Are we in need of a new wine group?: Uncork the Forks

vineyard grapes

Look at almost any region’s wine industry in America — and in the world, really — and you’ll find some sort of trade organization formed to support it. In the Napa Valley, it’s the Napa Valley Vintners. Next door in Sonoma you’ll find the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance. In the Champagne region of France, you have organizations like the Comité Champagne. Closer to home, the Finger Lakes region has organizations like the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance and Finger Lakes Wine Country. You get the idea.

Here, the primary trade organization is the Long Island Wine Council. The LIWC website describes the group as an “organization dedicated to protecting, promoting and advocating on behalf of its members. Our vision is to unite our community in an effort to establish the Long Island as a world-class destination for premium wine.”

Executive director Ali Tuthill left earlier this month. A new executive director hasn’t been named yet and, with harvest fast approaching in the region and current council president Roman Roth’s tenure coming to an end at the end of 2017, one has to wonder if they’ll hire a new executive director before 2018.

I’m not a winemaker or a winery owner, but as someone who has observed the industry and seen the results of some of the wine council’s programs over the years, it’s apparent to me that this is a crucial moment in the organization’s history.

There have long been different opinions on what Long Island wine country should be and nearly as many different business models for wineries to employ. That in and of itself makes the creation and success of a group like the LIWC difficult. Add in the fact that some of the people who own these wineries made and still make their money (and a lot of it) in other industries and things get even more complex.

Some owners are active in the day-to-day operations of their wineries. Regardless, they’ve all been successful in business — and no doubt feel confident that they know what is best not only for their wineries but for the industry as a whole. That’s a lot of — no doubt often differing — opinions to sort through into a cohesive plan. And let’s not forget that several wineries are for sale, officially and not so officially. That changes the goals even more for those members.

The executive director’s job for the LIWC is a challenging one, to say the least.

So what is next for the LIWC? I think the members need to figure out what they want to be from here on out. Do they want to be a catch-all organization that tries to deal with local, state and federal government while also promoting tourism as well as Long Island wines locally, in New York City and beyond? Can an organization do all of that for all of its diverse membership? I’m not so sure.

Does the LIWC need to have tourism as part of its mission? With groups like the East End Tourism Alliance, North Fork Promotion Council, various chambers of commerce and Discover Long Island already in place, maybe not.

Instead, maybe the Long Island Wine Council should focus solely on public policy and governmental issues. Many wineries are already working with Wine American and the New York Wine & Grape Foundation to deal with federal and state government issues, respectively. But with the way local government is scrutinizing the wine industry, a group to represent local wineries locally is an obvious and immediate need. It’s also something that every winery should care about. It could be a common interest that unites membership.

If that were to happen, I could see the need for a second organization whose goal would be to promote the wine of Long Island. Read that carefully: It’s the wine that should be promoted, not tourism, jazz festivals or free party bus tours. It has to be about the wine.

Many wineries would not be interested in such an organization, but a separate trade group that concentrates on quality wines, quality winemaking and quality tasting room experiences could be a boon for its membership. It would generate press attention; help members of the media and trade avoid those producers who don’t put the wine first; and potentially change the minds of many locals who lament the direction the industry seems to be moving in.

I’ve long written not-so-nice things about wineries who treat their tasting rooms like wine festivals every weekend, but I know that it is a legitimate business model. If that’s how certain owners want their wineries to run, that is their right.

But perhaps through the creation of another organization, one designed specifically to help those wineries that don’t want that for their wineries or their region, Long Island wineries won’t all be lumped together anymore in the minds of locals, consumers, the media and the trade.

My suggestion for a name for this new organization that only exists in my head? “Wine First Long Island.” I think that name says it all.

2 Comment

  • Len, you raise some fair points and your comment regarding wine being the focus is of most value and I would agree that any successful winery, whether on the North Fork or not, would agree that at the end of the day it is all about the wine. Something however that I believe you are off base on is that quality wine and a first class tasting room are things that can only exist in an operation that does not also embrace the other things that enhance a guests experience.

    To understand this you need to look no further than the organizations from around the globe that support the wine regions they represent that you mentioned in your article. Here, these established regions have legacy operations that put the wine first but the guest experience a close second (the best ones make it 1B). They recognize that while many guests are often first exposed to their wine through a tasting room experience this sampling of 4 or 5 wines in only a mere introduction to what their winery is all about. There are operators who understand that the world of wine becomes much more interesting and exciting when a culinary element is introduced. This can come in the form of a carefully selected bite of cheese all the way to a fully immersive chef prepared meal. They understand that on visit number 1 a guest might do a 30 minute tasting room experience but on the second, and hopefully subsequent visits, that same guest may return simply to enjoy a glass on a quiet patio overlooking the vines. They understand that many of their guests may share a common interest, whether it be the jazz music they enjoy or the type of festival they prefer to attend, and they offer their guests those experiences on their own properties. I think they also understand that while many people may be focused on the nuances that are in the glass and the processes that went on in the field, lab and cellar there are many guests who are intimidated by tasting notes and the French terms used to describe the wine…the successful operators can mold their experience to not meet but exceed both of those guests expectations.

