At first glance, the wine industries of the states of Washington and New York would appear to have very little in common. After all, Washington is the U.S.'s No. 2 producer, and has a reputation so well established that many critics believe it is second to none when it comes to bottling American Syrah and Merlot. New York, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to the wine limelight. So much so that one of its most important viticultural areas, the North Fork of Long Island, was better known for its potato crop than wine grapes as late as the early 1980s.
Both, though, can thank their respective state legislatures for giving them the impetus to move past their then-current places in America's wine hierarchy. Washington had always been a fairly large wine producer, but much of its more-familiar bottles - when they were even made with wine grapes - were composed of fruit that had little resonance with today's vinifera-obsessed consumers until its Legislature, at the behest of California's rapidly improving wine industry, passed a law making it illegal to favor in-state wineries at the expense of out-of-state producers (sound familiar?). As a consequence, many Washington wineries could no longer compete without the state-sanctioned retail protectionism. Producers had little choice but to compete on quality grounds or shut down. The success of this adjustment is well cataloged.
In New York, the state Legislature's actions were no less significant and perhaps even more directly beneficial. The Farm Winery Act of 1976 provided incentive for investment in facilities and vinifera. In addition to spurring growth in the Finger Lakes and Hudson River regions, the law aided pioneers like the Hargraves, who had birthed the East End's modern winegrowing era with their 1973 plantings. Since then, much like traffic along the Long Island Expressway on a Friday afternoon in summer, progress has been slow but steady. New York is now unquestionably in the quality tier just behind America's big three: California, Washington and Oregon.
In the companion articles that follow, contributing editor Richard Kinssies and associate editor Howard G. Goldberg report, respectively, on the state of the grape in Washington and New York.
The State of Washington Winemaking
David Stephenson's decision to open a winery came to him in the late 1990s on one of his many long flights to New York from his home in Bellingham near the Canadian border. He initially had wanted to be the first to open a brewery in this sleepy city in northern Washington, but by the time he made his move, three others had already beat him to the punch, ending his scheme to be the first to offer local micro-brews.
To pay the bills while he regrouped to decide what to do next, he found interim work on the east coast that required him to log many miles in the air. His in-flight epiphany convinced him that instead of making beer, winemaking and grape growing were really his calling. "So I sold my sailboat, my surfboard, my house, cashed in my 401K and moved to Walla Walla," he recounts. In doing so, Stephenson joined the hundreds who have heard the siren song of Washington's vineyards and wineries.
As a wine region, Washington is still in its formative years and winegrowers there are trying hard to know, among other things, the best places to plant vines, and for that matter, what vines to plant, as is evidenced in the growth of the north-central sector near Wenatchee and Chelan as well as the Skagit Valley in Puget Sound. So far, though, with the exception of pinot noir, they have had an uncanny success rate. In the 1970s, riesling, Washington's once and future king, was the grape upon which the industry was based, and its wines became a benchmark for domestic versions. Then came merlot, the signature red grape of the 1990s, and Washington led the pack with distinctive, high-quality examples. For many years, Columbia Crest, the state's largest producer, bottled more merlot than any other winery in the country. A few years back, when it was evident that syrah would be the next rock-star red, it was Washington that once again turned heads with elegant, as well as blockbuster, wines. Syrah is now becoming the most important red grape in the state.
Smart money would not bet against Washington. Blessed with the good genes of propitious climate and soil, and its producers' good sense to use hard work and marketing savvy to take full advantage, Washington is claiming its seat at the table of the world's most exciting wine regions. While much of the rest of the wine world is just now picking up enough steam to head out of the doldrums of the past five years, Washington has continued to show astonishing growth in new wineries and seems little affected, comparatively, by that pandemic slump. A look at the numbers is quite impressive.
In total domestic wine production, the state ranks behind only California. It's important to note, however, that while what is commonly referred to as bulk wine makes up more than 80 percent of the California wine market, virtually all Washington wine is in the premium, super-premium and ultra-premium categories. Though California has had a wine industry nearly since there has been a California, Washington can only look back maybe 40 years - depending on how one counts.
For example, in 1985 there were perhaps 20 wineries harvesting about 45,000 tons of grapes to make less than one million cases. Because dozens of individual wineries now pound out those numbers annually, it may be hard to make a case that Washington had much of a wine industry even 20 years back. Much of the growth has happened in the last ten years, most in the past five. But this recent surge has been astounding: In 2000, there were 163 wineries; the count is now more than 350 and rising.
When the double bubble of tech and wine burst at the turn of the century and an ocean of wine washed over the industry worldwide, Washington wineries were among the few to continue selling what they produced. Between the years of 2003 and 2004, when wineries everywhere were still fretting about how to stay in business, Washington was opening wineries faster than Starbucks in Beijing - 80 in all for that one-year period, or one every 4.56 days. And while wine is no threat to the tech industry's rank as Washington's über-industry, it has become a small but significant motor for the state's economy, currently contributing $3 billion annually and more than 14,000 full-time jobs.
