Driving eastbound along Route 48 last weekend, looking out over the snow-blanketed vineyards, I was struck by just how different Long Island wine country is in the winter.
The lush, perfectly manicured vineyards of the summer months look lonely and almost desolate – nothing more than row after row of leafless, dormant plants, clearly hibernating for the winter.
Long gone are the throngs of tasting room visitors. Parking lots are empty or nearly so, and many tasting rooms that are staffed by a half dozen people or more during the busy harvest season are replaced by one, maybe two, employees – often winery owners or family members.
On the surface, it looks like Long Island wineries and their staffs largely take the winter off, but nothing could be further from the truth. You just have to look more closely and in places beyond the tasting room.
Accoding to Adam Ehmer, tasting room manager at , the winter is a time to focus on events.
"At Roanoke Vineyards, we provide a way to keep customers (and ourselves) entertained by hosting barrel tastings, collector's club evenings, and the March Madness Smackdown," he said.
The March Madness event is the latest extension of the vineyards Smackdown series, which has local winemakes tasting an assortment of wines blind in a competition to see which one guesses the most right. The March Madness event is giving local enthusiasts a chance to compete as well.
"Wine tasting in the winter is the best time for visitors really interested in the wines. You avoid the crowds, limos, and party busses, and are awarded with a much more personal wine tasting experience," said Melissa Schwartz sales and hospitality manager at .
Schwartz said the winery, which exclusively makes sparkling wines recently disgorged its newest wine – Cuvée Carnival, the winery's first extra dry bottling. that it expects to release in the coming months.
At Martha Clara Vineyards, "Winter is our time to get everything else done," said Robin Epperson-McCarthy, assistant winemaker.
Vineyard managers and their crews are undertaking the time-consuming and hard work of pruning – by hand – every vine in the vineyard to prepare them for the 2011 growing season.
This is done during the winter when the sap isn't flowing freely and the canes (the previous year's growth) have hardened. For smaller vineyards, this process can take weeks, but for larger grape growers, it can take the entire winter. Cold, snow-filled winters like this one make the going slow.
Inside, many wineries are bottling their un-oaked 2010 white wines, or already have. Macari Vineyards has already bottled and released its and Paumanok Vineyards has done the same with its always-popular Chenin Blanc and value-priced Festival Chardonnay.
At Martha Clara, Epperson-McCarthy says she and head winemaker Juan Micieli-Martinez are working blending their 2009 reds and have also invested in a wine-in-keg system that they are installing.
So, the wineries really are abuzz this time of year – but this is also the perfect time to visit wine country.
Visit a tasting room during the winter and you're rarely find tasting bars that are 4 or 5 people deep. You'll be able to taste at your own pace, talk with those pouring for you and you're very likely to run into a winemaker or two on your jaunt – like Epperson-McCarthy who says "(that's) another reason to stop into the tasting room in the winter – I usually let whomever is in the tasting room taste what we are currently working on."
That alone is reason enough to stop in, don't you think?