Friday, October 25, 2013

Hawaiian Coffee

No, alas, I did not actually taste any Hawaiian coffee. It is difficult to find freshly roasted samples where I live. But I did write a research paper about the economics of it.

Just to give proper context: The paper was written for my MBA class at Baruch College called "Global Competitiveness of the US Economy," and the assignment was as follows:

Select a large exporter or product / commodity that is being exported from the United States. Analyze the historic background of this exporting business, its current strengths and weaknesses in its main overseas market, how is it hurt or hindered by government regulations, tariffs, currency and culture in expanding its overseas sales. Include also its main international competitors and the advantage those competitors have from government regulation, currency, etc. The paper must include a relevant “review of the literature.” (1,750 – 2,250 words)

Needless to say, in 2250 words I cannot produce a comprehensive analysis of everything to do with Hawaiian coffee. It ended up being a mere broad overview. Nevertheless, this paper is relevant to The Nice Drinks In Life, and now that it has been submitted, graded, and returned to me, I would like to share it here with my kind readers. The text, notes, and appendices are not changed from what I handed in to the professor other than one redaction (when I interviewed a source, he/she was not told that I might ever publish this). I have not expanded upon it for this website due to the same factor that keeps me from publishing more often in the first place: I simply lack the time.

Should anyone have any further insight into the matter, or any factual corrections, I would love to hear about it in the comments section below.

And for the incurably curious, I received an A- on the paper.

Hawaiian Coffee
Governmental & Market Conditions

A Brief Introduction
Within the world of coffee there are two principle types: “arabica” (Coffea arabica) and “robusta” (Coffea canefora).[1] Arabica, preferred for drinking, has many sub-species, or varietals: Typica, Caturra, etc.[2] Coffee is cultivated in over fifty tropical nations.[3] Brazil grows more coffee than any other country, producing about a third of the world’s coffee.[4] In aggregate, coffee is traded globally more than any other commodity besides oil.[5]

Much as with wine, both a coffee bean’s varietal and its region of origin are of much interest to coffee consumers and professionals.[6] Therefore, coffee as a general category is not strictly fungible. In fact, one given region’s coffee harvest may trade at a different discount or premium than other regions’ coffees.[7]

Hawaii first saw coffee planted in the early 1800s[8] and is the only US state to grow it (although Puerto Rico, a US commonwealth, grows it, too).[9] Many different varietals of arabica are planted there.[10] Most Hawaiian islands grow coffee, although it is Kona, a thin strip of a region in the Big Island of Hawaii,[11] that has the most popular crop.[12] The region has a unique micro-climate that lends a certain quality to its coffee, whereby it has come to be known as the “coffee belt”.[13] That is not to sell the other Hawaiian regions short; some professional coffee roasters are in fact negative on Kona, preferring different Hawaiian coffees such as Ka’u.[14]

[1] International Coffee Organization. “Botanical Aspects”.
[2] Ibid.
[3] National Coffee Association USA. “Coffee from Around the World”.
[4] The Economist Editors. “Brewed Awakening”.
[5] Black Gold Movie. “Economics of Coffee”.
[6] National Coffee Association USA. “Coffee from Around the World”.
[7] IntercontinentalExchange. “Coffee C® Futures”.
[8] Hawaii Coffee Association. “Coffee History in Hawaii”.
[9] Huffington Post Editors. “Hawaii Coffee is the Only American-Grown Coffee”.
[10] Bittenbender & Smith, 2008, p3.
[11] Please see maps in Appendix 1.
[12] Huffington Post Editors. “Hawaii Coffee is the Only American-Grown Coffee”.
[13] Bittenbender & Smith, 2008, pp5-6.
[14] Personal interview.

Governmental Conditions
In the same way that many wine regions’ names are protected by regulations forbidding any wine not produced from certain varietals and within specific borders from using them, the phrase “Kona coffee” is protected.[15] Only the “Kona typica” varietal grown within the Kona region may refer to itself as “100% Kona”.[16] This has generally succeeded at nixing sales of fraudulently labeled Kona coffee.[17] However, there is one key caveat: any blend containing as little as ten percent Kona coffee may refer to itself as a “Kona blend”.[18]

No other Hawaiian zone has a protected denomination; however, many other coffee regions do. The Marcala region in Honduras famously became the first in Central America to be awarded such a status.[19] Starbucks made some waves when it traded on the good name of Costa Rica’s Tarrazú region to sell $7 cups of coffee.[20]

The US federal government provides subsidies to Hawaiian coffee farmers.[21] Some competing coffee-producing nations, such as Brazil[22] and Colombia,[23] also provide such subsidies, and more are considering it.[24] The federal government also provides crop insurance to Hawaii’s coffee farmers,[25] however, this does not necessarily benefit them. Between 1995 and 2012, they in aggregate paid $103,072 more into the program than they took out of it.[26]

The State of Hawaii provides some assistance to the coffee farmers, but it is rather negligible. In June 2013 Governor Neil Abercrombie signed a bill offering a collective total of $550,000 over two years to help combat a pest.[27]

The US federal government does not restrict the amount of coffee that may be imported,[28] nor does it charge import duties on the crop.[29] It does inspect imports for quality,[30] increasing consumer confidence in imported coffee.

