Attention, New Yorkers: You don’t have to hop on a plane to enjoy a world-class wine country experience. Perched along Long Island’s bucolic northeastern peninsula, the North Fork boasts a markedly ecologically diverse climate and, as such, some of the country’s top vino producers alongside enticing farm-to-table restaurants, gorgeous greenery, and a picturesque Long Island Sound and Atlantic Ocean coastline. The best part? All this sits a mere 90 miles from Manhattan’s concrete jungle (but feels lightyears farther away).
“The combination of low elevation and proximity to water creates a unique growth pattern for the grapes,” says sommelier Vincent Stilletti. Stilletti currently serves as the Tasting Room manager at Brooklyn’s Red Hook Winery, an urban facility that sources much of its fruit from the North Fork. “There’s no diurnal shift, so they’re slowly but constantly ripening and metabolizing malic acid while the humidity allows them to retain more tartaric acid, a much different balance than, say, Napa Valley or Piemonte.”
A narrow strip of land sandwiched between the Long Island Sound, Atlantic Ocean, and Peconic Bay, the North Fork of Long Island American Viticultural Area (AVA) is home to over 3,000 miles of planted vineyards and over 50 active wineries. Winemaking in the region dates to 1973, when vitners Alex and Louisa Hargrave made good use of the area’s fertile sandy soil and briny ocean breezes by laying down Long Island’s first successful vines in the hamlet of Cutchogue. The industry gained momentum in the following decade, achieving official AVA status in 1985 and eventually developing into a thriving destination for wine lovers in search of expertly crafted, hyper-local expressions that are at once accessible and exceptional.
“The North Fork was initially planted with sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc, however newer generations have taken rewarding risks with lesser-known varietals like teroldego, lagrein, albarino, and chenin blanc,” Stilletti explains, commending the region’s innovative, forward-thinking approach to viticulture and dedication to celebrating abundant natural resources. “The best winemakers showcase terroir rather than manipulate it to conform to other styles. Most are either using estate fruit, sourcing from other vineyards on the island, or both—I don’t personally know of anyone making wine from non-Long Island grapes.”
Visitors to the North Fork won’t only be met with great drink. The green thumb vibe extends to the area’s culinary scene, where hungry newcomers can find everything from high-end fine dining institutions to quirky roadside stands perfect for impromptu wine-laden picnics. “It’s a genuine agricultural area with plenty of small farms and businesses,” adds Stilletti. “It’s an important way to see where your wine comes from and what goes into it.”
Visitors with experience traveling through other American winemaking regions might be surprised to find that many Long Island vineyards are multi-generational affairs. According to seasoned sommelier Amy Racine, beverage director at The Times Square Edition, some members of the younger set are thinking outside the box to both advance the region’s commercial ecosystem and leave their own lasting marks on the family trade.
“The Macari family is one of the OGs of the North Fork,” she says, pointing out one of the AVA’s oldest and most esteemed establishments. “The parents still carry on the tradition of making excellent cabernet franc, the sons launch inventive ideas like a pizza truck paired with their wines, and the daughter Gabriella has added a fun bubbly to the lineup.”
Whether you’re in the market for a socially-distanced getaway for just looking to pick up a few unexpected bottles from the local liquor shop, this Long Island destination has you covered. Here are a handful of expert recommendations to get you started.
RGNY kicked off in 2018 when Mexican-American winemaker Maria Rivero, CEO of the Rivero Gonzalez winery in Parras, Mexico, and her family acquired Riverhead’s long running Martha Clara winery and began implementing revitalizing sustainability initiatives. As The Times Square Edition sommelier Racine says, the Rivero Gonzalez crew has fully taken to their adopted home’s lush landscape.
“Maria and team have done a remarkable job of maintaining that historic estate and what it means to the area, but also embracing their own traditions and modern way of thinking,” she adds. “We see this through her interpretation of the past owners' vines, her new plantings, and the people she brought to work on them.”
Echoing Racine’s sentiment, Red Hook’s Stilletti describes the breakout hit as “new to the North Fork but not winemaking,” and suggests checking out the pinot noir and white merlot.
“Anthony Sannino and his family run this gorgeous vineyard and winery in Mattituck and grow some of the region’s fuller-bodied reds,” Stilletti says, stating an affinity for this estate’s cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. “A former contractor, Anthony built the winery himself and they also have a Tuscan-style Villa B&B overlooking the property.” Not a bad perk.
Racine backs this eye-catching family-owned and female-powered boutique that traces its roots back to the hills of Italy. “They grow traditional Italian varieties paired with some delicious and inventive wines like Gruner Veltliner,” she notes. “They push the North Fork with their curiosity both in the winery and in the vineyard, pairing with Cornell University to do studies such as planting over a dozen types of clover as a cover crop. It keeps progression wheeling forward.”
Our experts count themselves among this humble North Fork giant’s many fans, with Stilletti in particular giving props to the winery’s stellar Lifeforce sauvignon blanc and Horses sparkling cab franc. “The Macari family spearheaded the sustainable winegrowing movement on the North Fork in 1995 by planting their 500-acre farm in accordance with Biodynamic practices,” he continues. “This focus on the environment ranges from nothing leaving the vineyards or winery (except the wine, of course) to keeping a herd of cows to provide fertilizer that promotes healthy soil.”
Racine favors this sprawling Mattituck complex known for their appealing country-chic aesthetic, eco-friendly viticultural practices, and zesty, invigorating whites. “Shinn Estate Vineyards is a winery, vineyard, and Farmhouse Inn set in a 125-year-old barn, which has been passed down by generations of Long Island farmers,” she says. “They mix inventive blends with spectacular hospitality—an important stop on the North Fork wine trail.
Helmed by 30-year-old Alex Rosanelli, this ambitious young project maintains dual tasting rooms in Mattituck and Brooklyn. Each tastefully appointed outpost draws crowds with Hound’s Tree’s creative merging of old-growth vines with updated techniques. “Rosanelli makes wines from over 20-year-old chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet franc as well as newer plantings of marsanne, roussanne, and nebbiolo,” Stilletti notes, selecting the cabernet franc and chardonnay as worthy standouts.
Both of our experts eagerly sing this Cutchogue single varietal and red blend specialist’s praises. “In 1996, Russell McCall saved historic Down's Farm & Woods from development, planting vineyards and managing the farm and nature preserve,” Stilletti explains. “McCall also has one of the largest plantings of pinot noir, a notoriously difficult grape, on the East Coast.”
“Few have attempted to make Pinot Noir in the North Fork, and McCall does it with screaming success,” agrees Racine, further extolling the company’s relationship with its natural surrounds. “This is a family-owned winery dedicated to the land beyond grapes—they raise their own cattle, fed off produce from their estate, and support local producers and farmers all while creating some world class wines.”