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!

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