Dr. John Fondacaro poses by the vines at Lieb Cellars in...

Dr. John Fondacaro poses by the vines at Lieb Cellars in Cutchogue on May 16, 2024. Fondacaro was a leading veterinary doctor on Long Island before becoming co-owner of the vineyard. Credit: Randee Daddona

It’s a sunny spring day, and it’s quiet amid the acres of vineyards stretched along Oregon Road in Cutchogue. John V. Fondacaro, co-owner of Lieb Cellars and viticulturist for Lieb and Suhru Wines, is sitting in the winery’s breezy indoor/outdoor tasting room thinking about how he got here.

Until last year, Fondacaro, 53, was chief of staff at the Veterinary Medical Center of Long Island in West Islip, a comprehensive facility for pet medical care that he planned, founded and grew with two partners.

But after nearly two decades, the Setauket resident hung up the stethoscope to pursue a long-held dream — one that had been fermenting for well over a decade, ever since a trip to Tuscany.

“I knew I wanted to buy a vineyard,” he said.

John Fondacaro at the Veterinary Medical Center of Long Island...

John Fondacaro at the Veterinary Medical Center of Long Island with a patient, Lola Goerke, in 2017. Credit: Gregory Carastro

Becoming a vet

As a kid, Fondacaro never imagined he would one day become a veterinarian. But once immersed in classes at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a direction became apparent.

“Freshman year I took a zoology course,” he said, “and that was it.” Never mind the chatter about how competitive veterinary school would be — from getting in to the grueling years of study and internships. “I realized I could make a living as a vet,” he said.

He said he took wise advice from a mentor to get ahead with both research and practical experience.

At school, Fondacaro said he dove into an evolutionary biology project that turned into an honors thesis and later was published in Evolution, a peer-reviewed journal. At home in the summers as an undergrad, he went knocking on doors at small-animal practices.

Home was St. James, where he was born and raised, the youngest of five siblings. Three Village Veterinary Hospital in Stony Brook accepted him as a volunteer, he said. “And then I got hired,” he added, remembering a willingness to start on the bottom rung — cleaning cages, feeding animals, holding them for doctors. “My parents were impressed with the developing work ethic.”

Looking back, his choice of career makes sense: “From an early age I was interested in animals and nature,” he recalled. “My grandfather was a farmer in Dix Hills. He was known for his green thumb. He was a beekeeper. He knew how to graft plants and treat tree graft wounds.”

After graduation, Fondacaro leaped into the competitive College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University and then found himself in an externship at the esteemed Animal Medical Center in New York City, considered the world’s largest veterinary teaching hospital, and then at a clinic in San Diego. He said he developed an interest in animal oncology that later broadened to a focus on internal medicine.

Nursing and hospitality

While her husband was on his way to earning a doctorate in veterinary medicine, Renée Fondacaro was studying for her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Syracuse University and working at Knapp Winery in upstate Romulus, in the Finger Lakes region.

When they temporarily relocated to San Diego for a veterinary internship, she finished up her nursing degree requirements and, to help pay the bills — and put her wine background into action — she waited tables.

“During my time at Knapp Winery, I developed a strong foundation in wine knowledge and hospitality. I guided guests through tastings and provided tours of the winemaking facilities, which allowed me to deepen my understanding of different types of wines, their characteristics and the winemaking process,” she said.

She also got an education in brand management: “While working in the hospitality industry, I learned the importance of prioritizing the customer experience,” she said. “By focusing on customer satisfaction, you can establish a strong brand reputation.”

By the time the Fondacaros decided to head back East and build their respective medical careers at home on Long Island, they were enjoying wine and food experiences together regularly — in social settings, yes, but also exploring facets of the wine business. Over the years they traveled to different wine regions — Napa Valley in California, Italy — for immersive tastings.

As they pursued their passion for wine, John Fondacaro embarked on a new phase of his career, founding his own veterinary practice with two partners.

“We met and wrote out a business plan on a napkin — in a Melville diner,” he said, rolling his eyes with a “where else” kind of shrug, “for general and emergency practice. Our mission was to build a multispecialty hospital that could be the best. We wanted a [pet] hospital that [had a range of services and would function] like a human hospital.” By 2019, the Veterinary Medical Center employed 60 to 70 people.

The pandemic interrupted a tidy succession plan that had included transition to a reduced supervisory role for Fondacaro. “We had such an influx of pets from all the adoptions then. Things got so busy,” he said.

Fondacaro checks the vines at Lieb Cellars in Cutchogue.

Fondacaro checks the vines at Lieb Cellars in Cutchogue. Credit: Randee Daddona

More schooling

But by 2021 he decided he was ready to pass along the patient charts and sell his ownership in the hospital.

It would take another two years before he left for good, though, as Fondacaro dug deep —figuratively and literally — into vineyard dirt, absorbing as much knowledge as he could about viticulture.

“I made the same effort as when I was in my 20s and 30s in vet medicine,” he recalled.

A viticulturist — essentially a wine grape farmer — is crucial to the winemaking process. He or she needs to know as much as possible about soil, climate, growing conditions (terroir), plant material, plant diseases, pruning/trellising, harvest and coping with the vicissitudes of weather.

To prepare, Fondacaro said he enrolled in an online University of California, Davis, winemaker certificate program and a viticultural certification program at Washington State University, both requiring two years of study.

“It was intense, even though I’d had chemistry” and other science courses in college and veterinary school, he said.

The Washington State program required him to attend Grape Camp in Eastern Washington vineyards for three sessions during the growing year — one on infectious diseases, another on frost damage and pruning and a third on canopy management.

