You could argue the region’s best wines — both from a fan perspective and that of a wine critic — are grown by Richie Pisacano.
It’s in part because Pisacano, vineyard manger at Wölffer Estate Vineyard and co-owner of Roanoke Vineyards in Riverhead, has the benefit of 40 years’ experience in an industry that is just four years older than that.
The longtime vineyard manager took a job with Mudd Vineyards in 1977, at age 15, working to install some of the North Fork’s first vineyards. Now 55, he’s probably the youngest person among the first wave of Long Island wine growers still working in the business.
He recalled the energy and enthusiasm in the region after the Hargraves planted the first commercial grapes in Cutchogue in 1973.
“We started grafting grapevines and that’s what drew me in,” he said during an early June interview. “It was magnetic.”
He went on to work for more than a decade at an oil tank farm, but — thankful for the Long Island wine industry — found his way back to life as a grape grower.
Pisacano first met Wölffer Estate Vineyard winemaker and partner Roman Roth in 1996, when the latter purchased grapes from a Jamesport vineyard Pisacano owned and maintained.
“Roman was the first winemaker to step foot in my vineyard and he just bounced off the vines with excitement,” Pisacano recalled. “The understanding we had together, it was infectious, it was contagious.”
It’s hard to argue against the synergy between these two.
A handful of Wölffer wines have been awarded scores of 94 out of 100 by Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate — the highest scores ever awarded to a Long Island wine. More than 30,000 cases of rosé fly off the shelves every summer and celebrities like Justin Bieber, Christie Brinkley, even Hillary and Bill Clinton, have been spotted in the tasting room.
And although Roth is the face of the well-known vineyard, he admits it all starts in the field, which is Pisacano’s domain. The winemaker noted a cohesion that shines through in the grapes his vineyard manager grows.
“I always say consistency is key to success and I saw his no-nonsense approach. He was totally focused on what he was doing,” said Roth, who is also Long Island Wine Council president. “He also had a key interest in improving, learning and making things better. Listening to his vines, listening to me. He certainly has a keen sense of mind to improve what he does.”
But as Pisacano tells it, their start was humble. He remembers touring the Sagaponack vineyard two decades ago as the winery was being built. The impressiveness of the building was belied by the condition of the vines. He knew they needed some help.
Roth and the vineyard’s late founder, Christian Wölffer, offered him a position as vineyard manager. He took it.
“I thought, my God, they’re building this magnificent winery — I need to fix this,” Pisacano recalled. “We need to have this vineyard meet the level at which this winery is being built. We put together a remedial plan and the vineyard responded very well. The chardonnay came in with a level of ripeness that I’ve never seen over here [on the North Fork]. And I thought, ‘OK I’m going to stay another year.’ ”
That extra year turned into 20.
You can still find Pisacano in the Wölffer vineyard, a position he retains along with that of owner of Roanoke, another producer widely considered part of Long Island’s top echelon.
“It was very exciting. It went from making wine in a barn to having the whole world descend on us,” Pisacano said of the early days at Wölffer.
In 2000, Pisacano purchased 10 acres of the former Young’s Family Farm on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. He planted seven acres of vines and opened a tasting room four years later.
“My passion became red wine,” he said. “I thought moving west [on Long Island] would give us a ripening advantage. [The maritime climate] affords us the safety from what could be a devastating frost.”
Today Roanoke, which produces about 4,400 cases a year, is known mostly for its stellar red wines. Those reds — cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petite verdot — and a few whites are made by Roth at Wölffer, while three more whites are made by Palmer Vineyards winemaker Miguel Martin.
The philosophy of good wine coming from a well-tended, maybe even pampered, vineyard, has remained.
“The idea was we were going to grow a really high-end grape to try to sell to people that really loved this kind of wine,” recalled Pisacano’s wife and Roanoke co-owner, Soraya.
It quickly found that audience.
“They really love us,” she said of Roanoke’s customers. “They feel like when they come here, it’s like a family.”
Being a red wine house allows Pisacano to put his thumb print as vineyard whisperer into his product.
“With reds, you include the seeds and skins and the level of maturity in those seeds and skins is directly related to every decision that’s made in the vineyard,” he explained. “You really put your signature on a red.”
In 2006, Pisacano’s late father, Gabby, decided to make a wine by keeping grape yields low but increasing the quality of those clusters. That wine is made from grapes grown in “Gabby’s Rows,” the 12 easternmost rows right behind the Riverhead tasting room, located just off the patio. He employed an intensive, hands-on approach, carefully pruning the canopies so the vines received optimal sunlight. The berries that were deemed imperfect were dropped.
The result is Gabby’s Cab Franc, a fan favorite that often sells out before its release date.
After Gabby’s death in late 2015, Pisacano’s nephew Christopher and wine club member George Fernandez took over management of Gabby’s rows and the wine lives on. It’s a labor intensive process that involves cutting away lesser fruit that can steal energy from better berries.
“We still implement his protocol,” Pisacano said. “It’s a whole other level of intensity and dedication to the vineyard.”
Fernandez, an illustrator and instructor at SUNY/Farmingdale who lives in Ridge, estimates he’ll spend two full days per week in those vines this summer. And he won’t receive a cent for the work.
“It was a nice thing I felt I could do for the family because they’ve been so good to so many of us over the years,” he said. “A lot of vineyards don’t have the opportunity to have a Gabby. I realized that [his death] would have a dramatic impact on what I’ve come to love about the vineyard.”
As the tourism waves continued to crash down on Long Island and tasting room crowds grew bigger, Pisacano knew there was only one thing to do to keep his business on track.
Close its doors.
On January 1, 2016, Roanoke’s Sound Avenue facility became a members-only location.
“The whole shift was so I could liberate myself and spend all of the focus on the wine,” Pisacano explained. “The moment we decided to go private it just enabled me to focus entirely on the vineyard.”
“We were always interested in making the best possible wine we could,” he added. “Roanoke has no obligations to distributors or restaurants.”
The move may seem counterintuitive, but it eliminated the need for crowd control and other burdens of serving the public. This shift hasn’t trended at Long Island wineries yet, but as Roanoke’s creative director Scott Sandell says, the winery’s MO was never dictated by convention.
“We’ve never really fit in with anybody else, were sort of outside the loop,” Sandell said.
It has also been good for business. Wine club membership has swelled from about 1,000 two years ago to the cap of 1,500 people — “The wine lovers just came out of the woodwork,” Pisacano said. Event programming there has become more wine-centric and Roanoke maintains a public retail outlet and tasting room on Love Lane in Mattituck.
Soraya Pisacano noted that the winery has four future barrel tastings set for winter 2018. Each date, even one scheduled for Super Bowl Sunday, is already sold out.
“At these future events, they buy cases and cases,” she said. “They buy the wine because they know it’s going to be sold out so quick.”
It seems that the Pisacanos have achieved a trifecta of a loyal following, critical acclaim and the freedom to make wines their way.
So, where does one go from there?
The next goal is to make what Pisacano called a perfect wine — although he admits he cannot yet define what that means.
“We’ll know it when we taste it,” he said.
This story was originally published in the summer 2017 edition of the Long Island Wine Press