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Long Island Wine Region Comes of Age

Vineyards: It's no Napa Valley, but at a million gallons a year, the North Fork has significance.


CUTCHOGUE, N.Y. — When Louisa and Alex Hargrave had the crazy idea three decades ago to buy up one of the old potato farms on Long Island's North Fork and replant it with grapes, a neighbor had to tutor them in the basics: No, farmers can't sleep until 9 a.m. You have to be working by 6, then keep at it until 6 in the evening, when the firehouse whistle goes off.

Even after they'd produced their first harvest, other features of big-time winemaking, such as using fancy oak barrels for aging or advertising to bring in customers, seemed beyond the reach of their mom-and-pop operation. "Our pockets weren't all that deep," Louisa says.

Today, her pockets are far from empty, and she can toast that fact with bottles from two dozen wineries that now line the North Fork's country roads.

Three years ago, Hargrave and her now ex-husband sold their operation for $4 million to Italian Prince Marco Borghese, who put the family crest on what now is the Castello di Borghese / Hargrave Vineyard, and where you can stage a wedding for 800 around the onetime potato barn.

They are not the only new faces bringing cachet to the local winemaking: Michael Lynne, the co-chairman of New Line Cinema, paid $7 million for two nearby vineyards, while others have been bought or planted by the owner of the Houston Rockets basketball team, an heir to the Entemann's baking fortune and a New York cardiologist whose medical group looked after the hearts of David Letterman and Larry King.

The wine trail here--with its tasting rooms, tours and evening concerts under billowing tents--stretches 20 miles to the fishing town of Greenport, where a sign outside a vineyard store declares, "Last winery before France."

But when telecommunications executive Vincent Galluccio threw a dinner for the local wine barons to celebrate his buying the Gristina Vineyards for $5 million, he didn't serve his own. "I brought in California wines," Galluccio noted. "The theme was that our competition was not the people sitting on your right or left. The competition is people making these wines."

No one is quite yet equating this sliver of New York to the Napa Valley. According to the Long Island Wine Council, the 52 vineyards on the island east of Manhattan--most all on the North Fork--cover "nearly 3,000 acres." That's a leap from the 17 acres the Hargraves planted in 1973 but less than 7% of the 44,000 acres covered by vineyards in Napa Valley, which has 375 wineries; California has 500,000 acres of wine grapes.

Nevertheless, with production of more than 1 million gallons a year, North Fork winemaking has economic and symbolic significance for an area that has long been a poor sister to its southern counterpart. Long Island splits at its eastern end, and the South Fork got the chic Hamptons, with their broad beaches, multimillion-dollar summer homes and Hollywood and Wall Street crowds. The North Fork's more modest vacation trade has never overshadowed its agricultural and blue-collar heritage. Softball leagues are far more abundant than country clubs.

There have been a few vineyard failures since the Hargraves imported vinifera vines and built a tasting room with a polished mahogany table and an 8-foot-high stained-glass Tiffany window of "The Sower," based on the Millet painting. But the industry has grown steadily thanks to a heralded 1988 harvest, some bottles garnering 90-plus on the 100-point Robert Parker system for rating wines, and with the influx of new proprietors with ambitions matching their bankrolls.

The Borgheses still tout their winery's status as "Long Island's first vineyard" but also how Marco's "noble Italian lineage dates back to 9th century Italy."

His wife, U.S.-born Ann Marie, was among half a dozen vineyard representatives who met recently in Greenport to plot "how to put, as a region, our best foot forward." Among their promotions: two wine country weekends, with renowned chefs cooking at the vineyards, and annual tastings for Manhattan restaurateurs.

Mark and Kathy Lieb, who made their fortune on Wall Street and still have a money management firm, not only bought a vineyard but also opened a "custom crush" facility in Mattituck, where other owners can make wines without investing in wineries.

"We came here because we wanted to have a simpler life. Now we're into real estate and wine," Kathy said with a laugh.

Many got into the field for the romance, only to discover there's nothing simple about a business that can be wiped out by bad weather or disease--and may well lose money in the best of times.

But the Liebs recently had one of the experiences they all live for: A newspaper column by Alain Ducasse, whose Manhattan restaurant may be the most expensive in the United States, featured a halibut recipe pairing the dish with a wine from their Lieb Family Cellars, their $15 pinot blanc 2000.

Even so, Lieb reports that the bottle was on the restaurant's wine list as coming not from the North Fork or Long Island, but merely the "Atlantic Coast."

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