Wine column: Tasting prompts bicoastal comparisons

On March 24, I attended a fascinating Winemaker’s Roundtable at Roanoke Vineyards in Baiting Hollow, where my friend (and former employee) Dan Kleck was invited to lead a comparative tasting of wines he’s currently making in Paso Robles, Calif., and Roanoke Vineyards’ own wines. His comments elucidated my own observations on the kinds of wines that result from irrigated desert vineyards like Paso and those I’d recently seen in South America, vis-à-vis those of the ocean-moderated vineyards here on Long Island.

At the roundtable, 20 guests (mostly members of Roanoke’s Wine Club) sat around a long table equipped with bread, antipasti, wine and a view of a video screen on which Mr. Kleck appeared live via Skype from his home in Paso Robles.

Dan Kleck came from Michigan in the early 1980s to make wine on Long Island, and worked at Hargrave, Bidwell and Palmer vineyards. In 1998, Jess Jackson of Kendall Jackson Vineyards in Sonoma interrupted Dan at a family barbecue to offer him a job as winemaker at a new five-million-case winery in Carmel, Calif. Flying west in Jackson’s private plane, with 24 hours to decide, he took the bait and became a California winemaker overnight. After five years at KJ’s huge facility, Dan followed temptation again and moved to Paso Robles as a private consultant, making small batches of wine for inspired investors.

The first wine he showed us was Whalebone Vineyard’s Ballena Blanca, a blend of viognier, grenache blanc and rousanne — all white Rhône varieties from Paso. This lush, aromatic white wine (think of coconut and fruit cocktail) had a distinctively phenolic astringency, prompting Roanoke’s owner Richie Pisacano to ask Dan if it had been fermented with skin contact.

Dan explained that this astringency comes from the rousanne, which, along with a relatively high alcohol, creates an illusion of freshness. “These [Paso wines] are low-acid, soft wines,” he said. “Here, balance depends on alcohol and fruit. It’s a faux acidity. These are not real food wines. They are more afternoon sipping wines. Heat here respires acid. We need white grapes that hold acids or have other qualities.”

In contrast, we tasted Roanoke’s “Wild Yeast” chardonnay. Dan said, “I like how this compares. I get passion fruit character. It’s soft. You get viscous texture, silky feel, a sense of richness without being rich. Aromatic chardonnay like this can’t be used in California because it is too low in acidity.”

While we all tasted the steely, smoky, oak-aged “Sonnet” chardonnay from Roanoke (my favorite), Dan explained further: “We can make more mistakes in California and people don’t notice. The wines there are so bold. On Long Island, if you make a mistake it shows. In California any old winemaker will do.”

As we went on to taste red wines from both Whalebone and Roanoke, he elaborated, “Merlot doesn’t ripen well in California. It’s too hot here. Merlot shrivels easily. You guys [on Long Island] have a perfect climate for merlot. Paso has the perfect climate for syrah, zinfandel and cabernet.”

He added, “You can grow anything you want [in Paso], but you can’t get it right. Paso is too hot for pinot. The tannins aren’t right when the sugars are there. It’s a mess. For us, low alcohol is 14.5 percent.”
After we tasted the Roanoke 2007 merlot, Dan said, “We would die to have a couple of vintages like this. It expresses the fruit: dried cherry. Lovely balance.

“Long Island wines have a translucency: You can see and feel the vineyard through the wine. In California the vineyard source is opaque all because of alcohol. Long Island is exciting because the vineyard shows. You get a European character here,” he said.

As the tasting continued, the tasters got excited and their own opinions increased in volume. Over the roar, I heard Dan explain, “On Long Island, nuances go up and down the palate. In California no one looks for it. They don’t miss it. We try to start with delicacy and work into power.”

Our final tastings — Whalebone’s cabernet sauvignon vs. Roanoke’s cabernet franc-dominated “Gaby’s” wine — bridged the gap for me between delicacy and power. Gorgeously plush and spicy, both wines showed the skill of the winemakers as well as the quality of the vineyards.

To me, that’s the bottom line: No matter what the climate, great wines come from a winemaker who understands the natural benefits — and limitations — of the vineyard in its specific location.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.