But it is curious to note that the phenomenal growth in the number of wineries has occurred almost exclusively with tiny to miniscule facilities, many producing no more than a few hundred cases per year. It's hard to discern how this mosquito fleet of wineries has impacted the industry, but they have contributed some interesting numbers to the stats of the region. According to figures provided by the Washington Wine Commission (the organization of growers and producers responsible for promotion and development of Washington wines) for the years 2001 through 2004, the amount of grapes harvested annually has remained fairly constant at about 108,000 tons, and production hasn't budged from about seven million cases. Yet the number of new wineries that opened their doors during this four-year period is a staggering 150.
Dick Boushey, a veteran grower near Grandview in the Yakima Valley, is more concerned that production hasn't risen in four years than he is impressed by the number of new wineries. "It's deceiving," he says. "There's been no significant investments by big wineries." He predicts an increase in tonnage coming this year as a result of some new plantings, which worries him. His guess is that there will be a 2,000- to 3,000-ton surplus this year, mostly of chardonnay and merlot. Boushey wonders, as others do, why a large winery doesn't see this as a great opportunity to move in and take advantage since the small wineries have not been able to take up the slack. Many are only capable of crushing three to five tons each year. He's also worried that all of these new and inexperienced winemakers, many of whom are dilettantes and hobbyists, may not yet be producing at their best, which could affect the reputation of the region. "There's definitely room for improvement," he says.
Stephenson knows just what Boushey is talking about. When he opened Stephenson Cellars in the late 1990s, he admits, "I made a lot of mistakes as a new winemaker." But now he's using his experience to "steer new winemakers around the pitfalls." To supplement his income, Stephenson takes on two to three new Walla Walla wineries as clients each year in an effort to help them get off to a good start.
Producers in the Yakima Valley AVA seem to understand the importance of image. "People remember the bad ones," says Boushey. To ensure quality at all official AVA functions, a panel of screeners/tasters goes through all wines submitted for pouring at an event. Wines are tested for flaws only, not style. So far, 180 wines have been reviewed and only eight have been rejected.
But the biggest criticism of the new wave is not quality but potential sameness. A lack of diversity can be detected throughout the state. "There are two reasons why wines taste alike," Stephenson observes: "Formulaic winemaking [in an effort to make wines that will get high scores and accolades] and they buy their fruit from the [same] growers." The risk is that wineries could produce a whole generation of high-quality "Stepford wines."
No one could accuse Stephenson of sameness. "My wines are not what consumers expect," he says of his high acid, sometimes herbaceous wines. "You may love them or hate them, but they are not boring. One day an Italian guy came in and said it was the worst wine he ever tasted. But that's okay because the same day someone else said it was the best wine they [ever] tasted."
One of the ways Stephenson ensures his wines will not be confused with the rest of the AVA is to source grapes from outside the area. "Very few sites are suitable for grapes in Walla Walla," he says. "The best fruit in the state comes from Yakima Valley," he claims. Which begs the question, why did he choose to build a winery in Walla Walla? "Walla Walla is the last place I wanted to live," he admits. "I was a sailor and a surfer. But this is a business, and for wine, Walla Walla is it. It has nothing to do with the vineyards and everything to do with the reputations of the pioneers like Leonetti and Woodward Canyon," he says, referring to the fact that even though the most famous Walla Walla wineries made their finest wines and their reputations from fruit sourced outside of Walla Walla, new wineries want to be located next to them - mostly because of their potential to attract tourists. There are now about 66 wineries located here. "There were eight when I opened my winery," Stephenson notes.
It's an odd truth that both Walla Walla and Woodinville, the hottest wine tourist destinations in the state, are either not known for their vineyards or, as in the case of Woodinville, grow no grapes at all. The importance of the touring wine drinker to a winery's bottom line is not lost on Gordy Rawson, who recently relocated Chatter Creek, his tiny urban Seattle winery, to Woodinville, 40 minutes north and east of Seattle. "This wasn't my first choice," he says of his new address, "but this is the place to be. You really need a strong retail pull to make it, so if you're not in Walla Walla, you're in Woodinville." After only one month at his new location he has already seen an increase in sales.
Though Woodinville has only 18 wineries to Walla Walla's 66, two of the state's largest producers, Columbia Winery and Chateau Ste. Michelle, are located here, which helps attract hundreds of thousands of wine tourists annually. Consequently it is prime real estate for winery sites and the area is exploding with new wineries.
With its easy accessibility and proximity to Seattle, it's not hard to understand the allure of Woodinville for a winery site. But northern Puget Sound seems an unlikely spot to be singled out for its potential in winegrowing and tourism. "Within a decade, the Skagit Valley will be Walla Walla west," predicts Tom Bronkema, an outspoken advocate for creating a viable vinifera-based northern Puget Sound wine industry. That's a tall statement considering the Skagit, a stunningly beautiful, often rain-soaked valley some 60 miles due north of Seattle, is tulip country with a smattering of truck farms and far too many housing developments. Still, there are now six wineries functioning here.
