Branding Long Island Wine: How the Wine Council is looking to shape the region’s image

grapes vineyardWhat do you think of when you hear the term “Long Island wine?”

Does it call to mind supple, sophisticated bottles of cabernet franc and merlot, or a crisp sauvignon blanc that pairs perfectly with oysters harvested from Peconic Bay? Or maybe, for you, Long Island wine is less synonymous with the product itself, but a summer day spent “out east” drinking rosé and laughing with friends?

In the 42 years since Alex and Louisa Hargrave planted the first commercial vineyard in Cutchogue, the industry, like that of any burgeoning wine region, has experienced periods of significant change in both atmosphere and reputation.

And until recently, there has never been a large-scale, unified effort to create a brand. 

In March, the Long Island Wine Council hired its first marketing director, Ali Tuthill, who most recently worked as director of marketing and brand management for Puma North America.

Tuthill summered on Shelter Island while growing up and her husband, Royal, is a descendant of one of Southold Town’s founding families. Her position was funded through a portion of a grant from the New York State Regional Economic Development Council, among other grants.

Those interviewed for this story said they felt Tuthill is the perfect fit when it comes to helping to crystalize the local industry’s image.

What Long Island needs is simple, Tuthill said: A renewed focus on the balanced, food-friendly wines being produced here and a shift away from agritainment.

Long Island Wine Council marketing director Ali Tuthill. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Long Island Wine Council marketing director Ali Tuthill. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

“People are coming here and are expecting to be entertained,” said Tuthill, who views that as a problem.

To help craft a cohesive message of the East End as a premier destination for wine lovers, she has brought in a marketing firm, the Minneapolis-based Lattitude, which donates half its proceeds to intiatives to alleviate poverty. The initiative includes an overhaul of the wine council’s website and a push for more “earned media coverage” in industry publications, though a specific strategy has not yet been shared with wine council members.

“It’s not coming up with a marketing gimmick,” Tuthill said. “It’s defining what we stand for and taking the steps to implement a branding communication.”

The ultimate goal, she said, is to attract a more sophisticated wine consumer — and, of course, higher sales for member wineries.

Long Island wine is certainly having a bit of a moment, with some recent instances of high praise and recognition. This makes it a fortuitous time to take a look at it as a brand.

“I very much believe we are at a crossroads,” Tuthill said.

Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue recently won the coveted “Winery of the Year” award at the New York Wine and Food Classic and received four scores of 93 in a recent issue of The Wine Advocate, the second-highest numbers a critic has ever given Long Island wine. In that same issue, Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack received two record-breaking 94s.

Wine Enthusiast magazine named New York its “Wine Region of the Year” in 2014 (though that is largely due to the influence of the upstate Finger Lakes region) and local vintages continue to score 90s and above, the number that denotes an outstanding wine, in Wine Spectator and other publications.

But these accomplishments can clash with some recent negative attention the industry has received. There was an op-ed published in a local daily newspaper written by a teacher lamenting his summer stint in a winery pouring for whiny Kardashian clones. And an “Inside Edition” story focused on the rowdy atmosphere and lascivious behavior at one North Fork winery and a big summer concert at another.

Though noisy and attention-grabbing, these stories represent just a sliver of what is actually happening in Long Island Wine Country, industry insiders said.

And while most agree that Long Island’s quality wines deserve recognition, it remains unclear how individual producers will navigate a shift away from an entertainment model.

Some vineyards almost never host live music acts. For others, harvest festivals, farm animals and concerts are a cornerstone of their business model.

For the Massoud family, who owns Paumanok Vineyards, focusing on the quality of wine has been the goal since day one.

“I think messages that don’t convey the high quality of the wines that are produced are not advancing our long-term goal,” said winemaker Kareem Massoud. “I’m not going to call it good or bad. It’s just noise.”

Paumanok isn’t a member of the Long Island Wine Council, though Massoud agreed a unified message is needed to elevate the region’s image.

“If everyone were to be on the same page about our high quality and world-class caliber wine, that can only help,” he said. “We believe it’s in our collective best interest to promote the region. That doesn’t mean going it alone.”

Massoud noted that even though producers are earning recognition from top wine critics and winning prestigious awards, Long Island wine still doesn’t garner respect and recognition from some Manhattan sommeliers — who drive sales and influence palates ­— and wine aficionados.

“Seventy-five miles east of Manhattan, not only is wine being made, it’s good wine,” he said. “We already have the production side of what to do figured out. If you are a New Yorker, you should have a few of these in your cellar.”

Paumanok Vineyards founder Charles Massoud. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

Paumanok Vineyards founder Charles Massoud. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

Paumanok owner Charles Massoud, Kareem’s father, has a theory as to when exactly the region started to lean toward agritainment.

“I think since 2000, there has been a shift,” he said.

That was when, he said, first-generation winery owners — many of whom established their businesses in the 1980s and ‘90s — began to take a step back from day-to-day operations.

“Suddenly we started seeing people delegating and the agenda shifted,” he said. “Since 2000, we’ve been all over the place. You’re attracting a crowd that is a circus.”

And that crowd, Massoud said, can overshadow the product.

“[Sometimes it seems] the music is the attraction and the wine is the accessory,” he said. “It should be the other way around.”

The elder Massoud, who has spent much of his career in marketing, said he hopes the branding initiative is successful — though he is a bit skeptical.

