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Gabby Pisacano in the vineyard. (Credit: Courtesy of Roanoke Vineyards)

Gasper Pisacano of Riverhead — the force behind Roanoke Vineyards’ popular Gabby’s Cab Franc wine and a familiar face at the winery — died at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead Friday, Dec. 18, according to his family. He was 85.

Born in Huntington in 1930 to Marie and Joseph Pisacano, the man who was known to all as “Gabby” served in the U.S. Marine Corps before marrying his late wife Adeline in 1956. The couple raised five children together — Linda, Stephen, Michael, Rich and Maria (Bassemir).

He spent his working years as a business owner in various industries, especially bars and restaurants. Locally, he owned Settler’s Lounge on Youngs Avenue in Southold.

But he found his passion later in life while working in the vineyards. He and his son Rich planted a vineyard on two parcels in Jamesport in the early 1980s. After selling that land, he helped his son and daughter-in-law Soraya establish Roanoke Vineyards in Riverhead in 2000. The winery is now considered one of the region’s best producers.

Largely self-taught in vineyard management, Pisacano lived on the Sound Avenue property and spent the rest of his life working those fields, up until the 2015 vintage was in the tanks.

“At Roanoke, we called him the vine master, that was his nickname,” said Rich Pisacano, who is also vineyard manager at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack. “He did most of the pruning and tying and all the hand work. It was trial and error. He was extremely intuitive.”

As age got the best of his knees, Gabby Pisacano performed his vineyard duties with the help of a golf cart, steering with one hand and pruning with the other, according to his son.

“He’s doing this all with the knowledge that he might not see it realized,” said Roanoke’s creative director Scott Sandell. “He made that contribution for all of us. I thought it was a really beautiful thing.”

In 2006 he decided to make a wine by keeping grape yields low but increasing the quality of those clusters — essentially editing the vines so only the best fruit was kept. It was the beginning of Gabby’s Cab Franc, which northforker wine columnist Lenn Thompson described in the fall 2015 edition of the Long Island Wine Press as a “cult wine.”

That wine is made from grapes grown in “Gabby’s Rows,” the 12 easternmost rows right behind the Riverhead tasting room, located just off the patio. He employed an intensive, hands-on approach, carefully pruning the canopies so the vines received optimal sunlight. The berries that were deemed imperfect were dropped.

“Richie was skeptical because growers got paid by the ton,” Sandell recalled. “But Gabby knew he could make a really great wine and that would be more valuable.”

His efforts appeared to pay off. The New York Times described the first vintage, released in 2009, as “almost balletic in its grace.” The 2007 vintage, released in 2010, received a score of 91 points from Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate.

And the 1,800 bottles of the 2012 vintage, which became available last fall, sold out before the wine was even released.

The method is not widely used, as the intensive labor costs would not be economical for most wineries.

“He pretty much worked for wine and cigarettes so we didn’t have to worry abut that,” Sandell said with a laugh.

Pisacano became synonymous with Roanoke’s brand. A familiar face in the tasting room, with a gravelly voice, he was known for his honesty as well as his warmth.

“He had a great energy,” Rich Pisacano said. “People looked forward to seeing him. So many times they walked in and it was, ‘Where’s Gabby?’”

“He had a personality that was bigger than life,” Sandell added. “When he walked in a room, he took it over.”

Though Pisacano had a strong presence, longtime friend Dan Reiter of Mattituck noted that he also had a “soft heart.”

“He always cared about people,” Reiter said. “And that was the real charm about Gabby.”

Reiter recalled how in the 1980s Gabby identified a piece of land for their congregation, the Community Christian Fellowship, to build a church. Pisacano convinced the other members to pony up $1,000 each and they soon had a down payment to purchase the parcel. He also donated an old structure, from which the lumber was taken to build the new church.

“Gabby played a very big part [at the church] in many ways,” Reiter said. “He was kind of a father figure, people gravitated toward him.”

In addition to his children, Pisacano is survived by seven grandchildren. He was predeceased by his daughter Linda.

Visiting hours will be held Tuesday, Dec. 22 at DeFriest-Grattan Funeral Home in Mattituck from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. A funeral service is planned at the funeral home for Wednesday, Dec. 23, at 9:30 a.m. Interment with U.S. Marine Corps honors will be at Calverton National Cemetery.

Memorial donations may be made to the Community Christian Fellowship Orphanage Fund, P.O. Box 612, Mattituck, New York 11952.

A bottle of Gabby’s cab franc inside Roanoke Vineyards’ Riverhead tasting room. (Credit: Chris Lisinski)
A bottle of Gabby’s cab franc inside Roanoke Vineyards’ Riverhead tasting room. (Credit: Chris Lisinski)