According to a recent agreement between Japan and the US, each will officially recognize the other’s organic certification beginning 2014.[31] This is important, because many Hawaiian coffee farms have that certification, and Japan, in addition to being Hawaii’s main coffee export market,[32] is a growing coffee market generally,[33] its traditional tea culture notwithstanding.

[15] Kona Coffee Farmers Association. “About Kona Coffee”.
[16] Ibid. The Kona Coffee Council has a seal of approval to certify that a coffee is 100% Kona (Kona Coffee Council. “The Seal Program”) or the Hawaiian state government, which actually owns that trademark, may certify coffee itself (Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation. “Kona Coffee History”). Any coffee that is going to carry the 100% Kona mark must be inspected and certified before ever leaving the region (Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation. “Kona Coffee History”).
[17] “Asian Coffee”.
[18] Kona Coffee Farmers Association. “About Kona Coffee”. Blending different coffees is a standard – in fact, artistically important – practice among roasters and purveyors.
[19] Café Marcala. “Denominación de Origen Café Marcala”.
[20] Mencher, 2012.
[21] Environmental Working Group: Farm Subsidy Database. The database is searchable by ZIP code. I entered a randomly selected ZIP code encompassing Hawaiian coffee farms, and searched through the results. All farms whose information I browsed have received federal subsidies at least once in the last ten years. The subsidies seemed minimal at first, but not after considering the relatively small acreage of typical Hawaiian coffee farms.
[22] Kayden, 2013. What with Brazil’s tremendous coffee production, keeping up with subsidies is no minor factor.
[23] Delgado, 2013.
[24] Garcia, 2013.
[25] Environmental Working Group. “Crop Insurance”. The insurance covers indemnities, reimbursement for lost administrative and other expenses, and so on.
[26] Environmental Working Group. “Crop Insurance Total Costs by Crop in the United States”.
[27] State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture. 2013.
[28] U.S. Customs & Border Protection. 2013.
[29] Duty Calculator. “Import Duty & Taxes for Coffee Beans”.
[30] Lister, Jonathan. “Regulation of Coffee Retail Market in USA (
[31] Bishop, 2013.
[32] Krishnakumar & Chan-Halbrendt, 2010.
[33] International Coffee Organization. “Imports of All Forms of Coffee by Selected Importing Countries from All Sources” (updated June 2013).

Market Conditions
Hawaii produces relatively little coffee. Coffee exporting countries produced roughly 145 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee, or over 19 billion pounds, in 2012.[34] Hawaii grows less than 10 million pounds per year,[35] between one-third and one-half of it coming from Kona.[36]

A small percentage of Hawaii’s coffee gets exported, mostly to East Asia, especially Japan.[37] Japanese-Americans are strongly represented in Hawaiian coffee production, and easily establish rapports with Japanese customers.[38] But exporting elsewhere has proven to be challenging, despite a dearth of import duties and restrictions for coffee in most countries.[39] Price is the major reason for this.

Pricing is principle among Hawaiian coffee’s competitive disadvantages: it is so expensive that many professionals and aficionados do without it altogether.[40] In markets with low disposable incomes, it is a deal breaker.[41] The cause of Hawaiian coffee’s high price is multifaceted. One item is the cost of farming in the US.[42] Another is that every competing coffee-exporting nation has much cheaper currency than the US.[43] Still another is the pattern of small farms with relatively low yields (see below). Finally, there is the need to maintain the image of exclusive, high-quality coffee associated with Hawaiian beans. Selling them cheap might ruin that image.

Hawaiian coffees have more disadvantages than just price. For example, Fair Trade certification is a popular item among consumers,[44] but Hawaiian coffees must compete without them.[45] Another disadvantage is the regulation permitting blends with 10% Kona coffee to be called “Kona blends”. Many consumers, not knowing any better, purchase such products thinking that it is legitimate Kona coffee, ultimately profiting competing regions at Kona’s expense.