Though few yet make wines from local grapes, Bronkema is gambling all that will change and is putting his money where his mouth is, having purchased 78 Skagit Valley acres last year, three of which he has planted to pinot noir. He'll plant the remainder as opportunity allows. Bronkema also started the Lahar winery this year, naming it after the local volcanic soil that he claims gives this land its viticultural edge. He plans to use local fruit for the label as the vineyards mature.
Dick Boushey is not so bullish on the Skagit. "This is extreme viticulture and extreme winemaking," he observes. "I want to make wines that can compete with the best in the world, but how far can you take it [in the Skagit]?" He does concede that, "If they match the warmer sites with the right varieties and rootstocks they can have a good niche market for local wines that go well with seafood - but you need skilled winemakers and there's no room for error."
Bronkema is unfazed by doubters such as Boushey. With the zeal of a religious convert, he believes he has the data to back up his bravado. Much of that data has been compiled by Gary Moulton, a mild-mannered scientist who has quietly gone about building a case for vinifera in the Skagit.
Moulton, senior scientific assistant at the Washington State University Research Extension in Mount Vernon, in the heart of the Skagit Valley, contends that by matching rootstocks to selected clones of, say, pinot noir or sauvignon blanc, the fruit will have no problem ripening. "It's not about Brix, it's about ripeness and we've proven we can get ripeness. Having the tannins and flavors ripe is what is important so a grape can be ripe at 18 degrees Brix and not ripe at 23." The consensus is that pinot noir and sauvignon blanc hold the most promise.
Scott Greer, a pension and retirement planner by trade, had a midlife crisis in 1997, but he didn't buy a Porsche or a Harley. "I planted a vineyard," he laughs. He wasn't looking for a good tourist site, but one that would express a sense of place. The land he chose is near Zillah in the Yakima Valley. He bought 76 acres and a tractor, which he had to learn how to drive, and he's never looked back. Depending on the vintage, three or so producers now buy his fruit, including his mentor, Chris Camarda of Andrew Will Winery. In 2001, he crushed grapes for his own Sheridan Vineyard label and today makes about 300 cases of Syrah and 700 cases of a red he calls L'Orage, French for "very big storm."
He says he selected the name to remind him of how difficult and financially hazardous it can be to choose wine as a livelihood. He remembers exactly when he came to that understanding. "It was June 27, 2001, at 1:21 pm," he recalls. "In 17 minutes, hail destroyed 96 percent of the crop. There wasn't a single leaf in the entire vineyard and I wound up with about three-and-a-half tons off of 42 acres."
"Grapes are risky [to grow]," concurs Boushey, who has been a commercial grape grower since 1980. He has 70 acres in vines, but keeps another 220 in apples and cherries. "I don't know any grower who has 100 percent of his income in grapes," he says.
David Stephenson has no financial allusions about owning a small winery. "It's a very expensive girlfriend," he says. "My goal is to someday make enough money to pay the bills and the rent and maybe have enough left over for some food," he says, only half-kidding.
With all the pitfalls, it's still hard to find someone who isn't enthusiastically optimistic about the future of Washington winemaking. Dick Boushey sees a slower but sustainable growth where even a small oversupply of grapes has a bright side. "Growers aren't planting new vineyards, but they're upgrading the vineyards they have," he says. "Everyone's getting better at what they do so we get better grapes and better wine."
"There are some good people here with vision and passion for making world-class wines," grower Scott Greer enthuses. "We just can't get stupid with pricing, and we have to learn not to try to be the second coming of Napa or Bordeaux and just create our own wonderful wines that show the diversity of our terroir."
Stephenson believes the proliferation of tiny wineries is ultimately good for the state. "All of these small producers are focusing on quality," he says. "They all have a different approach - a different artistic expression - and eventually they will offer different choices to the consumer."
Stephenson is also softening his opinion of Walla Walla fruit and is now looking at partnering with another grower on 30 acres in Walla Walla that he will farm and use as the exclusive source of grapes for his wines. In five years, he hopes to be entirely estate bottled. "I like making wines," he says, "but I just love growing grapes. And, in the end, it's the vineyard that will support and soothe me."
In a surprisingly short period of time, this region has gone from gangly youth to strapping young adult as it continues to define itself and stake out its place in the world of wine. It is now at a juncture in its evolution toward maturity. How its winegrowers handle Washington's incredible growth will affect the quality, reputation and ultimately the continued success of one of the world's superior wine regions.
Contributing Editor Richard Kinssies is the wine columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, owner of the Wine Outlet wine store and the director of the Seattle Wine School.
The State of New York Winemaking
Robert Ransom and his partner, Susan Wine, have bet heavily on the future of New York State wine. In 2000, the couple opened Vintage New York, a store that sells only New York wine, in the arty SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. In 2002, they established a second Vintage New York, on the residential Upper West Side. "Our new wine bar," a by-the-glass with-food 2005 venture abutting the first shop, "is an example of the next generation of our thinking - that New York wines can truly stand on their own as a lifestyle choice," Ransom says. But, he concedes, "New York wines are not a slam-dunk easy sell."
The three enterprises are spinoffs of Rivendell, a winery that the couple owns in the Hudson River Region, north of Manhattan. A trend that began in 1976 led to their deepening plunge. When the Legislature gave birth to New York's modern wine industry that year, the state had 19 wineries. Nearly three decades later, it has 219. Many start-ups are expected in the Finger Lakes region, wine-industry sources there say.
