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A 'Sideways' Tour of Long Island's Tasting Rooms

Deirdre Brennan for The New York Times

Charles and Urusula Massoud, owners of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue.

Published: June 26, 2005

ALTHOUGH merlot took a beating in the movie "Sideways," Long Island wine producers, who headline it as their signature wine, haven't lost any sleep. Few offer pinot noir, which the film, set in California wine country, championed. The vintners haven't lost sleep over that, either.

The travelers heading to Long Island's wine country on the North and South Forks - in increasing numbers, vintners say - don't go home empty-handed.

Although the East End and merlot have become synonymous, this identification has narrowed into an oversimplification. Tasting rooms offer a cornucopia of red, white and rosé still wines as well as sparkling wines, many world-class.

The tilt toward French grapes and styles is so pronounced that as an ensemble the main east-west arteries on the semi-pastoral North Fork - Main Road (Route 25) and Sound Avenue, which leads to Route 48 - could be signposted "Les Routes du Vin."

"There are about 30 varieties grown locally, and there are examples of each one of them reaching a high level of excellence," said Charles Massoud, an owner of Paumanok, in Aquebogue.

Among the whites, crisp, food-friendly chardonnay produced in stainless-steel tanks and rich, buttery versions made in oak barrels abound, along with sauvignon blanc, riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot blanc, viognier, chenin blanc and tocai Friulano.

As for reds, you can find cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and Bordeaux-style red blends that contain the two cabernets and merlot.

Long Island's wine industry has expanded to 38 producers and about 3,000 acres planted in vines since 1973, when Louisa and Alex Hargrave first planted grapes at the Hargrave Vineyard (now Castello di Borghese) in Cutchogue.

But since not all producers have the means or inclination to build wineries and tasting rooms, alternatives have sprung up.

One is the Premium Wine Group, in Mattituck. Known in the wine trade as a custom-crush operation, it makes and oversees wines for small grape-growers, who provide their own consultants. Premium's tasting room, open to the public, sells the wines of Lieb Family Cellars, a partner.

Another innovation is the collective sales room. The Tasting Room, in Peconic and in Jamesport, offers wines from five producers, and the Hamptons Wine Boutique, in Westhampton Beach, carries wines from eight.

Although Long Island wines have been slowly accepted in the Darwinian market of New York City and throughout the Island, most are still sold at the wineries' front doors.

If dependably good wine is the criterion for selecting a winery to visit, at least a dozen qualify easily.

On the North Fork, at Bedell, merlot triumphs. Its Main Road Red and Main Road White are also good table wines, and Cupola, a Bordeaux blend, can be splendid. Bedell also makes the wines for Corey Creek, in Southold, a sister winery. Its gewürztraminer is tasty.

Castello di Borghese, which has partly turned itself into an art gallery, makes an appealing chardonnay, Chardonette Giardino. The cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon reserve are also worth a try.

Lenz's individualistic winemaker, Eric Fry, makes a first-rate Alsatian-style gewürztraminer, a staple since 1983. His chardonnays and merlots are winners. The sparkling wines alone justify a stop.

Macari's sauvignon blanc, its deluxe red called Alexandra, its white Early Wine and its Block E dessert wine are outstanding, thanks to a passion for organic agriculture.

Martha Clara, formerly a horse farm, still keeps Clydesdales, which pull carriages of visitors through the 200-acre property. Its Bordeaux blend, named 6025, after its address, and its Himmel, an ice wine, deserve special attention.

Palmer's Select Reserve Red, gewürztraminer, pinot blanc and riesling are always good values. The tasting room, a big draw, resembles a British pub and has a convivial feel.

Paumanok was voted New York's winery of the year at the 2004 New York Wine and Food Classic, the primary contest for the state's wines. It won eight medals: two double golds, two single golds, three silvers and one bronze. Everything is worth tasting. The chenin blanc, riesling and sauvignon blancs all have brio.

Pellegrini's soaring, airy post-and-beam tasting room is well served by Russell Hearn, an Australian-born winemaker. His merlots and Vintner's Pride chardonnay can be delicious, and his Vintner's Pride Finale Bin 1301, a dessert blend of gewürztraminer and sauvignon blanc, is luscious.

Pindar, with 330 acres of vineyards and an annual production of 97,000 cases, is the largest winery. It caters to all tastes and incomes, from bargain-basement Winter White to multiple chardonnays, along with viognier, riesling, late-harvest gewürztraminer, syrah and Mythology, a Bordeaux blend.

Raphael is a singularly promising merlot specialist guided by Richard Olsen-Harbich, a veteran winemaker with a masterly grasp of the region's agricultural conditions. Paul Pontallier, managing director of Château Margaux, in Bordeaux, is the consultant. The sauvignon blanc is nifty, and the churchlike architecture of the winery is striking.

As for South Fork wineries, Channing Daughters, given to experimentation, makes inspired whites. These Friuli-style wines are meant to accompany food; the winemaker, James Christopher Tracy, is also a chef and sommelier. Visitors can also see idiosyncratic wood sculptures by Walter Channing, an owner.

Finally, there is Wölffer, occupying a handsome Tuscan-style villa surrounded by exemplary vineyards, which cater to the Hamptons. Roman Roth, the winemaker, makes elegant, understated sparkling wine, whites, reds and a rosé.

To ensure that a "Sideways" excursion does not end sideways en route home, give the car keys to a designated driver. Or hire a limo.

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Photo: Midnight Express on Long Island, circa 1920s.
Photo: Midnight Express on Long Island, circa 1920s.