Hawaiian coffee has advantages, too. The Kona region’s protected denomination is one of them, the caveat notwithstanding. Another is its high quality, in terms of both integrity and flavor. In June 2013 it was reported that “the Board of the Kona Coffee Farmer's Association unanimously voted to adopt and support Hawaii County Bill 79 to prohibit GMOs[46] on the island;”[47] public support of such ideas does much to inspire confidence in Kona’s, and by extension all Hawaiian coffees’, commitment to quality.

Furthermore, Hawaiian coffee’s taste is outstanding. Indeed, one cause of its high price, often overlooked when searching for institutional causes, is huge demand for a very scarce product. Even Kona naysayers have other Hawaiian coffees that they recommend.[48] There is one downside here, though: the growers get attached to the reputation. If they were open to producing lower-grade, cheaper products, such as coffee for instant preparation, they would likely do better in emerging coffee markets around the globe.[49]

Interesting is the rarity of Hawaiian coffee. It causes higher prices and an air of exclusivity, each of which circles back to the other. Small acreage imposes natural limits on the extent to which Hawaiian coffees can claim market share; however, the percentage of harvested coffee sold is generally high. In deciding whether the small yields are beneficial or detrimental, it helps to consider whether the farmers would like to augment them: As it turns out, at least a few farmers are frustrated at the low yields that poor weather has caused in recent years.[50] Certainly, the low yields mean the region cannot benefit from economies of scale, further raising prices – thereby furthering exclusivity, in an encore of the unending cycle.

Another item of note is the dearth of exports to Europe, especially Italy and France. None of them has import duties,[51] they have strong coffee cultures preferring dark roasts,[52] and Kona is especially well suited to being darkly roasted.[53] This may be a simple matter of marketing.

[34] International Coffee Organization. “Total Production of Exporting Countries” (updated July 2013).
[35] Exact estimates differ across reports, but the Hawaii Coffee Association puts the number between 6-7 million pounds (Hawaii Coffee Association. “Coffee History in Hawaii”).
[36] Krishnakumar & Chan-Halbrendt, 2010.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Duty Calculator. “Import Duty & Taxes for Coffee Beans”. Japan is hardly the only coffee consuming nation without an import duty, and most of the nations that do charge one grow their own coffee anyway.
[40] Personal interview.
[41] Krishnakumar & Chan-Halbrendt, 2010.
[42] Rubinstein, 2008. American farms are quite capital-intensive.
[43] The top ten countries by production are Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Honduras, Mexico, Uganda, and Guatemala (International Coffee Organization, “Total Production of Exporting Countries”).
[44] Fair Trade USA, 2013.
[45] Fair Trade certification is not available for American produce (Fair Trade USA. “Global Reach Map”). So, although Hawaiian coffees come from farms equally fair to workers (as per American labor laws) as Fair Trade proponents demand, they lack the certification and must compete against coffees that have it.
[46] “GMOs, or ‘genetically modified organisms,’ are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants and animals. These experimental combinations of genes from different species cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding. … [A] growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.” —Non-GMO Project, “GMO Facts”.
[47] Unsigned. “Protect Kona Coffee from GMO: Kona Coffee Farmers Association Supports County Bill 79” (Hawaii Reporter).
[48] Personal interview.
[49] (Unsigned). “Planning to Export” (Business Beyond the Reef, December 13, 2011).
[50] Rubinstein, 2008.
[51] Duty Calculator. “Import Duty & Taxes for Coffee Beans”.
[52] Europeans’ notorious antipathy towards American coffee refers to American preferences vis-à-vis brewing and consuming it; it has nothing to do with bean varietals or origins (Askin, 2013).
[53] Personal interview.

Outlook & Conclusions
Hawaiian coffee deals with a variety of competitive problems, but is hardly set to capitulate. Not all of its disadvantages are unique, and some of them (low yields, pricing) are arguably advantageous in certain market conditions. Hawaiian coffee growers have access to US federal subsidies and insurance, and enjoy the benefits of a capital-intensive agricultural community. They are organized into associations that benefit all members. Also, very few other coffees enjoy the prestige of Hawaiian coffees; the “Kona blend” issue is surmountable by educating consumers, pressuring officials to change the rule, and other basic methods.

Hawaiian coffee, after two centuries of history, is set to enjoy two more.

Appendix 1: Maps

Map 1: Political map of the Hawaiian Islands, with Kona marked on the Big Island of Hawaii

Map 2: The Kona coffee belt & other coffee regions in Hawaii (marked in green)

Works Cited

Textual Sources
Askin, Jennifer. “Starbucks Set to Rock Italy’s Café Culture”. ABC News. April 30, 2013.

