Suellen Tunney’s instincts about her destiny were confirmed by a glass of rosé.
In 2007, the New Jersey native, then working as a restaurant manager, took a trip to Napa Valley that prompted an aha! moment.
During a stop on a wine tour, Tunney, now tasting room director at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, asked someone in the industry, “How in the world did you get this amazing job?”
“And she said, ‘Well you know, I was in the restaurant business and I got burned out,’ ” recalled the 38-year-old, who lives in Remsenburg with her husband, Kevin, and their daughters, Beatrice and Delilah.
Back on the East Coast, Tunney applied to positions at 10 different wineries immediately after hearing an NPR segment about the growing popularity of Long Island vineyards. But three months — long enough for her to conclude that perhaps her prospective new career wasn’t meant to be — passed before she heard from Wölffer.
“Out of the blue, I got a call that they’d like to meet with me,” she said. “It was one of those amazing October days and I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was out here. From the moment I pulled in the driveway, I just had this funny feeling.”
Tunney’s notion was strengthened later that day when she stopped in Manhattan for drinks with her husband.
“The restaurant we were at was serving Wölffer Estate rosé,” she said. “And I thought, ‘That’s a sign.’ ”
Since that fateful day, Tunney, who was hired by the winery in early 2008, hasn’t looked back.
“It was a great match,” she said. “The vineyard has grown so much in the nine years I’ve been here. It’s just remarkable.”
Q: So, what’s new at Wölffer?
A: We just released a pink gin, which we’re distilling here from our own juniper berries that we grow in the vineyard. It’s another passion of [winemaker Roman Roth’s]. It’s a pure juniper gin, so it’s very herbaceous. And there might be a brandy down the line.
Q: Do you have a favorite varietal?
A: I love our cabernet francs. I think we did an excellent job with them. It’s a really unique varietal. We can have wet weather, we can have humidity, and it’s resilient. It has a sort of smoky, spicy, herbaceous quality — and it’s such a food-friendly wine. And our chardonnays and merlots are kind of world-class here at Wölffer. That’s what we pride ourselves most on.
Q: What advice would you offer prospective tasting room guests?
A: Try everything. Come for a tour, enjoy the cheeses, ask your server a lot of questions. We really want you to have the full experience here. And we want to offer you as much as we can offer you. We want you to join our wine club; we want you to bring wine home and enjoy it with your families.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your position as tasting room director?
A: I’m always learning. Every day, when I’m down in the cellar, if I don’t know what they’re doing I ask. I have such a passion for winemaking and wine. Also, what I enjoy most is learning myself but educating others. During the winter season, I do weekly wine training with my staff. We don’t just focus on Wölffer; we do the whole world of wine.
Q: You’re invited to a dinner party. What type of wine do you bring?
A: Everybody loves the [Wölffer] rosé, but I always encourage people to bring something that is also a little unexpected. We have the most amazing dessert wines, so that’s a nice thing you wouldn’t normally have on an everyday basis. And we have amazing sparkling wines, too.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
A: Honestly, all the guests. We’re such a strong attraction that I think being able to accommodate everyone who wants to come here is the biggest challenge. We’re renovating the main tasting room this winter to hopefully make the experience even more efficient and comfortable for people.
Q: Since joining the Wölffer team, what have you done to further educate yourself about wine?
A: I was certified by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust [as a sommelier] before I came here, but I joined a tasting group with Roman that meets monthly. I learned a tremendous amount that way. And just tasting at and visiting every single winery — I’ve visited all the wineries on Long Island and have even joined other local wine clubs.
Q: Which East End restaurant do you consider to have the best wine list?
A: I can’t really answer that unless I say Wölffer Kitchen [in Sag Harbor]! It has a great local list. We showcase a lot of wines from wineries on the North Fork; we rotate them quite regularly. We also have our own wines on tap.
Q: Speaking of the North Fork, what is your favorite winery in that area?
A: Paumanok Vineyards [in Aquebogue] is my favorite, I would say. I’m very fond of [winemaker] Kareem Massoud and his whole family and I love what they’re doing there.
Q: Wölffer gets its fair share of celebrity guests. Who has been particularly memorable?
A: We’ve had the Clintons here a few times. Chelsea was in our wine club! They’re big supporters. And Hillary, boy, did she grill me. She really grilled me about the soil, the climate, the varietals. That was really fun. And Bill just walked around and wanted to have his picture taken with everybody, which was so cute.