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Photography by David Benthal

Touring a vineyard property, it’s easy to see so much potential everywhere you look. 

Even at Macari Vineyards, which was established in 1995 and long ago developed its glowing reputation among Long Island wineries, the possibility always exists to make greater and newer wines and to do things a better way. 

On a rare opportunity to visit the northern edge of the 500-acre waterfront vineyard, a rarely seen portion of the property that boasts unrivaled views from a bluff overlooking the Long Island Sound in Mattituck, you realize the sky is quite literally the limit for this family-operated vineyard. 

Macari winemaker Byron Elmendorf, who joined the winery in the fall of 2020, spoke enthusiastically during the tour this spring about how the forward-thinking family enticed him to leave his home in Northern California and start a new beginning for his family on the North Fork. It was what he saw on his own first tour of the land that convinced him. 

“To me, it was obvious that the reason they were making wines is because it was a labor of love,” Elmendorf said of the Macari family. “This is a challenging environment to grow grapes in. So to commit to some of the practices that they have committed to speaks volumes about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.” 

Those practices include a commitment to biodynamic and natural farming since the first vines were planted three decades ago. The vineyard team shuns herbicide and, on a portion of the property not far from the bluffs, cattle graze to develop the homemade compost used in the operation.

Raised in a foreign service family with a childhood history that enabled him to see other parts of the world — he was born in Honduras and went to elementary school in Ecuador — Elmendorf attended high school in Washington, D.C. before studying environmental science at Brown. He was employed as a climate change consultant when he worked his first harvest at a vineyard in New Zealand. Watching the process through a full season excited the future winemaker.

“I had been working in vineyards for six months and was watching everything change very incrementally in the seasonal cycle,” he said of that initial experience. “Then all of a sudden, it’s like a snap of the fingers. Everything went from watching changes occur on a weekly, monthly basis to the grapes getting processed and the juice getting pumped into tanks.

“I’ll never forget seeing the grapes that we’d been working with all season long and watching the process. It just felt kind of like this magical transformation occurring before my eyes.”

Byron Elmendorf, Winemaker

“I’ll never forget seeing the grapes that we’d been working with all season long and watching the process. It just felt kind of like this magical transformation occurring before my eyes.”

That second job became a passion.

After working several harvests, Elmendorf enrolled in the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology program, graduating in 2013. He’s worked within the industry in France, Italy, Canada and back to California’s Sonoma County. He later became winemaker at Boeger Winery in Placerville, Calif., located in the Sierra Foothills, halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. Like Long Island it’s an agricultural tourism market, where the winery tastings blend in with apple harvests and pumpkin picking trips for visitors.

Elmendorf’s true passion in recent years has been CLIME Wines, his own boutique label, which featured Italian varietals grown in the foothills and helped him grow his reputation as a winemaker. Just a few years into his work with Boeger and CLIME, the San Francisco Chronicle named Elmendorf as a “Winemaker to Watch,” noting he “brings a worldly perspective to his winemaking.”

Ultimately it was a truly small-world scenario that brought Elmendorf to the attention of the Macaris when a mutual friend from UC Davis connected him with his current employers.

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic and at a point where his personal brand was at a crossroads, the timing seemed right.

“It was time to think about investing more in the brand whether that was a facility for production, maybe buying some land to plant vineyards,” he said of CLIME in 2020. “As soon as I started chatting with the Macari family, it was obvious that it was a really interesting and unique opportunity.”

He said it’s not just what the family has established in its first several decades in operation that attracted him to the new gig, but also what they hope to accomplish in the future.

“They have a vision for what they want to do and what they want to be,” the winemaker said. “For me, it presented an opportunity to be part of that, and help with overall direction and also the implementation.”

And so it came to be that following his own tour of Macari, Elmendorf accepted the job and moved to Mattituck with his wife Miranda and their now 3-year-old son Calvin.

As Elmendorf showed the Wine Press around, it was hard not to notice ourselves how passionate the Macari family is about the day-to-day responsibilities of owning and operating the winery. Joe Macari Jr., who founded the vineyard at the former potato farm with wife Alexandra and dad Joe Sr. in 1995, waved as he passed by while out in the vineyards, which he manages with his own son, Joe. Daughter Gabriella was prepping the bar early that morning with her mom at her side. 

If you haven’t been to Macari’s tasting room in Mattituck in several years, you will notice upon your return how many changes they’ve undertaken to enhance the guest experience in recent years.

What was once the primary tasting space is now an overflow bar for walk-ins. The back patio area is the main tasting space these days, featuring table service upon reservation. Outside there are a handful of tented bungalows available for a more intimate experience.

A rosé room, appropriately featuring a pink motif, also offers a unique indoor experience for larger groups.

As for the winemaking, which most directly involves Elmendorf, he said they’re working on plans to experiment with new grape varieties and fermentation methods they can eventually showcase as a reimagining of their second tasting room in Cutchogue, which they’re calling Meadowlark North Fork.

Historically, Macari, which has about 160 acres of planted vines, has been focused primarily on Bordeaux style wines.

“What we’re working on now is figuring out exactly what we want to be making and what styles and varieties [we want to introduce] in the next 10 years or so,” Elmendorf said. “We want to obviously respect that history and tradition and carry it on. But we are also looking at opportunities to do new stuff. Innovations.”

The focus at Macari isn’t just about a “pace of production and profit” Elmendorf said, but rather to operate in a “truly sustainable way” and to “push the boundaries of winemaking here.”

Sounds like the perfect job for a man who grew up all over the world, has worked harvests in several countries and was previously employed as a climate change consultant.

“I feel like my winemaking career has really spent a lot of time exploring up and coming areas, areas that aren’t really fully established but are still trying to figure things out,” he said. “This is a very young winemaking region. And I don’t feel like there’s been enough experimentation with other varieties.”

For Elmendorf and the Macaris, the experimentation has started with slowly planting new vines and testing out new fermentation methods.

“It’s just different winemaking techniques to kind of bring out different flavors and textures,” he said. “Anything from whole cluster inclusion to carbonic fermentations and skin contact with different white varieties.”

While trying new things can be a bit of a gamble, Elmendorf said he thinks it’s important to explore the possibilities to truly untap the future.

“Long term, in terms of really figuring out what you’ve got and what your potential is, it’s worth taking the risk,” he said.