Pindar Vineyards' newly named winemaker Erik Bilka, seen on Feb....

Pindar Vineyards' newly named winemaker Erik Bilka, seen on Feb. 14, is bringing new methods and emphasis on new wines to the Peconic vineyard.  Credit: Newsday / Mark Harrington

As it prepares to mark its 40th year as a Long Island wine pioneer, Pindar Vineyards of Peconic is making changes to improve its wines and return to its roots after the loss in recent years of two family icons.

The company is also testing new avenues for growth, including its first offering of wine in four-pack cans and reopening its doors to the wine tours started by family patriarch Herodotus “Dan” Damianos. which educated generations of Long Islanders about how the area's largest local vineyard grows grapes and makes wine. Dr. Dan Damianos, as the founder was called, died in 2014 at 82.

Pindar Damianos, one of three siblings now running the winery after the deaths of their father and their brother Jason Damianos, who died in  2016, said in a recent interview that the company has consolidated its vineyards after selling off around 150 acres (much of it unplanted). He said the company is returning to some of the practices that made Pindar known as a place to learn about vineyards and wine making.

“We ended up bringing back a lot of my father’s ideas,” Pindar Damianos said. “My dad built this place on winery tours. He was so passionate. We did it so many years, but then got away from tours. My sister and I got back to my father’s vision.”

The change of direction didn’t happen overnight.

“After my dad passed away, there was a transition,” Pindar Damianos said. His sister, Alethea Damianos-Conroy, and brother, Alexander Damianos, now manage the company. Pindar Vineyards once owned upward of 600 acres, not all of it farmed. It’s whittled that to 450 acres and, after briefly exploring putting the winery up for sale, is committed to keeping it in the family. There are no outside investors, he said.

The company plans to keep its three main brands, offered at three separate wineries: Pindar, Duck Walk in Southold and Southampton, and Jason’s Vineyard in Jamesport. “We’ll continue to be on both forks,” he said. “My focus is Pindar,” while Alex is primarily focused on Duck Walk. The two brothers and sister together manage Jason’s.

Pindar Damianos, one of the siblings who own and operate...

Pindar Damianos, one of the siblings who own and operate Pindar Vineyards in Peconic, in his tasting room with new canned wine offerings on Feb. 14. Credit: Newsday / Mark Harrington

Each operation has its own vineyard, but the grapes are shared to create the best wines for each. For the new four-pack “small-run” canned wine offering this spring, Pindar will prepare its popular Summer Blush and Winter White wines. Others could follow. The wine will be sold in Pindar’s winery, at its Port Jefferson tasting room, online and at select local wine merchants. The company is also examining screw tops to replace corks for some of its wines, Damianos said.

In January 2018, the company hired a new winemaker, Erik Bilka, a respected oenologist who has made wines for and with some of the Island’s most respected vintners, most of it during a 17-year stint at Premium Wine Group as production wine maker. He went to work improving technical elements of Pindar's wine making, selling 3,000 old oak wine barrels and buying new French oak and moving old inventory in a way that will make room for improved new wines.

“I was brought in to improve the level of everything with a focus on the varietal whites and the dry red wines,” Bilka said. "The goal is to have better fruit and better wine and move the whole Pindar brand forward."

Working with Bill Ackerman of North Fork Viticultural Services, Pindar is culling some old-growth vines and planting some new. “It’s a lot of chainsaw work and a lot of new growth,” Bilka said. “Things are changing," down to even pruning techniques. 

Pindar is one of the few local wineries that allows visitors to bring their own food, and it offers a selection of cheese and other finger foods, and even beer, in the tasting room. “We’ve allowed it for 40 years,” he said. The company previously worked with a food truck to offer prepared foods, but stopped the practice last year when Southold Town cracked down on the trucks

Pindar produces between 60,000 and 70,000 cases of wine a year, while Duck Walk produces 15,000 to 20,000 cases and Jason’s produces around 3,000. Pindar alone has some 35 different varietals of wines on the counter of its tasting room. “My dad was always into variety,” Damianos said. “Variety is the spice of life.”

The company operates with a staff of between 25 and 30 people, depending on the season, many of whom have worked here for 20 years or more, Damianos said. Most work on the harvest from September through November, including the 2018 harvest, which Bilka said was a good year for whites. 

 “Whites came in strong, there are nice chardonnays,” he said. 

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