Why You Should Be Barrel Tasting

charles Massoud barrel tasting

Step one in learning more about wine is — delightfully — to drink lots of it. That’s what sucks most of us into the game. But for the truly committed, many other paths of knowledge are there to meander along, wine glass in hand: books, classes, online courses, and youTube videos.

We on Long Island are further blessed with an actual wine region in the neighborhood where we can see vines and visit dozens of wineries to develop our palates. Even when it seems you have exhausted the possibilities, there is yet another way to get closer to the process, closer to the winemakers, and even be a bit of an investor in the future of your favorite plonk.

Even when it seems you have exhausted the possibilities, there is yet another way to get closer to the process, closer to the winemakers.

I’m talking about barrel tasting, one of my new favorite activities. It’s when you join the winemakers in the cellar for a little discourse on the winery, on the relative merits of past and current vintages and for a tasty little preview of what is to come, right out of the barrel where it is aging. And if you like what you taste, you may be able to purchase a case at a reduced price now and pick it up about six months later when it’s bottled.

“We do it because it is good for us,” says Charles Massoud, patriarch of the family owned and operated Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue. “Barrel tasting is an opportunity to present who we are. People who buy get a steep discount; it’s a good incentive for them because you won’t get these wines at this price when we bottle, so for the consumer it is a good deal. For us it is cash up front. It’s good for everyone.”

Charles Massoud conducting a barrel tasting at Paumanok Vineyards.

charles Massoud barrel tasting

At a recent tasting of the 2014 vintage, Massoud — in his cardigan sweater and with his laid-back, witty Mr. Rogers-for-grown-ups delivery — took us through all the wines from that year barrel by barrel, using a long syringe-type extractor called (I love this) a wine thief. He “stole” a couple of ounces at a time and poured into lovely big glasses, all the while explaining the grape, the blend, the location of the vines, the age of the vines, extraction, concentration, the criteria for creating a grand vintage versus the standard label and more.

It is a 45-minute foray that takes us deeper into the wine-making process. Depending on what you ask, you may learn how Charles and son Kareem sit down and create the blends. “After several hours of going back and forth, well, you get quite drunk. So we go back later and recreate what we found most satisfactory — it’s not scientific at all — based on our palate and our perception,” he says. You might learn there are 295 bottles per barrel; in the cellar you are surrounded by 200 barrels or about future 5,000 cases. You might learn the role of petit verdot in blends or which wines are vin de garde (wines to age) or any number of interesting things. You may learn why 2014 looks to be yet another spectacular year for Paumanok (already the current New York State Winery of the Year). And you might end up buying a case of wine that will be ready in May. Most of all you will have fun.

“We have been doing this since 1994,” says Charles. “It is a wonderful way to develop loyalty. Plus, I get to talk. And I love to talk.”

Paumanok conducts barrel tastings on the first and third weekends in November. The cost this year was $25 per person, refundable upon purchase of a case. It also includes a lovely selection of charcuterie and home-baked bread and olive oil from other wings of the Massoud family (more on that on another occasion). They can also arrange special barrel tastings for groups if you call ahead.

Barrel tastings are becoming more frequent at our North Fork wineries. Call your favorite to find out when they conduct theirs.