Welcome to Long Island wine country

Long-Island-Wine-Country“I try to carry as many Long Island wines as I can,” said Peter Jachno, owner of Shirley Liquors. “My customers are very familiar with Long Island wine because of the vineyards here,” he said last week from his store. And “to support the Long Island wine industry and the pride of us having our own wines, I carry wine from around 15 Long Island vineyards.” Mr. Jachno said Long Island wines are “nice-tasting and full-bodied.”
Over at Parmar Liquor & Wines in Shirley, its owner, Sing Parmar, spoke of his customers coming in and “asking for local Long Island wine” and of those that he stocks.
Long Island with a very long history of agriculture has undergone an agricultural revolution in just several decades—as is reflected in the sale of Long Island wines in this area.
The revolution was brought forth in 1973 by a pair of pioneers in planting grapes for fine wine, Louisa and Alex Hargrave.
There are now vineyards throughout Suffolk County. In Sayville, there’s Loughlin Vineyard. Up in Northport, there’s Del Vino Vineyard. Up in the Town of Smithtown, there are Whisper Vineyards in St. James and Harmony Vineyards in Head of the Harbor. Harmony Vineyards proclaims on its website: “Why drive all the way to the Forks.”
And speaking of the Forks, driving on the North Fork the other day, I was amazed to see vineyard after vineyard along Sound Avenue, and then returning, vineyard following vineyard on Route 25, too.
On Long Island, “the number of vineyards today—60, ranging from two-and-a-half acres planted to over 500 acres,” notes The Long Island Wine Council on its website.
Long Island has become a major wine region, an East Coast equivalent to Napa Valley in California. A substantial wine industry has—in the context of the rich farming heritage on Long Island beginning with the arrival of its Native Americans thousands of years ago—come relatively suddenly.
So importantly, most of the land where now there are vineyards had been used to grow potatoes and, with the once mighty Long Island potato having faded in the face of stiff competition, would have gone to development. Growing grapes on Long Island for wine is, financially, a far better use of expensive Long Island land than potatoes.
The Suffolk County Farmland Preservation Program (begun in 1974, the year after the Hargraves planted their first wine grapes), the Community Preservation Fund in the five East End towns, other towns, county and state and private initiatives to save farms—and the proliferation of vineyards—have been instrumental in keeping much of Long Island green.
Furthermore, the wine produced on Long Island has become—as suddenly as it arrived—world-class. This story has been told, with some amazement, by many wine experts. As the magazine Food and Wine declared with a 2015 article headlined, “Can Long Island Make World-Class Wines?”, its reporter Lettie Teague “finds great wines—including some of the best American wines she’s ever tried” on Long Island.
And the Long Island wine industry has been a huge boon to Long Island tourism. There are “approximately 1.3 million visitors…annually” to Long Island wineries, says the Long Island Wine Council. There are tours of wineries, tastings, classes and musical events.
Louisa Hargrave in her wonderful book, “The Vineyard”, relates: “I was 25 and Alex was 27. With no farm experience and little life experience, we really didn’t think the vines would need much attention. Before we bought the farm in Cutchogue, neither one of us had grown so much as a vegetable garden … The idea of the vineyard at that point was still a fantasy whose only tangible basis in reality lay in the 10,000 rooted, grafted vines we had bought.”
She and Alex shared a love of fine wine and a dream of producing it in America—had been told by John Tomkins, a pomologist for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Ithaca, that “there’s this guy on Long Island who has been growing table grapes.’”
That was John Wickham, who worked some of the oldest continually cultivated land in the U.S. on a 287-acre farm in Cutchogue that goes back to 1661. “It was the day before Thanksgiving, 1972,” writes Ms. Hargrave. Mr. Wickham told the couple how “I was called crazy” for moving away from potatoes to grow peaches and cherries and other fruit on Long Island. “He took us to bodies of water and explained how they moderated the climate” — and made this possible.
Thus, the Hargraves figured they could grow cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot and chardonnay here; the grapes from which the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy were made from. They were right.
Mr. Wickham, who died in 1994 at 85, was a Long Island original farmer and Vice Chairman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission and Chairman of the Southold Town Planning Board, and deeply involved in seeking to preserve Suffolk County as a top agricultural area in New York State. Thankfully, it remains so.

Filed in: Suffolk Closeup

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