Q: The Village Cheese Shop on Love Lane has been an institution for years, but it’s newly yours. Do you have a background in cheese? It’s such a particular slice of business. A: Not formally, no. I have 23 years in the wine business, 17 of which were in France. Because wine and cheese are so often together, and because cheese is eaten daily in France—usually as a dessert course—I was indulging literally every day. So I’m self-educated.
Q: How did you get into the wine business in France? You’re not French.
A: Technically speaking, I’m Franco-American, dual-nationality, two passports. I grew up in Brooklyn then Rocky Point. My degree is actually in advertising, and I did that for four years before I encountered wine in California. I was visiting a friend in San Francisco and he brought me to wine country. That’s where I had my epiphany. He brought me to V. Sattui, in Sonoma, and experiencing the wine, the food, the ambiance, the people—I said to myself—what the “hell am I doing in advertising?”
Funny enough, back in San Francisco that same night, at Fisherman’s Wharf, I went to a wine store. And that’s where I discovered a bottle from Hargrave Vineyard from the North Fork. I think it was their Merlot. The wine store owner schooled me that there was very good wine on Long Island, which was news to me, even though I grew up in Rocky Point. It took a wine shop in San Fran to open my eyes to Long Island wine, oddly enough.
Q: Well, so you discovered a love for wine and the wine life; but how did that turn into a wine career, and how did you get to France?
A: After my California wine epiphany, I joined a few wine clubs in NYC. Eventually I learned that Bordeaux was one of the main wine regions to be discovered. So I started studying it.
In 1991 I decided to visit, so I contacted some of the major chateaux, such as Lafite-Rothchild, Haut-Brion, Pétrus, Margaux, etc and set up visits. I met my future wife Helene on that trip at Chateau Latour, where she was employed as an executive in charge of their public relations. We hit it off, and fast-forward, were married in 1994, in Port Jefferson before moving to Park Slope. I worked for a wine distributor, and she worked for a South Fork winery—Sag Pond vineyards, now Wolffer Estates.
When my company, Paramount Wines, merged with a liquor conglomerate, my job profile changed overnight for the worse; I went from selling classic wines to hocking back-bar liquor brands. I was fed up. My wife and I both loved wine, so I said: Why don’t we try to go to France for a few years, get more experience, then return to NYC at higher positions?
Q: Sounds like a plan, but doesn’t sound like you followed it—you said you spent 17 years in France.
A: Yes, we ended up staying a long time. She got a job right away at a major chateau (Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux), and I went to school to learn French at l’Alliance Française in Bordeaux. After six months I was fairly fluent and finally able to look for a job. I landed my dream career at Maison Chapoutier in the Rhône valley, 700 kilometers to the east of Bordeaux.
I was there for 4 years; it was a great career move. My growth was exponential. I did a lot of traveling, got to know a lot of journalists (Parker, Tanzer, Coates, etc). I learned the wine business very quickly; it was very intense. It was there also that I started discovering the proper way to eat and drink in France.
Q: What’s the proper way to eat and drink in France?
A: Purity of ingredients, careful, thought-out, balanced components to a meal, freshness—farm to table to the extreme. The French take food VERY seriously, even youngsters.
I didn’t snack; I ate big lunches, often skipped dinners, doing more apéritifs then classic suppers. I had the luxury of a very wealthy boss who didn’t cap the expense account. It was a rockstar lifestyle. But I was the father of two daughters whom I didn’t see enough due to late nights and excessive travel, so it was unsustainable.
Q: So what next?
A: Well, my wife found out she was going to inherit a small vineyard from her ailing godmother. It was in disrepair, but we figured “why not give it a go”. We were up the hill from Chateau La Gatte, a vineyard/winery built in 1646, but for about the last 90 years it had been (oddly enough) a prostitution house. We needed a good place to make wine, and the Chateau was for sale at a decent price, so we bought it in 2003.
It had a full facilities; tanks, tractors, everything—it had so much space we also opened a B&B. But with the wine making and the B&B we had no life and ultimately burned out in 10 years. We separated amicably, and I opened a shipping company, Roche-Mere, with a friend of mine who is a neurosurgeon from CT; Roche-Mere is still up and running, thriving. I consult for them part-time, to this day.
I definitively moved back to America in September of 2013 to Rocky Point be with my mother who was ailing with ALS. My two daughters are at university and boarding school in Bordeaux, and I see them every few months.
Q: So that got you back to Long Island; what brought you to the Village Cheese Shop?
A: I missed traditional brick and mortar retail, and I’d known Rosemary for years—she was friends with my parents as well. Dad would sell my Chateau La Gatte wine at The Village Cheese Shop, and when I would come visit, she and I would do pairings and special events. I always liked her energy, and we became friends.
As I said, I came back to the U.S. to care for my mother. Eventually I really wanted my brick and mortar store, so I started pursued Rosemary who coincidentally was just beginning to think about selling.
Q: Now that the Village Cheese Shop is yours, should people expect big changes?
A: Only a fool would change a winning formula, so people will not see major changes.
I plan on augmenting my French selections, given my background; about 25% increase in choices if all goes the way I’ve set out my objectives for the next six months. Also I’m going to increase my direct imports from Europe—not cheese—anything from soaps, to meats, pâtées, spices to sausage—anything that’s small-batch artisanal items where the producer has an FDA number. I want to bring over the aperitif setting, my passion for the pre-dinner ritual. To enjoy small nibbles, especially combined with wine, infinitely more interesting than simply the meal itself.
I’ll be getting my liquor license during first week of November. I’m going to hit the ground running with Long Island wines and some of the French wines I’ve imported via Roche-Mere. I’d like to do quite a few wine and cheese soirees and would love to have Taylor Knapp, the artist behind “Pawpaw Pop-Up” in Greenport and the Southold Escargot pioneer (first in America), to come in and do pairings and food samplings. I feel he’s a future celebrity chef of Michelin star quality.
I love social media, so I’ll do a lot of that. I’m starting with reformatting the website. I am trying to make it much more E-commerce friendly, and to start shipping. The post office is right across the street, and I’ve been mailing wines for years, so am very comfortable with safe shipping of cheese, etc.
Q: The French dimension makes perfect sense given your background. Are you also plugged into the local farm scene? The North Fork has its own very special offerings.
A: Of course. I offer lots of local products: The cheese from Catapano, jams and preserves from KK’s Farm, vegetables and eggs from 8 Hands Farm, Oysterponds Farm, Cristofaro Bakery, Browder’s Birds and MarGene Farms. I look forward to working more with the wineries and local farmers. And frankly, as much as I love France and the North Fork, I also love Vermont, and I want to stock more of its gems.
Q: You’ve been running the shop since the end of June. What do you like most about it?
A: The people contact. I love it. I can’t get enough. I love selling; I feel like I want to talk to everybody. I also love diversifying the inventory, keeping it fresh; I love being able to say: “hey this just came in, you’ve got to try this”. I prefer the front of the store to the back office.
Q: What do you appreciate most about the North Fork?
A: I really love it for its beauty and integrity. The people are laid back, polite, really welcoming, very nice. I was a bit daunted at first, worried about the transition. But it’s been very smooth. The North Fork is bucolic, but at the same time sophisticated. I’m in awe.