Bishop, Hunter. “US-Japan Trade Pact Boosts Organic Ag”. September 26, 2013.

Bittenbender, H.C. & Smith, Virginia Easton. Growing Coffee In Hawaii: Revised Edition. Manoa: College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 2008.

Black Gold Movie. “Economics of Coffee”. Accessed October 2, 2013.

Café Marcala. “Denominación de Origen Café Marcala”. Accessed October 2, 2013.

Delgado, Diana. “Colombia Hikes Coffee Subsidies, Calls for Coffee Strike to End”. Reuters. March 2, 2013.

Environmental Working Group. “Crop Insurance”. Accessed October 2, 2013.

Environmental Working Group. “Crop Insurance Total Costs by Crop in the United States”. Accessed October 2, 2013.

Environmental Working Group: Farm Subsidy Database. Accessed October 2, 2013.

Fair Trade USA. “Fair Trade Certified™ Coffee Imports Hit Record High in 2012”. April 10, 2013.

Fair Trade USA. “Global Reach Map”. Accessed October 2, 2013.

Garcia, David Alire. “Mexico to Mull Spending Around $200 mln to Help Coffee Farmers Battle Leaf Rust”. Atlantic Specialty Coffee, Inc. September 26, 2013.

Hawaii Coffee Association. “Coffee History in Hawaii”. Accessed October 2, 2013.

Heiss, Mary Lou. “Review of A Cup of Aloha: The Kona Coffee Epic by Gerald Y. Kinro”. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Fall 2004), pp124-125. University of California Press.

Huffington Post Editors. “Hawaii Coffee is the Only American-Grown Coffee”. Huffington Post. September 29, 2013.

IntercontinentalExchange. “Coffee C® Futures”. Accessed October 2, 2013.

International Coffee Organization. “Botanical Aspects”. Accessed October 2, 2013.

International Coffee Organization. “Imports of All Forms of Coffee by Selected Importing Countries from All Sources”. Updated June 2013.

International Coffee Organization. “Total Production of Exporting Countries”. Updated July 2013.

Kayden, Marley DelDuchetto. “Coffee Rises as Brazil Subsidies May Curb Supply; Cotton Rallies”. Bloomberg Businessweek. July 11, 2013.

Kona Coffee Council. “The Seal Program”. Accessed October 2, 2013.

Kona Coffee Farmers Association. “About Kona Coffee”. October 19, 2010.

Kona Earth. “About Us”. Accessed October 2, 2013.

Krishnakumar, Jyotsna & Chan-Halbrendt, Catherine. “Consumer Preferences for Imported Kona Coffee in South India: A Latent Class Analysis”. International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, Vol. 13, Issue 4 (2010), pp97-116.

Lister, Jonathan. “Regulation of Coffee Retail Market in USA”. Accessed October 2, 2013. “Asian Coffee”. Accessed October 3, 2013.

Mencher, Daniel. “Costa Rica Tarrazú Asoproaa”. The Nice Drinks In Life. December 20, 2012.

Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation. “Kona Coffee History”. Accessed October 3, 2013.

National Coffee Association USA. “Coffee from Around the World”. Accessed October 2, 2013.

Non-GMO Project. “GMO Facts”. Accessed October 2, 2013.

Personal interview. September 29, 2013. [Source redacted by author]

Rubinstein, Alexis. “The Hawaiian Gem: A One-of-a-Kind Bean with the Setting to Match”. Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, Vol. 180, Issue 5 (May 2008).

Specialty Coffee Retailer. “Pest Torments Hawaiian Farmers”. M2Media360. March 2013.

State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture. “Governor Signs Measure in Support of Agriculture”. June 26, 2013.

The Economist Editors. “Brewed Awakening”. The Economist. July 13, 2013.

U.S. Customs & Border Protection. “Importing Tea, Coffee and Spices for Commercial Purposes”. Updated August 14, 2013.,-coffee-and-spices-for-commercial-purposes.

(Unsigned). “Planning to Export”. Business Beyond the Reef. December 13, 2011.

(Unsigned). “Protect Kona Coffee from GMO: Kona Coffee Farmers Association Supports County Bill 79”. Hawaii Reporter. Accessed October 2, 2013.

Graphic Sources
Kona Earth. “About Us”. Retrieved October 2, 2013.

KonaGirl Coffee. “Kona History”. Retrieved October 2, 2013.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Organic Sencha from A New Leaf Tea Co.

