How Long Island's wine region is maturing on 50th anniversary

Corey Creek Vineyards in Cutchogue. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Head far enough east and you’ll find yourself smack dab in the middle of Long Island’s wine region. It’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, which means it’s old enough to have an Old Guard and new enough to want to shake things up. It’s an intoxicating mix.

Standing on a patio adorned with string lights and hugged by robust bursts of magenta rhododendron, you can see the gently rolling fields at Corey Creek Tap Room spread out in an emerald sea. On this North Fork spring morning, Marin Brennan, Corey Creek’s soft-spoken mad scientist of a winemaker, is talking through her philosophy of making small-batch wines in Southold. With a glass of tap rosé in hand — all of Corey Creek’s wines are on tap, a first in the region — it’s hard not to drink in the surrounding beauty and marvel at how far the Island’s wine country has come in half a century.

Marin Brennan's dog River at Corey Creek Vineyards in Cutchogue.

Marin Brennan's dog River at Corey Creek Vineyards in Cutchogue. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Corey Creek is the little sister winery of Bedell Cellars, just a mile or so down the road and one of the mainstays of the region since 1980. It’s a rustic farmhouse-style tasting room, swathed in blues and blond wood, with an upside-down canoe hoisted onto the rafters of the airy space — a nod to Southold’s perch between Little Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound.

Brennan has departed from the region’s traditional script of making recognizable Old World varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc. Instead, she embraces rosés like her Old Vine Rosé (75% gewürztraminer, 25% malbec) made from the estate’s oldest vines, full of florals offset by crisp acidity, and funky whites like the sublime 100% auxerrois (the predominant grape of Alsace, France), which impress true wine geeks with both their innovation and balance. Brennan’s is the only varietal auxerrois being produced in New York State.

“If Bedell is classic rock, Marin and Corey Creek are alt-rock,” said Rich Olsen-Harbich, Bedell’s winemaker, and one of the industry’s leaders with more than 40 years of East End experience. Brennan, who grew up in Miller Place and started her career at Bedell, looks to Olsen-Harbich as a mentor. One of the region’s early voices, along with pioneers like Louisa and Alex Hargrave, he believed that, with its maritime climate and glacial soils, the North Fork was home to one of the best microclimates in the world for growing grapes. “You can do anything here, it just takes some real patience and a lot of experimentation,” said Brennan. Earlier this summer, she was fermenting chardonnay over seashells.

Corey Creek winemaker Marin Brennan with her mentor, Bedell’s Rich...

Corey Creek winemaker Marin Brennan with her mentor, Bedell’s Rich Olsen-Harbich. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

It’s true that Long Island’s wineries and vineyards — there are more than 50 distinct producers these days — have often been more synonymous with party buses and copious amounts of day-drinking. But the industry’s 50th anniversary this year shows that the region has matured — a concept that most folks have yet to realize. Bottles once priced in the teens are now in the $20 to $35 range, with some exceptional vintages and reserve bottles costing much more. It’s a vastly different place than when the Hargraves arrived in 1973 to plant the first vines of Vitis vinifera, Europe’s main grape.

Back then, “it looked like potato country, barren and wind-swept,” said Louisa Hargrave. But the couple was resolute in their conviction that it could be done. “We initiated the concept of an estate winery that we saw all over California — where the winemakers are the owners — making highly personalized, superpremium wine.”

It worked. And the spirit of experimentation and perseverance is alive and well. It’s not just Brennan, Harbich-Olsen and Corey Creek that are shaking things up. There are others, many of them women, “which is radical,” according to Hargrave. Take Maria González Rivero, the CEO of RGNY in Riverhead.

Long Island wine industry pioneer Louisa Hargrave and her son...

Long Island wine industry pioneer Louisa Hargrave and her son Zander Hargrave at Pellegrini Vineyards. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

González Rivero honed her wine skills in Parras, Mexico’s central winegrowing region in the southern part of the state of Coahuila. Another relatively underappreciated grape-growing area, the climate is the opposite of that of the North Fork, with drier conditions; there is much less rain. Parras is also one of the oldest viticultural regions on the continent and, like Hargraves before her, González Rivero was convinced that by listening to the lessons of the land, she and her brothers could grow their father’s winemaking hobby into a viable business, launched in 2019 as RGMX. Initially, he resisted the idea, but she credits much her family’s experience in Mexico to “understanding the region more, showcasing, and not fighting the natural order of things.”

In 2018, González Rivero had heard that Martha Clara Vineyard in Riverhead was up for sale, and embraced it, too, as another opportunity with a more cosmopolitan wine-drinking population. “New York is more developed. Consumption is higher. People are willing to try wine from everywhere,” she said. RGNY officially launched in 2021 and has made a name for itself with its white merlot.

