Q: How did you come to the North Fork? A: My family moved to Southold in 1969. We were living in Huntington and summering in Greenport the 7 years prior.
Q: How/why did you become a winemaker/vineyard owner?
A: It all began at 16 years old when I joined some friends working at Mudd’s vineyard.
At the time, David and Steven Mudd had just planted a vineyard in Southold and together we quickly learned about grape growing which was quite exciting to be part of. This experience really added to the fascination and respect I already had for agriculture on the East End. I loved the North Fork and the outdoors and this really appealed to me. I remained with Mudd’s while studying greenhouse management after High School.
I had a passion for learning about plant propagation and planned to start a greenhouse operation. At Mudd’s we began learning the art of grapevine grafting. I started a small grape grafting operation of my own with hopes of supplying what was soon to become a fast growing wine industry. Turning plants into more plants! I was stoked!
Q: So you got started really early in life. Most kids don’t find their passion in high school and stick with it through adulthood. What kept you at Mudd and in grapes?
A: At Mudd’s we were continually being approached by people who later became considered the first wave of winegrowers; Dr. Dan Damianos of Pindar, Bob Palmer, Bob Pellegrini to name a few. Mudd’s started a consulting, installation and vineyard maintenance business that still thrives today. This was a high energy place to be and a very interesting company to be part of. I saw it as an opportunity.
Q: What was your next step?
A: Year one I grafted some plants, year two is about the time when there was a slow down in the economy. There was less planting going on, less demand for plants. So I had this idea with my family to plant our own vineyard. So in 1982 I grafted 15,000 vines put them in nursery and the following year, planted my own vineyard. At 21 years old, I was said to be the youngest vineyard owner/operator in North America—it was only 10 acre farm, but still it was pretty ambitious. The average vineyard in the world is less than 3 acres.
For the next 17 years I was a grape grower. I started by selling to essentially gentleman farmer wineries. In a two of those years, I made custom wines for a local restaurant. I also on occasion made wine for the bulk market. But for most of those 17 years I was selling high demand fruit to the several local wineries.
Q: What came next?
A: In the late 90’s, I had my eye on a farm that had been for sale for quite some time called Young’s Orchard.
It had the old farm house with a dinner bell on the roof, staff quarters, 150 foot potato barn. It was the remaining footprint of what was one of the most impressive farms out here. At one time Young's Orchard was a very popular agricultural destination where they offered things like cider, fruits and vegetables, pies, ice cream and fabrics. It was beautiful and inspired me to no end.
I was trying to figure out if I could purchase the farm and keep my vineyard. My thought was to expand west and plant reds; I had my successful chardonnay and Merlot vineyard to build on.
As it turned out, I couldn’t manage to do both. So in 2000 I sold my 15 acre farm to buy Youngs Orchard for the future home of Roanoke Vineyards.
Q: You said you wanted to move West and plant reds? What’s the connection between going west and reds?
A: As the land widens to the west, the climate is slightly warmer which is important for the ripening of red grapes. I had a real interest in growing Cabernet Sauvignon, a variety that I found in the wines I loved most. Many varieties grown out here make great wines when ripe and even respectable wines when not entirely ripe but this is not true for Cabernet. It is a finicky variety that requires exacting attention to detail and the challenge was motivating.
To match the site, I selected an early ripening clone of Cabernet Sauvignon grafted on an early ripening rootstock. I dedicated half of the vineyard to a variety that was no longer being planted much at all. The other half of the vineyard is cabernet franc and merlot.
Q: You turned Young's Orchard into Roanoke Vineyards in 2000, planting your Cabernet Sauvignon and other grapes then. When did you have wine to release?
A: Our style of winemaking requires about 2- 3 years from harvest to release so our first harvest from Roanoke Vineyards would not be released until 2006. Still, we were able to open October 2004 with a beautiful Merlot made in 2000 that was from the last vintage of my prior vineyard. This Merlot was our inaugural wine and it was truly one of a kind.
Q: I heard that 2013, 2014 and 2015 were particularly good crops. Do you agree? Is it limited to a particular grape?
A: The last 3 years have been dream vintages for the Long Island wine growers. It’s early to say but I think, for the reds, the 13’s will develop into amazing wines to be celebrated for decades. The 14’s and 15’s are very close in quality. 2013, 2014 and 2015 were all great years for whites too.
Q: You have two locations now, your main tasting room on Sound Avenue (the former Young's Orchard) that is only open to wine club members, and your tasting room on Love Lane that’s open to the public. What are your tasting rooms like?