“She [Tuthill] is saying all the right things,” he said. “But I would like to see it before I will believe it.”

For someone who has been in the game as long as Massoud, the industry looks different than when he began. Six vineyard owners — Ann Marie and Marco Borghese of Castello di Borghese, Dr. Herodotus “Dan” Damianos of Pindar Vineyards, Dr. Charles Smithen of Sherwood House Vineyards, Robert Pellegrini of Pellegrini Vineyards and Walter Channing of Channing Daughters Winery — all passed away within a year of one another.

It has become a time for some second-generation operators — like Jamesport Vineyards vice president Ron Goerler Jr., whose father, Ron Sr., owns the business — to ask, “Where are we and who do we want to be?”

“When we first started [in the 1980s], we had no clue what we were doing,” Goerler said with a laugh. “It was the wild, wild west. We were just happy we were growing grapes.”

That evolution means constantly monitoring what works and what doesn’t. While seven or eight years ago Goerler might have hosted loud bands and big parties in Jamesport Vineyards’ backyard, these days he said he’s going for a more low-key effect.

This past summer Goerler, a past president of the wine council, stopped offering oysters and beer at the winery, though it continues to serve flatbread pizzas from a wood-fired oven. It also hosted the first North Fork Crush, an event that drew more than 800 people and showcased the wines of about 20 local producers.

Though that event drew a younger crowd, many of whom came from Brooklyn and Manhattan, he said the affair was restrained and elegant.

“We want to give people a lifestyle or an experience that represents the North Fork,” Goerler said. “It’s still a simpler lifestyle. People who come here are looking for that.”

Ron Goerler Jr. and Ron Sr. at the first North Fork Crush in June. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

Ron Goerler Jr. and Ron Sr. at the first North Fork Crush in June. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

Goerler believes bringing Tuthill onboard is an important step in shaping the region. And he said there are many things that need to be improved upon.

One thing the region is lacking, he notes, is efficient transportation, especially for carless, day-tripping city dwellers. Goerler has floated the idea of a shuttle service, but he hasn’t yet found a way to make it economical.

At Roanoke Vineyards, looking toward the future means taking the Riverhead tasting room private. Beginning Jan. 1, 2016, it will only be accessible to wine club members and their guests.

It’s a move owner Richie Pisacano is certain will cost his business money.

“We expect in the short-term to take a revenue hit, but at the price of fulfilling our dreams,” said Pisacano, who owns the vineyard with his wife, Soraya. “The idea is to recover from that dip with momentum and excitement and a stronger business that’s more interesting.”

A smaller tasting room on Love Lane in Mattituck will stay open to the public.

The impetus behind the move, Pisacano explained, is to protect the culture the vineyard’s passionate and dedicated fanbase has come to love.

“If money was what drove me, I wouldn’t be in this business,” he said.

Though Roanoke has eschewed agritainment to focus on its wines — namely, age-worthy reds — he added that the term has been given a bad rap.

Pisacano pointed to Wölffer Estate Vineyard, where he has served as vineyard manager since 1996. The winery has received countless accolades over the decades — including those record-breaking scores earlier this year — and is frequently cited as one of Long Island’s premium producers.

But it also features numerous live music acts during the summer, hosts yoga classes among its vines and is a bona fide Hamptons hot spot.

“Even though people associate agritainment with lesser quality, it’s not true,” Pisacano said.

He also pointed to Martha Clara Vineyards, located just six miles east of his Sound Avenue winery.

In August, the Riverhead vineyard, along with Nile Rodgers Productions, hosted a two-day music bonanza featuring mega-acts like Pharrell Williams, Beck, Keith Urban and Duran Duran. The winery also has horses, cattle and alpacas, which guests are invited to look at, and it hosts family-friendly live music acts throughout the year.

On a recent visit, Martha Clara’s winemaker posed for photos with customers as they marched in vats of merlot and chardonnay at its annual grape-stomping party and harvest celebration.

At 18,000 cases per year, Martha Clara is one of the region’s largest producers. It has also taken home numerous medals over the years, most recently winning the award for best pinot noir at the New York Wine Classic.

“I think there is room for diversity,” winemaker and general manager Juan Micieli-Martinez said on a recent morning as he surpervised the pinot grigio harvest. “I don’t want everybody to have the same business model because that’s boring.”

The FOLD Festival, a two-day concert produced by Nile Rodgers, drew acts like Pharrell Williams and Beck to Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

The FOLD Festival, a two-day concert produced by Nile Rodgers, drew acts like Pharrell Williams and Beck to Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

While Micieli-Martinez said he respects the wine council’s efforts to brand the region, he said it likely won’t influence the way he operates.

“I’m not looking for acceptance; I just do what I do,” he said.

On any given weekend, hundreds of people can be spotted enjoying Martha Clara’s grounds. It’s an atmosphere that is welcoming to families and wine newcomers — something that Micieli-Martinez not only appreciates, but that the vineyard tries to foster.

“It’s not uncommon to see three generations spending the day together and that’s awesome,” he said. “Why can’t we, to a certain degree, be a little bit of everything?”

For Tuthill, that’s part of it — though she said the overall focus of the wine council’s campaign will be to zero in on regional quality.

“What’s great about our region is that there is something for everyone out here,” she said. “And while we want to concentrate our regional communications efforts on educating our consumers about the quality and sophistication of our product, it will be up to each winery to curate an experience for visitors that translates that message in a way that makes sense for their own business and brand objectives.”