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What to expect when visiting Long Island's East End wineries

Friends taste wine at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue

Friends taste wine at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue on Saturday. Credit: Randee Daddona

Picture the last time you went to an East End winery — pre-lockdown, that is — and chances are you'll recall an impromptu visit, one where you bellied up to an indoor tasting bar and sipped a flight of wines poured in succession (followed, maybe, by a glass on the patio).

As with most things in hospitality, though, the tasting routine at wineries has been turned on its head by coronavirus. Yes, wineries are open again, and yes — you can and should taste — but many hallmarks of the experience have evolved to meet new protocols.

First and foremost, much of the action has shifted outdoors.

"We're looking at keeping [consumption] exclusively outside until either COVID guidelines/precautions change, or the weather turns and we need to re-evaluate," Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, wrote in an email. "This will probably bring us to sometime mid-October."

At Bedell, visitors are greeted while still in their cars and handed a contact form to fill out. Then, they're directed to a covered deck where a service bar pours flights and glasses. (On a recent weekend, the single flight consisted of a First Crush White, cabernet franc and 2019 rose). Glasses in hand, you then debunk to seat on the deck or at one of the 30 new picnic tables on the lawn — which extend in multiple directions and have plenty of space between each.

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If you're planning a visit out east — where there are many great sips to be found right now, especially from the banner 2019 vintage — here are a few more things to expect.

Wear your mask, and prepare to provide contact details.

Wineries are no different from restaurants: You must be masked when not sitting at a table. No use trying to complain about it — it’s the law. All winery employees are in masks, too, as well as gloves. At some spots (such as Bedell), contact forms are handed out upon arrival, so that the staff can do contact tracing if necessary.

Those who habitually spit their samples might quickly notice the absence of spit buckets. Spitting is a no-go in the age of coronavirus — instead, sip judiciously and ask for an extra vessel to dump your unconsumed vino.

Expect to actually sit at a table.

While you might occasionally order a flight or glass from an outdoor bar, the tasting experience mostly happens at tables now, as the state’s liquor authority mandates that customers must be seated when eating or drinking (and masked otherwise). "It's actually kind of exciting, as table service is something we've been thinking about for years," said Kareem Massoud, president of the Long Island Wine Council and winemaker for Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue. "Our goal is to offer an outstanding experience and for each table to get the attention they deserve, to make [the visit] memorable."

Other wineries are also taking the pivot to table service in stride. “People are going to get a much better tasting experience than they did previously,” said Shelby Hearn, director of sales and marketing at the family-owned Suhru Wines in Cutchogue, where visitors can choose from four tasting flights (or order a glass or bottle). Suhru's tasting room now has 10 tables but more staff than before, “so we can focus on wine education,” she added. Once staff receive some backordered tables, they’ll also beef up their back garden.

At Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, outdoor tables are spaced 9 feet apart, staffers escort visitors to and from tables and bathrooms, there are markers for traffic flow and drop stations for food and drink. "Safety is first, and we've been on the forefront of how we address it," said Wölffer winemaker Roman Roth. The winery also has a drive-through for bottle sales. "The pace has been very different — it was a high-energy pace [before the lockdown], and in some ways it's now a nice, leisurely pace."

Make a reservation (except when you can’t).

Reservations are necessary at Paumanok, Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck and Wölffer, while other places — such as Bedell and Jamesport Vineyards in Jamesport — are first come, first served. Parties are generally limited to six people — "we’re a lot stricter on our group sizes," said Olsen-Harbich of Bedell — and there are time limits on tables, but not stingy ones. (For instance, it's 90 minutes at Wölffer).

Arrive healthy.

At Paumanok, all guests have their temperature taken upon arrival, and that temperature needs to consistently register below 99.5 degrees to enter the premises. “Sometimes people have been standing in the sun,” notes Massoud, and will be retested once they cool down in the shade.

Get your tastebuds primed, as there are some great new releases out right now.

Rosés from last year’s vintage have been released at multiple wineries, and they are fantastically vibrant. Roth, at Wolffer, called last year’s growing season “a dream come true vintage — a perfect year. The wines have purity, are intense but light — that beautiful combination.”

Wölffer is in the midst of releasing a suite of unique single-varietal wines this summer, including a trebbiano, a pinot gris, a gewürztraminer and a skin-contact semillon. (Wölffer also released a new low-calorie rose cider in June called LoRo).

Despite the new rules, a visit right now will mean the world to the industry, because most took heavy financial hits when both tasting rooms and restaurants (which buy much of their wine) shut down for the spring.

“It’s been a very difficult time for everyone,” said Hearn. Suhru, she said, will produce less wine this year as a result. “But one thing we're taking away from this is how wonderful our community is on the North Fork. We’ve seen an incredible outpouring of love and support.”

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