Q: How did you become a winemaker? A: Well, many years ago in college I got a degree in hotel and restaurant management, and that’s when I got my greater appreciation for the greater food and wine dynamic. I also learned from working in the industry.
Also I traveled abroad, was lucky to spend a few months in Europe—mostly France and Germany. I really got to taste some great wines, and got the bug.
Q: Okay, so you’ve got the wine bug—how did you transition into making wine?
A: My mother in law gave me first kit.
See, my in-laws are Italian, and like most Italian families, everything is from the land and sea; they like to make everything. I’m Polish and Irish and we didn’t do as much of those things. My wife called me a wannabe Italian, we would make sausage and things.
In any case, my in-laws were from the region of Campagnia, and they had a small vineyard back there—pre-WWII. When they came here it was about maintaining the tradition. She wanted my brother-in-law to make wine, but he had no interest. I did. You’re Irish she said, you make beer not wine. Still, she got me my first wine kit about 25 years ago, and that was that.
Q: How did you get to having your own winery?
A: At first it was just fun. Through my family I was friends with Ray Blum, when he was at Peconic Bay Vineyards, and I used to trade labor for hands on experience, working the harvest. I started buying fruits from Ray, and Richie Pescanto who owns Roanoke. We go back over 15 years. I was always able to get really good fruit. 2001 was our big turning stone. I was one of the volunteers at Ground Zero, and it was a wake up call—I didn’t want to be one of the ones who didn’t act on his dreams.
We started our first vintage in 2001, and opened to the public in 2003. We opened with a chardonnay, a merlot and a red blend that we produced.
Q: Why is the North Fork a great place to grow and make wine?
A: It’s about the region and what we do here.
We have the most days of sunshine out of any place in NY. We’re a nice summer climate, hot days, cool night, and we have long dry spells in the summer. The soils here are nice and light. It’s nail biting near as harvest approaches though, because there’s a risk of frost. It’s a huge job—vineyard managers have a very difficult job nurturing the crop every day, protecting it through ripening.
With their care and Mother Nature’s help we make world class wine. 2001 was a great vintage, 5 was a good vintage, 7 was an exceptional vintage, and 2010 and 2013 were excellent too.
Some varietals do particularly well here. Chardonnay is one of the most planted, followed by merlot, and cab franc. Sauvignon blanc is becoming more planted. At last count there were 36 varietals that have been planted, could be a little more now.
Q: How does this year’s harvest look?
A: This year is shaping up very well—harvest is still going on but everything that’s in so far is excellent. Excellent numbers on the grape. Great amount of alcohol to acid. Mother Nature did a great job of ripening the fruit.
That’s what makes a great vintage-the ripening. As winemakers it’s our job to bring the expression of all that to the wine, to bring out all the different flavors and nuance.
Q: Is harvest over? A: Whites have been harvested on our end, most of what we’re harvesting now is red. I’ll be done by Friday; the whole area will be 85-90% harvested by then. We’ve got great weather, coming down to the end Mother Nature’s being kind.
Q: What’s the wine industry like on the North Fork? How big is it?
A: We started in 1973 when the Hargraves planted.
There was no real professional direction in the early days; people believed the opportunity was there and took a chance. It’s really worked out.
Around when we got in, it seemed like there was a surge for a while, around 2004, 05, and several more in 07, 08, 10. It’s a lot of small projects. A lot of smaller people are doing what I do, buying local grapes and making wine. I’d say the last larger one was Sparkling Pointe.
Now there’s 56 producers registered on the North Fork. At 40 years young, we’re competing against areas that have been doing wine for hundreds of years.
Q: Has the industry changed much in those 40 years?
A: The industry has spun in a lot of directions. Today, some people just grow grapes; some people have wineries and buy the local fruit; some people contract for both the grapes and the wine making; some people grow the fruit and make their own wines.
That diversity of business is good for the local industry because it gives people lots of options.
Even with all the advantages the North Fork has, wine is a difficult business. People are in it for the love of what they do. It’s so expensive and hard, it doesn’t match the popular perception of all this money getting made out here. It’s not a project for the lighthearted. It’s hard to survive on the margins given the competitiveness of the industry these days. In so many corners of the country--in the world--there’s craft alcohol beverages. Wine, beer, spirits.
I like the people in our industry, in the agricultural community. We’re always supporting each other.
Q: You live on the North Fork too, right? It’s not just home to your winery?
A: Right. We moved to Mattituck, raised our kids out here. It is a good quality of life, it’s a terrific area with great schools. The East End reminds me so much of Europe because it’s so farm-to-table. The agriculture community is everything here.
You drive down the road, you’ve got these great farmstands, pies, wines…
And I am lucky enough to be a part of it.
Q: Are there any special events coming up you want to mention?
A: Taste North Fork. This Veterans Day Weekend the wineries and local businesses of all types will have specials and events that people can enjoy car-free; there will be a free shuttle bus.
It’s a part of the year when things slow down a little. We tell everyone it’s a great time to come out here. The main traffic hassle is done, and the weather can be beautiful.
It seems like there will be a lot of people out that week, that helps the whole community.
Check out Waterscrest's website, and peek at the tasting room: