Touring Long Island's friendly wine country

Princess Ann Marie Borghese, who owns the Castello di Borghese Vineyard withher husband, Marco, pours out a sample in the winery's tasting room.
Princess Ann Marie Borghese, who owns the Castello di Borghese Vineyard withher husband, Marco, pours out a sample in the winery's tasting room. (Nancy Trejos - The Washington Post)
By Nancy Trejos
Sunday, January 3, 2010

Shortly after I walked into Long Island's Castello di Borghese vineyard, I found myself in the company of a prince and princess.

It's actually quite common at this small vineyard on the North Fork of Long Island, N.Y., for Castello di Borghese is owned by Italian-born Prince Marco Borghese, whose titled family traces its heritage to 9th-century Tuscany, and his Delaware-born wife, Ann Marie. And they make sure that one of them is always around to greet customers.

That, the princess told me as we sat at a small blue table near the vineyard's tasting room one cold December morning, just before my tour with Marco, is what sets Long Island wine country apart from its more famous counterparts in California. (That would be Napa and Sonoma, but try not to utter those names on the Island.)

"Every single person who comes here is greeted with eye contact," Ann Marie said, her blond hair flowing over her shoulders, her mustard-colored scarf tied delicately around her neck, her gold bee-shaped earrings distracting me with their glow. "It's a region that's much more friendly."

I soon discovered that for myself. All of the other vineyard owners and winemakers I met during my two-day tour of the North Fork in the East End of Long Island, a region overshadowed by the much glitzier Hamptons, were as approachable and friendly as the Borgheses. It was nothing like what I'd experienced during a visit to Napa years ago.

The North Fork's first winery opened in 1973, but only in recent years has the region, a 90-minute drive from Manhattan, become a winemaking force. Each of its more than 30 vineyards produces between 600 and 60,000 cases of wine a year. The region ranked ninth on TripAdvisor's list of the top 10 North American wine destinations (beating Virginia, by the way). Its wines have won numerous awards. Its fresh seafood and produce have attracted a number of highly acclaimed chefs, who have opened restaurants here. In 2009, attendance at the vineyards' tasting rooms was up 20 percent from the year before, said Steven Bate, executive director of the Long Island Wine Council. The annual winterfest called "Jazz on the Vine" draws a number of respected musicians (this year's event kicks off Feb. 13).

The North Fork's unique geography makes it ideal for growing wine. Nestled between the Long Island Sound to the north, the Great Peconic Bay to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, it's protected from frost. Temperatures dip at night, preserving the natural acidity in the grapes. The sandy soil provides natural drainage.

But geography alone doesn't make a good bottle of wine.

"Grape growers are really hitting their strides in the vineyard," said Lenn Thompson, editor in chief of the blog New York Cork Report. "It seems like more winemakers have also stopped trying to make wines that are 'like' Bordeaux or 'like' California. More of them are making true Long Island wines now that express the uniqueness of the region."

I started my wine tasting in Castello di Borghese's elegant and cozy tasting room in Cutchogue. To begin, Princess Ann Marie poured me some Founder's Field 2007 sauvignon blanc. It smelled of peaches and vanilla and tasted crisp and bright. I tried a few more whites before moving on to the 2005 Estate cabernet franc. It was spicy, with a hint of blackberries and cherries.

At Palmer Vineyards in Aquebogue, I had a different tasting experience. Winemaker Miguel Martin let me try the wines straight out of their stainless-steel tanks. The smell of the freshly pressed grape juice was too pungent for me at first, but the more I sniffed it, the more I could distinguish the nuances. A rosé smelled of rose petals, bubble gum and peach all at once. A sauvignon blanc tasted a bit like grapefruit and lemon. It was cold and windy outside, and the wines were making me yearn for summer.

I spent the night at Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck, which has a lovely B&B on the grounds. The next morning, after a hearty breakfast that included a duck egg from a nearby farm and bacon cured on the property, I took a tour with co-owner Barbara Shinn. She and her husband, David Page, had owned a restaurant in Greenwich Village called Home, but after a few years in the city, they decided that their real home should be in the country. They bought their property in 1998.

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