A Growing Tradition

A new generation of farmers is helping to preserve Long Island's rich Agrarian past

I'm walking through the cabernet sauvignon. Green, leafy vines growing in perfect rows stretch to the horizon, creating a multitude of inviting pathways. I walk deeper into the Shinn Estate Vineyards, farther from the tasting room, where visitors can be heard chattering about the particular qualities of this grower's most recent vintage. It is late June, pollination season, and the fruit is flowering, which means there is a hint of jasmine in the air. 

I lean down to the lower leaves of one vine, lift up a branch, and find clusters of tiny white flowers hidden underneath. I inhale and smell more of that wonderful perfume. The small green pods on the clusters, no bigger than the tip of a toothpick, will grow into plump black grapes, fated to be crushed and mixed and aged in oak barrels come October.

My husband and I have come here to the North Fork of Long Island, 100 miles from New York City, for a weekend of vineyard hopping. Although most of the island has fallen victim to enormous suburban developments and countless strip malls, the North Fork, a 25-mile spit of land where Colonial seaside hamlets are flanked by the Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound, has managed to retain its historic character and rustic charm. It could have gone the way of the Hamptons—glitzy, overbuilt, and overcrowded. But it didn't.

And there's only one reason: wine.

If You Go ... 

Shinn Estate Vineyards is located at 2000 Oregon Road in Mattituck, N.Y. The tasting room is open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit shinnestatevineyards.com or call 631.804.0367.

The Jedediah Hawkins Inn is located at 400 South Jamesport Ave. in Jamesport, N.Y. To book a room or make a reservation at Luce & Hawkins, the inn’s trendy restaurant, call 631.722.2900 or visit jedediahhawkinsinn.com.    

 

I've visited the North Fork for more than 30 years. When I was a child growing up in nearby Wading River, one of my family's favorite destinations was a retro waterfront motel in South Jamesport, a small community of summer cottages with a tiny post office. To my young eyes, the potato farms, lobster and clam shacks, and small towns nearby all seemed kind of, well, boring. I yawned at the white-steepled churches and the 17th-century cemeteries we passed. To see a crumbling barn or sagging Colonial was the norm, and the only fun that could be had was reading aloud the names of the families listed on plaques on the area's oldest houses and imagining what their lives were like. I preferred the South Fork, where we breezed through the Hamptons, passing stately mansions with perfectly cropped hedges and the galleries and hip restaurants of East Hampton.

Years later, when I visited the North Fork in my 20s, it looked mostly the same—open farmland, charming main streets, produce stands offering locally grown food. But instead of potato farms, I saw grapevines, and instead of empty shop fronts, I saw enticing teahouses and cheese shops. It seemed that every time a farm sold, another vineyard was planted.

In fact, that's exactly what was happening. In 1973, Louisa Hargrave and her husband planted the first wine grapes on the North Fork, proving that the fruit could thrive in the sandy soil and coastal climate. By the time they sold the vineyard, now called Castello di Borghese, for about $4 million in 1999, the North Fork's wine industry was thriving. Today, the region boasts 36 wineries open to the public and 3,000 acres of vineyards.  

The boom attracted David Page and Barbara Shinn, long-time restaurant owners in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. They first visited the North Fork in 1990. "Every farm was seemingly for sale," says Page. "The pressure from developers was increasing. It was a little sad, but at the same time there were young, hardworking people pursuing vineyards as an alternative to traditional row cropping. It seemed like an opportunity. It was a way to preserve the traditional lifestyle."

The Manhattanites fell for a one-time corn and rye farm off Oregon Road in Mattituck, which they purchased from one of the oldest farming families on the North Fork. Page and Shinn dreamed of making wine and planted their first grapes in 2000. Though told it wasn't possible, they wanted to grow grapes organically and succeeded, later converting an 1880s barn into a tasting room for their Shinn Estate Vineyards. They kept the barn's original footprint, replacing old timbers where necessary and using traditional post-and-beam construction. And they transformed the farmhouse, also dating to the 1880s, into a modern bed-and-breakfast with earth-colored walls, flat-screen TVs, and four-poster beds. 

Now, the Shinn Estate Vineyards is the only organic winery on the North Fork, the operation powered by a 140-foot wind turbine. And Page and Shinn anticipated the threat future development might pose to their vineyard. "As soon as we purchased the farm, we made sure that we sold the development rights to the town of Southold to ensure that the land could never be used for housing, even if we sold it," Page says.

