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The Un-Hamptons

Watts, a droll man taken to wearing flat caps indoors, is asked about the overpowering and delicious smell in the fermenting room. He explains that the French oak barrels allow the wine to "perspire" through the wood. "Every so often we have to top off the barrels with about a liter. So what we're doing now is breathing wine."

There are worse ways to kill an afternoon. Asked about the casks, he talks about wine snobbery, how people can go on forever about which forest in France produces the best oak, how it's cured, etc. He rolls his eyes. "And they haven't even begun to talk about corks.

The next Napa? Long Island's North Fork has 23 vineyards and wineries. (Photo by Kirk Condyles)

"Try some of this rose. A nice picnic wine, you can drink it all afternoon. You might have trouble standing up, but . . . "

In some taste competitions, the North Fork wines have come out ahead of venerable French vintages, most notably scoring well with Rieslings and Chardonnays. There are 23 vineyards and wineries, and all have tasting rooms where you can sample the wine for free. Even if you only know one thing about wine--a screw-off cap is cheaper than wine with a cork--you'll never be embarrassed, the tasting rooms are mostly devoid of wine twits and bores. You can drink a little wine in comfort and learn about it if you want. But be careful: Two or three tastings won't help you navigate the country roads any better.

People are proclaiming the North Fork as the next Napa, and serious money is coming in: A Chilean wine consortium recently bought Laurel Lake vineyards and an executive at New Line Cinema bought a vineyard in Cutchogue.

Watts swirls some merlot in his glass and holds it to the light. "And the prince. Have you talked to the prince yet?"

Sitting shotgun in an SUV, Prince Marco Borghese tours his newly acquired winery, Hargrave Vineyard. The rows of his 85 acres roll away softly with the land on a late afternoon. The sky is clear with just a single reef of purple cloud moving north over the sound. At the end of each row, yellow roses are in bloom, placed not just for aesthetic reasons but because they're important to the life of the vineyard. The roses are sentinel plants: Molds and pests will appear on them before attacking the vines.

The prince's title comes from the 16th century, when Pope Paul V (born Camillo Borghese) endowed it to heirs of the Borghese clan. "But in America there are no titles. I'm Marco." He, too, came to the North Fork and discovered where he wanted to live. "I'm here by way of accident. I was not in the market for a vineyard. I was over in the Hamptons, visiting friends, and they asked if I'd ever been to the North Fork. So we took a tour. It reminded me of where I grew up in Italy, north of Florence, although here it is so much flatter and, where I was raised, our estate was all hills. But the feel, the sense of place, was the same. That was Thanksgiving of '98. By October of last year we had a deal to buy this property.

"It's a solid place to live. I love the ample expanse of things--vegetables, fruit, fish. The sunsets are truly magnificent. And this wine we all are making. We made wine in Italy when I was a boy. When I bought the vineyard, two cousins called and said, 'I hope you make better wine than we did.' That's no problem. This wine is far superior."

Walking or getting out on a bike is a pleasure here, not just because of the lack of hills but any route you take off the Main or North roads puts you immediately in a pastoral landscape. Take New Suffolk Avenue (a grand name for a blacktop road) where it begins across from the Presbyterian church cemetery in Mattituck.

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