Over the Barrel: Wine Country During Pumpkin Season

I hope that you’ve been enjoying the slow, slightly subdued atmosphere of the East End. This post- Labor Day and pre-pumpkin interlude is one of my favorite times to visit local wineries. Smaller crowds make for a more relaxed tasting atmosphere and with grape harvest underway, there is a palpable energy in and around every winery. But know this – the pumpkin pickers are coming. And with the economy keeping the term “staycation” in our collective vocabulary, I expect this to be an even busier season for it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve become a pumpkin picker myself in recent years. I have a four-year-old. It comes with the territory. But that doesn’t mean I have to like the way that the throngs of people from Nassau County, Queens and even New York City choke the roads with traffic – making it a challenge to visit more than a couple wineries in a day. With the noise and traffic, I’m always left to wonder why local government comes down on wineries that want to hold festivals and events – but seemingly ignores the other farmers who do the same thing this time of year. That’s another topic for another column, though.

So how can you best enjoy our local wine world while dodging family-filled minivans and those same families with wagons filled with a dozen pumpkins (what do they do with all of them anyway?)? Here are some suggestions on how to make the most of your time in wine country.

Go During the Week. Though obviously not possible for everyone – myself included – but if you can make it happen, you’ll be rewarded. You’ll have the North and South Forks largely to yourself, and that means fewer cars and people, and more time with the people who are pouring the wines. Just make sure you check the tasting room hours before you arrive, as some wineries shorten them (or even eliminate them) on weekdays in the offseason.

Start Early. Most wineries open at 11 a.m. but some, like Lenz Winery open at 10 a.m. Start your day at Lenz with some of winemaker Eric Fry’s always-delicious bubbly, Gewurztraminer and Bordeaux-variety reds. You’ll get out ahead of the traffic and then you can move on to another winery when it’s just opening. Plan well, and you can be on your way home just as the masses arrive.

Know Your Wineries. The proliferation of what I call “winertainment” – wineries with bands, D.J.s, more-substantial food and even cover charges – there is a larger diversity of tasting room experiences than ever. Look online and talk to friends so you know what you’re getting yourself into. With limited time to visit several wineries (traffic, remember?) you’ll want to be more strategic and only visit the wineries that offer the tasting environment you’re most interested in.

Just Pick One. It’s not written anywhere that a trip to wine country means stopping at five or more wineries. Some of the best times to be had in wine country happen when you visit a single winery with friends and spend a few hours there. Bring a picnic lunch, or pick one up somewhere like Love Lane Market, The Village Cheese Shop or North Fork Table’s Lunch Truck, and revel in the North Fork at harvest time. If you stay late enough, you’ll dodge the crowds on the way back too.

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