Festive pounding from the 15-piece drum section built like a thunderstorm as it rolled across County Road 48 in Southold last Sunday. The Brazilian samba band played its way across the parking lot, the steady beat of steel drums pierced by whistles and clonking bells. By the time it entered the Sparkling Pointe winery, all carnival burst loose.
"We threw a party that nobody on the North Fork has ever seen," said Michael Falcetta, general manager of the new sparkling winery on the North Fork, referring to its grand opening. "We started a conga line, there were samba queens in feathers and bikinis, a bossa nova quintet. I never saw so many people swinging around and smiling and dancing."
But in the town halls of Southold and Riverhead, the smiles aren't so bright. Both towns are considering new rules to limit events - and the accompanying noise and traffic - that have sprung up around a once-sleepy local wine industry that has finally found its groove. Busloads of wine tasters, a steady stream of limos bringing brides and grooms to their destination weddings, even a World Cup soccer viewing, have some officials and townspeople wondering whether wineries have gone too far afield from their original missions to put Long Island on the global winemaking map on some of the region's most pristine preserved land.
Vineyards get hefty tax breaks on their agricultural acreage, and all 39 wineries with tasting rooms on Long Island host some special events aimed at drawing tourists to wine country, said Ron Goerler, president of the Long Island Wine Council and owner of Jamesport Vineyards. Many cater outdoor parties, and one winery hosts one wedding a week.
When Peconic Bay Winery in Cutchogue announced plans to stage a full-on rock and folk concert next weekend expected to attract 1,000 people for each of its two days, many of the locals said they had had enough.
"I've lived here over 70 years, and I'm used to the old ways," Robert Geehreng, a retiree from Cutchogue, said as he stood in the parking lot outside a local supermarket. "Since they've come out here, traffic has increased tenfold."
A need for balance
Town officials face a delicate balancing act. "We want the wineries to be successful," said Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter. "We understand they and other aspects of agritourism are a vital part of our farm economy. But we have to balance out their tents against the needs of town residents."
In Southold Town, where most of the Island's wineries are located, Supervisor Scott Russell said the regulation has to match the development. "The winery industry has evolved a great deal. Our special-events legislation needs to evolve to keep up," Russell said.
For their part, winery owners say too much regulation risks crippling an industry that pumps nearly $300 million into the economy of the North Fork.
"We have spent a tremendous amount of hours and resources to develop this region," said Jim Waters, owner of Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue. "If the towns impose everything they're talking about, you'll see a 50 percent reduction in one year, and it will take years to get it back."
Business hasn't always bustled at the region's vineyards, more than a dozen of which have been on the selling block or sold in the past decade. Profits can be paper-thin for enterprises that sell fewer than 10,000 cases of wine a year, particularly as regional wines struggle to build reputations in global markets. Winters can be especially taxing on wineries, with visitors trickling in from the West or on ferries across Long Island Sound, leading the industry to sponsor events like the Long Island Winterfest just to make the winter months viable.
Parking, traffic are concerns
For years, vineyard owners pushed legislators to allow them to conduct music concerts, art shows, sell snacks and appeal to more than oenophiles. Concessions have come only recently. Increased traffic is a signal those campaigns have worked - visitors to wineries along the North Fork's scenic roads have more than doubled to 1.3 million visitors in just five years, says the Long Island Wine Council.
But when the Peconic Bay Winery announced plans to stage the NOFO Rock and Folk Fest next weekend, where crowds will hear artists from Richie Havens to Mountain, some locals complained.
"It was a huge concern," Russell said. "They came in and told us it was a small event, 600 or 800 people over two days." When the town heard it could be larger, and that there'd be vendors, officials stepped in. "We are going to have a scaled-back version," Russell said. "There won't be traffic intrusion into neighboring properties . . . and we're working with the [winery] owner to mitigate noise."
Peconic Bay Winery general manager James Silver said the weekend's event would take place in a big field next to the winery. "It's wide-open space . . . the last act starts at 6 p.m. and will conclude before dark."
Nigel Williamson, of Mattituck, has lived and worked on the North Fork for only five years. The architect said he has seen the traffic get worse. "On the weekends it only gets worse. We ran away from the South Fork and it's only going to follow us," Williamson said.
He says a lot of residents have resorted to getting their food shopping done before the weekend, just so they can keep off the roads.
Clearer rules sought
The towns stress that the new rules are in the planning stages and specifics are still being worked out. Among proposals on the table, though, are limits to the number of events a winery could have in one day, and requirements for a minimum number of parking spots, signs for lost motorists, and a shutdown of the music that blares from tents and fields by a certain time. Southold is considering a new special-events law dealing separately with public and private events.
