A panel of regional restaurateurs issued a hearty defense of Long Island wines at a symposium in Riverhead this week as local vintners seeking to expand their reach try new methods to break old perceptions about the wine’s price and quality.
At the tasting symposium hosted Monday by the Long Island Wine Council, a local industry group, the restaurateurs, retailers and other wine aficionados said despite some past criticisms, local wines stack up nicely against some of the world’s best winemaking regions.
“I think we should stop apologizing for the region,” said Tom Schaudel, chef and owner at Jewel in Melville and other restaurants. He also has his own line of wines made on the North Fork. “I think it’s time to puff our chest out.”
But Schaudel’s decision to give Long Island wines a prominent place on his wine lists is the exception.
Roman Roth, the winemaker at Wolffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack and president of the Wine Council who moderated the panel, asked whether the Long Island wine region was “too young,” and therefore overlooked by top-flight Manhattan restaurants. The first Long Island winery was established on the North Fork in 1973.
Roth noted that while some customers have embraced Long Island wines, others “shy away. What’s the best way to change that?”
Restaurateur David Loewenberg, who operates The Beacon, The Bell & Anchor and Fresno in Sag Harbor and East Hampton, said promoting wine by the glass at his restaurants offers a way for customers to taste Long Island’s better wines. “Wine by the glass is a soft way to get people to taste the incredible wines out here,” he said.
Chad Walsh, sommelier of Agern Restaurant in Manhattan, said having staff that understands the differences between wines, and the specific tastes and qualities of Long Island’s, helps. His staff does a weekly tasting that represents a broad selection of wines.
“I see an opportunity for more wineries to engage with professionals” in Manhattan, including “influencers” at restaurants, such as sommeliers and bartenders. “It’s hard,” Walsh said, but it starts a “chain reaction” that can expand a good wine’s network.
Schaudel said getting on restaurant wine lists is the key to expanding sales, an obvious-seeming notion that panelists noted takes time and skill.
“Ninety-five percent of the wines you don’t have on a wine list will never sell,” Schaudel said. Despite the occasional criticism, he sells 450 to 500 cases of Long Island wines a year just at Jewel. He was once confronted by a customer who told him, “ ‘You have all this Long Island crap’ ” on your wine list, an indication, he said, that the customer likely hadn’t tasted Long Island wine since 1981.
Walsh said that resistance is “definitely a perception that’s still there,” no matter how much he might disagree with it. He recommended further aging select Long Island wines in ways that can increase their complexity, flavor and reputation.
“Having wines with four-and-a-half years of bottle age on them has really blown people away,” he said.
Roth said making wineries and restaurants that surround them year-round businesses could help as well. Much of the East End goes dormant in the winter. To help, Wolffer just opened a redesigned tasting room, and has added a pink gin to its mix. It will add its first brandy next year. “We all believe building a year-round business will be the ultimate success,” he said.