Ever dream of living the “tomato life” in farm country? Picture yourself sipping coffee on your back deck on a breezy August morning. Your slippers are still on as you read a magazine under the sun, often pausing to admire the expanse of tomato vines that fan out in every direction and ultimately disappear into a blur of distant woods. How about a midday dip in the pool followed by an afternoon tomato salad?
These long, comfortable weekends will be punctuated by a gathering of friends that run in the same tomato circles. With them, you can sip tomato juice and share recipes for tomato sauce, salsa or gazpacho in the comfort of the breezes that roll off Peconic Bay. All the while, a small village of laborers will tend to your tomatoes as you relax — and your retirement income rolls in.
Of course, that’s an unrealistic vision of life as a Suffolk County tomato farmer. So why would it be any different with grapes?
Local experts have a few words of advice for those looking to purchase a vineyard property on the North Fork. Chief among them? This isn’t California, where someone who has made some money on Wall Street or in other lucrative professions can plunk down investment capital and set up his or her family among the vines, hiring crews and selling the annual harvest to mega wineries for a decent buck.
Being a vineyard owner here isn’t much different from being a potato or tomato farmer in that you wouldn’t pay someone else to do it.
“A lot of people come from Nassau County or New York City or elsewhere in Suffolk County who want a retirement kind of lifestyle,” says Syma Gerard, an agricultural realtor who’s sold several vineyards here in the past decade. “But most of them don’t really have the resources to retire and support a vineyard; they want the vineyard to support them. They want to have some gorgeous property where they’re going to live and make money.
“So I spend a lot of time bringing them in touch with reality.”
Regan and Carey Meador purchased their 24-acre property — nine acres are planted with grapes as of now — in Southold in 2012. They live on the land and do all the work themselves, with only the help of Carey’s dad — and advice from friends and mentors in the industry.
“It’s a lot of work and it’s relentless,” Meador says. “You just have to be so happy after a good day of work; that has to be your payoff. You can’t be the guy who expects to just hire people and have a viable business. It’s becoming more evident that the true owner/operator model is the only one that works out here. This is a passion business, meaning you have to be passionate about actually getting involved; not passionate and nostalgic about your grandfather making wine in the basement.”
The grandfather-in-the-basement memories of winemaking is exactly what drives many people to inquire about purchasing Palmer Vineyards in Riverhead, said owner Kathy Lemorzellec, whose late father, Robert Palmer, was an advertising executive when he purchased land on Sound Avenue in 1983 and established the winery.
Palmer Vineyards is on the market for $5.3 million and the company’s other vineyard property in Cutchogue listed for $1.9 million through Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty.
“We’re a full-service winery here, and once people see we really are farmers and the hard work and the money that goes into it, I think a lot of people realize their dream is not a realistic dream,” Lemorzellec said. “We’ve been close. But we’re looking for someone to buy it who has a passion and will continue the passion that we have, not someone who wants to level it or something like that. Yeah, people get close, but people get scared.”
There’s usually a winery or several wineries for sale at any given time on the East End, but they don’t sell quickly — precisely because of a lack of qualified and knowledgeable buyers.
But you’re different; you think. You have what it takes in spite of what the Meadors, Gerards and Lemorzellecs of the world say.
You’ll need some land.
Established vineyards and other agricultural properties can be found on websites like landandfarm.com or loopnet.com, though some large winery operations are being marketed internationally, Gerard says. Palmer Vineyards can be found on Multiple Listing Service Long Island.
When it comes to buying, this region has a big advantage over California, since its soil and water is pretty consistent.
“All the soil here is fairly healthy,” says Meador, who before buying in Southold worked as an assistant winemaker at Osprey’s Dominion in Peconic. “Unless it’s something like a toxic waste spill that happened within the last 100 years, then you won’t want to use that area.”
Still, it’s important to test soil before planting.
“That cannot be overlooked,” he says. “But there are always things you can do to adjust the soil.”
Air flow is another important factor to take into account when considering where to plant, due to challenges with moisture and mildew.
“We have issues with wet falls and wet springs, mildew and bugs, so having a nice air flow helps keep your plants dry,” Meador says. “Maybe you don’t want to plant too close to woods.”
In California, there are sophisticated vineyard real estate advisory operations designed to help buyers choose the perfect plot of land. They include companies like Bergman Euro-National of Forestville, Calif., which also runs the renowned vineyard real estate educational website bergmanvineyards.com.
They’ll even help you run the vineyard.
