A visit to North Fork, the newest wine country

New York: Tourists, but not developers, are welcome in this bayside section of Long Island, replete with farmland and roadside produce stands.

Short Hop

January 27, 2002|By Bill Osinski | Bill Osinski,Cox News Service

It's easy to get slightly rhapsodic about the North Fork of New York's Long Island and about the symphony of pleasures it offers the senses.

Light does magical things here. It bounces off the waters of the quiet coves of the bay side of the fork, making mirrors of thousands of surfaces. It illuminates the curl of the breakers along Long Island Sound, which pound into the fork's north coast. And for more sunny days than practically any place in the state of New York, it makes the vegetables and the grapes grow.

For centuries, this amazingly fertile, 25-mile-long strip of Long Island's far eastern end has been the vegetable basket to the Big Apple. Peconic Bay scallops, bluepoint oysters and several varieties of clams also are gifts from the sea.

But the plebeian potato, long the agricultural staple of the region, is being replaced by the noble grape. In less than three decades, 30 or so wineries have been established in the area.

Along with the wine-red transfusion has come something else relatively new for the North Fork: the green flow of tourism dollars.

But this is tourism with a twist. North Fork folks have adopted a take-us-on-our-terms approach toward the increasing wave of visitors. The result is a deliberate appeal to the unpretentious connoisseur, or to the traveler seeking respite from the resort mentality.

"We cringe at being discovered," said Prudence Wickham, whose family has farmed the North Fork for nearly four centuries. And while the region welcomes tourists, it has strived to preserve its agricultural character while discouraging urban and residential sprawl.

Even so, a half-million visitors come annually to the North Fork, just to sample the wineries. Geography simplifies the challenge of choosing which wineries -- all the tasting rooms are on the two main highways of the region. So it's easy to make half a dozen or more wine stops in a day, preferably with a designated driver.

'Better than California'

The tasting rooms are mostly variations on the farm revival theme. A few have remodeled old farm buildings, especially barns, into ultramodern tasting rooms with vineyard vistas.

During a 1990 symposium on North Fork wines attended by many noted winemakers from France, Alain Querre, owner of Chateau Monbousquet in the St. Emilion district, proclaimed that two North Fork merlots were "better than anything made in California."

But even those with uneducated palates can delight in the experience of hopscotching among the closely spaced wineries. If you don't drink wine, the tastes of the locally grown corn, apples and berries bring satisfaction by the mouthful.

Beyond the senses, there is a distinctive sensibility to the North Fork experience. The Hamptons, it definitely isn't. That tony area, on the South Fork of the island tip, just a few miles by car ferry from the North Fork, is a world away in attitude and appearance. While the Hamptons are known for the secluded estates of the ultra-wealthy, trendy shops and expensive restaurants, the North Fork is mostly just a string of neat but unassuming villages set amid the flatland farms.

The North Fork is a place for people who can find fascination in a fruit stand, who see the quest for a great glass of wine as a worthy vacation plan.

Keeping developers out

In the last few years, the towns of the North Fork have spruced up a bit for guests. Old inns are being restored and reopened; private homes and farmhouses are becoming bed-and-breakfast inns.

And the local restaurants, from waterfront seafood places to modest diners, are offering area vintages on their wine lists.

The chain hotels and restaurants aren't here yet; and there may not be room for them to come: One of the most surprising changes that has occurred in the North Fork is an unofficial alliance among the traditional farmers, the grape growers and conservationists, against developers.

"We welcome the wineries with open arms," said Helen Krupski, whose family has farmed the North Fork for five generations. "Otherwise, the land would all be going to development, and once it's blacktopped, it's gone."

Krupski's family has managed to stay in farming by selling what they grow at their roadside produce stands. They must make their six months or so of income last the whole year, she said, but at least they're doing what they love.

That sentiment is echoed by some of the wine growers, who have made sizable investments in land (roughly $30,000 and up per acre), vines and processing equipment. They must wait five to eight years for the vines to produce wine-quality grapes.

The North Fork Grape Rush has enticed people like construction magnates, sports franchise owners and movie moguls to the region to establish vineyards and wineries. Most of them aspire to produce grand vintages.

"Wine is the only living beverage in the world," said Ron Goerler, vineyard manager for Jamesport Vineyards.

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