    One thing I trust the intention of your article was not to do was to suggest that because a winery may welcome bottle sales on a back lawn or host a jazz concert was to suggest that these same wineries don’t also have a sharp focus on producing quality, first class wines because that simply isn’t the case. It is the successful operators, many of them who are in our own region, that understand great wine is the start but experiences in the tasting room and beyond is what it takes to be successful. Each of the 40+ wineries in our region offer their own experience and there are as many opinions out there as to who does it best as there are people that visit them each year.

    I just re-read your article as I was preparing to wrap up this exchange and something struck me…your overall adverse opinion on the region is unfortunate. Certainly I recognize that each week you highlight a wine you enjoyed or talk about a tasting room worker who talked you and your group through a flight with confidence and ease but while trade groups and each own operation has the onus to promote its winery as it sees fit I would also comment that people like yourself who critique, enjoy, endorse, disparage and celebrate these operations also have the responsibility to do it from a filter beyond your own preference and the realization all guests likely have a different expectation than yourself.

    There are 3,000+ acres planted vineyards on the North Fork, hundreds of people toiling year round to bring a grape to harvest, many winemakers and cellar workers working hard to get out of the way and highlight what the harvest brought them and countless people working in the tasting rooms trying to deliver a great guest experience…the good ones delivering the experience that THEIR guest expects.

    As we near harvest let’s not only celebrate the first class, quality wine but let’s celebrate the winemakers, vineyard owners, tasting room workers, field men/women, delivery drivers, wholesale account managers and maybe most important the guests who visit them all and the way that each experience the wineries they patronize their own way.

  • I can’t help myself…it must be all the natural disasters in our world.
    Let’s review.
    Ali T was hired & eventually replaced Steve B as the Executive of the LI Wine Council. Both were hired to contribute to the Wine Council’s members-which include most importantly our wineries, as well as restaurant, lodging & services that make this region a success. As local business owners for nearly 14 years-we have observed much. We support all our winery professionals that create amazing wines-small production-that put so much TLC into each bottle. We have never supported the party places. Ever.
    Ali’s goal (I just reread her note to the wine council members to refresh the brain) was to ‘rebrand’ the region. We were going to grow up & be ‘all about the wine & wine education’. We were so supportive. As a business owner, we want quality wines of course, with a bit of food offerings, & some music as a back drop can really make a beautiful day for visitors & locals alike. No parties necessary. No limos necessary (that’s up to a winery owner), no party wagon going down the road-all good. It’s all about the wine. Where the current wine council leadership failed quite simply, is that you can’t ‘rebrand’ a region. The area is made up of individual wineries that have their individual business approaches & goals. The ridiculous ideas that were presented about uniform pour size, et al were just that. Ridiculous. The most powerful website on the NoFo WAS liwines.com. No longer. The new website is a failure & we have lost so many site visitors-people that were interested in understanding the region, wines, and wine education opportunities. Any local business can easily provide this data to the new team. The site, the mission to ‘rebrand’ failed.
    The decrease in the income line for the wine council must be crushing. Check the site, which again was ‘the’ most popular site for wine visitors:
    -many local restaurants just stopped paying the annual fee to be part of the site. But there still is a NYC restaurant listed?!?
    -75% of us in the lodging business stopped paying the annual fee
    -many of our favorite wineries (small producers-non party zone) have quit the council or not joined.

    It doesn’t matter what you call the organization, or how it’s reorganized…we simply need to listen to our regions winery leadership (I have a long list in mind that are all about the wine) vs having ridiculous concepts thrown at us with carefully
    created presentations.
    We don’t need promotion for visitors from April to Thanksgiving. Period.

    Here are some goals that should work for all:
    -hire/staff talent that understands the region
    -promote the most important asset, the delicious wines of the region
    -talk about & share wine education
    -don’t promote limo companies, they will come for responsible visitors so no web page/support needed
    -create a website that shares that message
    -encourage the North Fork Promotion Council-who is doing a great job with new leadership & energy to work with the Wine Council
    -work on programs like Winterfest that brought hundreds of visitors to our region in February & March until a few years ago.
    -create plans as a regional group to drive business in Dec/January/February & March when every local business needs revenue.