Name: Organic Sencha
Type: Green Tea
Purveyor: A New Leaf Tea Emporium
Preparation: One teaspoon steeped in about eight ounces of 180-degree water for 2:30, sipped plain

I just might be the worst Long Islander ever. Having lived here for my entire life, I nevertheless continue to get lost on the Nassau Expressway, confuse Woodbury and Westbury, say nice things about the Long Island Railroad, wonder where on earth the Bethpage Parkway goes to, not get what's so great about the Walt Whitman Mall, misspell Hauppauge, mispronounce Quogue, and balk at going to the outlets. It is a small miracle that they have yet to sentence me to permanent residence in Queens.

Here is another way in which I am just the worst sort of person to call himself a Nassau County local: up until a few weeks ago, I had never been to Garden City. Oh, sure, I was familiar with Roosevelt Field and all that jazz. Beautiful mall if you are not too picky about the ZIP code in which you park. But I mean, I had never been to the part of Garden City along Franklin Avenue: beautiful tree-lined streets, quaint shops with wonderful wares, cafes and bistros and restaurants, sidewalk eating in warm weather, bustle without hustle, a quiet ambiance... One would never guess that eight or nine blocks south lies the unfortunate neighborhood of Hempstead.

Right off of Franklin, on Seventh Street, where the shops and bistros wrap around westward and continue along for a ways, is A New Leaf Tea Emporium. I have to admit, when I entered the shop, I wondered about the looks of the place, which center around "warm, rich colors, wood décor, and ample light," as their website accurately describes it. I thought that it was a bit much, a little too self-conscious; that the decor, by insisting upon itself, was too distracting from what is important in the shop. It seemed like their angle was to go for the look and feel of a fancy Victorian tea shop and stand out that way.

I also have to admit that my concerns were wholly unfounded. If the look is overdone, the tea itself is covered even more thoroughly. New Leaf's selection is very nice, both diversified and ample. More than that, the young lady behind the counter knows her stuff wonderfully. The staff may look young, but do not let that fool you; they are very clever, very bright, and all about the tea. After she aced the softballs I threw her to test the waters, my server nailed the hard questions as well. Their website actually decries other companies that rely on superficial visuals to replace quality tea expertise, and I am pleased to report that they are willing and able to back up their words.

I was in the mood that day for a simple Japanese green, and was glad to see that their Sencha is organic, so I picked up a small package of that. The leaves are not rolled up at all; they are flaked and shredded, brittle looking although not to the touch. They are deep in color - remembering my Crayola crayons, I am thinking "forest green". The dry leaves are very pungent, tannic almost. They are so malty that the texture of the aroma is analogous to the texture of Play-Doh in the hands. They are also sweet, but like luscious, verdant greenery, not like fruit or pastry.

Brewed, the Sencha appears to be on the yellow side of lemongrass. It looks mellow, smooth, not quite limpid, and subtly delicate - the word "timid" comes to mind, although on second thought that is not quite fair. It has a malty nose with a modicum of sweetness, but structurally the aroma is the opposite from that of the dry leaves: mild, gentle, smooth. Upon sipping the tea I must confess that the first impression I had was, simply, "pleasant." It is verdant and brisk on the palate, without too much malt. The liquid is a tad light, but then again, it is not packed with a ton of flavors to carry; this is a simple and straightforward tea, smooth and easygoing. Soon one begins to notice a tannic sweetness in the back of the mouth that rounds things out quite nicely. Malty and brisk notes from the palate linger in the throat for a long couple of seconds to perform the finish.

This Sencha admittedly tends towards the nondescript, but frankly I enjoy the tea very much, for a couple of reasons. One is that often I am in the middle of a million things and seek to sip tea without putting much mind to it, for which situation this is ideal. But even more than that, the other reason is that just as often, I seek to sip tea and think about it, and let my mind settle happily upon the tea and its qualities, and from there drift slowly, almost stealthily onto something else, and again onto another thing, digging deep and playing the whole thought out until it connects to a new series of thoughts, and continue this quiet rambling, until the next thing I know forty minutes have passed, I have spent them staring at the wall and holding the half-full mug of tea without actually drinking it, and a dozen loose ends in my life are suddenly tied up nicely in a bow. This tea is ideal for that, too. Head on over to Garden City to pick some up today, and enjoy.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Down Among the Long Island Vines

In my family, family comes first, just as it ought to. Blood is thicker than water, and even than wine. Yet I cannot help but notice: friends tend to give much better gifts than family. Gifts from both are thoughtful and loving, but they are still wholly distinct. There is what one wants to have, and then there is what other people want for one to have. Family and friends each are aware of both; yet they have different priorities. Family will get you what it thinks you need; friends do not waste birthdays on such things.