Driven by big-league ambitions, New York as producer now ranks third behind California and Washington in vineyard acres planted and annual grape tonnage, and fourth behind Oregon in total number of wineries. New York as consumer is the United States' second-largest wine market, after California. There's irony here: In 1808, the national temperance movement, culminating in Prohibition, originated in New York.
Fifteen years ago, much of Washington State's wine industry seemed poised on a runway, ready to span the continent; today, that's true of New York's, but with a major difference. In 1990, wines from the three West Coast states were already national bywords; today, New York's wines, still mainly regional, aren't comparably familiar.
A steady rain of gold medals in coast-to-coast wine contests whets New York vintners' belief that a customer base could be cultivated if the wines got beyond state restrictions and onto store shelves and restaurant lists. The supermarkets in 37 states, including Washington, Oregon and California, could hold the ticket; in New York, take-home wine is retailed only in licensed shops and at wineries' tasting counters.
Almost certainly the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in May that New York must allow both inside-the-state and interstate shipping, or neither, will affect that picture significantly. The court overturned a New York law giving the state's wineries advantages over outsiders in shipping.
Galvanized, the Legislature enacted a law that allows all adult New Yorkers to buy, in separate transactions, up to 36 cases per year from each and every winery of their choice in states that reciprocate. The wine must be for personal use, not for resale. On the North Fork of Long Island, Robert Pellegrini, an owner of Pellegrini Vineyards, is optimistic about the statute's effects. "We're excited about the law," he says. "It presents a great opportunity." He projected at least a ten percent increase in sales. Anticipating the change, Ronald Goerler, Jr., the vice president and vineyard manager of Jamesport Vineyards, has been "gearing up our Internet site" to facilitate increased commerce.
New York's cornucopia of grapes and styles offers consumers wines whose flavors speak of the past, present and future of the local wine industry. The industry is 166 years old, if dated to 1839, when Brotherhood, a Hudson Valley establishment that is America's oldest continuously operating winery, was founded. A post-Civil War wine boom in the Finger Lakes ended with a crash at Prohibition.
From the industry's origin, the state has experienced three winegrowing eras. The first, lasting until the middle of the last century, was based on native labrusca grapes (Catawba, Concord, Delaware, Niagara); the second, from the 1950s onward, depended on winter-hardy French-American hybrids (baco noir, chancellor, Maréchal Foch); the third, which continues to blossom, focuses on the classic European vinifera varieties.
Far upstate, the Finger Lakes region is becoming internationally prominent as riesling territory; downstate, Long Island and merlot are now synonymous. New York's so-called vinifera revolution was born in the 1950s, when Gold Seal, a Finger Lakes winery, laid the groundwork for the state's first commercial vinifera vintage. Gold Seal was inspired by the viticulturist Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian émigré, who as a consultant argued that, contrary to conventional wisdom, vinifera vines could survive sub-zero Finger Lakes winters and flourish if planted on the right rootstock. >
Modernity shifted into the next gear in 1976 when the Legislature passed the Farm Winery Act, making it financially feasible for economically depressed grape farmers dependent on labrusca to own and run a winery producing fewer than 50,000 gallons of wine (21,043 12-bottle cases) annually; today, a farm winery's limit is 150,000 gallons (63,131 cases).
From the late 1980s through the early 1990s, the industry was plagued by a widespread notion that all New York wine was sweet, cheap and kosher, a fiction spawned by the once dominant labrusca wines. Except in backwaters of ignorance, that misperception is dead, though grandpa's simple labrusca favorites live on. Not only do they fly off shelves in the Finger Lakes region, in a whimsical turn of fate they are now seen as originals - as equivalents of France's vins de pays, or country wines.
Here's proof: An $9 Diamond from Goose Watch, a Cayuga Lake winery, was voted best white wine this year at Riverside International Wine Competition in, of all places, California. The diamond grape, also called Moore's Diamond, was bred in New York in 1885.
In addition to the Finger Lakes, situated in the west-central part of the state, south of Lake Ontario, the industry embraces three other broad regions, in this descending order of prominence: Long Island, east of New York City; the Hudson River Region; and Lake Erie, at the western end of the state (its wines are seldom seen in Manhattan).
These regions themselves are American Viticultural Areas. The Lakes region has separate AVAs: Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake. Long Island has three: Long Island; North Fork of Long Island; The Hamptons, Long Island (the South Fork).
The federal government has been petitioned to create another, the Niagara Escarpment, bordering Lake Ontario's southern shoreline. The petitioner is Michael J. VonHeckler, an owner of Warm Lake Estate, in a warm benchland zone - locals call it a "banana belt" - under the escarpment, a limestone bluff. He thought the geology resembled the Côte d'Or's, planted pinot noir and hit a kind of Burgundian jackpot. Now, he says, an AVA will help: "It's a powerful marketing tool. It will be recognized worldwide."
