The children of Long Island winery owners Ann Marie and Marco Borghese and Christian Wölffer, once pursuing different life paths, have not only coped with a sudden loss but are continuing the legacies of their pioneering parents.
Here are their stories.
CASTELLO di BORGHESE
The loss is still fresh for the children of Ann Marie and Marco Borghese: Allegra, 27; Giovanni, 29; and Fernando, 35. Ann Marie died of cancer in June at age 56 and their father, 70, was killed in a car accident 10 days later.
The Borgheses purchased Castello di Borghese in 1999 from Long Island wine pioneers Alex and Louisa Hargrave, who planted the region’s first grapes in 1973. The 84-acre vineyard produces seven grape varieties and bottles 17 distinct products. The 2014 harvest will yield the first wines produced by the couple’s heirs.
Allegra and Giovanni both grew up among the vines — they were 12 and 14 when their parents purchased the winery — but were never treated as if they’d been to the manor born.
“We were raised here,” Allegra Borghese said, gesturing to the family home, which sits at the vineyard’s southeastern end. “But it was never a case of ‘one day this will all be yours.’ We worked and we learned. We were treated like everybody else.”
Until this past year, the Borghese children were all pursuing other careers.
When her mother died, Allegra had just earned a master’s degree in psychology and art therapy from Southwestern College in New Mexico and Giovanni was sailing around the Caribbean. Fernando, co-founder of a Philadelphia-based digital media firm, continues to work in that field today in addition to his winery duties.
The three co-owners have pulled together to manage and oversee the winery. Allegra handles onsite business and marketing and Giovanni concentrates on distribution outside of the vineyard. Both focus on day-to-day operations in Cutchogue. Older brother Fernando, they said, is involved with the broader issues of managing the business, such as financing.
“Everyone pitches in and does what needs to be done,” Giovanni Borghese said during a recent vineyard visit. “We’re plumbers one day, electricians the next.”
“That’s what small business is all about,” his sister added.
The Borgheses, whose Cutchogue vineyard boasts the oldest vines on the East End, were much loved in the wine community — by vineyard owners and wine lovers alike. The down-to-earth couple built their business on good wine and good relationships, a model that their children said they will continue to follow to the letter.
“Our parents were big believers in allowing us an understanding of the basics of the business but they also wanted us to enjoy our own interests,” Giovanni Borghese said.
“They encouraged us to follow our passions and not to accept anything as being handed down,” his sister agreed.
The second-generation vintners credit the winery’s dedicated staff and loyal customers for its continued success. Virtually all employees, including winemaker Erik Bilka and wine manager Bernard Ramis, have stayed on board.
“There’s a good team here,” Giovanni Borghese said. “From the folks on the vineyard to the community that has really supported us, they’ve really helped us to learn as we go.”
The business philosophy of producing small batches of quality product will remain — the Borghese children have no plans to expand the brand into a behemoth bottler.
But the infusion of new blood shows in some of the changes in the tasting room.
The siblings and staffer Christa Hildebrand have taken over the winery’s popular weekly winemakers walks, previously led by Marco. The vineyard now also serves beer from Greenport Harbor Brewing Company and, next year, a new wine will be introduced.
“We are stepping into their shoes, but it’s their template that we will continue to follow,” said Allegra Borghese. “Which is very classic, classy, and has a lot of integrity in the product. They are very big shoes and we’re focused on the near term so we don’t miss a beat wile we evaluate the future options for the business.”
And in the tradition of family pride, Giovanni Borghese reported, a new wine will debut to pay homage to his parents. Right now, however, he’s tight-lipped about the details.
“I’m not quite ready to divulge that information,” he said with a smile. “But there will be a wine coming to honor their legacy.”
Wölffer Estate Vineyard
Christian Wölffer, founder of Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, died in December 2008 at the age of 70 when he was struck by a boat while swimming off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The German-born bon vivant and society fixture was known among friends as a spirited and charming risk-taker and staunch champion of East End wines.
In January 2013, during the 55-acre vineyard’s 25th anniversary year, two of Christian’s children, Marc and Joey Wölffer, announced that they had partnered with longtime Wölffer winemaker Roman Roth and bought out their other two siblings’ interests in the vineyard.
Joey Wölffer was a 26-year-old jewelry designer when her father died. She had a love of the vineyard but didn’t expect that she’d one day take over the reins. Still, she is sure her father knew his children would keep the business in the family.
“I know my dad, in his heart of hearts, knew that we would never abandon it,” she said. “I knew that he would be proud.”
Sitting in the vineyard’s Wine Bar, Roth, Joey Wölffer and her husband, winery general manager Max Rohn, shared their thoughts on the vineyard’s founder.
Though she wasn’t well versed in the wine business before becoming co-owner, Wölffer, now 32, has retail in her blood. Her maternal great-grandfather, Michael Marks, co-founded U.K.-based luxury retailing giant Marks and Spencer. And she launched The Styleliner, an accessory shop on wheels, in 2009.
Her dad’s creativity and resolve in the face of adversity have informed her decisions about the family wine business, she said.
“This wouldn’t exist if he wasn’t a dreamer,” she said, motioning to ready-to-be-harvested vines on an October afternoon. “He was so good about moving past hard things. I remember once we were together and he said, ‘I lost $5 million today, but what’s for lunch?’ He had a lot of strength.”
Roth, who met Christian Wölffer in August 1992 in Stuttgart, Germany, said he was immediately swayed and impressed by the jovial entrepreneur’s “great fun side.”
“It was a beautiful Sunday morning. I had already had an offer for another position but decided to practice my interview skills and meet him,” he said. “We opened up a pinot blanc, his wedding wine, at 8 a.m. He said, ‘Manhattan is a half an hour away and it’s only a $5 bus ride; we’ll do whatever we have to do to make the best wines,’ ” Roth laughed, recalling Wölffer’s less-than-truthful sales pitch for the fledgling vineyard. “And that was it. I decided then and there that I would come to New York.”
The harvest that year was bleak, the worst in Long Island history, the winemaker said, adding that only four wines were produced in 1992. The now world-famous Wölffer rosé was born of the necessity to create something drinkable from the reds. In 1992, the vineyard produced just 82 cases of wine. Last year, Rith said, production yielded 17,000 cases of the classic rosé, 600 cases of Noblesse Oblige Sparkling Rosé and 1,500 cases of Summer in a Bottle, the vineyard’s newest hit rosé.
“It has come a long way,” he said.
Rohn said the vineyard now has more than two dozen distinctive bottles of white, red and rosé wines in its portfolio, as well as vinegar and verjus and white and rosé cider. He predicted that the 2012 and 2013 vintages will be blockbuster wines.
Throughout the tremendous growth of the vineyard, her father’s spirit remains, Joey Wölffer stated.
“Of course he’s not with us but it feels like he is still,” she said of the winery that started as her father’s hobby but turned into an international business. “He’d be proud.
“But he’d want more,” she laughed. “He always wanted more.”
This story was originally published in the 2015 edition of the Long Island Wine Press