I was recently invited to join a group of travel writers to visit what Wine Enthusiast named one of the 10 Best Wine Destinations in 2013. So where did I go? France, Italy, New Zealand, California? Nope, I visited the North Fork of Long Island, New York, home to over 35 vineyards and 40 licensed Long Island wineries that attract over 1.5 million visitors each year. What may surprise you more than the location was how easy it was to get there…by ferry.
Cross Sound Ferry runs at least eight trips a day from its terminal in New London, CT to Orient Point on the North Fork of Long Island. What a pleasure it was to not have to deal with the dreaded Interstate 95 backup in Southern Connecticut or the gridlock that is the Long Island Expressway. Living in New England it is easy to forget how simple and easy it is to take the Cross Sound Ferry and how it puts Long Island within reach for family vacations, girlfriend getaways or romantic escapes where you don’t want to spend too much precious time in transit.
Cross Sound’s passenger-only high speed ferry makes the 16 mile trip in just 40 minutes for only $20.25 one way for adults, while the car ferries take about one hour and twenty minutes. If you want the flexibility to drive to vineyards, you can bring your car on board for $51.00 (plus $14.50 for an additional adult), but I found it liberating to leave the car in New London and walk on board with nothing to worry about except enjoying the view (or maybe start vacation earlier with a glass of wine at the on-ship lounge.) Even on a very rainy day, our passage was smooth sailing and I was able to get from Providence, RI to Orient Point on Long Island in under three hours.
If you are going with the family, you’d probably want to bring the car along, but when you plan on visiting a number of wineries, it is safer, easier, and a lot more fun to arrange for transportation. Vintage Tours is one of the companies that offers wine tours and transportation around the North Fork, offering personalized guided tours in their 14 passenger van for $99 per person (weekends), including stops at four wineries for tastings, one winery tour, boxed lunch and a visit to one of the area’s many farms. Vintage Tours owner Jo-Ann picked us up and shared her infectious love for the area, telling us how in the last 40 years the region has migrated from predominantly potato farms (which still produce the delicious North Fork Potato Chips) to a well-respected wine producing region. But more than wine, agriculture is at the heart of the community — including lavender farms, sunflower fields, strawberry patches, goat dairies, alpaca farms, and of course fresh seafood. It is no wonder so many local restaurants utilize farm-to-table practices.
There are many good times to visit the North Fork — over Father’s Day weekend in June for the Strawberry Festival, July when the lavender is in bloom, August when you can see the sunflower fields in full glory, or fall to enjoy the farm stands and family activities, but I really appreciated being there just after the grapes were harvested. On our trip the wineries were full to the rafters with fruit from the best harvest since 1986. While the winemakers were exhausted from all the work it takes to bring in the harvest, it was fun to see the beginning of the winemaking process.
I’ve done a few wine trips and I’ve found that while it sounds great to squeeze in as many wineries as you can, the fact is your palate won’t be able to discern the difference between notes after a glass or two of wine so it is best to balance your tasting with tours and other activities. For this reason, and because I wanted to keep my wits about me, I was glad that our trip gave us a chance to not just taste wine, but also learn more about how wine is made.
Our education started at Waters Crest Winery, where we were able to learn the art and science of wine blending from owner Jim Waters. Located in Cutchogue, the sunniest town in New York (except the day we visited), this winery is housed in an unobtrusive strip mall storefront, but all the magic happens in the back room. Jim grew up around the wineries and has long relationships with many growers in the area, but after finding himself among the rubble of the World Trade Center working alongside his fellow firemen in the aftermath of 9/11, he decided to devote himself full-time to winemaking and has spent the last decade making award-winning wines and raising a family on the North Fork.
We were also able to learn about the entire “vine to wine” process at Sannino Bella Vita Vineyard in Peconic. Co-owners Anthony and Lisa Sannino not only run the winery, they also operate a bed and breakfast on the vineyard while raising a family of four. Sannino and other members of the community work closely with Cornell University, which has studied the soil, weather, row spacing and plant spacing, and other factors that go into making a successful vintage year. After sampling some wine, we were able to taste just harvested grapes, watch Anthony “push down” the grapes, and sample a new wine straight from the barrel. A big hit with our group was Sannino’s Spiced Wine, served warm, perfect for warming up on a chilly, rainy fall day.
One of the funniest lines I heard over the two days in Long Island was that “it takes a lot of beer to make wine.” Indeed! Luckily we also got to sample some of the local beer that keeps these winemakers going. Greenport Harbor Brewing has two locations but their new space in Peconic in a converted auto shop is one of the coolest breweries I’ve visited. Featuring hardwood floors, long community tables, and live music in the evening, Greenport is a cross between a rustic tasting room and seaside bar. The staff was super-friendly, talking us through each sample in our wine flight, including ales, stouts, and porters. My favorite was the Leaf Pile, which combines the flavors of ginger, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg, to create a perfect fall beer. We even had a chance to tour the brewery right next door.