White merlot is considered more of a blush wine, made from black-skinned merlot grapes that undergo a short period of maceration before the skins are removed. In Mexico, RGMX uses cabernet sauvignon, one of the world’s most cherished red grapes, to produce a special wine called Blanco. But on Long Island, with its humidity and shorter growing season, it’s the earlier-ripening merlot that can produce the same kind of wine. The process is the same, González Rivero pointed out, just adaptive to region.

As CEO, rather than winemaker, González Rivero sits at a rare vantage point, overseeing all facets of two different business strategies in two different wine regions. While it “absolutely” starts with the grapes, she credits much of the North Fork’s new luster to not only small-batch winemaking, but to marketing. “The difference between New York and Mexico is the tourism factor,” she said. “In New York, there are tasting rooms and the whole industry focuses on high visibility. We don’t see similar numbers in Mexico. There, we don’t have a tasting room.”

The tasting rooms on the East End certainly don’t look like they did in back in the early days. Many are high-styled stunners with boutique offerings and experiences — tastings, seminars with winemakers, wine-pairing dinners, wine clubs, blending sessions, winemaker kits — available for every level and type of consumer. And with more tasting rooms moving toward reservation-only tastings that guide and educate visitors over the course of a few hours, wineries are seeing bigger returns on their investments. It’s these one-on-one connections and relationships with people, rather than through critical reviews or the high-distribution capacity of larger regions, that seems to be instrumental to the growth of Long Island wine country.

Wines from Corey Creek's small batch series.

Wines from Corey Creek's small batch series. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

As Robin Epperson-McCarthy, the consulting winemaker at Osprey’s Dominion and owner- winemaker of Saltbird Cellars, explained, “I care more about what my wine club members think, not one person in a room — far away from here — writing a review of a bottle that was sent to them. This is how you write about wine,” she said, motioning to me, walking through Osprey’s sauvignon blanc vines on a sun-drenched summer day. “Standing here, seeing my grapes and understanding what this place is and what we’re doing here. That’s way more important.”

Epperson-McCarthy and Alie Shaper are friends, colleagues and founders, together, of Chronicle Wines, which boasts a laid-back tasting room in Peconic featuring their labels: Epperson-McCarthy’s Saltbird and Shaper’s Brooklyn Oenology (or simply, BOE) — a darling in New York City wine circles that launched in Williamsburg in 2006 as the city’s first urban winery. There’s Shaper’s As If and Haywater Cove brands, and the two collaborate on CANette, a wine spritzer in a can. The launch of CANette symbolizes another way Long Island wine country is differentiating itself.

“We didn’t want to produce a lower-quality price-point wine. Sometimes we get so tied up in what we know about wine. And we forget that most people are just discovering it,” said Epperson-McCarthy. She was making wine spritzers in her Yeti tumbler and taking them down to the beach during the pandemic when the light bulb went on. To a younger generation of wine drinkers, CANette serves as an entry point. The pandemic also provided another unexpected benefit: Long Islanders who couldn’t travel spent more time out East, discovering their home wine region.

Chronicle Wines winemakers, Robin Epperson-McCarthy and Alie Shaper (right), at...

Chronicle Wines winemakers, Robin Epperson-McCarthy and Alie Shaper (right), at Osprey’s Dominion in Peconic. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Shaper and Epperson-McCarthy were born and raised on Long Island (Shaper in Glen Head, Epperson-McCarthy in Mattituck) before leaving to obtain degrees in engineering (Shaper) and biochemistry (Epperson- McCarthy). Those foundations led them to Premium Wine Group in Mattituck, where they met as analysts in the company’s lab. Epperson-McCarthy was traveling extensively for them at that time and Shaper was producing her BOE wines at their facility. They acknowledge their different strengths. Shaper takes comfort in spreadsheets and data, while Epperson-McCarthy prefers “to tinker.”

Moreover, they both have steady gigs as winemakers at other wineries, which provides stability. Shaper runs the rosé program at Croteaux Vineyards, while Epperson-McCarthy is Osprey Dominion’s lady of sauvignon blanc.

Part of what Shaper loves so much about the New York wine regions in general is the flexibility they offer. In Europe, there are strict regulations for making wine. “If you’re producing under those regulated systems, there’s not a lot of room to wiggle in that regard,” she explained.

“We don’t have any rules here,” added Epperson-McCarthy. “We can make white cab franc, we can make white merlot; we can make orange wines, like Alie’s doing.” (Orange wines, which range in color from golden to orange, are a type of white wine made when the grape skins and seeds remain in contact with the juice.)

As the region has developed, changes in local laws protecting farmland, as well as the establishment of research facilities in the region, have nurtured and propelled its growth. The Peconic Land Trust, established in 1983, safeguards Long Island’s working farms, natural lands and heritage, having protected more than 13,000 acres of land since its inception. Shaper feels “very lucky” to have a research vineyard in Riverhead, run by the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Suffolk County, which comes out of their College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Harvest time at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue.