Having the blessed life that I do, I can count more than a few people as both family and friends. Most began as the former and soon became the latter; one family, in particular, began as the latter. I can still remember the first day I hung out with my best friend, Mike, back in the Little League days. "Hi, Camille!" I greeted his mother as I entered his home.

"Uh, excuse me, there, bud, you can call me Mrs. Kennedy," came the reply in a tone that was simultaneously stern enough to scare me and sweet enough to spoil me, a perfect combination that comes as naturally to this particular matriarch as cooking and hosting, and that I have yet to hear successfully replicated by anyone else on the planet. So "Mrs. Kennedy" it was, until one day about seven years later, when I walked in and greeted her, "Heya, Mrs. Kennedy."

She looked at me. "You know, I hate that you call me that."

"Uh, I, oh, but, I think, wasn't it your idea?"

"Yeah, I remember," she replied matter-of-factly. "I just hate that you call me that, that's all."

There are three centers of human knowledge: the mind, the heart, and the gut. The latter two did not need to be told twice that we were well past strangerhood and formalities; indeed, we had barely ever been there in the first place. But the mind, well, as usual it proved itself a little slow on the uptake. "Oh, well, okay, so what should I call you?"

"Uh, gee, I dunno," came the sarcasm, which, when rooted in southern Italy by way of Brooklyn, is affectionate by more than mere implication. "Mom." Her look had two layers. One was was saying, "Duh," the other, "I love you."

From then on, Mike's parents have been Mom and Dad, which he calls my parents as well. But of course, Mike and I had adopted each other as brothers long before then. Thankfully, he did not, during that whole process of becoming family, lose the friend's intuition for gift giving.

This past week was my birthday. Never mind how old I am; it is old enough for me to groan about it, but young enough that nobody else wants to hear about it. I have not only survived the past year, but also gained, during that time, the best companionship a man can have, that of a consummately lovable woman who loves me back. So I count it as a win, ignore the number, and carry on. But first, I have had to indulge those around me who have wished to mark the occasion with various fripperies. That has meant packing my wine rack, depleting spare space on my bookshelves, schlepping out to restaurants, grinding craft roasted coffee, consuming enough calories to fill a freshly baked pie, transacting input with the bank, expanding my wardrobe, snuffling scented candles, and sitting through an entire gosh darn day of luxury bus rides and free wine tastings at vineyards on Long Island's North Fork. Sheesh, the things I do to humor my loved ones.

Hampton Luxury Liner runs a wonderful service. I have no idea how Mike found it, but I am glad that he did. The tour covers three vineyards: Pindar and Duck Walk for an hour each, and then Baiting Hollow for a little over three hours. At each vineyard, each person is allotted between three and five complementary half-glass tastes of (almost) any wines. After that, time can be spent buying more to drink, lounging around a patio, shopping for things to bring home, and strolling among the vines - people took advantage primarily of the first two. The bus picked up my lovely lady and me (Mike and his fiance did not attend) in Nassau County at 9 in the morning and got us back by around 7 in the evening, making for a long day. Most people had gotten on the bus in the Boroughs. These were no idle afternoon time-killers; they were in it to hit the wines good and hard. Nobody became so inebriated as to fall ill or cause trouble, but short of that people tossed off limitations for the day.

The average age was around thirty, and everyone came as either a couple or a group of women, which is hardly a surprise given trends in the market lately. Those with a mind for marketing will not marvel at the fact that neither the tour nor the vineyards bother much about how lovely the rows of vines are, or how interesting the winemaking process is. In fact, quite as most of the clientele would have it, the tour does not bother about much of anything other than efficiently shuttling people in luxury from one tasting room to the next, where the vineyards concentrate on serving their selections of tasty spirits.

Pindar was first. We began with a couple of whites. The 2012 Riesling has a citric nose with tones of apple, while the palate is sort of the inverse: a sweet, crisp yellow apple with hints of citrus. The 2012 Chardonnay is curious on the nose, with notes of crisp pear, quince, and lychee. The palate is lighter, of pear. Both are alright. Next came the reds, beginning with the delightful Isabella NV. It has a rich, luscious nose of blackberry and redcurrant, and tasting notes of cherry and strawberry, shockingly lighter than the nose, though not in a bad way. In fact, from the whole trip, we brought back with us only four bottles: three whites for Mike (one from each vineyard) and an Isabella for me. We also had the 2009 Cabernet Franc, which, I am disappointed to report, is decent on the nose with dry notes of cherry and rhubarb (almost Tempranillo-like), but ranges somewhere between bitter and nondescript on the palate. Finally I tasted the Sweet Scarlett blend, which is alright: strawberry nose and light rhubarb on the palate. I almost opted instead for the Pythagoras blend (a review of which is The Nice Drinks In Life's first post), as it is a favorite Long Island red of mine, but I drink that often enough, and preferred to try new things. I will say this about Pindar: of all the wines we tasted that day, Pindar has the single worst, the Cabernet Franc; but is otherwise positively ahead of the rest.

