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(Credit: Chris Francescani/Sunset Beach Films)

Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue has captured the two most prestigious awards in the 2023 New York Wine Classic, earning both Winery of the Year and the Governor’s Cup for best wine produced in the state. 

“It felt absolutely great,” said Paumanok co-founder Charles Massoud, who opened the winery with his wife, Ursula, in 1983. “It was hard to believe because I don’t think there is a precedent that one winery got all the awards in the same year. I think this is a first.”

Paumanok Vineyard’s 2019 late-harvest sauvignon blanc won the Governor’s Cup. While the winery has received three previous Winery of the Year designations, this is its first Governor’s Cup. 

Additionally, Paumanok won prizes for its 2019 cabernet franc, 2021 barrel-fermented chardonnay, 2022 dry rosé, 2014 Tuthill Lane Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, 2022 semi-dry riesling and 2019 merlot.

The couple’s three sons — Kareem, Salim and Nabeel — grew up around the family business and in recent years have taken over much of the day-to-day management of the winery.

“My wife and I are not as involved as we used to be,” Charles said. “Our three sons are all working here and they do the lion’s share of the work, so for us, it was a pleasure to see them get that recognition.”

Ursula said that Kareem is the winemaker, Salim handles administration and logistics, and Nabeel is the vineyard manager.

Ursula, who studied American poets in college, said the inspiration for the winery’s name came from a Walt Whitman poem, “Starting from Paumanok,” which was first published in the 1860 edition of his seminal collection, “Leaves of Grass.”

She traveled several times to the New York Public Library in Manhattan to see the original notebooks where Whitman first wrote his poems, including the original version of “Starting from Paumanok.”

“We were looking for something that would give it a sense of place and a sense of tradition at the same time,” Charles said. “Easier said than done.”

After more deliberation, they settled on Paumanok.

“It’s a beautiful poem about the idyllic nature of Long Island, and so we figured, ‘That’s great!’ ”

But Kareem wanted to dig deeper to learn more about the origin of the term.

“It turns out the meaning of the word Paumanok — the pronunciation, I’m sure, is approximate — but it seems that in Algonquin, it means ‘land of tribute’.

“What that means, apparently, is that the tribe from Manhattan was always trying to invade Nassau County. And [other tribes] would pay them tribute not to invade.”

Charles hails from a Lebanese family in the hospitality industry, and Ursula grew up in a winemaking family from the Pfalz wine region in Germany.

Charles said the family has received some well wishes from fellow North Fork vineyards since the winners New York Wine Classic were announced by Gov. Kathy Hochul earlier this month.

“It’s a very collegial group — we all get along,” he said of his fellow North Fork vintners. “As a group we got along famously ever since the beginning. When we started in 1983, there were only 10 or 12 other [vineyards] on the North Fork. On weekends, we would get together and have barbecues.”

It was at these barbecues that it began to dawn on some of the winemakers that there was more to the craft than they properly understood at the time.

“In 1985, at one of these barbecues, we started comparing notes and we came to the conclusion that we really didn’t know what we were doing,” he said with a laugh. “Because we all came from different backgrounds — there were engineers, marketing, doctors, lawyers, you name it. But nobody was a farmer.”

So, in 1986, the group organized the Cool Climate Symposium and invited seven top experts from the Bordeaux region of France. 

“Some were celebrity chateau owners but one was a professor of soil science. We had dug a trench six feet deep, and it was nothing but sand. And we wondered, ‘Is it a good idea to show it to these illustrious visitors?’”

In fact, it was.

“He went into the trench and he spent 20 minutes in there. As it turned out, the North Fork is a moraine,” meaning the soil and rock had been carried and deposited here during the last ice age. “It’s what is left after the glacier retreats.”

The soil expert said the North Fork moraine reminded him of the Right Bank — or northern region — of Bordeaux.

“The quality of [North Fork] soil is about drainage. The soil here drains very well because it can rain abundantly in the summertime, and you need a well-drained soil. That’s what we learned.”

Below are the other North Fork wineries and vineyards that earned honors in this year’s New York Wine Classic.

Best Sparkling Wine: Jason’s Vineyard, 2021 Bubbly Rosé

Best Cabernet Sauvignon and best red blend: Osprey’s Dominion 2019 Reserve

Best Chardonnay (unoaked): Borghese Vineyard

Best Merlot: Coffee Pot Cellars

Best Pinot Gris: Sannino Vineyard

Best Sauvignon Blanc: One Woman Vineyards

Best Traditional Method Sparkling: Sparkling Pointe