It is the first Monday of the new year, and the afternoon is growing blustery and arctic. Inside a former CrossFit studio far from the East End, winemaker Massimo DeVellis pours some tempranillo into a glass and slides it across the tasting bar.
The grapes came from Yolo County in California, he explains, and the wine — made in the fall of 2016 from the same grapes one would find in Rioja — has spent years in an oak barrel. The first sip is zesty but smooth, a swirl of dark cherries, maybe cardamom. It is a warming foil for a bone-chilling day. DeVellis thinks the wine also has a hint of dill. "A good winemaker has a lot to do, but your presence is not supposed to be evident," he said. "Like a good plastic surgeon."
A few weeks prior, DeVellis and his wife, Jessica , along with longtime friends Ghislane and Joseph Divino, opened the doors to a place that they had been working toward for years: Insieme Wines in Oceanside. The industrial surrounds of Lawson Blvd., not far from a brewery, distillery and kombucha producer, were the perfect setting, Jessica said, for their vision: A boutique winery where they could make wine, and talk about it too. Where they could welcome the community to sample their tempranillo, and riesling, and malbec, and bold red blends, and alongside superlative meat and cheese boards. That it happened to be in a warehouse-like space was a draw rather than a repellent. "We were looking for something in an industrial area, to have that vibe, and it just sort of happened," she said. "We got lucky. The space was an empty canvas for us."
Insieme, which means "together" in Italian, does not fit the mental picture many people have of a winery: There are no grapevines growing outside, no patio overlooking a bucolic scene. Instead, there is a mural-covered exterior, an intimate tasting room accented in black, white and gold, a bar and high top tables, and wall art reminiscent of a yoga studio. There are towering lockers filled with wine bottles and, through a pair of glass French doors, a production space chockablock with steel fermentation tanks, rows of polyethylene tanks, and French oak barrels stacked three or four high.
Insieme intentionally shares more kinship with the urban wineries that have sprung up in cities across the country, places like Brooklyn Winery, where grapes are brought in from elsewhere for wines made, bottled and offered on the spot. In Insieme’s case, that fruit comes from California, Washington state, the Finger Lakes and the East End — anywhere Massimo can find fruit that meets his standards and his vision. "I love the ability to pick and choose, and I don’t want to be locked into any particular style," he said.
Before arriving in Oceanside, the DeVellises made wine for several years in a Hicksville warehouse, but the road goes back decades to Massimo's childhood in Rosedale, Queens. There, his father Enrico and the neighbors, many of them first-generation Italian immigrants, would make wine each fall for their own tables. "As one of two boys, your job was to do all of the grunt work," he said.
Making really good wine ups the stakes. Making really good wine year after year ups the stakes even more. And making that consistently is even harder.Massimo DeVellis
In his 20s, DeVellis started ordering Chianti at dinner. "The cheap Italian wine was all l I could afford," he said. He met Jessica then; she had grown up around her family’s New Hyde Park deli, and dining became part of their courtship and, later, marriage. "We started enjoying better and better Chianti," he said, which led to robust red Bordeaux and bold super Tuscan reds.
A gift from Jessica, From Vines to Wines by Jeff Cox, tipped him off that there was more to winemaking than he had learned as a child, including art and chemistry. "I said to my dad, ‘how come you never talk about this?" said Massimo, who made his first batch of pinot noir with grapes from Lodi, California. "It came out so good."
While the couple was dining in Martha’s Vineyard, a sommelier uncorked a bottle of Château Pichon-Longueville from Bordeaux. "It was awesome, and we talked about it. I said, ‘how do I make a wine like this?’ What equipment, what barrels, what traditions?’"
Massimo made more wine while he continued to work in finance; he also sought out mentors, new techniques and a growing stable of grapes. "I started hunting down people who could send me in the right direction," he said, including distributors, to find "the very best fruit I could get my hands on." That included cabernet from Napa, chardonnay from Santa Barbara County, cabernet franc from Washington state, and merlot from Long Island. "People don’t give it enough love," he said of the latter.
By the time the couple made a production space in Hicksville, "we had a cult following that grew," among their friends and followers, said Jessica. After they had secured the Oceanside space, a year of construction and permitting ensued. They hired artist Arlene McLoughlin — who created the murals at Dirty Taco & Tequila — to paint artwork on the walls. The DeVellises drew on their background in food to put together a menu whose centerpiece are charcuterie boards (starting at $27 per person) loaded with off-the-beaten-path cheeses and meats such as salty, sheeps-milk fiore de Sardegna pecorino, moliterno al tartufo (a pecorino with white truffle) or tartufo salami, plus marcona almonds, Castelvetrano olives, bruschetta toasts and quince paste. The boards are arranged by Massimo, who worked in his in-laws’ deli often over the years.
"We’re firm believers that wine goes with food," said Jessica. (Also on the menu: ricotta salt on bruschetta, burrata with artichoke hearts and eggplant caponata, and other Italian plates).
Most of the wines poured at Insieme, in flights or by the glass, have been aged for three years or more — more commonly, four or five. It is clear that Massimo — now retired from his first career to be a full-time winemaker — is a stickler for detail who doesn’t uncork the bottles until he feels they are ready. As he does, he can talk at length about the art of winemaking, about color and composition, about the reasons he chooses certain oak barrels that cost $1000-plus each.
On the polyethylene tanks that hold sagrantino, cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio, there are notes about racking dates and composition, written on strips of blue tape. Over the years, production has grown to about 3,500 cases per year. Last fall, the couple pressed 47,000 pounds of grapes, and hope to double that in their new space. The wines start at $24 per bottle, and top out around $60 for a reserve 2016 cabernet made from grapes brought in from a ranch just east of Napa, and of which there are only about six cases left. Visitors can buy it by the glass for $21, or in the high-end red flight — three wines each, three ounces each — for $40. (The least expensive flight is $22).
"Making really good wine ups the stakes," said Massimo. "Making really good wine year after year ups the stakes even more. And making that consistently is even harder."
Massimo's dad Enrico, who is descended from a family that long grew olives and grapes in the Lazio region of Italy, regularly visits his son and daughter-in-law’s winemaking operation, far removed from the foot stomping '70s and '80s. Extended family and friends are a core of the DeVellis’ ethos. "Between the wine in your family and the food in my family, there was no way we weren’t doing this," said Jessica.
By the time the tasting had drawn to a close, the winter sunset had exploded to fuchsias and purples. Insieme’s outside mural, of two hands holding up a globe against a night sky, became especially vivid — a shot of radiance on a very cold night.
Insieme Wines, 3333 Lawson Blvd., Oceanside; 516-696-3300, insiemewines.com