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New York State's Hottest 19th Century Winegrowing Regions

Wolffer Estate Vineyards, Long Island. [Source: Wolffer Estate]
Wolffer Estate Vineyards, Long Island. [Source: Wolffer Estate]

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

The Finger Lakes and Long Island are, indisputably, New York's star winemaking regions. But back in the 19th Century things looked as though they might going in a slightly different direction. By the mid 1800s, the Hudson Valley, Brooklyn, and New York's "grape belt" (which runs along the shores of Lake Erie) were all in the running to become the state's wine capital.

Brooklyn Burgundy?
In 1820, the Brooklyn Waterfront — then free of industrial contraband, condos, warehouses, and giant cranes — was a mighty fine place to plant a vineyard. Alphonse Loubat, a Frenchman, scouted a spot along the banks of the East River and planted 40 acres to vinifera vines (Muscatel and Malmsey, a.k.a. Malvasia, to be more specific).

Seven years after Loubat's first plantings, Alden Spooner followed suit, setting up a vineyard in what is now Prospect Park. By this time, Loubat's vinifera vineyard, thanks to phylloxera and other various disease pressures, was more of an infirmary than a functioning winery. Spooner, aware of Loubat's hardships, decided to try his luck with native hybrid grapes — most notably, Isabella — instead. His Prospect Park vineyards flourished.

The Hudson Valley Comes of Age
That same year, in 1827, farmer Robert Underhill planted Isabella and Catawba grapes north of Brooklyn, in the Hudson Valley. Twelve years later, in 1839, Jean Jaques established New York's first commercially successful winery, selling wines to the New York City market under the Blooming Grove label. The winery was eventually named Brotherhood and remains the oldest continuously operating winery in the U.S.

Around this same time grape growing and winemaking were also beginning to flourish in another one of New York's often-forgotten regions: the grape belt.

Grapes were first planted here along the banks of Lake Erie, south of Buffalo, in the early part of the 19th Century. Erie's lake effect — which allows for greater warmth in the winter and lots of air-flow — helped prevent the diseases and frost that plagued so many of the vineyards in cooler parts of the East Coast, making the grape belt a particularly enticing haven. Today, though the region accounts for around 70% of New York's grape production, its output is mostly dedicated to Concord juice.

Around the same time that the grape belt was becoming populated with vines, the Finger Lakes region, east of Erie, was also laying down roots. Long Island, on the other hand, would show up to the party about a century and half late.

Potatoes to Riches
It wasn't until 1973, when Louisa and Alex Hargrave — then recent Harvard graduates with little winemaking and grape growing experience — planted vinifera vines on the North Fork of Long Island. During that time region was populated with potato growers — a scene that was likely a far cry from the bucolic vineyards now favorited by Manhattanites craving an escape from concrete. The Hargraves took a cue from some of the country's most successful growing regions, and planted their converted potato farm to Bordeaux varieties.

More than 40 years later, Long Island still clings tight to the Bordeaux model, despite the difficulty that grapes have ripening in such a cool climate. When they do ripen, however, Long Island's renditions of Merlot and Cabernet's Sauvignon and Franc are generally lower in alcohol, higher in acid, and embrace the more herbal, floral side of the Cabs and Merlot; unfortunately, these characteristics were, until more recently, at odds with what the market was after.

Long Island's growing pains weren't isolated to market perception, though. The harsh and variable growing conditions — hurricanes, disease, birds, are just a few relevant anxieties — also made it difficult for winemakers to find their stride. Overall the last half-decade, however, the region's wines have made vast improvements.

Almost simultaneously, New York City's local and sustainable food movement began to inspire the urge — in both consumers and buyers — to source wine locally. This symbiosis of quality supply and new demand enabled Long Island winemakers to capture the support that they'd long been waiting for.

As quality continues to increase and winemakers periodically shake off their Bordeaux and Chardonnay security blankets in favor of experimentation, Long Island is sure to continue to improve.

As for winemaking on the Brooklyn Waterfront, there are plans to return it to its 19th Century glory...right after hell freezes over.

Talia Baiocchi is the former editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her previous life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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