Putting the focus back on wine: Hargrave column

Some Long Island vineyards will soon be shifting focus from agratainment to the wine itself.  (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Louisa Hargrave asks ‘How can the wineries reach real customers while discouraging freeloaders.’ (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Tasting room visits are important to Long Island’s wineries. On-site visits create loyal customers and wineries get to keep 30 percent of the retail price that would otherwise go to distributors. But one limo load of tipsy party seekers can ruin the tasting experience for everyone. Crowds of tourists will affect the quality and essential nature of the places they come to see. How can the wineries reach real customers while discouraging the freeloaders?   

Charles Massoud, co-owner of Paumanok Vineyards, is one of several Long Island vintners who welcome visitors but thinks recent efforts to promote Long Island’s wineries as entertainment venues puts the emphasis in the wrong place. He says, “At Paumanok we are proud of the high quality of our wines; they do not need music to attract a crowd … our focus is on wine and wine tasting.”    

He adds, “Increasingly we read or hear that Long Island is not a serious wine region. Because of the success of this new [agritainment based] business model, it seems as if some of us, while still giving lip service to quality, have lifted our eyes off the ball … Long Island has to do some soul searching. If in fact we want to be a serious wine region we need new leadership that is more focused on quality.”    

The Long Island Wine Council has done its own self-examination and hired a new marketing director, Ali Tuthill, specifically to “re-brand” the wineries and put the emphasis back on wine quality.    

Tuthill brings years of experience in corporate marketing; she has also spent summers on the East End since childhood and has witnessed the evolution of the North Fork from an agricultural community to a second-home destination. She observes, “Tourism has grown at the expense of wine … the clientele expect to be entertained, and they’re not paying attention to what they are drinking … Current [media] articles about Long Island wines are all about summer rosés; there’s no sophistication about content.”    

Tuthill would like to turn the industry’s emphasis away from “leisure lifestyle,” saying, “We are more than summer! We need to get people talking about our complex, age-worthy reds. Our wines are exciting and vibrant. They are naturally balanced. We need to refocus on quality, not on music.”   

Tuthill is herself “part of the food and wine community” and foresees opportunities in reaching a new, younger consumer base of millennials. She is meeting with growers and winemakers, looking for the influential voices who welcome change. Among them, Anthony Nappa of The Winemaker Studio and Raphael Vineyards is absolutely clear on the need to maintain a tourist base.    

He says, “We run retail businesses. Of course we want tourism … but the conversation must be about quality across the board … Quantity over quality doesn’t work.”    

Several wineries echo Nappa’s desire to “elevate the experience” by discouraging what one vintner described as the “clever gremlins” who wheel their coolers onto winery patios and sprawl on the lawn without buying an ounce of local wine. At Mattabella Vineyards, Mark Tobin is “desperately committed to genuinely interested, knowledgeable customers” and tries to provide a “personalized, noncommercial approach.”    

He says, “Our reputation as the ‘Un-Hamptons’ must be jealously guarded” but he worries that local government is responding to a few situations with “extreme” tourism by over-regulating the wineries across the board. He says, “Like anything else, extremes are no good … We have a spectacular wine region and we do need to get people out here. They are blown away by the quality. So we need a collaborative effort to keep the experience special. That can’t happen with unannounced stretch limos.”    

At Pindar Vineyards, spokeswoman Melissa Martin says, “Our growth is based on tourists, but you have to find a balance. Pindar is moving with the times.” With the second generation of the Damianos family in charge there, new releases of serious wines and restrictions on “hanging out” will put the focus back on wine.    

Making a “180-degree change in the idea of becoming a destination,” after Christmas, Roanoke Vineyards in Riverhead will close its tasting room to tourists, reserving it for its wine club events and directing others to its wine bar on Love Lane in Mattituck.    

Media and creative director Scott Sandell told me, “Our days of being open on the wine trail are over.” He says, “It’s just a question of where to put the energy we have… Roanoke has always been about the wine.We have been lucky enough to connect with customers for whom that is more than enough.”    

Louisa Hargrave