Long Island

THE OTHER SIDE OF

Forget the Hamptons. Charming villages and small wineries on the North Fork are capturing tourists' hearts

August 06, 2006|By ABIGAIL TUCKER | ABIGAIL TUCKER,SUN REPORTER

IF LONG ISLAND, N.Y.'S SOUTH Fork is a Grey Goose martini downed on the dance floor, the North Fork is a chilled glass of chardonnay savored on the veranda. The south is Bridgehampton's Mercedes-Benz Polo Challenge; the north is the old-fashioned merry-go-round on the Greenport harbor front. Go south to shop Bulgari- and Prada-stocked boutiques; head north for pansy flats or fresh asparagus and farmers' eggs.

The culture of Long Island's far end splits with the sandy land itself, into two distinct parts. The southern portion -- also known as the Hamptons -- is a season-long party, an international destination far removed from its potato-farming roots. Sun-burnished resort towns that revolve around sexy nightclubs, super-exclusive golfing greens and beaches with Splenda-fine sand -- who hasn't dreamed about the Hamptons, or at least heard the zillion references on Sex and the City reruns?

But it's the lesser-known North Fork that's been getting second looks lately. Its sleepy vistas and gustatory charms are drawing summer tourists, and prospective vacation-home owners, from its world-famous neighbor. And why not? Houses that would be called cramped on the other side of the bay are cozy on the North Fork, and it's hard to miss the battering Atlantic Ocean while frolicking in the gentler surf of Long Island Sound.

Even longtime Hamptonites are ferrying themselves over to tour the up-and-coming vineyards that supply many of the artisanal wines served at their super-star restaurants. As a result, North Fork house prices are rising, spas are opening and traffic is slowing to a crawl on summer weekends.

It may be best to see this beautiful spot now, lest it become the Hamptons' citified twin.

So take the Long Island Expressway -- or sail, if you like -- past the pine barrens, past the glut of outlets at Riverhead, to a series of quaint villages strung out on a thin spit of land. And bring an appetite.

The vineyards

Wine is the fuel powering the revival of the North Fork villages, which used to scrape by on farming and fishing profits. The first vineyard opened in 1973. By 1995 there were 17, and now there are roughly twice that number -- so many that the chauffeured tasting room tours become a very good idea indeed.

But only one winery, Pindar, is large enough for national distribution. Some vineyards produce fewer than 10,000 cases a year and supply local restaurants almost exclusively; the only way to try one of their wines is to travel down one of the two thin, winding highways that extend to the tip of the island. Either is a beautiful drive, shady and green.

One of the first stops along the way is the 77-acre Paumanok Vineyards, which makes a lovely semi-dry riesling. Paumanok is a classic mom-and-pop operation; the owner's three sons sometimes deliver cases to clients themselves. On a spring afternoon founder Charles Massoud was wearing a work flannel shirt and toting a wrench; a piece of machinery broke in the process of bottling the year's cabernet franc, and he was fixing it himself.

But this is no bumpkin business. The immaculately manicured wine estate has come far since 1983, when it began in a barn covered in peeling paint. The barn still stands, the pretty architectural details of its heavy doors intact, but now they open onto an airy tasting room, all polished wood and big windows, and a processing room of gleaming stainless-steel vats.

The North Fork's cool maritime climate has been good to this and other wineries, whose fruits thrive in the fast-draining soil, beneath a steady sun and sheltered on three sides from the harshest weather by bodies of salt water.

As a result, the industry "has exploded," said Steven Bate, executive director of the Long Island Wine Council.

People from all over the world are interested in growing grapes here.

"In the beginning, it was just locals from Long Island," says Ursula Massoud, the winemaker's wife. "Now we have people from Japan, Jerusalem."

The Massouds are hardly natives themselves; she was raised in Germany; her husband, in Lebanon.

"I'm whites, he's reds," she explains.

Even South Fork-sounding celebrity types are getting in on the action. Michael Lynne, executive producer of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, owns two vineyards; other owners -- such as the former Manhattan restaurateurs who run the organically oriented Shinn Estate Vineyards -- might also pass muster in the Hamptons.

Yet the wineries may save the North Fork from the South Fork's overcrowded fate, locals say. Along with attracting moneyed tourists, acres of grapevines permanently protect precious open space that in the Hamptons has been snatched up by developers. Even people getting priced out of their neighborhoods seem to agree: better vineyards than McMansions.

Food, plain and fancy

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