Behind the wine, vineyard managers work the fields to shape the vintages

Sam McCullough at Lenz Winery in Peconic.(Credit: David Benthal)

Before the wine is uncorked at special tasting dinners and winemakers stand up to explain the complex notes comprising the vintage, tireless hours are spent in the fields to cultivate the pour in the glass. 

The ripeness and health of the grapes delivered to the crush pad each fall are the responsibility of the less heralded — but equally crucial — influencer of the harvest: the vineyard manager. 

“There is a saying in our industry that wine is made in the vineyard. That refers to the notion that you can’t manufacture great wine, you have to grow it,” said Kareem Massoud, winemaker for Paumanok and Palmer vineyards. “It is absolutely critical and fundamental from a winemaking standpoint that you start off with healthy fruit because bad fruit can’t be fabricated into better wine. Therefore, a vineyard manager’s role is all important.”

The potential of any wine is determined on the day the grapes are harvested. Behind the scenes, vineyard managers have spent months — years, even — ensuring the health of the vines. It is a multifaceted day-to-day orchestration encompassing everything from overseeing field workers to inspecting the vines to pest control to repairing equipment — and dozens of other responsibilities that keep the agricultural side of the operation running smoothly. 

It all comes down to timing. If the grapes are picked before or after peak ripeness, the taste of the wine is already compromised. 

“Timing is so important with these tasks because if it is off you’ll pay dearly — you’ll wind up losing precious time,” said Richie Pisacano who is vineyard manager at Wölffer Estate Vineyard and his own winery, Roanoke Vineyards. “As a matter of fact, [one] Saturday, there were so many little weather events that took place that I started out with a plan — which is plan A, of course — and by the end of the day I was on plan E. What started off as a clear plan that involved many people changed five times.”

Vineyard managers are quick to react to ever changing outside influences. Weather, in large part, dictates much of their day-to-day activity. Many factors — wind, rain, temperature and humidity — come into play and all have the power to alter even the best-laid plans. 

“You are working with Mother Nature and there are no guarantees,” said Nabeel Massoud, vineyard manager at Paumanok and Palmer vineyards. “It keeps you very much on your toes. There is a quote: ‘We are in business with Mother Nature … Fortunately or unfortunately — depending on how it goes — she is the senior partner.’ ”

Richie Pisacano at Roanoke. Vineyards in Riverhead. (Credit: David Benthal)

The understanding of proper timing is learned in the field and — after time — becomes intuitive. Lenz vineyard manager Sam McCullough entered the grape-growing industry when the Long Island wine region first took root. A Mattituck High School graduate, he earned a degree in horticulture from Colorado State University and returned to the North Fork, where he began growing grapes at Mudd Vineyard in Southold. Then 22, he cut his teeth with one of the region’s pioneers, David Mudd, who founded his vineyard development and consulting firm around the time the first Long Island grapes were planted. 

“I always wanted to be a farmer,” said McCullough, who started at Lenz in 1989 and planted his own vineyard in 1991, selling wholesale grapes to local wineries including Lenz. “The first year I was with Mudd, we planted 150 acres of grapes. I learned a lot. There is still always something different to learn. You have to be resilient.” 

Pisacano also got his start at Mudd Vineyard in the late 1970s, when he was in high school. He learned how to graft grapevines and began working as vineyard manager at Wölffer Estate in the winter of 1996. In 2004, he opened the Roanoke tasting room in Riverhead, which is now reserved for wine club members only. 

“One of the few advantages of getting older is when intuition kicks in,” Pisacano said with a laugh. “It is one of the greatest tools in my toolbox. I can forecast problems before they are problems. I have learned to go with the intuitive part of my experience.”

Vineyard management and winemaking go hand-in-hand and there is a mutual trust between the vineyard manager and the winemaker that goes into each bottle of North Fork wine. 

“Having a great working relationship with your vineyard manager is a blessing for a winery,” said Wölffer Estate Vineyard’s Roman Roth, who is also the winemaker at Roanoke Vineyards. “Richie is a taskmaster. He will come charging in saying, ‘We are at a crossroad,’ meaning if we don’t [pick the grapes now] we won’t be able to make [a certain wine]. He is very honest. You have a wish list, but if you are not realistic and say, ‘We are at a crossroad we better change something or change the wine we are going to make,” that we would not be getting the best out of that block. The key is working every block to maximize what can be made. That is why we work so closely together.”

For the Massoud brothers, the dynamic was instilled since before their parents, Charles and Ursula, purchased the Paumanok Vineyards property 35 years ago when Kareem was 10 and Nabeel was just 2. The duo have been in their current roles for 15 years now. 

“My brother and I have a meeting of the minds in terms of how we do what we do,” Kareem said. “It is his responsibility to oversee everything that goes on in the vineyard. The winemakers get all the attention, but the vineyard managers are equally important because wine is made in the vineyard.”

The vineyard managers’ efforts are made slowly through days, which start at sunrise and end at sunset for most of the year. Bud break and harvest are the two most publicized times of the growing season, but for every bud broken, meticulous pruning has been done in the dead of winter, and for every grape that is picked, leaves have been selectively removed from the vines in the heat of summer. In many aspects, it is the fly-under-the-radar relationship with the grapes that drew these vineyard managers into the fields in the first place. 

“Just being outside is a wonderful thing,” McCullough said. “For every day that is too hot or too rainy, there is a day that is just great to be out there.”