One of my favorite stops was at Kontakosta Winery. One of the newer wineries in the region, Kontakosta was built using sustainable materials, practices sustainable farming practices, and even utilizes a wind turbine to generate its own power. From the outside, the tasting room looks like a rustic barn made of greying, aged reclaimed wood with giant red double doors, but when you step inside this airy structure you are struck by the light and modern vibe provided by the floor to ceiling windows, which offer views of the vineyards and down the lawn to the bluff and the Sound beyond. It is a place where you will want to bring a boxed lunch from NoFo Lunchbox, and spend some time relaxing outside, or at one of the many community tables in the tasting room, or in the smaller seating areas on the mezzanine above.
From my first sip of crisp, clean Sauvignon Blanc, I knew we were in for a treat. After a tour of the winery below and a barrel tasting of Cabernet Franc, I couldn’t wait to head back upstairs to sample some more. I thoroughly enjoyed all the wines we tasted, but as always at a wine tasting, it is the atmosphere and the personality of the pourer that make you fall in love and want to join the wine club or buy a case to take home. I wasn’t about to leave empty handed and left with two bottles of the Sauvignon Blanc, a Cab Franc and a Cabernet Sauvignon.
We had a busy, fun tour but it was also cold and rainy for part of it so when I arrived at my lodging at Ruby’s Cove Bed and Breakfast I had visions of curling up in a cozy bed and warming up. Well the warmth hit me the moment we opened the door as the aroma of something sweet baking in the oven wafted out from the kitchen and we were greeted by our cheerful and energetic hostess, Donna Gruber. Donna has an interesting history as a traveler herself who never even liked B&Bs, yet when she came to visit for a wedding, she fell in love and ended up buying the place. She has certainly taken her tremendous energy to turn Ruby’s Cove into a warm and welcoming inn that provides more than comfy, cozy beds, but offers up something more, something special that makes you want to curl up in a chair with a glass of wine and invite over your best friends for a chat.
Decorated with valuable antiques in an eclectic blend of boudoir chic, Ruby’s Cove offers three guest rooms, two with en-suite bathrooms. In the downstairs public areas there seemed to be fireplaces, comfortable chairs, and cozy places to hang out everywhere you turn. Donna keeps the ambience relaxing with jazz and blues music playing in the background and wine, coffee, tea, and snacks laid out for guests. After sitting and chatting with Donna over a glass of wine and some of the most delicious truffle cheese I’ve ever tasted, I knew this was a place that I needed to revisit.
I slept like a dream in my comfortable bed, snuggled up with piles of pillows and warm blankets, relishing in the fact that she serves breakfast late. I’m not a morning person so one thing I don’t like about staying at bed and breakfasts is needing to be up and ready to eat by 8 am. At Ruby’s Cove, breakfast is usually served at 9 or 10 am, letting late risers sleep in and early risers go out for a walk or run before a delicious meal. It was a good thing I had a light dinner the night before because Donna served up a three-course breakfast with freshly made chicken sausage stuffed with asiago cheese and broccoli rabé and sauteed with onions, egg souffle with jalapeño peppers, and freshly-made berry pancakes. It was absolutely delicious. I had such a lovely stay, I’m pretty sure it was the only time I’ve hugged my hostess when I checked out!
Where to Eat on the North Fork
Noah’s – Noah’s on the Road, Chef Noah’s food truck offered up tasty lobster rolls, crab cakes, and Long Island duck sliders during our visit to Greenport and friends really enjoyed the main restaurant in downtown Greenport as well.
Alure – Alure in Southold is located right on the harbor, offering gorgeous views and a cozy fireplace inside for chilly days. Friends of mine had a great meal here and called the swordfish the best they’d ever eaten.
Soundview Restaurant – Soundview in Greenport is right on the Long Island Sound overhanging the water, offering gorgeous sunset views from the restaurant or deck.
Frisky Oyster – Located in downtown Greenport, walking distance from most hotels and B&Bs, the Frisky Oyster features Peconic Gold Oysters, along with other seafood, small plates and dinner entrees.
For more ideas of what to do on Long Island, visit LIWeekends.com for travel-worthy suggestions for every day of the week or sign up for the Cross Sound Ferry Rewards Program for suggestions via email. Stayed tuned for more ideas of things to do with families on the North Fork, including holiday or rainy day fun decorating gingerbread houses or cookies at Gingerbread University!
My trip was hosted by the Cross Sound Ferry and I thank them and their partners for the lovely experience. The opinions are my own.