The international story behind Paumanok wines

Paumanok Vineyards

Charles Massoud and his family were living in Kuwait when he first started thinking about making wine.

It was 1971, and alcohol could not be legally sold or consumed there at that time, but “there was more wine drinking in Kuwait than any other place I knew,” Massoud said.

The black market served up a bountiful supply of scotch, gin and vodka — guilty pleasures for Massoud’s IBM coworkers on assignment in Kuwait.

But wine was nearly impossible to find.

Massoud and his wife, Ursula, pining for a rich glass of Riesling, commiserated with wine-deprived friends at the dinner table.

“[Our friends] said, ‘If you want wine, you have to make your own,’ ” Massoud recalled.

More than four decades later, what began as a hobby has evolved into a full-scale commercial winemaking operation that is celebrating its 30th year in business on the North Fork.

After seeing the pleasant lifestyle enjoyed by Ursula’s family members — vintners in Pfalz, a well-known wine region in southwest Germany — the couple dreamed of planting a vineyard and selling wine for income when they retired.

One day in the late 1970s, while living with his wife and two small children in Stamford, Conn., Charles saw a New York Times article about the developing Long Island wine region.

“I said to my wife, ‘Take a look, we might not have to wait until we retire,’” he said.

So the Massouds set off to visit various wine regions and make offers on vineyards. They were turned down six times before landing on the 42 acres in Aquebogue now known as Paumanok Vineyard.

Today, Paumanok — the Native American name for Long Island and the namesake of a famous Walt Whitman poem — is run entirely by the Massoud family. Charles and Ursula oversee the operation and their three sons handle day-to-day business: Kareem Massoud is winemaker and marketing director; Salim Massoud manages logistics and administrative duties; and Nabeel Massoud works as vineyard manager.

Salim said he enjoys working with his family and ends up doing “a little bit of everything.” He said personal, family matters don’t spill into the workplace.

“We keep it professional,” he said.

Kareem said there’s an unwavering feeling of trust when your coworkers are your parents and siblings.

“It’s very rewarding to work with your family,” he said. “You can rely on your coworkers. There’s something special about it.”

How did all three sons come to join the business?

“It was against my better advice,” Charles said. “I wanted them to work in the corporate world. I didn’t want them to be crammed into something that didn’t provide a good living.”

But each son insisted on working at the vineyard, where they all came to find comfortable careers. Each grew into his own niche, contributing to wines well-known in the region and lauded on a national scale.

Paumanok Vineyard is one of the few — if not the only — East Coast winery that produces Chenin Blanc, a sister of sorts to the super-popular Sauvignon Blanc.

Tangy, aromatic and ripe, with hints of honeydew melon, Paumanok’s Chenin Blanc wine was called “one of the region’s most popular whites” in a 2010 New York Times article. Two years earlier, Times wine writer Howard Goldberg said, “Year in and year out, this is one of the best American Chenin Blancs around” and it “stands out as delicious on almost any scale you choose.”

Charles, who makes about 500 cases of the locally rare wine each year, can recite the latter quote verbatim.

“If I may say, I agree with [Goldberg],” Kareem said, adding that he especially favors his 2005, 2010 and 2012 Chenin Blancs.

“It clearly does well here,” he said. “We can’t keep it on the shelves.”

Another feat of Paumanok is its 2009 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc. Just ask President Barack Obama or rock singers Mick Jagger and B.B. King how that one tastes. The unlikely trio shared a bottle last year, just before Jagger and King performed at a concert together. The president must have enjoyed the wine, because it was served again a week later at the White House Governors Ball.

The full-bodied, fruit-forward wine offers flavors of fig jam, mango and kiwi.

“I overthought every aspect of making that wine,” Kareem said.

But overthinking wine isn’t rare for Kareem. He takes winemaking very seriously and has a deep connection to each Paumanok variety. When asked which is his favorite, he can’t choose.

“They’re all my babies,” he said.

Many of Kareem’s “babies” are being featured at events celebrating the vineyard’s 30th anniversary. A wine dinner toasting 30 years of Paumanok wine was held May 17 at North Fork Table & Inn in Southold. The winery will also host an oyster shucker, who will serve up local oysters every weekend until the vineyard’s ever-popular Harvest Festival, which will take place Sept. 28. For that event, chefs have been hired to prepare foods specially chosen to pair with Paumanok wines, paying homage to one of Long Island’s first vintners.

And the Massouds continue to be innovative pioneers. They were, for example, among the first on Long Island to serve wine from a keg. Kareem says packaging wine that way leads to a lower price and higher quality wine.

“Wine is fresher when it ages in larger quantities,” he explained.

The 20-liter stainless-steel wine kegs can be reused, unlike glass bottles and corks.

The kegs are, Kareem said, “an unequivocal gain in sustainability in wine packaging.”

Charles Massoud said the family has plans to expand the business. The Massouds own more than 100 acres, 88 of which are planted with grapevines. They fill more acres with vines each year, and will continue that growth in years to come, hoping to increase annual sales from 10,000 cases to 15,000 cases within three to five years.

They also dream of possibly opening a second tasting room, buying another vineyard or opening a bed and breakfast.

No matter which venture comes next, the Massouds will do it as a family, with the younger generation leading the way.

“We’re letting them drive the ship,” Massoud said of his sons, adding that he always appreciates their passion and talent. “We’re lucky to have them.”

 

Photo by Barbaraellen Koch: (from left to right) Kareem, Nabeel, Ursula, Charles and Salim Massoud hold bottles of Paumanok wine in their vineyard.