Robert Pellegrini, the co-owner and founder of Pellegrini Vineyards in Cutchogue, died at Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport on Saturday. The cause of death was a heart attack, according to his son Gregg.
He was 76.
Pellegrini and his wife, Joyce, bought the former 36-acre Island Vineyards and opened Pellegrini Vineyards in 1991. Having mature vines allowed them to soon bottle their first vintage, which was received with acclaim, according to a profile published in the spring 2008 Long Island Wine Press.
One of Pellegrini’s first bottles, its ’91 chardonnay, was poured at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. Under the management of its original winemaker, Russell Hearn, the wines went on to win numerous awards and Pellegrini was named Winery of the Year at the 2002 New York Wine & Food Classic.
“It’s easy to see and taste his legacy,” said Steve Bate, executive director of the Long Island Wine Council. “The quality of his wine was matched by the beauty of his winery and tasting room. He had a great vision and he will be missed.”
Pellegrini was a graphic designer by trade, evident in the architecture of the winery, which features an exposed wood beam cathedral ceiling and an open air pavilion. The building, widely regarded as one of the most beautiful facilities on the North Fork, was designed by Cutchogue architects, Thomas Samuels and Nancy Steelman.
“He built the winery from scratch,” Gregg Pellegrini, 50, said. “He was the kind of guy that when he had a passion, he would do all of the research, everything. He would become an expert.”
His hobbies ranged from art and photography to piloting small aircrafts, according to his son. He also designed the logo for the 1968 summer Olympics held in Mexico City.
“He was an interesting, passionate man,” the younger Pellegrini said. “He was extraordinarily knowledgable about his passions and always strove to make the best out of any of his businesses or hobbies.”
Pellegrini first learned of the Long Island wine industry after reading an article in the New York Times on Alex and Louisa Hargrave, who planted the first commercial vines here in 1973. He came out to meet the couple and knew he wanted to be a part of the burgeoning wine industry, his son said.
“What I always felt about Bob was that his standards were the highest,” said Louisa Hargrave, who became a longtime friend of the Pellegrinis. “He wouldn’t do something if it wasn’t done right. He had a lot of sensitivity about aesthetics. It wasn’t just about making delicious wine. It had to be presented in a beautiful way.”
Hargrave’s son, Zander, became winemaker at Pellegrini Vineyards last summer.
Hargrave recalled the first time the Pellegrinis invited her over for dinner, sometime in the 1990s. She said she will never forget the meal and the homemade bread he served, made with grapes and fennel seeds.
“I could see he had this very sensitive palate,” she said. “A lot of depth. Also, he enjoyed entertainment.”
Pellegrini originally purchased a parcel of land with Dr. Jerry Gristina in the ’80s. But there was a dispute and Gristina bought out his interests. Pellegrini then purchased the adjacent Island Vineyards for $700,000 and initially invested an additional $1.25 million into the property.
He said at the time he couldn’t pinpoint where his love affair with wine had started, but he told The New York Times it likely stemmed from his Italian ancestry.
“I can’t remember going to a family dinner without seeing a jug or a bottle or a flask on the table,” he said. “I never thought of it as an alcoholic beverage. It was food.”
Pellegrini’s passing marks the fifth time a Long Island winery has lost its founder in the past 12 months. Ann Marie and Marco Borghese of Castello di Borghese died 10 days apart last June, Pindar Vineyards founder Herodotus Damianos died in August, Dr. Charles Smithen of Sherwood House Vineyards died earlier this year and, most recently, Walter Channing of Channing Daughters Winery died.
“It’s a really serious loss. It’s a bit of a changing of the guard,” Hargrave said. “It just rips me apart.”
In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by his daughter-in-law Anais and two granddaughters Talia and Lena.
Visiting hours will be held at Coster-Heppner Funeral Home in Cutchogue Thursday, April 9, at 5:30 p.m. with a service at 6:30 p.m. A private cremation will follow.