The Island that Pays Tribute: Our Land, Our Wines

My family has mango trees. Because of that background, whenever I eat mangos I have a sweet endorphin reaction that goes beyond the mere taste. Mangos from Meinong, Taiwan, are sweet and full of love. As a kid, we’d arrive on the farms and scream out to our aunts and uncles who would inevitably trot from behind their mango trees, all bundled up with a wide smile in protective gear from the high sun in August…

I’m in New York now. And while that may have been a long long time ago, it’s a kind of palate I bring with me everywhere I go. Sitting recently in a very different kind of East –  NYC’s Lower East Side – sipping wines from France and Italy, I think about how these regions emphasize the “sense of the place” in their traditions. I can’t help but wonder what’s the land like? What are people’s manners? How does the soil feel? How are the vines hung? For me, with a background in Asia, the answers remain mysterious and exotic, filled with key words that are as foreign as a perfect cheeseburger.

Then one evening, while watching a Rangers game in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an absolutely beautiful Chenin Blanc from Paumonauk vineyard, Long Island. I thanked the bartender for the introduction, and promised myself that this was an opportunity for a more thoughtful trip to our regional vineyards.

To explore 50+ vineyards in 3 days was not the point. Rather, it was to understand more about how that Chenin Blanc had distilled the Montaukett and Shinnecock nation, colonial occupation, Teddy Roosevelt and oysters into a general spirit of place. Indeed, Long Island is many things to many people, and while my husband and I tend to prefer the North Fork’s traditional agricultural community, the Hamptons and South Fork have become a gold coast for many, and helped spawn an ever increasing drive toward the edible east end.

It’s worth pointing out that Long Island remains a land of villages and townships. Therein lies a good deal of the challenges and opportunities that the region faces. – Exiting one of the most dangerous expressways in the state of New York onto the slow lane of Riverhead, the seat of Suffolk County, both are immediately palpable.

 

It’s very quiet and quaint; one would be forgiven for having no clue that nearby are many family owned vineyards with just enough hands to take care of vines’ daily activities, let alone continue their growth into an internationally-recognized wine producing region. And this is an important window on the area’s evolution: how to balance the traditional agricultural community with the opportunity to grow as a destination for the newer trends in food and wine? How to ensure the small community charm, while ensuring it’s long term sustainability? how to shoe-horn contemporary wine culture into existing zoning regulations with the intent of both facilitating the industry’s success while leveraging – one hopes – higher tax revenues for the benefit of all?

Itinerary notes:
Barbara of Shinn Estate gave us a vineyard tour, explained how she nurtures 20 acres of gravelly soil with a system built on no tilling and no herbicides. With cover crops of purslane, clover and plantain weeds, this biodiversity of vineyard floor attract good bugs that work against elements that could damage the vines. She uses the drip-irrigation system not so much to irrigate the vines but to spread compost, to keep the soil and the natural biodiversity alive.

Barbara  

Brilliant. And that intelligent care showed in their wines – focus, complex and just delicious. Eric Asimov of New York Times reviewed their wines years ago, and said their wines were good right away after the first growth…
Long Island has been recognized in the wine world as one of the premium wine production region in recent years, not because they’ve been here for centuries and just following the traditions. This is the land that was compared to Bordeaux region for its maritime climate and soil composition, by a group of top Bordeaux producers in 1988. They believed Long Island had tremendous potential to produce world-class wines.

 

Barbara and other vintners came to Long Island 30, 20, 10 years ago, full of passion, talents, innovative spirit and resources, they pursue the opportunity to reflect what the Nature had bestowed to New York. Although Paumanok was not open to public when we past by, there were so many vineyards ahead filled us with awe and inspiration.
An early dinner at Jedediah Hawkins in Jamesport, was an orchestra played under the sky. The elegant, historical house was the dining room. There was certain showmanship came through the kitchen window by a young and composed crew. But that endorphin kicked in when the fresh sea food, vegetables and herbs (grown right outside the house) burst energy of this very land. Tweeds, which became our favorite restaurant, had their own bison farm. Sitting below the last buffalo head that Teddy Roosevelt shot, the flavor of bison steak was as thick as history and life.

   

There’s a genuine quality of life that both of us fell for from this trip. The beautiful everyday wines with its own identity, land-to-table food, country lifestyles with a bless of beaches; all are given to us, right here in New York.

Oh, and as for that Chenin Blanc? – it turns out that Paumanok can be translated as “..the Island that pays tribute.” It gives me a different perspective whenever I have a glass of foreign wine again, that THAT is exotic, and THIS, is New York.

      

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