I can be pretty jaded when it comes to wine tastings, but there was no room for “been there, done that” at a tasting of 26 Long Island wines from 1990-2001 held at Luce Hawkins restaurant in Jamesport recently.
Jeff and Nora Filippi, wine aficionados with a nice collection of Long Island wines, spent half a year planning the tasting with Paumanok Vineyards owners Charles, Ursula and Kareem Massoud. Along with wine blogger Lenn Thompson, Anne Hargrave and me, we all brought relics from our cellars to see how they’ve held up.
Luce Hawkins was a brilliant place for the tasting. We were able to try a steady progression of wines matched by an astonishing parade of tapas-sized dishes prepared by chef Keith Luce and his staff. Luce is a 16th-generation North Forker, growing up on a farm only a few miles from the restaurant. He traveled the world learning his craft, and his cuisine reflects his broad experience and his reverence for food production. A fervent advocate of locally, sustainably grown food, his ever-changing menu reflects the finest and freshest flavors of the region. Not only do he and his staff grow many of the restaurant’s own herbs and vegetables, they also make butter, cheese, bread and even salt (three kinds, sourced from the Atlantic Ocean, Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound).
We began the tasting with four white wines: 1997 Hargrave Vineyard Chardonnay, 1999 Lieb Pinot Blanc, 2001 Wölffer Chardonnay and 2001 Peconic Bay “La Barrique” Chardonnay. Paired with an amuse bouche of salmon pâté and then a spectacularly fresh morsel of seared striped bass with lemon thyme, all of the wines were sound; to my taste, the Peconic Bay was especially evolved, with generous suppleness and a hint of vanilla.
Next, we had platters of house-made charcuterie to share: German-style quenelles of liverwurst, head cheese and a country pâté, all made from a 400-pound hog raised less than 10 miles away. A 1990 Hargrave Cabernet Sauvignon (at 21, of legal drinking age!) showed “not unlike a Pauillac,” according to Kareem. The 1993 Paumanok Grand Vintage had big basso profundo notes (“tensile strength,” according to Anne), and the 1993 Pellegrini Merlot had luscious black raspberry, brambly aromas that made its initial price of $15 look like a steal.
An austere Gristina Vineyards (Cutchogue) 1993 “Andy’s Field” was followed by an outstanding 1993 Bedell Cabernet Sauvignon. With 12.7 percent alcohol, pretty fruit and a quiet balance, the latter showed the skill of winemaker Kip Bedell.
With a duck ragout of pasta trimmed with Oregon black truffles foraged by a friend of the chef, and then Luce’s spicy Crescent Farm duck, followed by a duet of beef (braised and loin) and assorted cheeses, we proceeded with cabs, merlots, cabernet francs and one pinot noir. Kareem (who is learning to fly) remarked, “This is like taking flying lessons. You have to pay attention.”
To me, the highlights were a vivacious 1995 Jamesport Cab Franc, the superbly rich 1995 Paumanok Assemblage (cab-heavy blend), and a chewy, dynamic 1995 Bedell Cabernet Sauvignon.
All but three of the 26 wines had aged gracefully. Two that didn’t make the grade suffered from cork taint (the moldy-smelling spoilage that occurs randomly from corks and has nothing to do with the intrinsic quality of the wine); the other (a Sag Pond Pinot Noir) was cloudy and spritzy, undergoing a spontaneous secondary (malolactic) fermentation.
The news of the night was how well the cabernet sauvignons showed. Cab doesn’t always ripen on Long Island, but in a good year it beats all others in dimension and complexity.
Charles sought to express the commonality found among the wines. We agreed they shared balance, vitality and surprisingly durable freshness. As we struggled to define the evanescent qualities defining the wines, Ursula summed it up simply, saying, “They were good.”
Chef Luce joined us with a revealing recounting of his personal “paradigm shift” back to the North Fork after having a child of his own. He has come to understand that being ego-driven does not make great cuisine. A chef gets the credit, but the restaurant staff makes it happen. He explained, “There’s a team here that cares deeply. It makes me emotional. Together, we can do something great.”
Uniting local food and wine is compelling to him: “It closes the circle.”
Although this tasting was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, Luce Hawkins is developing a cellar of aged wines so that others can have a similar experience.
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.