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Long Island Wine Council Sal Diliberto

Sal Diliberto, the new president of the Long Island Wine Council, sat down with the Long Island Wine Press and northforker.com for an interview about his new role. 

In the fall issue of the Long Island Wine Press, then-Wine Council president Ron Goerler Jr. wrote that the time had come for the next generation to take over leadership of the board.

At 69 years old, Sal Diliberto, of the winery that shares his name on Manor Lane in Jamesport, never thought he’d be called “next generation.”

“Next generation?” Mr. Diliberto joked. “I told him, ‘Maybe I can use my high school yearbook photo with my Wine Press columns.’”

Kidding aside, the new president of the Long Island Wine Council is serious about the future of Long Island Wine Country. In his interview this week, he discussed sustainability, improving the quality of wine and balancing the needs of wine producers with the concerns of local residents and elected officials as top priorities for his term.

Born and raised in Queens, Mr. Diliberto first began making wine in the early 1980s, buying his grapes from the Brooklyn Terminal Market. He later began making his home wine with grapes purchased from Peconic Bay Winery.

He launched  his local operation when he purchased land on Manor Lane in Jamesport and planted grapevines in 1998. He and his wife, Maryann, spent weekends in a restored 19th century potato barn on the property until they moved here full-time in 2006. Mr. Diliberto turned a portion of the house into a winery, complete with stainless steel tanks, barrels and a small bottling operation.

The winery typically produces less than 1,000 cases per year.

“This year, because I’m now managing 8 1/2 acres, and it was such a great year, I’ve got about 1,500 cases in barrels right now,” he said.

Q: What is your primary goal for the Wine Council?

A: The basic goal of the Long Island wine industry, like any wine region, is to produce and sell the best wine you possibly can in your region. If you have that as an objective everything else flows from that. To do that you have to grow the best possible grapes.

Q: How are we doing on that front?

A: I think we’re doing real well. Everybody understands that we inherited this land. It was in good shape when we got it and we’d like to pass it on in good shape. Sustainability in agriculture, not just viticulture, is important to everybody out here.

Q: What are the challenges to sustainability?

A: The weather we have to deal with. We don’t have the absolute perfect climate. We are subject to a lot of problems — mildew, etc. — as well as challenges from pests. We have to look at how to address those issues in the best possible way for the land, and also for the wine.

Q: Did your predecessor offer you any advice for you in your new role as president of the Long Island Wine Council?

A: The Wine Council has evolved to where there’s enough people to share the responsibilities and some people are better at certain things than others. Some are better at working with the different people we have to work with in upstate New York. Some are better at working with the other (tourism) groups that we work with. We have a lot of good people, including Steve Bate, our executive director, working in areas where they excel, so it’s not up to one person to run the show.

Q: What’s your specialty?

A: What I’d like to bring to the organization is to be the guy who looks down the road at the many questions facing the industry. Where does the industry want to go and how does the industry get there? We have many different types of wineries … but where as a region do we want to be five, 10, 20 years down the road? We have a lot of people who have been here from the beginning, who are reaching a point where maybe they are facing retirement. Is there going to be a transition? Is there going to be continuity? These are tough questions and we don’t want to lose some of the players. It’s important to maintain the vineyards, too.

Q: And we’re at this crossroads at a time when people are coming here more than ever, aren’t we?

A: The numbers keep growing because more and more people are finding us. It’s amazing how many people still don’t even know there’s a wine region out here. People come in here and I can’t tell you how many people say, “This is my first time out here.”

They’re not just coming out here for the wine. If you live in Manhattan or Brooklyn, you can get a good bottle of wine by walking five minutes.

People are coming out here for something [some people who have always lived here] might not even see anymore; the beauty of the area, the big sky, the open fields.

Q: But what about the local folks who miss the potato farms and the open roads?

A: Where I grew up in Queens was a heavily Italian area. It’s not heavily Italian anymore. What I tell people there is if you can’t accept change, you can’t live in the northeast. Every major city, every major metropolitan area, there’s a constant influx of people, an ebb and flow. They come in, they work hard, they buy something bigger a little further away from the urban area. That’s the natural progression of things. You have to control how that happens.

Q: How do we do that?

A: It’s up to the municipalities, the towns, to control how that’s going to happen. Riverhead has a master plan. Southold has a master plan. These are attempts to control growth, including where it is going to take place. But change is inevitable.

Q: What’s the first Long Island winery you ever visited?

A: Hargrave Vineyard in Cutchogue. That’s the first one and the one that had been written up in the New York Times, and so I wanted to visit it the first time we came out here (in 1986).

Q: What was your career before you opened the winery?

A: A couple days a week, I’m still an attorney in Queens … doing Surrogates Court work. I have a younger brother who’s a geneologist and we do a specialty in Surrogates Court called kinship. He works with other geneologists and we locate estates where the assets are going to other parts of the world. It’s interesting and we get to travel sometimes, too.

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