Vintners in the cool-climate Finger Lakes sell all the Riesling they make, and every year wish they had planted more. Listen to Willy Frank, an owner of Dr. Konstantin Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars, which started in 1962 and now makes several still Rieslings. In another operation, Chateau Frank, he makes sparkling Riesling. "We are always running out," he says. "I have had to put out-of-state customers on allocation. When I took over in 1984, Dr. Frank had 12 acres planted to riesling; now we have 20. I buy riesling grapes from my brother-in-law next door and from other growers who agree to use our clones. We have a further six acres planted for sparkling wine."
Increasingly, Riesling specialists in Germany, Austria, Alsace and, lately, Australia, are discovering the verdant slopes of Seneca, Cayuga, Keuka and Canandaigua. Glaciers carved these deep temperature-moderating north-south lakes from sedimentary-rock deposits. The winery hub is 35-mile-long Seneca. Keuka's towering heights resemble those of the Rhine and Mosel.
The British-born critic Stuart Pigott, who lives in Berlin and is author most recently of Planet Wine, finds that "this similarity is not only optical, for although the wines come from different continents, latitudes and climates, the taste profile of Finger Lakes Rieslings is strikingly similar to that of their cousins from the Rhine and Mosel. The wines have the body and fresh but generous aromas of Rhine wines combined with the bracing acidity of Mosel wines. They're not distant cousins - rather first cousins!"
When summer lies somnolently on the deep lakes, sun-stunned cows and horses stare idly at hazy horizons, metal-domed silos glint at high noon, hawks circle and grapes fatten on the water-cooled slopes around modest, low-slung wooden wineries. After supper in small towns, pensioners in coveralls, taking their ease on whitewashed porches that fly Old Glory daily, listen to the corn grow and to August's cicada symphony.
The senses reel when autumn turns the harvested shale-and-slate vineyards and fields into russet, ocher, amber and gold patchwork quilts; sunsets sharpen the fading red color and the every-which-way lines of tumbling-down barns; and fireplace smoke curls in the bracing evening breezes off the gunmetal-gray waters.
If the architecture of any winery symbolizes the upward reach of local winegrowing, it is Lamoreaux Landing's. Perched above vines that cascade down to Seneca, the graceful Greek Revival building and its airy tasting rooms open out upon seemingly endless vistas. The wines, overseen by the owner, Mark Wagner, are classy.
Finger Lakes producers account for 85 percent of New York's wine production of 200 million bottles a year. Visitors to the region have risen from fewer than 300,000 in 1985 to three million in 2004. "The wine industry is the fastest growing industry in New York's two largest economic sectors, agriculture and tourism," says James Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, a publicly and privately financed trade association based in Penn Yan.
In 2004, for the fifth consecutive year, a Riesling won the foundation's New York Wine and Food Classic, which the American wine industry considers the definitive index of the nature, quality, style and direction of the state's industry. A 2003 Dry Riesling from Rivendell, the Vintage New York couple's winery, defeated 635 other entries, in the largest field ever entered in what was then a 19-year-old competition. Rivendell's winning $13 white was made from grapes bought from Chateau LaFayette Reneau, on Seneca Lake, whose own Rieslings won the 1998 and 2000 contests. Although Lafayette-Reneau Rieslings do not enjoy the international attention given to those from Hermann J. Wiemer, an old-guard producer and nurseryman who migrated from the Mosel in Germany, they are achieving near-parity.
Visitors seeking tasty Rieslings also turn to such wineries as Anthony Road, Atwater, Casa Larga, Fulkerson, Glenora, Heron Hill, Hosmer, Hunt Country, King Ferry (Treleaven), Lamoreaux Landing, Ravines, Red Newt, Sheldrake Point, Standing Stone, Swedish Hill and Thirsty Owl.
"New York producers need to sharpen the distinction between good and excellent Rieslings," says Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling, who heads the wine research program at Cornell University's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, in Geneva, on Seneca Lake. "We need to make excellent dry, big-body Rieslings and intriguing delicate floral Rieslings. We should also make sparkling wines from riesling. We already make outstanding botrytized Riesling and Ice Wine."
He adds, "Some Rieslings should have no botrytized fruit, and I would like to see more superbotrytized Rieslings in the style of trockenbeerenauslese."
Not surprisingly, another major Alsace grape does well in the Lakes district. "Gewürztraminer plantings are expanding, though on a much smaller scale than riesling," Henick-Kling says. "New York Gewürztraminer wines are excellent. As with Riesling, we have the opportunity to produce three distinct Gewürztraminers. One dry, very ripe, with lots of spice and floral notes. Another, semidry, more floral and with tree fruit aromas. And a botrytized late-harvest wine."
Finger Lakes growers are acutely aware of winter's threats. (January freezes in 2004 and 2005 have reduced crop sizes significantly.) "New vineyards are planted with additional soil drainage and with drip irrigation," Henick-Kling says. "This improves ripening and winter-hardiness."
But this expert has no illusions about agriculture's calendar. "It will be five to seven years before we might come close to matching demand for riesling, gewürztraminer, lemberger and pinot noir," he says. "The Lakes will still be a small player, but with excellent quality. Unfortunately, the Lakes are lagging behind in planting. There is still lots of land for expansion of our premium vineyards."
