For several years, it was easy to point to Vineyard 48 in Cutchogue as the bad guy in the local wine industry. They made it easy, with raucous DJ dance parties, reports of drunken behavior both at and near the winery and, of course, the now-infamous buckets filled with sangria. Vineyard 48 was the bogeyman in the region and seen as the worst-case scenario by locals both inside and outside the industry. It earned that reputation — Vineyard 48 was the worst-case scenario for agritainment gone horribly wrong.
Though it may have reached its wretched peak there, let’s not forget that Vineyard 48 didn’t invent the agritainment, wine festival style of winery. It wasn’t alone in nurturing it over the course of many years. Many local winery owners have played a part in creating a culture of tasting rooms-as-bars that cater to busloads of revelers, many of whom are well on their way to intoxication before they set foot on the North Fork.
The favored destination of those types of daytrippers has been shuttered, but that hasn’t stopped them from descending upon the North Fork. In a recent incident at Osprey’s Dominion, already-drunk limo riders were refused service — as well they should have been — before they shoved police and damaged vineyard property. That incident helps prove this important point: Vineyard 48 wasn’t the cause of many of Long Island Wine Country’s problems. It was the result.
So the question now becomes what can and will the industry do to change the culture it has helped create?
The answer is complicated and murky at best. There’s no single action that can be taken to undo what years of reliance on a dubious business model has done to the industry as a whole. The Long Island Wine Council doesn’t have a president or an executive director right now, creating a leadership vacuum that will need to be filled before much can happen.
No one asked my opinion about this, but I do have a few thoughts.
First, TIPS training should be mandatory for any tasting room employee. For those not familiar with TIPS, it stands for “Training for Intervention ProcedureS.” It is an educational program for the responsible service, sale and consumption of alcohol. No matter what you do, there will always be the occasional over-served patron who maybe drank too much at a bar, restaurant or other tasting room before arriving at your establishment. TIPS can help everyone working there know how to best handle the situation.
Second, you can’t ban buses, limos and Uber outright. On the surface, this idea has some merit. If the people who would have gone to Vineyard 48 no longer have anywhere that will allow their buses to even pull into the parking lot, over time they’ll stop coming. And there is little doubt that drinking in these vehicles on the sometimes hour-plus ride from points west even before the first visit contributes to the overall problem. But there are good, wine-focused tour companies that don’t allow this sort of thing. The good companies provide an important service: allowing responsible people to enjoy a day in wine country without getting behind the wheel. Maybe the wineries should band together to create some sort of bus/limo vetting and certification program so wineries know which tour companies can be trusted.
Most tasting room managers probably already know who deserves to be allowed and who shouldn’t be.
Last on the list, maybe wineries should stop the entire “just get people in the door” marketing mentality. Stop with jazz festivals and other events that aren’t centered on the wine itself. Local wineries need to attract wine tourists, not drinking tourists — quality tourists versus a large quantity of them. That’s the way forward, and that change can only come from within the industry.