The Good Fork
On a narrow strip of land at the tip of New York's Long Island, tiny wineries are working hard to rival their famous peers around the globe—and stay mellow in the process.
If the two forks of Long Island's East End were sisters, the North Fork would undoubtedly be the innocent, modest one.
She has none of the glitz of her southern peninsular twin, the Hamptons. Celebrities don't seem to pay her much attention. She faces the quiet Long Island Sound instead of the lusty open ocean. And instead of a party scene, she offers bucolic countryside dotted with wineries and farm stands. But, as with sex appeal, geographic appeal is a matter of taste. Some of us prefer the North Fork's easygoing charm to her famous sister's haughty glamour. The North Fork may not be as posh as the Hamptons, in other words, but she has a better personality.
"The North Fork is like a young Sonoma," says Joe Watson, who opened Vine Wine + Café, in Greenport, one of the area's biggest villages, in 2006. Long Island's wine country occupied fewer than 20 acres of vineyards some 35 years ago, but today there are more than 4,000 acres. Local wines have been touted in Wine Spectator. This—in combination with easy access to fresh seafood and produce—has attracted a thriving group of epicures. Chef Tom Colicchio (of Top Chef fame, owner of the Craft restaurant empire, and cofounder of Manhattan's tony Gramercy Tavern) bought a house here in 2004. The area has not, however, become too enamored of its own success. Towns have been gently burnished, but their rural character has remained unchanged. "This is the last vestige of what all of Long Island used to be," says Chris Baiz, owner of The Old Field Vineyards in Southold.
Only about 75 miles from Manhattan, the North Fork juts into the Long Island Sound, separated from the Hamptons by the Peconic Bay. The peninsula itself is only about 30 miles long. At Riverhead, strip malls begin to give way to open spaces and, every few miles, a speck of a village just off the road. First Mattituck, then Cutchogue, Greenport, and at the far tip, Orient.
When my husband and I turn off Main Road (Route 25) and arrive in Greenport on Friday afternoon, we wander down a quiet side street to Vine. We've been told it's a good spot to start sampling North Fork wines: The restaurant serves a dozen local varieties by the taste, the glass, or the bottle. The carefully considered restaurant and wine bar occupies an old-fashioned house on a corner lot and has plenty of outdoor seating on a front porch and a terrace. It's hard to imagine that when Watson first started coming out to the area 10 years ago, much of the town's main street was vacant. "Greenport was still a shambles," he recalls. "So many houses have been bought and fixed up now. It's becoming a cute little village, like Sag Harbor but not as precious." A meal can be assembled from the various small bites or more substantial dishes on the menu, but Watson says he wants to keep the focus on wine. "I love when people have a couple of glasses of wine and some olives, and just hang out," he says—which sounds like a fine way to spend a weekend.
On Saturday, we begin hunting and gathering. Many of the area wineries encourage visitors to bring a picnic to go along with their wine, and we stop at some farm stands for provisions. On Main Road in the village of Cutchogue, Wickham's Fruit Farm has been operated by the same family for about 70 years. Fresh doughnuts (cinnamon, plain, or sugar) are brought out by the plateful, and there are jars of jam, containers of flavored honey sticks, a table of pies, and pick-your-own fruit out back. I settle for some fresh-baked bread, a pint of strawberries, and homemade cucumber salad for our alfresco feast.
We reach the Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck in time to share our picnic spread and taste some wine before catching a tour of the grounds by owner-vintner Barbara Shinn. Shinn and her husband, David Page, established their vineyard in 2000 and later sold their acclaimed Home Restaurant in Greenwich Village. They were determined to run a completely organic farm despite numerous warnings that it was an impossible feat with the fluctuating East Coast weather conditions. Through a combination of experimentation and perseverance, they have succeeded in creating a sustainable vineyard. Instead of chemical-based treatments, their biodynamic approach means rows are lush with overgrown grass and flowers that attract beneficial bugs—a natural pest control for the vines. "Out here, you realize how fragile the ecosystem is," Shinn says. When Shinn and Page bought the farm, their immediate goal was to keep the land from being developed. The gaping hole between the declining profitability of farming and the soaring property values made the area vulnerable. Shinn and Page have been able to protect their land in perpetuity thanks to a law that allows them to get cash rewards for signing away their development rights to government authorities. "Farmers are paid to preserve the land," says Shinn.