While classic European grapes dominate the statewide scene, consumers' wallets remain hospitable to the unconventional. Take the 2004 Rkatsiteli ($25) from Dr. Frank. Rkatsiteli (pronounced ar-kat-si-TEL-lee) is an ancient vinifera grape planted extensively in Eastern Europe. It yields a fresh, harmonious wine that tastes like a gewürztraminer-riesling blend with lime infused.
Then there is Seyval Blanc, a crisp, delicately aromatic white wine made from a hybrid grape. When grown and vinified by boutiques like Ben and Phyllis Feder's rustic Clinton Vineyards, in the Hudson Valley, Seyvals can resemble upscale dry and sparkling Chardonnays.
Alas, until now few consumers outside New York have known the charms of dry whites such as Cayuga, Melody, Traminette and Vidal Blanc, and of sweet Vignoles dessert wines. The direct-shipment law is likely to change that picture.
Near Manhattan, the Hudson Valley's jewel is Millbrook, a hillside estate crowned by a winery in a whitewashed Dutch hip-roofed dairy barn that offers enchanting painterly vistas. (The proprietor, John Dyson, is best known to aficionados as an owner of Williams Selyem, the Pinot Noir atelier in the Russian River Valley of California.) Its Tocai Friulano, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc get high marks from customers.
The power of New York City's Darwinian wine marketplace in the dreams and sales efforts of producers worldwide suggests that, beyond London and Paris, it is the world's most important, or at least challenging, market.
For New York vintners and labels, even those clustered on the North and South Forks in eastern Long Island, a two-hour drive from Times Square, acceptance of their labels in New York City's retail shops and restaurants has been an uphill struggle, but it has become easier lately.
Long Island wine country's proximity to Manhattan and to the wine and food media gives an image-shaping advantage to its 38 producers that the Finger Lakes' 94 producers cannot easily match. Most boutiques around the Lakes don't even try. First, they don't make a lot of wine; second, supplying customers is difficult because of the grueling ten-hour round trip; third, they sell every drop at home and in big cities nearby such as Buffalo, Ithaca, Rochester and Syracuse.
Literally and metaphorically, a handful of Long Island producers reached new heights this year when Asiate, the chic Mandarin Oriental Hotel's luxurious restaurant on the 35th floor of the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, featured their wines in a $95 French-Japanese tasting dinner. The sommelier, Annie Turso, poured such treats as Lieb's 2001 Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine, Paumanok's 2004 Semidry Riesling and 2002 Late-Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, Corey Creek's 2002 Gewürztraminer and Bedell's 2002 C-Block South Merlot. Turso chose these wines "because of their ability to pair with food," because "they were quite delicate" and "unique" and "varietally correct," because "they were balanced" and because "they compared favorably with brother and sister wines around the world."
Long Island's all-vinifera wine industry was born in 1973, when Louisa and Alex Hargrave founded the Hargrave Vineyard (now Castello di Borghese) on the North Fork. Today, 3,000 acres are planted in the region. Although Merlot took a hit in the California-based film Sideways, Island producers, who treat it as their signature wine, merely shrugged. Many of the visitors flooding into the semi-pastoral North Fork and celebrity-drenched South Fork - in ever-larger numbers year by year, vintners say - go home carrying it.
The established top-tier wineries they visit on the North Fork include Bedell, Corey Creek, Jamesport, Lenz, Macari, Martha Clara, Palmer, Paumanok, Peconic Bay, Pellegrini, Pindar and Raphael; on the South Fork, Channing Daughters and Wölffer. Though Shinn, a North Fork newcomer, has a barely established record, it doesn't disappoint.
Wölffer, occupying a handsome, Tuscan-style villa, and with exemplary vineyards, caters to the Hamptons' gold coast. Heavily bankrolled, it is perhaps Long Island's No. 1 estate, conceivably destined for greatness under Roman Roth, the German-born winemaker. He makes elegant, understated food-oriented sparkling wine, whites, reds and a rosé.
Roth says that growing conditions in the North and South Forks do not differ significantly. "The Hamptons have a richer soil, and we have in summer more of an ocean breeze moderating the heat. The result is that Hamptons wines are more lively from slightly higher acidity, making them very food-friendly and giving additional longevity making them very European in style. In warm and hot years - three out of four - it is easier to make great wines in the Hamptons; in cold and rainy years - one out of four - it is easier on the North Fork."
Long Island's identification with Merlot has narrowed into an oversimplification. Tasting rooms offer bountiful quantities of winsome red, white and rosé still wines and sparkling wines. "There are about 30 varieties grown locally, and there are examples of each one of them reaching a high level of excellence," says Charles Massoud, an owner of Paumanok, whose own portfolio proves his words.
Visitors to both forks find no shortage of crisp, food-friendly Chardonnays from stainless steel tanks and rich, buttery versions from oak barrels, numbers of subtle Sauvignon Blancs, light Pinot Grigios, charming Viogniers, tasty Sémillons and winsome pink wines. As for reds, they will encounter substantial Cabernet Francs, Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs and a Lemberger (Blaufränkisch).
