Kareem Massoud was just 10 years old in 1983 when his parents, Ursula and Charles Massoud, planted Paumanok’s first vines on what was once a potato farm in Aquebogue.
In those days, he and his brothers, Salim and Nabeel, were recruited by their mother and father to sucker, prune and otherwise tend those vines on weekends and holidays.
“We saw no reward in it,” Kareem says with a chuckle. “We couldn’t drink the wine!”
Nevertheless, he had extensive experience in every part of the vineyard and winery by the time he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, where he pursued a degree in economics.
While there, Kareem says, he began to feel that Paumanok Vineyards was, as his parents described it, “the beginning of a tradition.”
And when the Massouds bottled their first wine in 1991, Kareem was fascinated by the automated bottling line and became determined, he says, to “learn every aspect here, in every detail.”
His junior year at UPenn, he analyzed Paumanok’s business model for a marketing class case study.
Compared to others, Kareem says, he saw so much potential in his family’s operation that he told his parents he’d like to work for them full time.
But they knew he needed to test his mettle in a larger context.
“This isn’t why we’re sending you to an Ivy League college,” they told him. “Get a real job.”
So Kareem headed to Wall Street, where he worked two years as a private equity analyst.
“It was a good job,” he recalls. “A real career path. But I felt too limited there.”
He came home and began what he considered a temporary return to the family business.
With his father mentoring him, he says, he began an “organic process of transition to greater and greater responsibility” before becoming a permanent part of the winemaking team in 2001.
That was an exciting year, Kareem remembers, with “a great vintage with big yields and high quality.”
Fifteen years later, whatever the quality of the vintage, Kareem says he and his father are “still on the same page” when it comes to growing grapes and making wine.
Though Kareem’s official title as winemaker gives his dad a chance to distance himself from the winery for longer periods of time, the two still take great pleasure in strategizing how best to make wine, especially when it comes to producing blends.
Blending, Kareem says, is a crucial way of defining a winery’s final products because, even with a single variety of wine, there will be quality variations in lots harvested from different areas of the vineyard, fermented separately or kept in different kinds of barrels.
Paumanok constantly upgrades its cellar with various sizes of vats and cooperage.
Kareem puts together a “rough draft” of each wine and then has someone label the samples so he and Charles can blind taste them together.
This process has yielded happy results, as in 2000, when one potential blend of Paumanok’s Chardonnay was so distinctive that Kareem was able to convince his parents to keep it separate and market it as their first “Grand Vintage” wine.
Paumanok’s Rieslings are similarly separated into dry, semi-dry and late-harvest wines.
In putting together their wines, Kareem says, “We need to find delineated differences. We don’t pay attention to numbers.”
One of Paumanok’s great successes has been with the underrated chenin blanc grape, for which vines already existed on a failed vineyard the Massouds had purchased. They had intended to pull the vines out, Kareem says, but found themselves with a crop before the bulldozer could make its way there.
After half-heartedly fermenting the grapes, he says, the family found itself with an unusually vibrant, succulent wine that is now one of their signature releases — one that always sells out in a matter of months despite additional plantings.
Kareem would love to make more versions of chenin — a “minimalist,” a “cremant” and a “late harvest,” he says — but so far, there just isn’t enough of the grape.
Still, Paumanok makes wine from eight grape varieties and different iterations of each.
“We don’t want to limit ourselves,” Kareem says. “Why not offer a whole tasting menu with something for everyone?”
He’s excited by the changes he sees in the marketplace.
“Americans are becoming more European and Europeans are becoming more American,” he said. “There is more sophistication. Our customers are looking for local, seasonal products. They appreciate freshness.”
When it comes to winemaking, the Massouds have long been at the forefront of freshness. Always eager to experiment, they were the first on the North Fork to put screwcaps on their wines, helping to protect wine from the moldy-smelling “cork taint” common to 5 to 10 percent of cork finishes.
Improved seals have enabled Kareem to reduce the winery’s reliance on preservatives like sulfites. His exacting attention to cellar sanitation has also eliminated brettanomyces, a common spoilage yeast that creates aromas of Band-Aids, old leather and mice.
When he isn’t at the winery, Kareem spends a great deal of time on the road, visiting stores and restaurants that sell Paumanok wines.
“You can’t discount the value of having our wines poured at the best restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn,” he says.
Wherever Kareem goes, he sends tweets and Facebook messages to his growing number of followers. Despite resisting social media in 2007, he now sees it as “impossible to ignore.”
“As a small producer, you have to be a self-promoter,” he says. “And there’s no downside. I’m surrounded by beauty; Facebook is great for sharing that.”
Kareem’s Facebook page is a visual testament to his love of the land. His active participation on wine blogs demonstrates that, like his father, he is a fervent advocate for the region’s finest wines and is unwilling to let rogue, uninformed negative comments slip past without a reasoned response.
“We stand up for ourselves,” he says of Long Island winemakers.
It upsets him, he says, that so much media attention goes to shenanigans at Vineyard 48 (the only Long Island winery to make the front page of the New York Times) or to bachelorettes acting out in a vineyard. He’d like to see Long Island vineyard owners make a bigger effort to promote the quality of their wines instead of the entertainment available at their wineries.
“What if the same efforts had gone to focus on the much bigger picture of lifting the image of Long Island wine?” he says.
Kareem maintains a distinctly philosophical disposition toward quality. He has worked several vintages in the Southern Hemisphere, where harvest falls during Long Island’s winter; interned at wineries in Chile, South Africa and New Zealand; and seen how the best practices are similar worldwide.
His parents’ roots in winemaking and hospitality lie in Germany and Lebanon, and Kareem says, “It’s important to recognize one’s place with great respect for those who came before and for those who will come after.”
Inspired by a 10th-generation German winemaker who interned at Paumanok, he says, “Why not 10 or 15 generations here? We’re in it for the long haul.”