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Image: Merlot grapes before harvest at Shinn Estate Vineyards.
Shinn Estate Vineyards
Merlot grapes before harvest at Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck, New York.
By Wine columnist
TODAY
updated 10/21/2009 6:01:22 PM ET 2009-10-21T22:01:22

David Page was complaining about those weather forecasters. All week they had predicted rain for Saturday and Sunday, the two money days for wineries and farm stands on Long Island’s North Fork. Always had to scare people away, didn’t they? And here it was, early Saturday evening, dark outside, and still no rain. Page looked up at the sky above his vineyards, marveling at how wrong the weather people were.

Despite the forecast, there were still a dozen or so visitors late on a Saturday afternoon in the small tasting room of Shinn Estate Vineyards, in a renovated farmhouse on a mostly forgotten thoroughfare called Oregon Road, nine-tenths of a mile inland from Long Island Sound in the town of Mattituck. Page, his wife, Barbara Shinn, and their winemaker, Anthony Nappa, were also tasting and mingling with the customers. There was a relaxed energy in the room, a sense of passion and purpose. 

Earlier in the day, the harvest of the white grapes had ended — sauvignon blanc, semillon and pinot blanc. Picking the red varieties — merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, a little petit verdot and malbec — was still a couple of weeks away, even though it was already mid-October. Again, the weather. June was pretty much a washout, with little sun and lots of rain. “It rained 26 days out of 30,” Page remembers. “That’s always fun.” The goal now was to make up for the spring by letting the grapes hang as long as possible to ripen fully, perhaps until almost Thanksgiving, barring frost.

The story of wine on the east end of Long Island is still being written, even though the area, about a hundred miles east of Manhattan, has been growing vinifera grapes for more than three decades and is now home to more than 40 vineyards. Production in this maritime sliver of land is small, at least by California standards. Most of the wines are sold on Long Island and in New York, and it’s not uncommon to see them in top New York City restaurants. Shinn’s wines offer insights into why some, at least, have earned that distinction.

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Like most Long Island vineyard owners, Page and Shinn had another life before wine, in their case as owners of Home, an acclaimed New York restaurant they opened in 1993. But as their business expanded, with a second restaurant, a catering operation and a takeout place, they began to wonder whether they were losing control of their lives and the simple life (or at least the idea of one) that they valued. “More often than not,” Page recalls, “the question that friends and business associates kept asking us was, what were our plans, what were we going to do next?” Why not extend the “Home” brand even further?

“I realized,” Page says, “that in New York City I would never escape that.” He had no interest in Las Vegas, Miami’s South Beach or other “hot spots” where other successful chefs had extended their franchises. Meanwhile, in 1999, the couple had purchased a 22-acre farm in Mattituck where rye and wheat were grown (and potatoes many years before) and planted vines. They produced their first vintage in 2002. Two years ago they finally sold the restaurant, deciding that their real “home” was the old farmhouse, which they had turned into a winery and bed-and-breakfast overlooking vineyards that now yield them just under 5,000 cases of wine.

When you taste Shinn’s wines, you quickly get the sense that they are authentic and meticulously crafted. They are among the more expressive wines I have sampled from the region, even though Shinn’s vines are no more than a decade old. Part of that may lie in the fact that the grapes are grown sustainably, without the use of chemicals, which is a departure for the area (the winery expects to receive organic certification next year). It comes as well from gentle handling of the grapes, including hand harvesting; the use, at least partially, of native, naturally occurring yeasts during fermentation; and extended skin contact for the reds, as long as 50 days, which produces more color, tannin and flavor. The wines, like most from Long Island, are also notable for their relatively low levels of alcohol, mostly in the 12- to 13-percent range.

A good introduction to Shinn’s wines is the 2008 “Haven,” a blend of 79 percent sauvignon blanc and 21 percent semillon. The fruit is still a bit muted at this point but the wine, which sells for $35, has a reserved elegance and bright acidity with notes of apricot, lemon tart, a bit of bell pepper and a touch of vanilla from barrel fermentation. The 2007 Chardonnay, $17, made from fruit sourced from a nearby vineyard, received no oak exposure but has a nice roundness and richness nonetheless, a quality that is often lacking in non-oaked chardonnays. Page attributes it to frequent stirring of the lees, the leftover solids of the grapes and yeasts.

Among reds, the 2006 “Wild Boar Doe,” a $29 takeoff on France’s Bordeaux, is a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, petit verdot and cab franc. It shows red and dark-berry fruit, a touch of cedar and some chocolate on the finish. It’s softly tannic yet structured and concentrated, with a refreshing 12.5 percent alcohol. The 2007 Malbec, a soon-to-be-released, limited-production wine (just over 100 cases) offered in smaller, 500-ml bottles, is purple with densely packed fruit, reflecting a “spectacular growing season,” as Page put it, and showing notes of blackberry, blueberry pie, leather, cedar and spice. Though a bit pricey at $35, it could give many malbecs from Argentina a run for their money.

The signature red (here and throughout the region) is merlot, and Shinn’s 2006, at $24, offers enticing notes of sweet dark berries, roasted meat and subtle oak, at once soft and accessible but with good tannic structure. More exotic is the 2006 Cabernet Franc, $38, with tastes of dried cranberry, herbs, mocha and a spicy finish.

In just 10 years, Shinn has made a mark as one of the North Fork’s leading wineries, and tasting the current releases demonstrates why. As for David Page, he is where he wants to be in the farmhouse next to the vineyards on Oregon Road. “I can see the sunrise every morning and the sunset every night,” he says. “That’s where real happiness comes from, having a sense of place in one’s self and making a product that echoes that for the people who drink it.” He pauses. “The farm saved our lives.”

Edward Deitch is the recipient of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Best Multimedia Writing. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at edwarddeitch@hotmail.com. Find more wine reviews by Edward Deitch at his blog, Vint-ed.

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