It was the biggest leap of faith Jim Waters ever took in his life.
In October 2003, Waters, then a home winemaker working out of his Manorville garage, opened Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue. The boutique operation initially produced a few hundred cases per year, which is teeny-tiny even by Long Island standards. But it attracted a loyal following of wine enthusiasts looking for an intimate tasting experience.
Two years later, Waters realized he needed to make a deeper commitment to his hobby-turned-business. So after two successful decades in hospitality and service businesses, he quit his management position at Budget Truck Rental.
The Waters family was all in.
“My wife said, ‘If this thing is going to take off, you really have to dive into this business,’ ” Waters said in a recent interview at his Cutchogue tasting room. “It’s hard when you walk away from the safety valve of a paycheck. It was a big, scary time for us.”
As for many North Forkers, his decision to switch gears came after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 (see our profile on Wednesday’s Table owner Linh Trieu). Mr. Waters, a volunteer with the Manorville Fire Department had assisted in the rescue effort at ground zero. His wife, Linda, an air traffic controller, was at work that day.
“You go to ground zero and it’s a defining moment,” he said. “I thought, ‘Have I done all I wanted to do?’ ”
It turned out he had not.
He got his professional wine training by helping his friend, the late Ray Blum, founder of Peconic Bay Winery, in the vineyards and the cellar. He also tinkered with a home winemaking kit.
“At night I’d come out [to Cutchogue]. Sometimes the kids would do their homework in the winery,” he said.
The family, which includes daughters Michelle, now 23, and Lauren, now 20, moved to Southold in 2005 and then to Mattituck in 2007. The change allowed him to play a different role in his kids’ lives.
“I was like Mr. Mom,” he said. “If I stayed in the corporate world, it would have never happened.”
He credits his wife with making that possible.
“She carried the weight. I could have never thought about it [otherwise],” he said. “You can’t do this if you don’t have a support system.”
“We never made a million dollars but we made a wonderful life for us and our kids,” Linda Waters added. “We put our lives into the community.”
While the business has brought personal success for his family, Waters, a former vice president of the Long Island Wine Council and a former member of the Long Island Farm Bureau’s board of directors has also spent the past 15 years championing Long Island wine.
“His passion is reflected in the fact he wanted to get the word out about the wine region, any opportunity he had to push forward our message,” said Anthony Sannino, Waters’ longtime friend and co-owner of Sannino Bella Vita Vineyard.
Today, Waters said, that message is about branding the region as a premier destination for wine lovers, rather than a party location.
In the past few years, several wineries have scaled back on live music and other special events, begun requiring reservations for large groups and curbed the number of buses or limos they accept. It’s a model Waters has embraced since day one.
“The region’s changed a bit since we first opened,” he said. “Out of sheer necessity, they started to diversify. Now we’re shifting back. Everybody has a different business model.”
When Waters first launched his Route 48 location in 2003, it was the easternmost tasting room on the North Fork’s North Road. It was also a bit of a novelty and a destination, as Waters Crest was one of the area’s few small-scale producers at the time.
But after 2011, other boutique operations — like Coffee Pot Cellars in Cutchogue and The Winemaker Studio in Peconic, to name just two — popped up. The new landscape meant Waters had to make a change to his business to stay competitive.
In 2016, he opened a 1,350-square-foot tasting room on Main Road, a handsome new space where tabletops made from old Waters Crest barrels stand next to leather swivel chairs. He continues to make his wines — which include 10 varieties a year including chardonnay, gewürztraminer, cabernet franc, merlot and more — in the original Route 48 space. Waters does not own a vineyard and instead purchases his grapes from North Fork vineyards that he helps manage.
Waters Crest, which he said has always been a quality-focused operation, received six 90-point scores — the number used to denote an outstanding wine — from the Wine Advocate in 2015 and two from Wine Enthusiast in 2016.
“We make, what I consider, a very diverse, food-friendly style of wine,” he said. “Our reds pair with anything. I could have a red blend with a piece of striped bass.”
Success for Waters hasn’t been measured in his bank account balance or acclaim from wine critics, however.
Among the things he values most are the friendships he’s built with other local vintners — people like Sannino and Ron Goerler Jr. of Jamesport Vineyards.
“We’ve created our own little Rat Pack on the North Fork,” Waters said. “We get together and we’re like kids. This is a stressful industry. Financially, it made no sense. But you look at the friends and the quality of life. We don’t have a regret.”
Sannino — who said he preferred a Three Stooges analogy to the Rat Pack comparison — agreed.
“When somebody needs something, you are there for them on the North Fork,” he said. “My tractor could be down and I’m borrowing Ron’s tractor. I don’t even think there is a sense of competition.”
Waters is candid about how hard it is to turn even a slim profit in a region of expensive land and unpredictable weather.
In fact, he doesn’t recommend his path to industry newcomers.
“We always try to discourage them,” he said with a laugh. “It’s the most difficult thing in the world.”
This story was originally published in the winter 2017 edition of the Long Island Wine Press