After over 30 years of serving as head winemaker for Lieb Cellars, Russell Hearn is now at the helm of the operation after purchasing the winery for roughly $4.5 million.
Hearn, founder of Premium Wine Group, is teaming up with his wife, Susan, eldest daughter, Shelby Hearn Ulrich, son-in-law Brad Ulrich and two new business partners, John and Renée Fondacaro, to merge Lieb Cellars with the second generation and family owned Suhru Wines.
“Having grown up in this industry, it’s very exciting to be able to take that next step and that next reinvestment into the region,” said Hearn Ulrich, general manager of Suhru Wines. “The family owned aspect is so important because it adds that extra level of care and accountability.”
Located at 13050 Oregon Road in Cutchogue, Lieb Cellars is a 54-acre, sustainably farmed vineyard and winery, which was founded by Mark and Kathy Lieb in 1992. The following year, the Liebs hired Hearn as a winemaker and in 2000, the two founded Premium Wine Group, a full-service custom crush and winemaking facility, and opened Lieb Cellars Tasting Room.
Since then, Lieb Cellars has become known for its Pinot Blanc, Sparkling Cuvees and selection of red varietals. Hearn and Hearn Ulrich said the wine quality won’t change under the new ownership and the hope is to grow both brands, while introducing a few new ideas.
“I first met Mark and Kathy Lieb three decades ago — they were passionate about wine and looking to showcase the best Long Island had to offer,” Hearn said. “Family owned businesses view quality and the future different than a corporate owner — I think that’s the core of what we’ve done over the years, and we try to produce wines that we enjoy drinking.”
Suhru Wines was launched by Susan Hearn in 2008 and started out as a wholesale-focused brand. In 2018, the team opened its tasting room at 28735 Main Road in Cutchogue and Hearn Ulrich said the business grew rapidly from there.
As the brand expanded, Hearn Ulrich said the team decided they needed to find its own vineyard. The company has worked with a handful of grape growers across Long Island and in the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York. Those grapes are brought over to the Premium Wine Group facility for production.
Given her father’s deep roots in Long Island’s wine industry and history working with the Premium Wine Group, Hearn Ulrich said the partnership with Lieb Cellars was a no-brainer.
“In a lot of ways, it was right in front of us and such an obvious choice that never occurred to us until about a about a year ago,” Hearn Ulrich said. “It felt like a natural fit for us moving forward.”
Entrepreneurs John and Renée Fondacaro are partnering with the Hearn family, as well, and bring a vast knowledge of winemaking, viticulture and hospitality to the enterprise.
After meeting in 1992, the couple relocated to Ithaca, NY where they explored dozens of wineries in the Finger Lakes area. John Fondacaro received his winemaker certificate from the University of California at Davis and is enrolled in the viticulture certification program at Washington State University. Renée Fondacaro has marketing experience and worked in the tasting room of Knapp Vineyard during her time living in upstate New York.
“John and Renée are going to be critical in this going forward, their passion for local wine and interest in viticulture is a nice fit,” Hearn said. “We feel good together, we’re very family oriented and I think that gives us more perspective.”
Lieb Cellar Tasting Room will continue under its current management until the end of the year. Beginning January 1, 2024, Mr. Hearn will take over Lieb Cellars and Suhru Wines will be introduced to the Oregon Road Tasting Room.
Suhru Wines’ current Main Road location will run through September 2024, but the plan is to fully move Suhru Wines into a consolidated tasting room at Lieb Cellars in the fall of 2024.
Lieb Cellars and Bridge Lane wines will continue to be featured at Lieb Cellars Tasting Room until the end of this year. Mr. Hearn’s role as winemaker for Bridge Lane Wine and CEO of Premium Wine Group will not change.
As of right now there are not a lot of other plans to share, but Hearn Ulrich said any changes to Lieb Cellars will be minimal. In the last 50 years, the local wine business has come a long way, she added.
“We are the next generation that’s really committed to Long Island wine,” Hearn Ulrich said. “I think this continued investment in the region just proves how dedicated we are to the longevity of Long Island wine.”
Hearn said he sees agriculture flourishing in the North Fork area and although it has changed over the past few decades, the region continues to be attractive because of all its diversity and variety of family-operated businesses.
“When it started with the Hargraves, two or three wineries were curiosities, then suddenly there were 15 to 20 wineries and then people started to say, ‘hey there’s an industry here,” Hearn said. “There are a number of wineries out here that have a second generation coming on — that solidifies our future.”