For years people have predicted that eastern Long Island would become a major producer of world-class wines. With a climate similar to Bordeaux’s, the region could make wines with distinctive, complex flavors and maintain its rural character in the face of encroaching suburban sprawl. Potato farms would become vineyards, while wine-tasters from the city would think of the North Fork as Napa Valley, only closer. It sounded great—but it was hard to find here, just a hundred miles away.
No one knows this as well as Trent Preszler of Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue. He wrote a master’s thesis on the challenges of marketing Long Island wines in New York City, then took a job as chief operating officer of Bedell as part of a major revamping of the winery under its new owner, the co-chairman and CEO of New Line Cinema, Michael Lynne. “I saw it as a huge opportunity to put a whole region on the map,” said Preszler. Aware that Portland and Seattle menus are dominated by local wines, Preszler hopes to persuade New York City’s restaurants to go local by setting a new standard of excellence at Bedell. And while Manhattan is coming along steadily, many of Brooklyn’s restaurant owners have already embraced Long Island wines as part of the larger local-food ethos sweeping the borough.
Laura Shea, owner of Park Slope’s Applewood restaurant, which serves up a seasonally changing menu of sustainably grown, local ingredients, always has at least one Long Island wine on her list, often from Bedell Cellars. “Our menu is about supporting local farmers,” said Shea, “and when we choose Long Island wine, it’s part of that.” Shea believes that Brooklyn residents are more amenable to the idea of local food, and, by implication, Long Island wine. “In this part of Brooklyn in particular, people are sophisticated enough to reach out and try new things,” said Shea. “The demographic here understands what we are about and what we’re doing, which you don’t necessarily get elsewhere.”
You do get it in Ditmas Park. Tom Kearney, chef at the Farm on Adderley, a new restaurant on Cortelyou Road, says that he “even toyed with the idea of a list of all New York State wines,” but decided against it because, “offering people a little diversity is more realistic.” Still, Kearney keeps half a dozen Long Island wines on his list. “We’re a small restaurant. I’m talking to the people who make the wines, and I want to know where it comes from and if the grapes were picked by hand.”
Darrin Siegfried, owner of the Red, White & Bubbly wine store in Park Slope, agreed that Long Island had a better chance of producing Bordeaux-quality wines than California. “One of the things Long Island is getting right is that wine is meant to be drunk with food. Too many wines in California are fruit bombs. Their climate is just too hot for the grapes they are planting,” he said. “What we have in the North Fork of Long Island is much more like Bordeaux than anything in Napa Valley. The latitude is the same.” Siegfried, who was Sommelier for Manhattan restaurants during the 1990s, believes that selling Long Island wine is easier in Brooklyn than in Manhattan. “Bedell is a terrific winemaker. I’ve got four or five in stock now, and they don’t have to be pushed, because there are a lot of people in Brooklyn who are savvy and who have been out in the vineyards.”
It is this kind of avidity that Bedell Cellars hopes will provide the momentum to place its wines throughout New York City, and beyond. “We have long-term aspirations to be on the list at top restaurants in major urban markets around the world,” said Preszler. “However, there still is much work to be done convincing New York restaurants to feature wines made in their own backyard.”
Since purchasing Bedell Cellars in 2000, Lynn has made massive investments. He has imported state-of-the-art equipment for the harvesting, conveying, sorting, and fermenting of grapes from Italy, France and Germany. He brought in John Levenberg, whose international winemaking experience includes prize-winning stints in France, New Zealand and Napa Valley, to join founding winemaker Kip Bedell. And star artists such as Eric Fischl and Barbara Kruger have designed labels for Bedell’s “Taste” series.
It might look like that dubious combination of money and flash so often connoted by the word “Hamptons,” but there’s a real conviction behind Bedell’s transformation. Louisa Hargrave, director of the Stony Brook University Center for Wine, Food and Culture, started the whole Long Island wine industry in the ’70s with her husband, Alec, and their Hargrave Vineyard. She points out that an influx of big-time money to a place like Bedell can lead to experimentation and freedom to pursue different approaches. She praises Bedell’s renovation because it preserves the feel of a Long Island farmhouse, rather than detracting from the landscape with something gaudy or ostentatious. “It’s very good to have a big financial player with a sense of the region’s character.”
The greatest challenge is making world-class wines in our climate. In recent years, both critical and popular taste has leaned towards the fruity, high-alcohol wines produced in the dry Napa Valley. Long Island, on the other hand, is more suited to producing subtler, Bordeaux-style wine—wine that makes a less dramatic first impression but evolves in the glass, layer by layer. Levenberg is enthusiastic about possibilities in bridging the gap between these two styles.
California wines are “great for the first year,” he said, but after that, they often tend to break down because of their high alcohol content. A 2002 sojourn in Bordeaux gave Levenberg a taste for wines produced in a cooler climate, “mid-palette” wines with staying power and complexity. At Bedell, Levenberg is working to combine the fruit-forward aspects of Napa Valley with the elegant structure of Bordeaux. He’s able to do this, in part, by drawing on three different vineyard sites—each with slightly different soil and sun exposure—to produce blends of unusual subtlety. Although the winery will continue to make single variety wines, such as the award-winning Corey Creek 2005 Reserve Chardonnay, which sells for $30 and was recently named the Best Chardonnay out of hundreds of wines in the 2006 New York Wine & Food Classic, it will increasingly focus on blends, which are gaining favor among consumers.
Ask Levenberg what drew him to Bedell and he speaks of “commitment”—the dedication not only of financial resources but of knowledge and of hands-on effort. In particular, the nitty-gritty aspects of winemaking—shoot-thinning, crop-thinning, leafing—which make for healthy vines and better grapes.
I tasted five wines in Bedell’s new tasting room, sleek and modern, with lots of black and chrome—something between a DUMBO gallery and a Williamsburg wine bar. The first wine was a gewürztraminer from Bedell’s partner winery, Corey Creek, a bright spicy white with a hint of anise. Like the 2005 Bedell Taste White, it was aged in stainless steel, rather than oak, to bring out the fruit and spice of the grapes. The two reds—2004 Taste Red and the 2001 Reserve Merlot—were both aged in French oak and both seem to achieve Levenberg’s goal of mid-palette structure: not the fruit bombs of California, but presenting different flavors with each new sip. The last wine was a 2004 Late Harvest Riesling, its sweetness tinged with apricot.
Will these wines make it onto the lists of New York City’s best restaurants? The wine world is an arcane one, policed by self-proclaimed experts who in the past have been stingy in their praise of Long Island wines. But perhaps this is about to change. This summer the previously elusive Wine Advocate praised Bedell and 15 other East End wineries. Preszler’s ambitious, but in a cooperative spirit. As he put it, “An individual winery can’t benefit unless the whole region gains recognition.”
Winemaker John Levenberg and COO Trent Preszler want Bedell’s wines to attract international attention.