in general and the old Yankees of the late 1950’s & early 60’s in particular, I was excited when I saw a blurb in the Long Island Press some 30+ years ago that legendary Yankee shortstop and longtime broadcaster Phil Rizzuto was going to be appearing at a baseball card show at a hotel in Hauppauge. “Holy Cow! I need to go to this,” I shouted. I talked it over with the gang and we decided that we’d all drive out to see the show. Not sure what other baseball players were there, but it didn’t really matter as we were there to meet “The Scooter”. Even the Met fans in our group. Of course, Rizzuto was the star of the show, so the line at his table was rather long. But no big deal, we just spent the hour in line talking baseball. And deciding what to do next. After our usual witty repartee (“Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know, where do you want to go?”) my friend Steve, who had already advanced from beer-drinking to wine-drinking, suggested: “Why don’t we go to that new winery out east”. ‘’Winery? On Long Island?” the rest of us asked skeptically. “Yeah, there’s a winery called Pindar that was started by some doctor. I hear it’s pretty good,” Steve elaborated. After a lengthy debate about the pros and cons of hanging out at a bar or checking out this new winery, we decided to opt for the winery. So, after procuring Rizzuto’s autograph we all hopped into my Chevy Nova and drove out to Peconic to check out Pindar.
Back in those days, the tour of the winery was obligatory. Which was okay with us since we were neophytes and knew practically nothing about making wine. Growing up my family had California wines on holidays and in college my horizons were expanded to include wines from Europe. We drank Mateus Rosé from Portugal, Blue Nun & Schwarze Katz from Germany and Chianti in the old fiasco bottles from Italy (which of course we used for dorm room candle holders when they were emptied.) But beyond that I knew very little about wine. But I was willing to learn and eager to try something new. And although it would be years before the term locavore became fashionable, I was definitely intrigued by the idea of drinking wine made in my own backyard.
After the tour we tasted their wines. I don’t remember all the wines we tried that day, but I remember being impressed by their “Seasonal” wine series, especially the Winter White (a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Cayuga) and Summer Blush, a rosé wine made from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with strawberry overtones. Also a big hit with our group was Spring Splendor, an off-dry Rose of Merlot fermented with cranberries. In fact, I was so taken with the idea of fermenting a wine with cranberries that I bought a couple of bottles of the Spring Splendor to take home for our family Thanksgiving dinner.
That was it. I was hooked. Not just on the wines of the East End, but of the beauty of the North Fork. My subsequent monthly trips out east were a pleasant diversion from my daily commute into the city. First it was Pindar. Then I started to include some of the other pioneer wineries: Hargrave, Peconic Bay, Lenz, Bedell Cellars, Jamesport, Paumanok and the old Bridgehampton Winery on the South Fork. As new wineries opened, I was there to check them out. And then I began making annual pilgrimages to the Finger Lakes and the Hudson Valley. Although my tastes have gone from sweet white wines to dry reds and my Schwarze Katz days of my rookie years are long behind me, my passion for the wines of New York continues to this day. And to paraphrase Rizzuto, for all those “Huckleberries” out there who are still surprised that Long Island is a big league region with over 60 producers, all I can say is drop the cannoli and go check them out!