CUTCHOGUE, N.Y. -- In an impulsive gesture of Long Island pride 23 years ago, Dr. Herodotus Damianos ordered enough North Fork rose to serve 400 guests at a christening party for his son. Just before his guests arrived he sampled it.
"It tasted like battery acid," recalled Damianos, a cardiologist who has since become Long Island's biggest wine producer. Panicked, he persauded a friend to open his liquor shop that Sunday to lend him something drinkable.
Stories like that made Long Island a butt of mockery in the wine world for years, so that the reputation of North Fork and South Fork chardonnays and merlots have still not completely recovered from their shaky start in 1973.
Few liquor stores and restaurants offer Long Island wines outside Suffolk County, and wine stewards in Manhattan say many finicky customers still put Long Island wine in the same category as Levittown architecture until they taste it.
"When we serve Long Island wine by the glass," said David Gordon, the wine steward at Manhattan's Tribeca Grill, "customers ask, 'Don't you have California?' "
But slowly the North Fork's vineyards are yielding mature vines, and Long Island wine is coming of age after years of fits and starts.
Improved production techniques and friendly weather produced three excellent years in a row, leading Bon Appetit, Wine Spectator and other leading publications reviewers to give a number of 1993, 1994 and 1995 North Fork wines good reviews.
Wineries are expanding their vineyards, tasting rooms, cellars and other production capacity all along the 15-mile North Fork stretch between Aquebogue and Southhold. The Long Island Wine Council, whose members now sell about $20 million worth of wine a year, recently agreed to begin its first concerted marketing plan - complete with bumper stickers.
Palmer Vineyards has expanded its customer base to distributors throughout Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands over the last 18 months. The Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan just ordered a barrel of 1995 Hargrave pinot noir, and Cite has started offering Paumanok chardonnay.
One large East Side Manhattan wine store, McAdam Liquors, has had such success with tastings of North and South Fork wines it has doubled the shelf space it devotes to them and has launched a 46-page Web site devoted solely to Long Island wines (www.mcadam-buyrite.com).
After a series of hurricanes ravaged the vineyards on the North and South Forks in the 1970s and 1980s, Long Island winemakers suddenly hit a wave of luck. The phylloxera louse has attacked California's vineyards in recent years, reducing yields and raising prices of Long Island's biggest wine competitor. With the prices of many French, Italian and Chilean wines also rising, Long Island wines that too often seemed overpriced - the typical North Fork chardonnay has stabilized at $14 since 1990 - have become easier to swallow.
While some Long Island wines still receive less than stellar reviews, and production represents about one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. wine output, sales have doubled since 1990 and are poised to double again over the next 10 years, the Wine Council said. The biggest limitation is the size of North Fork - winery owners like to call it a "wine neighborhood," not a region.
"I see a great future," said Steven Kolpan, a wine instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "Long Island is positioned to be one of the truly great red wine regions in the United States." Merlot has become its signature wine.
The new popularity means that many wineries, whose production is generally fairly small, often run out of supplies, causing problems for restaurants, which need replacements to keep their wine menus current.
The Chinese trade mission in New York approached Paumanok recently to order 2,000 cases a month for China's growing wine- drinking population; the winery's owners were obliged to explain that they produce only 5,000 cases a year.
A few winemakers say there are those in the motley assemblage of mostly wealthy Long Island producers who still have more of a taste for vodka and Scotch than for cabernet sauvignon. But some owners are beginning to realize that wine is becoming a real moneymaker.
The owners hardly resemble their Bordeaux counterparts, who tend chateaux with centuries of tradition. While some Long Islanders decorate their promotional literature with quotations from Walt Whitman, Long Island's great bard, they are for the most part unlikely to be mistaken for European landed gentry.
A retired union leader, Ralph Pugliese, cultivated a taste for wine while growing up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, where he mixed his grandfather's homemade wine with cream soda. The trademark of his winery is the handpainted bottles produced by his wife, Patricia, who works her artistry with nail polish.
When a French producer complained at a local wine symposium a few years back that the Long Islanders were breaking the rules by labeling their sparkling white wine as champagne, Pugliese shot back: "In Brooklyn if it bubbles, it is champagne."
Charles Massoud came by his winemaking when he was transferred by IBM to the dry Islamic country of Kuwait in the early 1970s. Massoud said he first tried producing beer, "but I couldn't get the yeast out of the bottle." So he turned to crushing grapes with his knuckles. Twenty years later, he purchased a tract of land in Aquebogue and started a vineyard.
Like most of the Long Island estates, Massoud's Paumanok Vineyards is a family affair. His wife, Ursula, who comes from a long line of German wine producers, invited her relatives to inspect their new land for advice. She recently sent them a
January 1997 clipping from Bon Appetit listing a Paumanok 1995 riesling on its "best list" of 50 wines chosen from nearly 4,000 wines sampled from around the world.
Still, the old prejudices against wine produced in New York state die hard. "People still think of Long Island as tract housing, strip malls and the Long Island Expressway," sighed Joyce Pellegrini, an owner of Pellegrini Vineyards, one of the North Fork's most successful wineries.
Pub Date: 4/13/97