When winemaker Adam Suprenant left his job at Franciscan Estate in Napa Valley to work for the former Gristina Vineyards, a small producer in the still-emerging Long Island wine region, in 1998, his contemporaries didn’t hold back their words of warning.
“A lot of my colleagues in Napa told me I was committing career suicide,” Suprenant recalled. “I was on track to be a Napa winemaker. The entire production of Long Island would fit in the winery I was working at — and that was a medium-sized winery.”
But it’s a decision he’s never looked back on. Suprenant went on to become winemaker at Osprey’s Dominion Vineyard in Peconic — a position that has netted him numerous awards over the years — and in 2013, he opened the Cutchogue tasting room for his own label, Coffee Pot Cellars.
“The wines can reflect the winemaker here,” he said during an interview at his tasting room bar. “The wine experience has so far exceeded any expectation I had about making great wine. Winemaking can be very personal here. You have your hand in every aspect of it.”
Though it’s been the place he calls home for nearly two decades, the Bronxville native’s journey to eastern Long Island was far from straightforward.
In 1985, he received his bachelor’s degree in pomology from Cornell University (the school only offered one viticulture course at the time) and his first job after college was at Villa Banfi Vineyard in Old Brookville. There, he worked under Fred Frank, the nephew of Constantin Frank, the vintner who first brought vinifera to New York State. The job, however, offered little opportunity for advancement, so Suprenant left after about a year and went on to work for the Manahattan fine-wine store Sherry-Lehman.
“That was a great place to get a wine education,” he said. “It’s still considered a top wine shop.”
His next gig was with a now-defunct wine importer dealing Spanish wines. But soon after, Suprenant determined that he needed a change.
“I decided driving on the road and being a salesperson wasn’t the life I was cut out to live,” he said.
Suprenant spent the next four years living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, waiting tables at well-known Manhattan restaurants like Tavern on the Green and the ultra-exclusive club Regine’s. But after those years had run their course, he applied to the University of California, Davis and began a graduate program in oenology in 1992.
“There’s only so long you can wait tables for and keep your sanity,” Suprenant said. “As a waiter I had been exposed to wine this whole time. It wasn’t a totally unproductive career move, but it was a lot of fun.”
After graduating in 1996, he landed a number of internships, including at Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux and Trefethen Family Vineyards in Napa, before spending two harvests at Franciscan.
While Suprenant was home for Christmas one year, his father, Val, a member of the International Wine and Food Society, called around to a few Long Island wineries to set up a tasting for him and his wine enthusiast friends.
He bragged to Jerry Gristina, who was coincidentally looking for help in the winery, about his winemaking son in Napa Valley. An interview was arranged and the younger Suprenant was soon offered a job. He accepted.
“I wanted to be closer to my dad. And this is one of the most beautiful places on the East Coast to live,” Suprenant said of his decision to leave California. “Life isn’t just about wine.”
After three years at Gristina (now part of Macari Vineyards), a position opened up at Osprey’s Dominion. There, Suprenant began a partnership that is going on 15 years and counting.
Suprenant knew his new employer was invested in the future when Osprey’s owner Bud Koehler agreed to replant a significant portion of the vineyard. He added pinot gris, carménère, malbec and petit verdot vines and replaced an unsuccessful planting of pinot noir — a significant investment given that grape vines take three years to mature.
“These owners did not want to sit back and make the same thing,” Suprenant said.
In 2005 — shortly after Suprenant’s first vintage of reds were released — Osprey’s won Winery of the Year at the annual New York Wine and Food Classic. It also won best red for its cabernet franc and best rosé.
“It was four years of hard work. With wine, you have to be patient,” he said. “That just solidified that we were headed in the right direction.”
Today, the winery regularly receives 90-point scores — the number used to denote an outstanding wine — from wine critics. In September, Wine Spectator editor Thomas Matthews called Osprey’s “an important player” in the Long Island wine world.
“[Suprenant’s] reds here, from the excellent 2010 vintage, testify to the wines’ ability to age well,” Matthews wrote.
That praise is certainly due in part to Suprenant’s hands-on and involved approach at the winery.
“He’s not like ‘executive winemaker’; his hands are stained red every harvest,” said Suprenant’s friend Tom Stevenson, now farmer and co-owner at Oysterponds Farms and previously the vineyard manager at Osprey’s Dominion. “He can almost single-handedly run the winery. You’d be shocked at how much more staff other wineries have.”
In 2013, Suprenant and his now-wife, Laura Klahre, began their own venture, Coffee Pot Cellars. The cozy, airy tasting room is dominated by a large oak bar and the friendly personality of Klahre, a beekeeper by trade. There, customers can buy and taste Suprenant’s wines — all made at Osprey’s with fruit from various North Fork sites — as well as Klahre’s artisanal honey products, which she sells under the label Blossom Meadow.
“This is about me and my wife, so this is our story,” Suprenant said. “I’m a fairly creative person, so I wanted to create this winery from the ground up.”
Klahre can often be found behind the counter at Coffee Pot, pouring wine and perhaps recruiting a customer or two into her bee rancher program. Klahre’s enthusiasm for her bees, her husband’s wine and life in general is contagious and has surely minted many regulars in the past two and a half years.
She is also the creative force behind Coffee Pot’s “winasaur,” a seven-foot-tall topiary adorned with wine bottle corks. The piece is still a work in progress.
“To meet new people and pour wine and talk about bees and nature — I feel like we’re so much a part of the fabric of the North Fork,” she said. “To think we’ve made this great life, I feel so thankful about that.”
With production at around 1,000 cases per year, Coffee Pot is a small, even by Long Island standards. Its current portfolio includes gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, merlot, a Meritage and “Beasley’s Blend,” a red wine named after the couple’s pug.
Look for a cyser, or an apple cider fermented with honey — some of it from Klahre’s bees — this spring. But don’t expect output to increase too much over the next few years.
“Right now we’re at a comfortable size where my wife and I can do all the work,” Suprenant said.
It’s an exciting time to work in the industry, he said. Many vintners have figured out better ways to plant and tend to their vines. Suprenant credits this to the research of Alice Wise at Cornell Cooperative Extension, and producers who are focused on the quality of their product.
It has only been strengthened by recent healthy harvests.
“The last four years have been the only consecutive years of great vintages,” Suprenant said. “There’s so much great wine in the pipeline.”
This story was originally published in the winter 2016 edition of the Long Island Wine Press