After sipping wine, my majestic mate and I bought a couple of bottles and then took a stroll around the building. The place is just lovely, and the vines looked great. Unfortunately, the day was more hot than warm, and instead of subjecting the bottles to the heat, we chided ourselves for not waiting a little while longer to buy them, and then sat under the shade on the patio, enjoying all that there was to see. What a beautiful day it was!

It took a little while to coax a certain group of ladies into putting their glasses down and getting back onto the bus, but soon enough we got them settled, and off we went. Next came Duck Walk, which is owned by the same family as Pindar, and located right down the road. The tasting room, as you can see on the left, was absolutely packed. Well, actually, that is not quite right: the tasting room, which is open and spacious (and which, I noticed, has lovely art on the walls), was mostly free of crowds. But the bar in particular, well, that spot did not allow for any degree of easy access for a little while.

But we did get up to it soon enough, and began again with the whites. The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc has a grassy nose with crisp citrus; the palate is more mellow, almost tropical, with notes of citrus and white table grapes. It is a pleasant wine, and I note that it is not at all a carbon copy of the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Cuvée Select by Duck Walk that I reviewed here back in May; it is independent, its own find. We also sipped the Southampton White blend, which is absolutely perfect for the Pinot Grigio lover: dry and light on the nose, with tones of grape, citrus, and perhaps a hint of sea air; and crisp on the palate with citrus and pear tastes, and plenty of terroir to go around. Having a sweet tooth, I personally find Pindar's 2011 Riesling to be the yummiest white of the afternoon; but by any objective merits, Duck Walk far and away has the best whites of the three places.

At this point my comely companion, being in infinitely numerous ways an infinitely better soul than the average person on this trip (and anywhere else), put down her glass, having found both her limit and the wherewithal to respect it. My soul, on the other hand, leaves a great deal to be desired, and in any event I am blessed with a hepatic tolerance that will not come back to bite me for at least another twenty or thirty birthday celebrations to come. So I proceeded with some reds. First was the Gatsby Red blend, whose aroma of cherries and pomegranate is somewhat sour - not in an obviously delicious way, but subtly quite attractive and beckoning. The taste is sweeter, and of red apple, and was served chilled. I immediately pictured myself and some companions lounging around outside on a hot day, in the mood for some wine, nothing serious, with taste buds preferring red but the rest of the mouth and body preferring white, and this Gatsby Red humoring all. (It is not a rosé, but it does drink like one.) I also went for the Windmill Red blend, which is alright: a Tempranillo-like nose of cherry, plum, and cedar, and a spicy plum palate. I noted that it comes off a bit young, though not terribly.

At this point began the only true downside of the trip: we got hungry. The bus had food in the back; I have no idea what it was, because we did not think to eat at first, and it was just about gone by end of the second stop. Each gift shop has chips and crackers, but they are expensive, and not good to eat without other types of food, as it will just increase hunger in short order. Better to let the metabolism stay at rest for a little while longer. But Duck Walk did have a food truck out back, just next to the vines. So, after taking some goofy pictures among the foliage (did you notice in the picture above that there are not actually any grapes in my hand to be pondering?) we split a small, mediocre, greasy grilled cheese sandwich. It turned out to be all that we would eat all trip.

After going back inside to purchase some Southampton White for Mike (we learned our lesson!), we were right on time to get back on the bus. It was a longer ride to Baiting Hollow, perhaps about a half hour or so. The driver said twenty minutes; maybe, because we were a little weary from the alcohol, heat, and growing hunger, it only seemed longer. But in any event, we arrived soon enough. Baiting Hollow is a little different than the other two. Whereas Pindar and Duck Walk have bona fide tasting rooms, with the merchandise and other things to buy off to one side, Baiting Hollow has a regular gift shop with a small tasting bar in the corner. However, aside from all that, it boasts the most outdoor space, and the most complete outdoor experience to go with it: patios, lawns, tents, a couple of tables whence more wine samples are served, scores of tables at which to sit, a couple of live bands, and horse stables. Yes, horse stables: Baiting Hollow is very active in horse rescuing, and they keep some of the lovely creatures at the winery. The horses are quite personable; one can, and may, go up to the fence, talk to them, pet them, and so on. It is a fantastic experience.

