It's easy to get slightly rhapsodic about the North Fork of New York's Long Island and about the symphony of pleasures it offers the senses.
Light does magical things here. It bounces off the waters of the quiet coves of the bay side of the fork, making mirrors of thousands of surfaces. It illuminates the curl of the breakers along Long Island Sound, which pound into the fork's north coast. And for more sunny days than practically any place in the state of New York, it makes the vegetables and the grapes grow.
For centuries, this amazingly fertile, 25-mile-long strip of Long Island's far eastern end has been the vegetable basket to the Big Apple. Peconic Bay scallops, bluepoint oysters and several varieties of clams also are gifts from the sea.
But the plebeian potato, long the agricultural staple of the region, is being replaced by the noble grape. In less than three decades, 30 or so wineries have been established in the area.
Along with the wine-red transfusion has come something else relatively new for the North Fork: the green flow of tourism dollars.
But this is tourism with a twist. North Fork folks have adopted a take-us-on-our-terms approach toward the increasing wave of visitors. The result is a deliberate appeal to the unpretentious connoisseur, or to the traveler seeking respite from the resort mentality.
"We cringe at being discovered," said Prudence Wickham, whose family has farmed the North Fork for nearly four centuries. And while the region welcomes tourists, it has strived to preserve its agricultural character while discouraging urban and residential sprawl.
Even so, a half-million visitors come annually to the North Fork, just to sample the wineries. Geography simplifies the challenge of choosing which wineries -- all the tasting rooms are on the two main highways of the region. So it's easy to make half a dozen or more wine stops in a day, preferably with a designated driver.
'Better than California'
The tasting rooms are mostly variations on the farm revival theme. A few have remodeled old farm buildings, especially barns, into ultramodern tasting rooms with vineyard vistas.
During a 1990 symposium on North Fork wines attended by many noted winemakers from France, Alain Querre, owner of Chateau Monbousquet in the St. Emilion district, proclaimed that two North Fork merlots were "better than anything made in California."
But even those with uneducated palates can delight in the experience of hopscotching among the closely spaced wineries. If you don't drink wine, the tastes of the locally grown corn, apples and berries bring satisfaction by the mouthful.
Beyond the senses, there is a distinctive sensibility to the North Fork experience. The Hamptons, it definitely isn't. That tony area, on the South Fork of the island tip, just a few miles by car ferry from the North Fork, is a world away in attitude and appearance. While the Hamptons are known for the secluded estates of the ultra-wealthy, trendy shops and expensive restaurants, the North Fork is mostly just a string of neat but unassuming villages set amid the flatland farms.
The North Fork is a place for people who can find fascination in a fruit stand, who see the quest for a great glass of wine as a worthy vacation plan.
Keeping developers out
In the last few years, the towns of the North Fork have spruced up a bit for guests. Old inns are being restored and reopened; private homes and farmhouses are becoming bed-and-breakfast inns.
And the local restaurants, from waterfront seafood places to modest diners, are offering area vintages on their wine lists.
The chain hotels and restaurants aren't here yet; and there may not be room for them to come: One of the most surprising changes that has occurred in the North Fork is an unofficial alliance among the traditional farmers, the grape growers and conservationists, against developers.
"We welcome the wineries with open arms," said Helen Krupski, whose family has farmed the North Fork for five generations. "Otherwise, the land would all be going to development, and once it's blacktopped, it's gone."
Krupski's family has managed to stay in farming by selling what they grow at their roadside produce stands. They must make their six months or so of income last the whole year, she said, but at least they're doing what they love.
That sentiment is echoed by some of the wine growers, who have made sizable investments in land (roughly $30,000 and up per acre), vines and processing equipment. They must wait five to eight years for the vines to produce wine-quality grapes.
The North Fork Grape Rush has enticed people like construction magnates, sports franchise owners and movie moguls to the region to establish vineyards and wineries. Most of them aspire to produce grand vintages.
"Wine is the only living beverage in the world," said Ron Goerler, vineyard manager for Jamesport Vineyards.
He developed an affection for the North Fork during the summer vacations of his boyhood. Now, he said, he tries to put his love of the land into his wine bottles.
