Whispers of a new wine

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The "Whisper" in Saint James is not community gossip, but a new vineyard.

The vineyard is hailed by its owners as the most western in Suffolk County. Wine experts will get their first taste of the Whisper Vineyards product next May.

Located on busy Edgewood Avenue, the vineyard began growing wine grapes in 2004. Next year, it will be ready to sell its first wine, a chardonnay, with a merlot and cabernets to follow in 2009.

Owners Steve and Laura Gallagher and Laura's sister Barbara Perrotta chose the name Whisper Vineyards out of appreciation for Smithtown's legendary founder, Richard Bull Smith and his trusty bull, Whisper.

The story goes that Native Americans made a pact with Smith, an English settler, that he could keep whatever land he circled in a day's time riding Whisper. (The truth may be that Smith bought the land or won it in a card game.) The landmark bronze statue of the bull sits at the intersection of Route 25 and Route 25A in Smithtown.

Steve Gallagher said his daughter was on the kickline at Smithtown High School, which is known as the Whisperettes. It reminded him of the legendary tale and gave him the idea for the name.

Whisper Vineyards is part of Borella's Farmstand and Greenhouses across Edgewood Avenue. Joseph and Tess Borella, parents of Laura Gallagher and Perrotta, and both in their mid-80s, are still active in the day-to-day running of the farm. The farm produces a variety of fruits and vegetables, and the greenhouse produces flowers throughout the year.

"He has dirt in his cuffs," said Steve Gallagher of his father-in-law.

Solvency not easily achieved

Life on the farm has not been easy of late, say the Gallaghers and Perrotta. At one time, the 100-year-old farm grew potatoes on 300 acres. Now, the 53 acres produces more diversified crops, including corn and strawberries, and the greenhouses have a market year-round. It was once enough to give the family of farmers a modest income.

But in the past few years, they said, it has been hard to keep the farm solvent because people don't come and buy vegetables like they used to. Instead, they go to supermarkets.

Some days, the farm stand will take in only $75, not enough to support them or the cost of running the farm, according to Steve Gallagher. A sign seen from the road helps to make their point: "Experience it before it's nonexistent."

"We're not very convenient," Steve Gallagher said. "It's an extra step. But if people ate fresh, they wouldn't be overweight and they would live longer."

To keep the Saint James landmark alive and successful, the Gallaghers and Perrotta came up with the idea of transforming 81/2 acres of the land into a vineyard.

"Our goal is to diversify," said Barbara Perrotta. "Anything to draw attention to the farm."

Steve Gallagher said his research showed that the ground was suitable for wine grapes, and so, in 2004, with the help of his then-12-year-old son, Brian, he planted the rows of grapes -- three types of chardonnay, three clones of merlot and two clones each of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet Franc. The grapes, small but filled with juice, were very good this year, said Gallagher.

A three-year plan

The vineyard will produce "boutique wines," so-called because of its low volume output. Prices are yet to be determined.

The first wine, the chardonnay, is being fermented and bottled by Eric Fry of Lenz Wineries. The Gallaghers and Perrotta hope to refurbish an old barn on the property to use as the fermenting area and for wine-tasting. They hope to complete it in three years.

Until then, don't call it a winery. The state liquor authority distinguishes between a vineyard, which grows the grapes, and a winery, which includes the rest of the wine-making process.

The fields are now resting. A covering of oats, and a small snowfall this winter will help insulate the vines that will produce next year's group of new Long Island wine.

They are hopeful, they said, that the winery will be a success on its own, and also will bring customers back to the vegetable stand.

Laura Gallagher called her family one of the last holdouts, trying to keep farming on Long Island alive, and her sister agreed. While others might have given in to developers, they said to sell the land is not in their hearts.

"We could do that, but we're farmers," said Steve Gallagher. "You wait until the best crop comes up, and then you bring it in. That's what we are doing now with the wine."

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