“We get calls every week from new owners,” says the company’s owner, John Bergman. “They’ll say, ‘We really wanted to buy a vineyard but we’re scared to death. What do we do now? We’re the dog that caught the car.’ ”
“What we do is hold your hand all the way through the process, line you up with the right winery to buy the grapes, show you how the cash flow works,” he says. “We’ll be there to advise for as long as they want to stay in the business. We can take a piece of raw land and build a vineyard.”
For Bergman, the most important part of the process is soil and water testing, with all samples being sent to labs. There’s plenty of land in California, but not all of it is plantable, he says. Water quality varies.
“If you don’t have water, or it’s not good water, then don’t plant or buy that vineyard,” he says. “There are certain minerals, such as boron, that you and I can drink but it will kill your plants. The other thing is in the soils, you might find some very good minerals in there. If it’s solid clay it’s going to hold the water and kill your roots.”
On the North Fork, the process is a bit different. Remember, these are still small towns.
“If you ask around enough, most people in the business know every piece of land out here,” Meador says. “So they can generally tell you if it’s a good piece or not, we’re not really uncovering a lot of land. There are only a few places where you could put a vineyard at this point.”
And those already in the business can usually be counted on as advisers and friends, says Louisa Hargrave, who in 1973 planted Long Island’s first commercial vineyard with her then-husband, Alex, in Cutchogue. In 1999, Hargrave Vineyard was sold to Marco and Ann Marie Borghese after about 18 months on the market. Prior to owning a vineyard, the Hargraves had no experience in the industry.
“People in the wine industry are so open,” Hargrave says of learning on the job. “I went to conferences and I made friends, and I would get on the phone with some guy out in California and say, ‘Scott, I don’t know what’s going!’ And he’d say, ‘I don’t know either!’ It’s such a collegial business, that’s what I love about it. And of course there are rivalries, but that’s kind of fun, too. The winemakers today really help each other out. You have a situation here on the North Fork where there’s really a lot of support.”
There has to be, she explained, because after more than 40 years as a wine destination, the region now has a reputation to protect.
“Nobody wants another winemaker to make a bad wine,” she says.
Experience in the industry or not, Lemorzellec says the right buyer for a winery is someone “willing to live on the land and be proud of what they do.”
Her father also didn’t have experience before starting his winery.
“I think you need some business experience,” she says. “But I think Long Island has so many talented, smart people in the industry. But I think that if you don’t know the industry you can certainly learn, because there are so many people out here who are so smart.”
Even so, Gerard, the realtor, says that in general, the wineries that operate successfully are being run like farms, and run by families.
“It takes a very long time and a lot of skill and knowledge,” she says. “There are vineyards that are making money but the people who run them often do so by themselves and their family. They know what they’re doing; they’re knowledgeable people. The people who come out here for the lifestyle, they want to plant vines but then they begin to learn how much they don’t know and that they’re going to have to hire people; then the idea of an easy retirement kind of
“Then there are people like [the Meadors]. They do know what they’re doing and they’re doing it by themselves. They’re taking knowledgeable, educated risks.”
That’s not to say there isn’t room for the wealthy, hobbyist-type owner in Long Island Wine Country.
“One of the things I’ve seen that’s really striking,” says Hargrave, “is that people who have substantial wealth, they get stir-crazy. They’ve got so much money they don’t know what to do with, yet they’re still looking to find satisfaction in their lives. For many people like that, owning a vineyard, making wine, it gives them satisfaction away from their urban, business world. Sure, they can collect art, but the vineyard investment opens doors all over the world — Italy, France, Spain, China. Even if they’re not active participants, the owners can still live vicariously at the winery.”
For instance, she says, “They can pull weeds.”
Despite the hard work that goes into owning and operating a successful vineyard, Hargrave says the romantic aspect of the industry shouldn’t be dismissed.
“If you’re a nice person, all the doors open and you’ll have a great time meeting and tasting one another’s wines,” she says. “And now it isn’t just about wine. It’s beer, spirits, food, oysters. It’s very holistic. People are trying to carve out new lives, and they really do have a wonderful time.”
Hargrave says her greatest sense of satisfaction came through working the soil herself.
“The real romance is in the personal effort and personal satisfaction,” she says. “And it’s there, but again, you’ve got to have money to do it. That shouldn’t be such a surprise. Don’t walk into the door to start any business without money. A couple of grapes — that’s great, but that’s not a commercial winery.”
“And,” she continues, “It’s a fabulous place to live. So there’s that.”
This story was originally published in TimesReview Media Group’s Real Estate Guide.