A small collection of standouts would include Bedell's Cupola, a Bordeaux blend; Channing Daughters' Sylvanus (a white blend), Tocai Friulano and Vino Bianco; Jamesport's Sauvignon Blanc; Lenz's Alsace-style Gewürztraminer, one of America's best, and its sparkling wines; Macari's Alexandra, a Bordeaux blend; Palmer's Pinot Blanc; Paumanok's Chenin Blanc and Rieslings; Pellegrini's Vintner's Pride Chardonnay; Pindar's Mythology, a Bordeaux blend; Raphael's First Label Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc; Schneider's Cabernet Francs; and Wölffer's 2002 Premier Cru Merlot (at $125, the region's priciest bottle), sparkling wine and Midi-like rosé.
Though these wines can be world-class, New York wines are virtually absent from the auction market. Unlike a smattering of Washington and Oregon brands, they have made no significant inroads among collectors, whose investments confer status.
When Acker Merrall and Condit, the Manhattan merchant and auction house, disposed of 1,718 lots of wine for $2,178,302 at an auction in wealthy East Hampton in June, none came from Long Island. Its president, John Kapon, says that when the auction market develops an interest in the Island, so will he. "We don't set the market, we follow it," he explains.
Neither the Finger Lakes nor Long Island have cumulative, vintage-upon-vintage records of producing long-aging wines that develop complexities that transform scarce bottles into commodities that can be consumed with memorable pleasure or profitably resold. Besides, it is nearly impossible to find a trust-worthy consensus about which years in, say, the last decade have produced outstanding vintages in both regions. Richard Olsen-Harbich, who has made wine on the Island for 25 years, currently at multimillion-dollar Raphael (where Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux is the consultant), observes: "We have a lot to prove, and we haven't proved it yet. It involves the learning curve."
Long Island reds, especially the blends, are often likened stylistically to Bordeaux's, but Bordeaux has existed for centuries, and the benchmark châteaux and vintages are famous. When the technical ins and outs of grape growing and cellar work are considered, the Island's 32 years of experience come down to a footnote in a history book.
So what if high-rolling investors aren't interested? Steven Bate, executive director of the Long Island Wine Council, senses who is. In May, he says, for the first time the number of hits on the council's Web site (www.liwines.com) passed one million per month, up from 830,000 in April. Previously, the site had never registered more than 235,000 in any month in its history, which dates to 2001, he says.
While the national market has emphatically captured New York vintners' attention, the loosening of old legislative and regulatory shackles has made buying of the state's wines easier at home. Wine stores, which for years had to close on Sundays, can now stay open seven days a week. Restaurant patrons who don't finish bottles with meals can now carry them home in sealed doggie bags. The next big hurdle will involve a political battle over selling wine in food markets. But that issue is probably a year off.
Howard G. Goldberg, who spent 34 years at The New York Times as an editor and 21 as a wine writer, contributes two Sunday features to the newspaper: Wine Under $20 and Long Island Vines.
"Mixed' cases of wine were reviewed for both Washington and New York. Producers are listed alphabetically for each state; regions are cited with each tasting note; scores are based on this magazine's BuyLine rating system. The wines were not tasted blind.
Ash Hollow Vineyards, 2002 Ash Hollow Vineyard Estate Blend, Walla Walla Valley - $30: For its size, the wine is subtle, nuanced and fairly light on its feet. Straightforward with a nose of red fruit and flavors of plum and red cherry mingled with hints of vanilla and spice. A blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Score: 89
Dusted Valley, 2004 Viognier, Yakima Valley - $23: Plenty of fresh ripe tree fruit on the nose and palate. Polished and balanced with lots of luscious fruit flavors reminiscent of white peach, melon and pear yet manages to stay bone dry. The lifting acidity ensures balance. Score: 90
Dusted Valley, 2003 Stained Tooth Syrah, Columbia Valley - $24: With a dark, near purple hue, the wine opens with scents of vanilla, mocha and black fruit. Coffee, tobacco, some blueberry and other dry black fruit on the palate. The long, dry finish is carried by plenty of soft-textured tannins. Score: 89
Forgeron, 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley - $30: Gorgeous floral, mocha and dark fruit aromas. More black fruit on a palate woven with spice and light oak, framed by sturdy, but gentle tannins and refreshing acidity. Score: 90
Hightower, 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley - $30: Enticing, complex nose of black/red fruit precedes mouth-filling flavors that lean toward black fruit such as currant, plum and blackberry, mingled with black cherry, vanilla and spice; nicely balanced by firm structure and soft, yet plentiful tannins. Score: 90
Latitude 46 N, 2002 Vindication, Columbia Valley - $30: Aromas of bright red berry fruit with more than a hint of cherry. Finely structured, balanced and complex with tangy fruit flavors of raspberry and red cherry. A blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Score: 90
Latitude 46 N, 2004 Gewürztraminer, Celilo Vineyard, Columbia Gorge - $20: Lovely whiffs of floral and fruit aromas display the essence of this grape. Dry, refined and very complex flavors of white fruit and flowers, all impeccably balanced by just the right amount of tangy acidity. Score: 89
Sheridan Vineyard, 2002 L'Orage, Yakima Valley - $36: Rich nose of dark fruit and vanilla. Lush and plump in the mouth with ripe black/red fruit supported by plushly textured tannins. A herbaceous tinge appears in the long, steady finish. Score: 91
Stephenson Cellars, 2002 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley - $28: A finely honed, broad-shouldered wine with scents of coffee, mocha and blueberry. The palate offers coffee and dense blackberry fruit. A long, complex and very dry finish reveals a hint of herbaceousness and a slight but pleasant bitterness. Score: 90
Stephenson Cellars, 2002 Merlot, Walla Walla Valley - $28: Nose of ripe black fruit including blackberry with a touch of raspberry. On the palate, the wine shows layers of densely packed black fruit and hints of vanilla. A superbly structured wine with a lengthy herbal finish. Score 91
SYZYGY, 2003 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley - $28: Aromas of cola and blueberry with a herbaceous hint. Red fruit and more cola on the palate with bracing acidity and a bitter herb finish. Score: 87
Three Rivers Winery, 2002 Syrah, Boushey Vineyards, Yakima Valley - $35: Dark black-rimmed wine with a nose of mocha, herbs and spice. Lush and rich on the palate with dry black fruit, herbs and bittersweet chocolate flavors. Score: 89 - RK
For more information on Washington wine, visit www.washingtonwine.org.
