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Vintage winery year tempered by tourism drop

Betty Cibulski, of Peconic, prunes the vine on

Betty Cibulski, of Peconic, prunes the vine on a cold winter day at Lenz Winery in Peconic. (Jan. 4, 2013) Credit: Randee Daddona

As pruners work their way through the dormant grape fields of Eastern Long Island, the sections of vines they snip away are reminders of a year the wine industry narrowly avoided major catastrophe -- and ended with a vintage some consider among its best.

With few exceptions, the 56 vineyards clustered mainly on the Island's North Fork had their grapes harvested before superstorm Sandy bore down on the region. That's partly because the growing season started earlier this year.

It was a rare turn of good luck for the local wine industry, which turns 40 this year and has weathered everything from hailstorms, record rainfall, plagues of birds and voracious deer to the spread of fungus at harvest time.

"At least in the vineyard, Sandy didn't do a lot of damage," said Alice Wise, viticulturalist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead.

But while winemakers were lucky in the harvest, they didn't escape Sandy's effects unscathed. The weeks and months following the storm saw a sharp drop-off in traffic to the wine region as gas became scarce initially and Long Islanders were concerned with bigger issues than the nose of the latest Riesling.

"It was a very difficult period," said Steve Bate, executive director for the Long Island Wine Council, which promotes the industry and the region. The traditionally busy month of November was a no-show for many tasting rooms, vintners report.

Their hope now is to recoup some of that lost ground with the start of the "Jazz on the Vine" winter festival next month, and other events celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Long Island wine region's beginnings in 1973, Bate said.

The Long Island wine industry, encompassing about 3,000 acres of planted vines, is no small potatoes. It attracts 1 million-plus visitors annually to the East End, where more than half a million cases of wine are sold annually, according to the Wine Council. The industry employs about 1,500 people in tasting rooms, vineyards, back offices and wine cellars. Annual wine sales range between $90 million and $100 million -- most of that sold directly in the region.

The industry is "very important" for Long Island's economy, said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, "not just agriculturally, but also in terms of agritourism."

For that reason, local vintners know how fortunate they were. "If the season was any later, there would have been a lot of reds on the vine, and that would have been very damaging for a lot of people," said Matt Berenz, winemaker at Vineyard 48 in Cutchogue.


Early start

The 2012 growing season started fully two weeks early, grape growers say, and that early start, combined with a mostly warm, dry summer, ripened grapes to their peak of sugar content two to three weeks early. Those weeks proved critical. Sandy's hurricane-force winds and rain were two potentially lethal conditions for a harvest. A general warming trend and better vineyard management also helped.

"It was a warm year, and everything was running ahead," said Sam McCullough, vineyard manager at Lenz Winery in Peconic, which nevertheless had to put a rush on its harvest in late October to beat the storm. "We were down to our last 10 acres to pick out of 60," with days to go.

By the time Sandy hit on Oct. 29, most grapes from this year's harvest had already been crushed into juice and were fermenting in steel tanks inside most of the region's wineries.

"We got very lucky," said Miguel Martin, winemaker for Palmer Vineyards in Aquebogue.

Palmer's harvest, which typically extends well into November for late-ripening red grapes, was completed by Oct. 19.

"It was an early year, and the quality of the fruit was very good," said Martin, whose grapes are harvested from more than 90 acres in Riverhead and Cutchogue. "I'm very happy with the quality."

His only problem, he said, was a lower quantity of grapes compared with typical years -- a 15 percent reduction, he said. Palmer, which has been on the selling block since founder Robert Palmer died in 2009, plans to hold a tasting and seminar at its tasting room on Jan. 19 to give local oenophiles the first sample of its early whites from 2012: sauvignon blancs, chardonnays and Rieslings that Martin said did exceptionally well.

Red wines from the 2012 harvest won't be ready until late 2014 and early 2015.

Nearby Macari Vineyards in Mattituck also had a lower yield in some blocks of red-wine grapes during 2012, but none of it from the impact of Sandy, said winemaker Kelly Urbanik. Late-season rain led some blocks of red to deteriorate just before harvest, she said, requiring cultivators to carefully cull out grapes not suitable for winemaking.

"The wines in barrel are all good," she said.

Because white grapes are harvested as much as a month earlier than reds, Macari expects 2012 to be a very good vintage for white wines, including an early wine that has already been released. "For the whites, 2012 was great," she said. "Sauvignon Blanc we're quite excited about." The same was true for Macari chardonnays.

The reds came in just under the wire. Macari finished harvesting reds on Oct. 27, just two days before the storm. "We were probably among the last to pick," Urbanik said.

Still, Macari expects a very good year for merlots and cabernet francs produced from the 2012 harvest, although the tonnage of those grapes was down from the region's banner year of 2010.

Peter Carey, manager of Osprey's Dominion in Peconic, called 2012 "one of our best years" in terms of production and quality, including pinot noir grapes.

At Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck, co-owner Barbara Shinn said the farm produced its "biggest crop ever" in 2012 -- as much as double the average year for some varietals -- and was "lucky as far as the hurricane was concerned. Everything was safely in the winery" by the time the storm hit. Even the loss of electricity for a period after Sandy wasn't enough to hamper operations, which require lots of power for cooling, crushing and transferring fermenting juice to vats. Most of that work was also done before the storm, she said.


Tourism shut off

But Sandy wasn't without impacts on vineyards. Entire sections of trellis holding up vines, most with canopies of leaves, were toppled in the Macari vineyards, Urbanik said. "We were able to set them back up."

Moreover, when it came to tourism, "Sandy just shut business off," said McCullough of Lenz.

Jim Waters, owner of Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue and treasurer of the Wine Council, said his business during the crucial months of November and December was off 30 percent compared with typical years, and traffic still hasn't recovered.

While 2012 will produce some "very good wines, the storm hurt us going into the busiest part of the season," he said.

He blamed not only Sandy, but also concern about the economy and new taxes, an "election-year freeze up," and a trend toward less consumer spending overall.

Waters Crest is helping to make up for the down trend by selling locally grown micro brews from its storefront -- a practice allowed by a recently passed state law that allows tasting rooms to sell beer by the pint.

With three major storms having hit or skirted Long Island in the past three years, local wine growers say it's tempting to consider new measures, such as backup generators for wineries, to help minimize disruption. But they can't depend on an early warming trend -- the game changer this year.

"It varies every season," said Wise of Cornell. "Each season is different."

What grape growers can do, and have done, she said, is manage their vineyards more carefully.

"You have to have healthy, clean vines going into the latter part of the season," she said. "That helps you get through some of the more difficult weather."

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