Except, of course, that in short order we were starving. At least I was. In fairness, there was the opportunity here to buy a real lunch. But, well... perhaps I am too persnickety for my own good, but I really think that a lobster roll with the size and apparent quality of a street vendor's hot dog, yet the price of an actual lobster, deserves to be turned down. You know what I mean? I probably should have sucked it up and picked one of the half-dozen similar items on the menu. But I simply could not justify it, and my divine date was content with a bottle of fruit juice. So I told myself that after eating, the previous evening, fully half of the pumpkin-pecan pie that she had baked for me (in my defense, it was not a full-sized pie, even before I got my hands on it), I deserved to go a little hungry, and forewent the food.

What I most certainly did not forego was the wine. I stopped to consider if I was feeling alright, and indeed I was. Besides, there was no driving to be done any time soon. So I had another four tastes, beginning as usual with whites. The 2011 Riesling is quite good, having a complex nose of pear, quince, and citrus; it is at once sharp and sweet. The palate is apple and tropical melon. Next, I asked which wine would be good for Pinot Grigio lovers, and was directed to the 2011 White Satin blend. I suppose it is as close to a Pinot Grigio as anything in their selection comes, but in truth it is more like a Sauvignon Blanc than any other varietal. It has an aroma of pear and kumquat, and a mellow, grassy tasting note of pears. As for the reds, maybe I should have tried a simple varietal, but I was intrigued by their two main blends, Mirage and Red Velvet. The 2010 Mirage has a nose of strawberry, redcurrant, the Portuguese ginja berry (Espinheira makes such a wonderful cordial out of that stuff!), and soy sauce; the palate tastes of creme de cassis and plum. The 2010 Red Velvet is sweeter and a bit more put together, but the notes on the nose and palate are exactly - I mean, one hundred percent - the same as those of the Mirage. I saw the staff get the bottles correct when I asked for each, so there was no mix up to explain things, and the overall quality is markedly better in the Red Velvet, which is the more expensive of the two. But the complete and utter similarity is astounding.

Afterwards, my pulchritudinous partner and I split the remaining time between the porch (the building is a converted house), the horses, and the grounds. At one point a staff member got onto one of the horses, rode it to where the tables and band were situated, and had it trot about in such a way as to make it appear to dance along with the music. It was all very well done, very clever. Less clever was the young lady who, wanting to pet the horse's nose, made a wrong turn somewhere and walked smack into the (unmoving) horse's rear, bouncing right off and finding herself entangled with some hedges. I am not sure if anybody then cut off her supply of wine; security did, though, respond by cutting off access to the animal.

We also took a stroll through the vines. They were absolutely beautiful. I thought perhaps that we were sneaking around, but no: an employee saw us walking through the vines in a spot nowhere near the shop or patio, simply advised that we be careful, and left us alone. It was basically the same way in all three vineyards we visited, and probably countless others. Should I be worried that they were so completely open? The question struck me at first, but after considering the matter, I doubt that there is any cause for concern. It is not only that my seraphic sidekick and I ourselves resisted the temptation to pluck some grapes and munch on them (which, given our hunger, was not easy). It is also that nobody else was causing any trouble. In no place did we see guests messing with anything at all. Consider: at Baiting Hollow alone there were two full coach buses' worth of drunken, hedonistic yuppies hell-bent on throwing caution to the wind (our tour), four or five private limos, an equal number of larger luxury limo buses (one of which chauffeured a bachelorette party, an institution hardly renowned for its promotion of prudent forbearance), and a couple score individual cars carrying young couples, old couples, young children (I do not know why), and mingling singles. Even the six or seven perpetually unattended toddlers failed to lay a finger on so much as a single grape. Besides, the vineyards have all been doing this for decades at this point; if people needed to be kept out, they would be.

What a wonderful day it was! The weather was stunning, the bus ride was luxurious, the vineyards were gorgeous, the wines were delicious, my companion was an angel sent from heaven, and the whole thing took on an extra special air because it was a gift from a friend and a brother. Thank you Mike, and everyone else who has been so kind and generous this past week.

I recommend any of those wineries to people looking for a nice trip out East on the North Fork; or, even better, go get some tickets for the Hampton Luxury Liner and make a whole driving-less day of it. If only you remember to pack a sandwich and some snacks, you are practically guaranteed to enjoy. Cheers!