He also got his wife on board. Renée Fondacaro, winding down her own nursing career, was all in as an equal partner and ready to practice the brand manager skills she had picked up during her time in the Finger Lakes.

Then, there was the question of where to set up shop.

The Fondacaros had been taking advantage of the wine growing region on Long Island, particularly on the North Fork, which they said they visited often to taste, meet producers and just enjoy the productive, bucolic land.

Family-run Suhru Wines (industry veterans Susan and Russell Hearn combined their names for the brand they created), with a freestanding tasting room on the Main Road in Cutchogue, became a regular stop. They liked the wines: Teroldego (a northern Italian red varietal that grows well on the North Fork), La Crescent (a new hybrid white grape developed for cool climate growing conditions), a traditionally made sparkler and Merlot and Cabernet Franc, two North Fork signature grapes.

They also liked Shelby Hearn Ulrich, the Hearns’ older daughter, and the way she ran the tasting room (she is now the winery’s general manager). And John Fondacaro, particularly, said he liked Russell Hearn for his willingness to chat and his generosity in sharing wine knowledge and industry insight; he quickly became a trusted mentor.

Australian-born Hearn has been making wine at Lieb Cellars for three decades. Influential and innovative in the industry, he is also the longtime chief executive of Premium Wine Group in Mattituck, a full-service custom crush facility where many smaller local producers have their wines made — grapes to bottle (or can, keg, bag-in-box and more). He produces Lieb and Suhru wines there.

Hearn knew the Fondacaros were scouting for a North Fork wine property. “I had my eye on Oregon Road,” said Fondacaro. “My heart is here.”

Fondacar in the Lieb Cellars' tasting room.

Fondacar in the Lieb Cellars' tasting room. Credit: Randee Daddona

Making a deal

Pausing in the Lieb tasting room, Hearn picked up the story.

After a deal fell through for another property, Hearn, who had been acting as an informal adviser to the Fondacaros, said, “I called a meeting.”

With his wife, the Fondacaros, Shelby Hearn Ulrich and her husband, Brad Ulrich, Suhru and Lieb’s assistant winemaker, all in attendance, Hearn made his pitch: Lieb and its 54 acres were for sale. “Why not buy it. Together. All of us,” he recalled saying. “And run it together as a team” of six co-owners.

In 2023, they founded Oregon Road Estate Vineyards, which purchased the Lieb Cellars vineyard property, tasting room and brand name from Premium, owned by Jeffrey Haas, for $4.5 million.

And that is how John Fondacaro got “here:” Here being his new life mucking around in vineyards, thinking about the annual cycle of vineyard life. Harvest, the most intense time, starts toward the end of August and goes along according to each varietal ripening, with Petit Verdot usually the last, in November. Time-consuming hand-pruning of vines comes next. Then the vines can be tied down onto wires to maximize nascent fruit exposure to air and sun.

“We are continually managing weeds, mowing inter-row areas. We plant cover crops between rows,” he said. “And we don’t use any herbicides.

“Before fruit set [when flowers turn to berries], we like to do some leaf removal by hand. Fungal events because of high humidity can be reduced with canopy management,” he said. “The biggest challenge is weather — climate, climate change, weather patterns . . .”

It’s an important job: No matter the skill of the winemaker, great grapes are a must for great wine, Hearn said.

“So our focus is out here,” he said, gesturing at the expansive vineyard and, with a twinkle, turning his gaze on Fondacaro.

Who, returning a smile, seemed more than satisfied to accept that responsibility.

SIDEBAR

The Viticulturist Pathway

There is no one set way into the viticulture profession, but increasingly a scientific educational background is expected. A handful of schools in the United States, including the University of California, Davis, Washington State University and Cornell University, offer four-year Bachelor of Science degree programs. Most couple viticulture with enology, the study of wines.

Online programs are available. Advanced study is also possible and a few community colleges, like Walla Walla Community College in Washington State, have well-regarded two-year programs.

The truly ambitious could start out as a vineyard worker and climb the proverbial ladder. And a lucky few might latch onto an old-fashioned apprenticeship — learning and moving up from entry level on the job under guidance of a mentor.

Not sure you want to pursue a career as a viticulturist? Perhaps get a taste as a seasonal harvest intern (most wineries have such programs). Expect low wages, long hours, physical toil (indoors and out, no matter the weather) — but also learning opportunities with vineyard and winemaking pros.

— Margaret Shakespeare

Newsday Live and nextLI present a conversation with experts on the impact of powerful storms and rising insurance costs on Long Island hosted by NewsdayTV Anchor/Reporter Macy Egeland. The conversation continues on newsday.com/nextli where we invite Long Islanders to share their experiences on this looming crisis of changing weather patterns, flooding, shoreline protection, home buyouts and more to find potential solutions for the region’s future.

Paying the Price: Long Island's stormy future Newsday Live and nextLI present a conversation with experts on the impact of powerful storms and rising insurance costs on Long Island hosted by NewsdayTV Anchor/Reporter Macy Egeland.

Newsday Live and nextLI present a conversation with experts on the impact of powerful storms and rising insurance costs on Long Island hosted by NewsdayTV Anchor/Reporter Macy Egeland. The conversation continues on newsday.com/nextli where we invite Long Islanders to share their experiences on this looming crisis of changing weather patterns, flooding, shoreline protection, home buyouts and more to find potential solutions for the region’s future.

Paying the Price: Long Island's stormy future Newsday Live and nextLI present a conversation with experts on the impact of powerful storms and rising insurance costs on Long Island hosted by NewsdayTV Anchor/Reporter Macy Egeland.

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