Harvest time at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

“That has been crucial in determining what else can successfully grow here.” She pointed to the Spanish albariño grape, which was tested in that vineyard, as one of the region’s most popular grapes today. Similarly, CCE found that the Austrian-German red grape, zweigelt, which is normally suited to hotter climates, does really well on the South Fork, producing a fresher, lighter red wine.

Nothing happens fast in the wine industry. “You get one shot a year, and it takes three to four years for a vineyard to come online,” said Epperson-McCarthy. “But quality has improved.” She credits that to the fact that Long Island winemakers are no longer trying to mimic what others have done in other regions. “We’re a little bit more hyper- focused on this place at this time, on the grapes we have. People like me, who were traveling the world, chasing the growing seasons, are now staying put and paying closer attention.”

She smiled as she recalled a conversation with one of the region’s giants, Russ McCall of McCall Vineyards, there with Olsen-Harbich, Steve Mudd and the Hargraves in the 90s. “He said, ‘Too bad you weren’t here when all this pioneering stuff was going on,’ to which I answered, ‘Yeah, but now we’re solidifying who we are, we don’t have so much to figure out anymore.’ ”

McCall, who began his wine career as a wholesaler in Georgia for the renowned importer Kermit Lynch, is a self-professed Francophile and the region’s resident pinot noir expert. Having spent summers in Cutchogue, he eventually settled in the area and started producing in 2007, to great success. His wines cater to an Old World palate, but it’s the Charolais beef cattle he breeds on his property that have differentiated his winery and tasting room.

“We didn’t try to get into the burger business,” McCall explained. “My pastures and my cows are certified-organic, all of our meats are organic, so I would sell the cuts people wanted, but 80% of what we would get back from slaughter was burger meat.” One of the area’s outspoken preservationists, he wanted to find a way to utilize all the beef.

He credits pastry chef Claudia Fleming, a former owner of North Fork Table & Inn in Southold, with the idea. She outfitted a small burger truck outside the restaurant using his meat and would sell after-hours burgers when the dinner shift ended. When the restaurant sold and Fleming moved on, McCall continued the tradition of making the burgers on his own property. Burger Night at McCall’s occurs on Thursdays and Fridays during high season. Paired with fries and McCall wines (there are chocolate chip cookies for dessert), it has introduced McCall’s vintages to a younger, more casual consumer, encouraging folks to reconsider wine as an accompaniment to easy, laid-back meals, not just reserved for special occasions.

Patrons enjoying burger night at McCalls Wines in Cutchogue, Thursday...

Patrons enjoying burger night at McCalls Wines in Cutchogue, Thursday Sept. 14, 2023. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Hargrave, too, sees the marriage between food and wine as integral and she views such partnerships as a way to reach a new level of recognition. “The premium pairing between wine and food creates loyalty for Long Island,” she said.

For her part, Epperson-McCarthy wants to see more experimentation with grüner veltliner and Viognier, two good fits for the growing conditions. She also believes that sustainability translates to the region’s work environment, not just what they’re planting. “The emotionally sustainable piece of what we do is just as important as any other,” she noted. Collegiality rather than competition is key. “We truly believe in reaching our hand down the ladder and bringing people up,” added Shaper.

González Rivero hopes to see a bigger focus on sustainable methods and innovation. Currently, RGNY is in its first year of testing a new fungi program. All the nutrients grapes need are in the land, though they’re not always soluble. Fungi build underground bridges to help process those nutrients. So far, results are promising and could be a game-changer. Additionally, RGNY launched a distribution arm in January, selling in 11 states. “The region is ready for more exposure,” she said. “I think it’s finally time to take the North Fork out of the North Fork.”

Louisa Hargrave has been out of winemaking for many years — she’s now a realtor promoting the life she loves on the North Fork — but she’ll always be involved on some level. “There’s tremendous energy here. I love watching my son doing this, tasting with him,” she says of Zander Hargrave, the winemaker at Pellegrini Vineyards. “To see the evolution of the industry — growing, changing, evolving, strengthening — makes me absolutely thrilled. The creative part, what’s happening now, that’s the most exciting.”

The details

BEDELL CELLARS: 36225 Main Rd., Cutchogue; 631-734-7537,

CHRONICLE WINES: 2885 Peconic Lane, Peconic; 631-488-0046,

COREY CREEK TAP ROOM: 45470 Main Rd., Southold; 631-765-4168,

MCCALL WINES: 22600 Main Rd., Cutchogue; 631-734-5764,

PELLEGRINI VINEYARDS: 23005 Main Rd., Cutchogue; 631-734-4111,

RGNY: 6025 Sound Ave., Riverhead; 631-298-0075,

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