East End, My First Taste
My first Long Island wine tasting took place over fifty years ago when I was only thirteen, back when the East End was known for growing potatoes, vegetables, and peaches, and well before the cultivation of vines and wine making were on anybody’s radar screen. The event took place in the front porch of my Uncle Tony’s bungalow on Park Road in the Riverhead beach community of Reeves Park. It was the first time I came to that idyllic place of small summer cottages set on a hilly wooded tract between Sound Avenue and the Long Island north shore. We had come, my mom and dad and my brother and I, with my uncle, his wife, and his eleven year old son Bobby in Tony’s enormous white Plymouth to see the place we had heard of for so many years. It was April, 1964, a mere five months after my family arrived in the United States as refugees from Yugoslavia, having landed at Idelwild Airport only two days before President Kennedy, for whom that air terminal was later renamed, was assassinated.
The car ride out from Astoria had been a moving display of wondrous scenery as we rolled eastward on that beautiful spring morning, first on the Grand Central Parkway, then on the Northern State, and finally past the farm stands, potato fields, and orchards, and through the quaint little villages along Route 25A and Sound Avenue. As we turned left onto Park Road, Uncle Tony said “this is the place” and slowed the big car to a walking pace so that we could get a long look at the trim little cabins set back on their lots among the towering pines. Going slowly past each we oohed and aahd at the postcard pictures they presented. About half way down to the beach, Tony pulled over next to a small white house with an enclosed front porch and opined that it was the prettiest. Not one to miss the hint, my dad quickly responded in Croatian dialect “yes because it’s yours”. Tony chuckled at his baby brother’s perceptive wit and continued down to the parking lot for a view of the beach. With its clean pebble specked sand extending infinitely in each direction and bounded by the high bluffs to the south and the shimmering blue water of the Sound to the north, this was my first sight of the eastern North Shore. Ever since, that view has filled me with wonder and given release from the cares of “real l!ife”.
After lingering for a bit we returned to the house, Tony driving on ahead to open up and the rest of us walking up Park Road to No. 31. We entered through the porch and after a quick tour of the rooms – there were only three besides the porch and powder room so it was a quick tour indeed – we sat down to sample the several varieties of the wine that Tony and his brother, Uncle Dominick had made the previous autumn in the basement of the bungalow, the basement that they had themselves excavated after the house, originally founded on posts, had been built. They referred to it as the wine cellar, indicating the purpose to which was dedicated the task of installing temporary supports, hand digging and moving the soil, and constructing foundation walls. At thirteen, my knowledge of wine was understandably limited, although less so than that of the average American kid since I had been drinking home made wine back in the Old Country, with parental supervision and only with meals of course, since the age of five. Nevertheless, I appreciated what I might now refer to as the robust qualities of the several whites and reds presented for tasting, or more appropriately, for testing to determine if the young wines were aging properly. We all participated in this holy ritual, including my little brother not yet seven, and all declared the new vintage a success across the board. The fact that some of the offerings still had not fermented completely and so retained traces of sweetness and carbonation no doubt swayed the opinions of the young judges among us.
The test sampling of the new wines having concluded, a lunch of fresh bread and cold cuts brought from Queens was laid out and a couple of bottles of red made years before were retrieved from the cellar to wash the sandwiches down with. To allow them to breathe before drinking these were poured into what passed for a flask – a ceramic vessel of about half a gallon fashioned in the shape of a rooster with a small lid on its back and a spout hole at its beak. My dad wondered how many liters of wine had flowed out of that rooster over the years to which Tony said that he could only speculate but that it must have been thousands since he and Dominick had been making about four hundred gallons of wine every fall for years and much if not most of it had been dispensed through that rooster. He added that wine making in autumn was as much a source of satisfaction as were the attractions of summer. This, he said waxing philosophic, is what the joy of life is all about. A nice little home in a beautiful place by the sea to share and enjoy with family and friends; to drink home made wine out on the porch while shooting the breeze, telling fish stories and playing pinochle and smoking cigars all night; to rise early without really having slept yet bracing with zest for a try at blues, or flounder, or porgies, or just a boat ride along the shore. My dad nodded in emphatic agreement and we all sat there happy and sated, savoring the delicious “mature” wine and thinking of the memories of this place that we had yet to create and some distant day relive in the telling of them.
In the years since that magical April day, my life has seen many turns as any life lived fully does. Yet in all the ups and downs the one place of comfort and ease, the one haven from tribulation and upset that has remained constant is Reeves Park. Years later, in 1976, my parents bought a place of their own on a quiet street near the water that is the eastern boundary of the Park. They fixed it up for year round living, and moved in after my dad retired in 1981 to live out the rest of their lives in peace and harmony near family and among friends, some of whom were immigrants themselves from the same town in Yugoslavia and whom my parents had known since childhood. After they passed, my brother and I decided without deliberation to keep the place even though our lives had taken us to Chicago and Philadelphia respectively and even though we had our financial concerns. Sitting here typing this on the front stoop of our miniature villa, I can unreservedly say that I never regretted that decision and that at this moment I feel more love for this place and more gratitude for the wisdom of my uncle and my parents to have discovered it and bestowed it upon us than I have ever felt before.
Some years back I was inspired to write a paragraph describing all there is to enjoy here in the East End. It went as follows:
Get up early, have your coffee and croissants on the front landing and hear only the rustle of leaves and the singing of birds in the woods across the road as you ponder your day ahead. So many choices beckon, so many pleasures await:
Take your bike out and cruise a quiet country lane; shoot a round of golf; take the dog down by the water for a run; dive in for a refreshing dip; feast on fresh strawberries and produce you picked only yesterday; take the kids horseback riding or on a winemaking tour; run down to Southampton for the art fair or over to Tangier for the bargains; put the row boat in right off the beach and go for porgies or blues, or drop your Donzi in at Mattituck and tear up the Sound on your water skis; sail the freshening afternoon breeze; swim, snorkel or sit under a beach umbrella with a good book and a Beefeater tonic; bask in the golden glow of the setting sun; eat with the appetite and zest of youth; take in a movie or a show; go for a moonlight walk by the shore or prowl the bars and clubs and dance till daylight; sleep the sleep of contented children; restore yourself.
That I believe says it all, and I hope to pass on the legacy of it all, the enjoyment and fun of it, that started for me on that day of wine tasting long ago.