Deborah Brenner has been named executive director of the Long Island Merlot Alliance (LIMA), one of several announcements made by the organization this week. The others are the hiring of Robin Epperson-McCarthy as a research fellow, and the creation of the Merliance Wine Trail.
LIMA was created in 2005 to propagate information about the merlot and merlot-based blends produced on Long Island. The trade organization says part of its mission is "to promote the full potential of the Long Island appellation in producing superior quality, age-worthy, balanced, classic merlot and merlot based blends to consumers and media worldwide."
LIMA's seven participating wineries are Sherwood House Vineyards, Clovis Point, T'Jara Vineyards, McCall Wines, Lieb Cellars, Raphael, and Wolffer Estate Vineyard. They collaborate in creating Merliance, the only cooperative wine made on Long Island, as the tangible symbol of what brings them together. Each member winery commits to the blend between one to four barrels of finished merlot produced using sustainable viticulture practices and winemaking techniques. These lots are chosen when the members gather annually to taste and marry barrel samples of their wines to create a blend that demonstrates the strength of their terroir.
The creation of the Merliance Wine Trail will enable visitors to pick up a trail map at any of the member wineries, receive a stamp from each site visited, then receive a free bottle of Merliance after visiting all seven locations. Normally, it sells for $35 a bottle.
As the new executive director, Brenner will work with the members to promote the Long Island appellation, redefine LIMA's mission and vision, and promote the new wine trail, She also will oversee production of Merliance wine. The author of the book "Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women Who Make, Taste and Enjoy Wine" has for more than nine years run her wine consulting business from Rockland County. From 2007 to 2012, she founded and operated the first cooperative wine brand with six California women winemakers of Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles and was in charge of overseeing production and distribution to 23 states.
Epperson-McCarthy, as LIMA's first research fellow, will work in a wide variety of projects. This year, for example, she will host a series of group tastings featuring merlot and merlot based blend wines from Long Island, California, Bordeaux, and beyond to further qualify the characters that are unique to Long Island merlot. She is charged with building a historical record of the past 20 years for vineyard managers to better recognize trends influencing the growing conditions in the region. Epperson-McCarthy is a wine consultant and certified sommelier. Her most recent position is as senior sommelier and director of education at Roanoke Vineyards in Riverhead, Long Island.
The history of merlot in the U.S. begins with uncertainty. Because little was written about the grape in its early days in America, it is not known for sure where the first vines were planted here. According to a LIMA document, "It is possible that the plant material was originally brought into the country at the turn of the [20th] century by French-born vintners such as Georges de Latour. By the mid-1940s most of the merlot plant stock was thereafter reproduced at various nurseries in the United States for further planting. Local nurserymen reproduced vine cuttings taken in California while plants were also being selected for hardiness at a number of eastern nursery operations.
"The first 'official' planting of merlot vines in the United States was by the Louis Martini Winery in Napa Valley, CA, who originally planted the vines for blending with cabernet sauvignon. The first labeled release of this wine was in 1972 –- a multi-vintage blend from 1968 through 1970. Mr. Martini did not realize that within the decade there would be an explosion in the popularity of Merlot wine."
In 1990, the first merlot vines were planted in New York State -- in the Hamptons at Channing Daughters and soon thereafter at Wolffer Estate Vineyards.
Today, merlot acreage on Long Island is approximately 700 acres, making up 30% of the island's overall vineyard acreage and ranking as the most widely planted wine grape in the region.
Merlot, French for “little blackbird,” is thought to have originated in France's Bordeaux region, with the name found in literature for about two centuries.
"We can trace the origins of merlot varietal back to the 1st Century in France," says LIMA, "but merlot as the noble Bordeaux varietal standing on its own doesn’t appear in the literature until the 1800s. Merlot, malbec and a few others owe their existence to the ‘biturica’ variety from which it has evolved. Ancient writings from Pliny claim that the vitis biturica developed from a cross between an imported Roman variety and a vine growing in the wilds of Iberia – what is today Spain and Portugal. It is quite likely that our present day merlot, as well as cabernet, malbec and carmenere, evolved from vitis biturica. Other names for merlot around the world include medoc noir, merlau, petit merle, vitraille, crabutet noir and bigney."