Channing Daughters, The Hamptons, Long Island - Under James Christopher Tracy, the new winemaker, whites are luminous. The boutique-size production sells out almost immediately. Buyers can confidently bet on new vintages of Sylvanus, a muscat, pinot bianco, pinot grigio blend; Vino Bianco, a sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, musqué clone chardonnay blend; Tocai Friulano; and Channing Perrine Sauvignon Blanc.
Chateau LaFayette Reneau, 2004 Johannisberg Riesling, Finger Lakes - $12: Fragrant, lean and taut, awash in spiced pear and pineapple, virtually dry but with a dab of sweetness, kiwi-like bite, appetite-whetting. Score: 87
Glenora, 2004 Seyval Blanc, Finger Lakes - $10: Bountifully fruity, creamy texture, refreshingly zippy acidity, off-dry finish; an addictive super-apéritif. Score: 88
Goose Watch, nonvintage (2004 fruit) Diamond, Finger Lakes - $9: Light, bursting with gorgeous DayGlo fruit flavor, the soul of labrusca but with elegance, oscillatingly tart and sweet; a dynamic feel. Score: 91
Hermann J. Wiemer, 2004 Dry Riesling, Finger Lakes - $16: Lean, weightless, bone dry, young peaches in bouquet, apricots in flavor, citric and refreshing, technically polished. Score: 89
Lenz, 2003 Gewürztraminer, North Fork of Long Island - $20: Deliberately Alsace-like in style, perfumed, opulent, a caressing texture, bright and piquant, seamless, lychee flavor, grapefruit-like bite, long finish. Score: 88
Lieb Family Cellars, 2001 Blanc de Blanc, North Fork of Long Island - $35: This dry sparkling wine, from Alsace vines planted in 1983, is 100 percent pinot blanc. It is feather-light, bright and charming. Score: 90
Millbrook, 2003 Proprietor's Special Reserve Chardonnay, Hudson River Region - $18: Barrel-fermented; secondary fermentation yields agreeable butteriness; sweet-oak frame, light body, savory flavor with hints of figs and olives, beautifully knit; stylish, cerebral appeal; drink lightly cool. Score: 88
Paumanok, 2001 Assemblage, North Fork of Long Island - $36: A Bordeaux-style blend (44 percent cabernet sauvignon, 35 percent merlot, 21 percent cabernet franc). Opulent, sultry, smoky bouquet and flavors. Soft tannins. Bold, spicy, crushed-berry flavors underpinned by emphatic but not distracting near-sweet oakiness. Abundant fruit, mocha, graphite. Score: 91
Pindar, 2000 Mythology, North Fork of Long Island - $35: A Bordeaux-style blend (31 percent cabernet sauvignon, 24 percent merlot, 22 percent cabernet franc, 12 percent malbec, 11 percent petit verdot); soft tannins; so light it almost floats. A vivacious red that brings to mind a compote of summer berries. Score: 88
Standing Stone, 2004 Vidal Ice, Finger Lakes - $25, 375-ml bottle: Ice wine with old-gold color, honey in bouquet and flavor, a tart-and-sweet palate-coating elixir with brisk acidity. Score: 89
Wölffer, 2002 Premier Cru, The Hamptons, Long Island - $125: The region's costliest red, and worth it; this graceful, medium-bodied version, the third vintage, is the best. Vividly expresses the grape's varietal soul; smoky and sultry aroma and flavor, chocolate and cocoa, ham and bacon, wood shavings; fresh acidity; round, silken texture, glides down the throat. Score: 96 - HGG
For more information on New York wine, visit www.nywine.com.
— Reported by Richard Kinssies & Howard G. Goldberg