Suffolk Closeup: A green, and tasty, future for Long Island’s wine region

Long Island, with a centuries-long history of farming, has undergone an agricultural revolution in just a few decades, sparked in 1973 by a pair of pioneers in planting grapes for fine wine, Louisa and Alex Hargrave.

Ms. Hargrave in her wonderful book, “The Vineyard,” writes: “I was 25 and Alex was 27. With no farm experience and little life experience, we really didn’t think the vines would need much attention. Before we bought the farm in Cutchogue, neither one of us had grown so much as a vegetable garden … The idea of the vineyard at that point was still a fantasy whose only tangible basis in reality lay in the 10,000 rooted, grafted vines we had bought.”

She and Alex met as students at Harvard and shared a love of fine wine and a dream of producing it in America. They’d been told by John Tomkins, an agricultural scientist for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Ithaca, that “there’s this guy on Long Island who has been growing table grapes.’”

That was John Wickham, who worked some of the oldest continually cultivated land in the U.S. on a 287-acre farm in Cutchogue that goes back to 1661. “It was the day before Thanksgiving, 1972,” writes Ms. Hargrave. Mr. Wickham told the couple how “I was called crazy” for moving away from potatoes to grow peaches and cherries and other fruit on Long Island. “He took us to bodies of water and explained how they moderated the climate” — and made this possible.

The Hargraves figured they could grow cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir and merlot and chardonnay here, the grapes from which the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy were made. They were right.

Mr. Wickham, who died in 1994 at 85, was a Long Island original, long a farmer and long vice chairman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission and chairman of the Southold Town Planning Board, and deeply involved in seeking to preserve Suffolk County as a top agricultural area in New York State. Thankfully, it remains so.

Driving on the North Fork the other day, I was amazed to see vineyard after vineyard along Sound Avenue, and then returning, vineyard following vineyard on Route 25. There are also vineyards on the South Fork and in western Suffolk County.

On Long Island, there are now 60 vineyards, “ranging from two-and-a-half acres planted to over 500 acres,” notes The Long Island Wine Council on its website.

A substantial wine industry has come relatively suddenly in the context of the rich farming heritage on Long Island beginning with the arrival of its Native Americans thousands of years ago.

Most of the land now planted with grape vines had been used to grow potatoes, but the once mighty Long Island potato faded in the face of stiff competition. Without the introduction of the vineyards, that land surely would have gone to development. And there’s a bonus beyond keeping the East End green: Growing grapes here for wine is financially a much better use of expensive land than potatoes.

I’ve seen the march of development eastward starting in the far west of geographical Long Island. I’m old enough to remember a farm near where I began elementary school, P.S. 159 — in Brooklyn! Growing up in eastern Queens in the 1950s, riding my bicycle into neighboring Nassau County, I witnessed farm field after farm field swallowed up in suburban development.

But along with the proliferation of vineyards, government has acted to preserve land here and stop the sprawl. The Suffolk County Farmland Preservation Program, begun in 1974 the year after the Hargraves planted their first wine grapes, the Community Preservation Fund in the five East End towns, and other town, county, state and private initiatives to save farms have been instrumental in keeping much of the East End green and avoiding the development fate of farmland in western Long Island.

The wine produced on Long Island has become world-class. This story has been told, with some amazement, by many wine experts. As the magazine Food and Wine declared with a 2015 article headlined, that its reporter “Lettie Teague finds great wines — including some of the best American wines she’s ever tried” on Long Island.

And the wine industry has been a huge boon to Long Island tourism. There are approximately 1.3 million visitors annually to the wineries of eastern Long Island, according to the Long Island Wine Council. They take tours of wineries and attend tastings, classes and musical events.

Cheers to all involved — private businesses and government — on preserving our region for a green, and tasty, future.

grossman_karl150Karl Grossman is a veteran journalist and professor and a member of the Press Club of Long Island’s Journalism Hall of Fame. His Suffolk Closeup column is syndicated in newspapers across the county.