"My beverages have got me in them, plus my family, my dog, my care for the land, and my pride," Goerler said.
A young region
The North Fork's fertile soil, good drainage and sunny, maritime climate is "not all that much different from Bordeaux," said Kip Bedell, who went from winemaking as a home hobby to owning his own North Fork vineyards and winery, Bedell Cellars. Recently, he sold his operation to a film company executive, but stayed on as the winemaker.
Certainly, the North Fork is a very young wine-growing region, compared with the great estates of France.
However, Bedell said, advances in winemaking technology have made it easier for younger regions to catch up and to avoid sharp swings in quality from year to year.
The owner of North Fork's second largest winery, Joe Macari Jr., came to the area looking for room to breed German shepherds. His father, a real estate developer, owned some North Fork farmland that he'd held onto partly from nostalgia.
When the elder Macari was a boy, his father would send him to the local bocce ball courts to sell bottles of homemade wine.
"My father said, 'Let's plant a few vines,' " Macari said.
That was about six years ago. Now, Macari lives in a trailer near his vineyards, and plans to build a home if his winemaking venture succeeds.
While nearly all the winery tasting rooms follow a rustic theme, one stands out architecturally. Raphael, near the town of Peconic, is a winery built to suggest the monasteries of southern Italy. Its aspirations for its wines are equally grand.
"Ultimately, we hope to bring international recognition to the North Fork," said Richard Olsen-Harbich, the winemaker at Raphael.
Toward that end, the winery has engaged as a consultant Paul Pontallier, general manager of the world-renowned Chateau Margaux.
Raphael has decided that the North Fork can produce a truly great merlot, so it will specialize, Olsen-Harbich said.
"We don't look at it as a question of, 'What does the market want?' " he said. "We just want to produce a really great wine."
Prudence Wickham's ancestors came to the North Fork from New England in the mid-1600s. She said wineries are just the latest in a series of agricultural adaptations made by the people of the North Fork.
"I see it as a continuum through our history," she said. "Agriculture changes constantly, and you have to be able to go with the changes."
Her family has adapted by turning their farms into orchards and selling the fruit mostly at roadside stands. They also offer group tours of their farms.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: The quickest way to get to the North Fork is to fly into New York's LaGuardia Airport and rent a car (US Airways offers daily nonstop service from BWI). It's a 90-minute drive to the North Fork area via the Long Island Expressway.
* You can travel from Manhattan to the towns of the North Fork either by bus or train, a two-hour trip. Cars can be rented in the North Fork for local travel.
When to go: Most of the winery tasting rooms are open year-round, though some shorten their hours after Christmas. Since winter and spring are the low season, it's much easier to find room at the inns, which can be hard to book on summer and fall weekends.
Seafood Barge, Main Road, Southold, NY 11971
* Phone: 631-765-3010
* Online: www.seafoodbarge.com
* Seafood, pasta, lamb and an extensive wine list with at least 60 local selections. Dinner entrees from $16.
Orient by the Sea Restaurant & Marina, Main Road, Orient, NY 11957
* Phone: 631-323-2424
* Online: www.orientbythesea.com
* Creative American fare with an emphasis on seafood. Dinner entrees from $11.95.
Modern Snack Bar, Route 25, Aquebogue, NY 11931
* Phone: 631-722-3655
* Online: www.lieast.com / snackbar.html
* A casual dining experience. Dinner Entrees from $11.95.
Jamesport Country Kitchen, Laurel, New York, 11948
* Phone: 631-722-3537
* Online: www.northfork.com / catering / jck.htm
* Features a "from scratch" menu with items including stir fry, duck, filet mignon and spinach ravioli. Dinner entrees from $13.95.
Greenporter Hotel and Spa, 326 Front St., Greenport NY 11944
* Phone: 631-477-0066
* Online: www.thegreenporter.com
* Fifteen-room, newly opened hotel and spa with a pool, wine bar and French bistro. Rates start at $145.
* For information about the North Fork's wineries: www. liwines.com; 631-369-5887
* For general information about the region: 631-298-5757; www.northfork.org.