Dressed in a muted purple Carhartt jacket, black work pants, heavy boots and simple pearl earrings with her hair pulled back into a ponytail, Lilia Perez is perfectly suited for her job. Standing on the top rung of a slightly wobbly six-foot ladder, Perez pulls down the spout on the stainless steel container holding one of RGNY’s fermenting wines at Premium Wine Group, a contract winemaking facility just down the street from RGNY, where she is head winemaker. Her wine glass fills with a cloudy liquid. Perez spends a few days a week here, overseeing the wine and any changes made to it. And every time, she tastes it to make sure it’s on track.
The five-foot-tall woman climbs down from the ladder and jumps to the concrete floor with ease. Masked and gloved up, she swirls the slightly cloudy white wine, a viognier, in her glass.
“This is very aromatic,” she says after taking a sip. “Viognier is difficult to get it to be expressive. So I’m happy with it. It has this complexity, so I like it so far.” Her demeanor is deliberate and authoritative — she walks around the warehouse floor at a quick pace, like a librarian leading you to a book section you can’t find, twisting and turning through rows until you’ve arrived. Yet even under a mask, you can tell that Perez is smiling, a smile that stayed on her face for almost the whole afternoon. She weaves between the other massive stainless steel tanks in the warehouse to taste the next wine.
Perez was born to Mexican immigrants in Sacramento, Calif., while her father was earning his Ph.D in agronomy from University of California, Davis. After he completed his studies, the family moved back to Mexico City where Perez spent her childhood.
“My dad would always buy different wines and taste them,” she said. “He would always have a glass of wine and pair it with his food.” Outside of wine, her childhood was filled with happiness, nature, travel, laughs and dancing — a hobby she pursued until her early 20s. “It sounds like a fairytale,” she said. “But I was really a happy girl, surrounded by great people all the time who showed me how to appreciate the moment and learn from every single experience on my way.”
After earning her degree in hotel management at CESSA Universidad in Mexico City, she realized her favorite classes all revolved around wine. “It would be 7 a.m. and I would be tasting wine in viticulture and oenology,” she says, laughing. “I like wine so much that I don’t think I wanted to focus my professional life on hotels and restaurants.”
From there, she spent almost three years working for the Mexican Wine Council, learning the commercial and production side of the business. It was there that she met Maria Rivero Gonzalez of the Rivero Gonzalez brand and she was hired as a brand manager for them in Mexico. After two years as a brand manager, Perez wanted to learn more about the art of winemaking, so in 2015, she traveled to France on behalf of the Rivero Gonzalez brand to get her masters in vineyard and winery management.
“There’s a lot involved with science, but it’s also an art,” she says of her time there. “I think that passion they have for wine, it’s just so enjoyable.”
It was around the time that she finished her masters that Rivero Gonzalez acquired the Martha Clara property. With Perez now equipped with her new knowledge, Maria Rivero Gonzalez asked her to be the winemaker.
Later that same day, Perez makes the short drive back to RGNY and shows off the back barn. You can still see remnants of what the property used to be back in the mid-1970s — a horse farm. Two large white horses remain, mostly used for wedding photos these days. Inside, the barn is still divided into stalls, but now filled with bulky, stainless steel winemaking equipment. This is where Perez does a lot of her experimenting.
Most of the room is filled with smaller versions of the stainless steel tanks at Premium Wine Group, but in the corner are two large, round clay containers. “I bought these from a friend in France,” she says, struggling to slide off the heavy lid to see the liquid inside. She’s hoping the clay will give the wine more “roundness and better texture” after aging.
“This is an area where I can just play a little more, doing small production,” she continues, referring to the 50% of wine currently made on site. “But if it works out well and we all like it then it will be special editions. Like this one here I’m excited for,” she said, placing her hand on one of the clay containers. “It’s the first year we’ll use it and then we’re going to see the results.”
Perez uses a tool called a wine thief that looks similar to a baster and draws out a small amount of gewürztraminer fermented with orange skins, dropping it into her glass. She swirls it around and takes a sip. As the wine fills her mouth, she swishes it around. Her expression quickly indicates her feelings about how the wine tastes.
“I am going to rack this week because it needs a little bit of oxygen, so just give it a good swirl,” she says, shaking her head. “It started super aromatic and now it’s kind of like …” she scrunches up her face to show her displeasure. “I’m not super happy with it. So I’m going to work on it a bit and see how it comes out.”
Before Perez moved out to the North Fork in February of 2018, she had never heard of the Long Island wine region. When she thought of New York wines, her mind went to the Finger Lakes. “But I liked the idea of being in a new region,” she says. “Talking with vineyard managers and winemakers out here, I think we are all excited to keep experimenting with new things.”
“I heard from clients and customers that my wines have something different that are closer to that French style,” she continues. “I was not actually looking to do it that way; it’s just the way I learned with my background.”
Although she sometimes misses the “chaos” that comes with living in bigger cities like Mexico City, the North Fork brings a calmness to her. “The appreciation of nature is my favorite thing — sunrises, sunsets, autumn colors and lots of different flowers and animals in the spring,” she said.
But Perez most loves the challenge of living in a new wine region. “This is my first time being in charge of the whole production,” she says, and she wants to get it right. She describes herself as “really nerdy in terms of, ‘This is what I studied and this is the way it should be done,’ controlling every single part of the process.” She leads the way to a second aging room filled with wooden barrels. Each one fills the concrete box room from wall to wall, stained slightly by their contents. Here, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and malbec varieties all age.
“I’m thinking of leaving maybe one or two barrels of this one,” she says, pointing to the malbec. “Just because by itself I like it better than with the blend and I see the potential of having it in the barrel aging a little bit more and then release it as a special project.”
It’s clear that Perez listens to her gut first, but also has the confidence to tap the experience of local winemakers, who know this region better than her. “When I came here and read there’s a bunch of different winemakers, most of them men and older than me, that was never a barrier. It’s a good thing for me to be discussing with people with the experience that I can learn from. And I can give something to them. Being in contact with different cultures and different languages, I find that helps me a lot.”
Perez recalls being out in the field one day with three male winemakers. “I was telling them that I love pinot noir and I want to do pinot noir and all of them said, ‘You shouldn’t do pinot noir, this is not a good year for pinot noir.’ ”
But Perez wanted to try it.
“I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Maybe there’s things that you should listen to, but I like to learn from my experience,” she says. “And the 2019 Pinot Noir is good. So I’m happy to just follow my instincts on that and not always listen to the people with more experience.”