A: Our Sound Avenue location was already structurally designed to accommodate our model so I renovated it with the goal of preserving the space and the feel it projected. It now offers the vibe that we hoped for. It has three indoor and three outdoor areas that each have its own relaxing and fun space to enjoy wine.
The Love Lane building was something I had my eye on for many years. That space was Mattituck’s first post office dating back to the late 1800’s. (Now the post office is across the street.) My aunt owned it and she agreed that if a time came that she wanted to sell it, she would let me know. In 2012, the time came and the rest is history.
I felt compelled to restore it with the same footprint rather than demolish it. Led by great family and friends, we lifted it, restored it and built a new foundation. The vision was to have a different feel with this space than we have at the vineyard. We had 50 of our retired wine barrels made in to a beautiful floor and kept the space bright and open. We opened in 2013.
Q: This year you made Sound Avenue open to wine club members and their friends and family only. Why?
A: The decision to take Sound Avenue private was always on our minds but, in a way, it was the members themselves who ultimately made this decision for us.
Shortly after we opened, we started a wine club and limited it to 100 members. We simply didn’t have enough wine to grow the club. As our production grew the club expanded and is now capped at over 1000 members. We developed a reputation for producing consistently distinct and elegant wines, a sort of safe haven for wine lovers.
Eventually we could not supply the demand for our wines. So our options were to either continue to grow more grapes or raise prices, neither which we were prepared to do, or to close it to all but wine club members.
Q: Why didn’t you want to keep growing?
A: We are very protective of our brand and the quality is stands for. We’re a bit of control freaks and feel the strong need to stay focused on wine growing and wine making, so this idea of expanding production to meet demand is not what drives us.
We’re making just over 4,000 cases a year now, and that’s what we think we can do and still maintain and increase the quality of our wine. If we just kept trying to meet the demand, we’re sure something would eventually have to give. Our motto is “how small can we grow” and we think we found the answer.
Q: Given how tied to your harvest the club membership is, how do you support a public location at Love Lane?
A: We have wines that are exclusive to our members, but some of our portfolio will be allocated to Love Lane. We also offer other New York wines at Love Lane, mostly made from North and South Fork fruit. We’ll continue to offer the wines from Wolffer Estate where I’ve been Vineyard Manager for 18 years now. We’re also excited to expand our offerings of great wines from Channing Daughters, The Grapes of Roth, and Brooklyn’s Red Hook Winery.
Q: Your website frequently lists wine and food focused events at both your locations. What should people know?
A: Driven by Roanoke Vineyard’s creative director, Scott Sandell, Our wheels are constantly spinning on creating interesting wine-focused programming. We’ve never been interested in just drawing people to the tasting rooms; we’ve always aimed to appeal to wine explorers.
One great ongoing event is the Love Lane Dinner Stroll where we take a group up to 16 people and host a 4 course wine dinner that includes walking visits to Amano, Lomabardi’s Market, The Village Cheese Shop and the Iron Skillet. Each location has our wine there ready to pair with their foods. It’s a popular event which we plan to host more frequently and can be reserved privately for a group.
We’ve done Skype presentations with wine makers in other places, that was really fun as we’d all taste and discuss together. We do our own reenactment of the Judgment of Paris. We’re hosting an event called ‘In Pursuit of Balance' where we will taste amazing wines from California winemakers who share our common goal of making elegant wines that express who we are and where we grow.
Most of these programs started at Sound Avenue but will spill out to Love Lane. The wineries we now brought on at Love Lane will also do their own classes and lectures. We’ll host “Pop Up” wineries where other NY wineries can come, show their wines and offer them for sale.
Q: Recently there’s been news stories about winemakers using additives to change the way their wine tastes and looks, and that a lot of wine isn’t the pure grape to bottle product consumers assume it is. Do you or the North Fork vineyards more generally use those sorts of additives?
A: The North Fork is really artisanal in its styles of winemaking. There are no mad scientists on the North Fork that I know of. I think those who manipulate wine don’t have confidence in their product or feel they can outsmart terroir and the inherent potential in their grapes. If the ingredient is fine, the wine will be fine. Here you can have faith in the wine and grapes.
At Roanoke Vineyards we believe that our wines are a document of everything and everybody that went into making them. The process is living and breathing. From the very first pruning cut to the moment the wine is poured, the wine is being made and that’s a beautiful thing that should not be interfered by manipulation.