Long Island Wine Council executive director Steve Bate recalls a phone call he received his very first day on the job back in the summer of 2004.
It was from longtime New York Times wine writer Howard G. Goldberg, who was working on a piece about the possibility of local supermarkets selling wine.
Mr. Bate admits today that he didn’t know the wine council’s official position on that issue before he began speaking to Mr. Goldberg.
“I started to give my personal opinion on the matter,” he recalled with a laugh during a recent interview at Palmer Vineyards in Riverhead. “I was like, ‘That would be great …’ ”
The late Marco Borghese, who was president of the wine council at that time, overheard the conversation and ripped the phone from Mr. Bate’s hands.
“He’s new here,” Mr. Borghese explained to Mr. Goldberg in his signature Tuscan accent, before outlining a more refined perspective on the matter.
It’s safe to say that in the 12 years since, Mr. Bate, who has overseen a period of significant growth for the Long Island wine region, has learned a great deal about the industry and the viewpoints of each of the council’s member wineries. Now in his final two months with the association, he’s also confident his successor will step into the role with a stronger understanding of the region than he had.
The Long Island Wine Council announced last week that Mr. Bate, who lives in Southold, will step down from his leadership position and will be succeeded Sept. 1 by Ali Tuthill, who was hired last April to serve as the group’s first marketing director.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Mr. Bate, the wine council’s second executive director and its longest tenured. “It has really become clear that Ali would be a good successor and now is the right time for change.”
Over the past year the two have worked as a team, with Mr. Bate, 57, focusing on public policy and grant writing and Ms. Tuthill, 34, taking the lead on an initiative to rebrand the region as a destination for quality wine rather than partying.
Both say they were introduced to Long Island wine first as fans rather than professionally. Ms. Tuthill, a native of Mamaroneck, N.Y., who has a background in corporate marketing, remembers long drives to her family’s summer home on Shelter Island as a child, looking out the car window at all the vineyard rows, noticing more and more wineries cropping up with each passing year. As she got older, she began visiting the local tasting rooms as a customer, thinking, “I wish I could work here.”
Mr. Bate, who was employed internationally in economic development, representing the needs of businesses to government officials, said he looked forward to visiting various wine regions in his travels. When the opportunity arose for him to serve the Long Island Wine Council as executive director of the Long Island Wine Council — a coincidence that arose when his predecessor, Jane Baxter Lynn, decided to start an international communications consulting practice in London — he jumped at it.
Ms. Lynn was the wine council’s first executive director, hired in 2000 to represent the interests of the council’s then 22 members, who had grown increasingly concerned about the group’s direction. The major challenge facing the council at the time, according to an article in the April 20, 2000, issue of The Suffolk Times, was how to prioritize the needs of an organization that had grown to more than 20 members. Even the idea of hiring an executive director caused several wineries to walk away from the group, which was founded in the 1980s by the Hargrave and Lenz wineries.
Mr. Bate, who took the reins after the wine council had grown to 30 members, said representing such a large group of “dedicated and passionate people with diverse business models and bringing them together” remains a difficult task.
But he says that challenge is something he’s always embraced. In his first interview with the Long Island Wine Press, for its fall 2004 issue, he explained his experience in diplomacy.
“I’ve sat with Bosnians and Serbs at the same table, so I’m prepared,” he said.
Hearing that quote again this week, Mr. Bate chuckled before giving it some thought.
“Yeah, I guess other people might have had more of a wine background,” he said of the process that led to his hiring. “I had diplomatic experience though, so maybe that is the reason.”
Even if there’s always been a struggle to simultaneously grow and unite the wine council’s membership — which today stands at 42 member wineries, down from a peak of 48 — the region as a whole has experienced a significant period of expansion during Mr. Bate’s tenure.
Annual visitors to Long Island wineries have grown from about 500,000 in 2004 to more than 1.3 million today. And with membership up 40 percent under his leadership, the wine council’s annual budget has grown from about $200,000, as the Wine Press reported in 2004, to about $500,000, according to Mr. Bate.
Perhaps most significantly, Mr. Bate has secured more than $3 million in grant funding for the organization, mostly through lobbying efforts with New York State, a relationship that has also helped lead to significant positive changes in the regulations the industry faces at the state level.
Mr. Bate and Ms. Tuthill agreed the biggest transition as she assimilates to her new role will be in continuing the strong relationships outside of the wine community.
A mother of three who had been commuting from the Village of Sea Cliff but will move to Greenport with her family of five this summer, Ms. Tuthill is accustomed to balancing many responsibilities. She describes herself as a “voracious learner.”
While she’s spent much of the past year speaking with wineries about their marketing needs and priorities, she said she’ll now have to spend much of the rest of this year returning to those same wineries to discuss even more issues.
“You need to do constant outreach with the membership,” she said of the executive director’s role. “And in this day and age you have to be quick in your responsiveness to people’s needs. You also have to be open to constant feedback.”
Current wine council president Roman Roth praised Ms. Tuthill’s work in a statement announcing the change last week.
“With [her] consumer insights and deep passion for our wines and our region, she is blazing a new trail to place us front and center of the global wine world,” he said. “As Executive Director, her natural strengths as a leader, motivator and mentor will further energize our member wineries and build upon Steve’s legacy.”
Before joining the Wine Council staff last year, Ms. Tuthill was most recently director of marketing and brand management for PUMA North America, where she oversaw all brand positioning and marketing strategy for the company’s lifestyle category. Prior to joining PUMA in 2007, Ms. Tuthill worked in a number of capacities for New York-based media companies and marketing firms.
She’s used her marketing expertise not only to launch the Wine Council’s rebranding initiative but also to grow its affiliate membership base, which now includes more than 60 non-winery tourism-related businesses. That particular initiative is focused on helping other businesses grow through the Wine Council’s marketing efforts, including giving them the opportunity to promote themselves on the its website and online directory.
“It’s about unifying everyone through wine,” she said. “A lot of businesses have benefited from the growth of this region and we all have a goal of getting people to come through our doors.
“What grows together, goes together,” she said.
While Mr. Bate said he’s still planning his next step, he hopes to continue in, or eventually return to, the wine industry. Wherever he ends up, he said, he believes the Wine Council is being placed in capable hands.
Recalling his first encounter with Ms. Tuthill, Mr. Bate said he remembers her “obvious excitement and energy.”
“It was immediately clear to me that she was a person who is going to have a major impact on this region,” he said.