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LI vintners get into business of spirits

Two East End businesses have uncorked 18,000 bottles of a bad year's merlot and distilled the contents into Long Island's first brandy.

Sono Rinata debuted this week after Peconic Bay Winery sent its unreleased 2003 merlot last year to the Long Island Spirits distillery in Baiting Hollow. The entire stock of $22 full bottles evolved into unaged brandy, 6,800 half bottles selling at $29.

"The 2003 really wasn't a great year, but it made an awesome brandy," said Jim Silver, the Cutchogue winery's general manager. "It really smells a lot of cherry. It also had a toasty edge to it, and that made it more like cherry pie."

The merlot had been in the cellar, since a sales deal fell apart, Silver said. While it was "delicious," he said, the garnet color was not the desired brick red, and discounting the line would have damaged the winery's image.

Then in March, the New York State Liquor Authority began allowing farm wineries to sell spirits if they're made with New York ingredients and distilled in the state. Before, they were barred from selling any distilled liquor.

The new rules could rewrite the menu for East End wineries. On Friday, Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck sent a distillery license application to its attorney, said co-owner David Page, who just started growing fruit such as pears and berries to infuse into brandy.

"There's a world of beverages we can produce," Page said. "What's really interesting is to see what everyone will do with this new door that's opened for us. . . . If you don't recreate yourself every couple years, in the New York marketplace, people forget about you."

Long Island Spirits owner Rich Stabile said five or so wineries have asked about services. A second client's batch of brandy now ages in two oak barrels after living as Long Island chardonnay.

"Some are thinking of taking a very good wine, putting it in a barrel and making it a very expensive product," Stabile said.

At Silver's winery, the recycling of wine and bottles is why the brandy's name has meaning in Italian. "The idea of Sona Rinata - 'We are reborn' - has to do with the homeless wine being reborn as this brandy," Silver said. "To convert it to brandy made good business sense, because at least it will be sold one way or another."

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