It’s a lot of work to grow your own grapes, but residential vineyard owners wouldn’t have it any other way.
Driving past vineyards on the North Fork is a peaceful experience, relatable for anyone who has ever spent so much as a summer afternoon here.
When the sun hits the fruit-filled vines, the colors catch your eye as you pass endless rows along the north and south roads. The sight transports you back to carefree days sipping wine under a warm sun.
Part-time Greenport resident Ted Kokkoris gets that feeling each time he steps out the front door of his home.
Five years ago, after spotting grapevines growing on a neighbor’s property, Kokkoris and his wife, Vassos, decided to plant their own vineyard.
“I now find us just sitting out there,” he said. “We love being around the plants, watching the grapes grow. I find a lot of peace in that.”
It’s a feeling shared by many residential vineyard owners, whose ranks have grown this year as Long Islanders looked for hobbies they could take up at home. Stephen Scarnato, owner of Long Island Vine Care, which manages home vineyards on the North Fork and beyond, said his business has grown 30% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. These new vines have been planted — or are being planned — in neighborhoods on the North and South Forks and up-island in places like Lloyd Neck, Northport and Huntington.
Some of his new customers are simply looking for advice on planting and maintaining a vineyard. Others want Scarnato to see the whole process through to harvesting and winter pruning. He even crushes grapes, makes wine and bottles the product for some customers in a large garage at his home in Jamesport.
Like Kokkoris, a real estate professional, these clients are mostly just happy to experience the beauty among the rows of grapes and glad to have Scarnato do the work for them. “We try to spend all our time there in the summer,” he says of his Soundfront property, where 45 vines have been planted closer to the road, away from potentially harmful waterfront conditions.
The 2019 growing year was the first to produce wine, Kokkoris said. The couple decided to have bottles made using a sparkling method inspired by their favorite local winery, Sparkling Pointe. They used chardonnay and pinot noir grapes and call it Beba, which Kokkoris, who is Greek, said is a term of endearment he calls his wife. The label is a drawing by one of their children of the couple standing among the vines.
That first year, Kokkoris said, it was “just fun” drinking wine made from grapes grown in his yard. He was close to receiving his second bottled vintage when we spoke to him this winter, and he’s looking forward to sharing bottles with friends.
Scarnato said it’s about half of his clients who are hands off and happy to have him do the work. They simply want to enjoy the scenery and the wine.
About a quarter of them are more like John and Sharna Nicholson of Sound Avenue in Mattituck, retirees who relocated from Rochester and want to be involved in every part of the process. Sharna is a master gardener, but it’s John who’s made the vines on their property a primary hobby.
The Nicholsons consult with Scarnato, who takes soil samples and sprays the vines, but John enjoys doing most of the work himself — even pruning in winter.
Their residential vineyard was inherited from the previous owner, who planted it eight years before they moved in but hadn’t actually ever made wine from the fruit. After a couple years of tending to the vines, the Nicholsons took their first shot at bottling their product, with John acting as winemaker. It was a work in progress, as they produced very little wine.
“And it wasn’t that good,” he said.
They’ve now been bottling their product for more than five years and have seen growth in both volume and quality. The Nicholsons described their 2018 vintage as “nice” and 2019 as “nicer.” While the 2020 season didn’t yield as many grapes as the previous two, they were anxious to pop the cork on the first bottle.
The Nicholsons have 33 vines each of merlot, chardonnay and cabernet franc. They call their product, which they share with friends, 99 Vines.
The winemaking process is something John enjoys more than he initially anticipated. He crafts the wine in a barn in the yard, and stores it in barrels in a basement cellar. “The whole process is a lot of work,” he said of the chemistry involved. “It’s a challenge and I like a challenge.”
The rest of Scarnato’s clients fall somewhere in between the hands-off Kokkorises and the hands-on Nicholsons. Brian and Erica Ritchie of Oregon Road in Cutchogue fit into this group.
It was just four years ago that Erica’s father, Bruce Guthart, purchased the property as a weekend home for his extended family. Guthart had a friend from college with a personal winery and it was his dream to have the same. After he became ill with cancer, the vineyard became an obsession. The first phase of planting included about 175 vines. Scarnato identified another portion of the property with elevation and better drainage for planting Phase II, which brought them up to 400 plants on .6 acres. (Commercial vineyards start at about five acres, Scarnato said.) It’s row after row of sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, muscat, syrah, malbec, pinot noir and gewürztraminer, planted half white and half red. Scarnato said it’s the second biggest residential vineyard he manages.
Guthart passed away in 2019, but the Ritchies are carrying on in his memory. They call it Haven Vineyard, since this is the family’s retreat, a place of refuge during the pandemic for the entire extended family.
“This was his baby,” Erica said of her father. “A way to celebrate the good times.”
Some people spend their money on trips to Vegas, she said. Her old man planted vines on the North Fork, on a property the family swears has some of the best sunset views around. For the couple’s three children, the home vineyard is a place to play, to jump around in muddy puddles.
Brian worked alongside his father-in-law and is keeping up the effort with Scarnato’s help. They believe this year’s grapes will become their first bottles next year. They also hope to share their labor with friends. “It’s way more bottles than we’re gonna be able to drink,” he said.
In more than a decade in business, Scarnato said, he’s never had to rip out a home vineyard. It’s hard work, and an expense, but property owners who make the investment always persevere.
“Once people are around it for a bit and I’m able to educate them on what they need to know,” he said, “they have a vineyard for life.”