The proliferating vineyards on the North Fork have brought an influx of tourists and inspired the rise of a local food movement: Farmers and fishermen supply area stores and restaurants with heirloom tomatoes, goat cheese, and oysters. "The same thing happened in Sonoma County," Page says. "Thirty years ago, there were a few wineries and very little food being produced. But that changed with the advent of the wine industry."

What's also changed: the people. Although farmers and old-timers still make up most of the population, transplants are moving into the Victorians, bungalows, and farmhouses here. Many are from Manhattan—abandoning the city for a place where preserving open space matters as much as preserving historic buildings and character.

When my husband and I visited the North Fork, we stayed at the Greenporter Hotel in Greenport, about eight miles from Orient Point, the tip of Long Island. A 1950s motor lodge that once rented rooms by the hour, the hotel underwent a $5 million renovation and reopened in 2001 as a midcentury-styled boutique motel decidedly different from the area's ubiquitous clapboard and shingle buildings.

In the hotel's restaurant, we talked about how Greenport, a one-time whaling community, had suffered through years of decline. Now, the town center is a prime example of revitalization—a shiny, bustling tourist destination with a seaside carousel, people biking along Main Street, and dozens of restaurants and shops, including a cupcake store called Butta'Cakes (this is still New York, after all).

From Greenport, it's a short drive to the start of the North Fork Wine Trail in Jamesport. Finding the vineyards is easy—just follow the green signs along routes 25 and 48. Many wineries feature live entertainment on the weekends to entice passersby. When we visited Jamesport Vineyards, a band was playing, and we ordered a flight of white wines and listened to the music from a grassy area behind the winery.

The vineyards are located every mile or so along the trail. We pressed on, stopping at the ones that we found enticing: Bedell Cellars, housed in a modernized 1919 potato barn with sleek furnishings and a crowded tasting room, and Lenz Winery in Peconic, where Adirondack chairs fill the winery's shaded courtyard.

Later, we visited a spectacularly restored house as well as a nearby reconstruction. The grand, Italianate Jedediah Hawkins Inn and restaurant, built in 1863 by Capt. Jedediah Hawkins of the Union Army, was rumored to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Abandoned for much of the 20th century, it was considered haunted and fell into such disrepair that it was slated for demolition in 2004. That's when a local contractor, who grew up riding his bike past the dilapidated three-story house, restored it. Nearly all the original doors and windows as well as much of the wood flooring, stair rails, and wall trim were preserved, and the house is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Just down the road, the old Jamesport Manor Inn dates to the 18th century, though it was gutted and remodeled in the mid-19th century. That building had also fallen into disrepair when two couples purchased it in 2004, with dreams of opening a restaurant. They had nearly finished the restoration project when the structure burned to the ground. Instead of giving up, they rebuilt the house per the 1850s design, replicating the original framing and intricate woodwork. Although the interior couldn't be an exact match, since new construction had to meet modern codes, the exterior is a near replica of the original home. Even the slate mansard roof was custom designed to mimic the original fish-scale slate.

After so much sightseeing, we decided on a more relaxing schedule for our last day. Our plan: catch the ferry from Greenport to Shelter Island, just an eight-minute ride, and go biking. The island, about 12 square miles, has always had an independent spirit. Case in point: In 1775, nearly every resident signed the island's own declaration of independence, a copy of which now hangs in the historical society.

Today, Shelter Island features a perfectly preserved historic district with Queen Anne and Colonial Revival houses set in a picturesque landscape. We biked past gingerbread houses and stopped at Reddings Market, an old-fashioned general store offering made-to-order sandwiches and local preserves, fruits, and veggies. Then we continued past the Ram's Head Inn, a large, cedar-shingled center-hall Colonial Revival built in 1929, stopping to gaze at the water and towering osprey nests.

At a secluded beach just beyond the inn, we talked about why we love it so much out here. There are no large-scale developments—and there's only one McDonald's—in this timeless place where the past lives on. Indeed, it's not hard to imagine what life was like a half-century ago, when potato farmers, not vineyards, dominated the North Fork.

When I was a kid, I didn't see any beauty in the crumbling barns and the overgrown cemeteries. Today, I've come to appreciate the North Fork's stories and history, whether I'm admiring the architecture of an old church or sipping a glass of Merlot in a converted barn. And everyone here—the farmers and winemakers especially—will tell you: Things had to change just so that they could stay the same.            

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