And, while local government cannot regulate the number of cars on state roads, they are considering limits on parking on the shoulders of two-lane roads that line the 3,000 acres of vineyards on the North Fork.
"If there were clear rules, it would be a benefit for everyone," Russell said. "Maybe we could have a list of what kinds of things can't take place at wineries. It's becoming a slippery slope. We want to be sure they don't get into the hotel or restaurant business."
Officials say they hope to have some regulations in place by the year's end so residents can better coexist with an industry that is estimated to bring in $150 million of business directly to the vineyards - with another $120 million to $130 million to the local economy, including hotels, gas stations and shops.
"We're trying to figure out how to accommodate everybody," Walter said. "We want farming and agriculture to be successful. If it's not, all you're going to have is houses . . . [but] you don't want thundering music until 10 or 11 at night."
Eric Russell, owner of Founders Tavern, a bar and restaurant in Southold, and the brother of the town's supervisor, has been one of the outspoken critics of the more frequent events at wineries.
"I don't like when wineries create their own events, particularly when it involves food," Eric Russell said. Noting he was married at a winery, he said he doesn't mind occasional events, but said he supports new regulations requiring permits for nonwine activities, just like Southold residents are required to obtain for the one garage sale they are allowed to host each year.
Even the lobbying groups that represent the vineyards - the Long Island Farm Bureau and the Long Island Wine Council - agree traffic and crowds have become an issue. And some said they would welcome standardized local regulations about what they can and cannot do.
Steven Bate, executive director of the Long Island Wine Council, noted that two sets of state laws govern winery operations - the alcoholic-beverage control laws and the agriculture and markets regulations - because they grow grapes and sell alcohol, and that "there is some gray area" between them.
And the requirement for local permits can add a third layer of rules. "Upstate, there are wineries that have restaurants . . . down here we are prevented from doing that by local codes," Bate said.
Costs vs. benefits
Despite complaints from residents, industry officials say active wineries are great for the region's economy.
"As tourism grows, it brings more people, and it's a little unfair to blame any one facility," said Joe Gergella, executive director of the Farm Bureau. "They go to wineries and to local restaurants and to bed-and-breakfasts, even to the Tanger Outlet."
Many of the vineyards formerly were farms that once harvested potatoes or other crops. And, like some of those farms, many benefit from an agricultural exemption - a provision in state law that allows for a dramatic reduction in taxes in exchange for a pledge not to develop the land for seven years.
In Southold Town, owners save around 80 percent or more on property taxes on the value of their agricultural land, but they are taxed like all other businesses on the value of their tasting room and winery operations. Vineyard owners in the agricultural district of Southold pay no school, town, county or library taxes; those in Southold hamlet have a 93 percent tax reduction on their bill.
According to the Wine Council, those exemptions apply only to the vineyard acreage. Property tax rates on tasting rooms and related buildings are the same as those for other area businesses, said Goerler, the Wine Council president.
Industry officials say competition with California and upstate New York vineyards, as well as worldwide, has forced Long Island wineries to offer more kinds of events.
"The wineries will not be able to make it just on selling wine," said Gergella of the Farm Bureau, noting that the grape yield can vary greatly from year to year. "The wine experience helps with income."
LI WINE COUNTRY
There are nearly 60 vineyards on LI, most of them located on the North Fork.
500,000: Cases of wine LI's wineries produce - about 1.2 million gallons of wine - each year.
$150 million: The amount generated by the wineries - from the sale of the merlot and rieslings to the mugs and artwork that tourists purchase - a year.
1.3 million: Minimum number of visitors (up to 3 million) to LI vineyards each season.
$150 million: The additional amount estimated that they spend on the local economy (restaurants, B&B inns or gas) during their visits.
SOURCE: Long Island Wine Council
HOW THE INDUSTRY GREW
Long Island's first commercial vineyard was planted in 1973 and had 17 acres of grapes.
By 1996, there were 35 vineyards covering 1,800 acres.
By 2002, there were 52 vineyards covering nearly 3,000 acres, a number which has grown only slightly since then.
39 sites have tasting rooms on Long Island.
MORE THAN WINE
Here are some of the issues being considered as towns seek to regulate the winery industry:
Current. Wineries are not restricted to the number of events they host. Some of the wineries have staged multiple weddings in one day.
Under consideration. Change special events to include two categories - public and private, and imposing separate restrictions for each. Limit wineries to a certain number of events per day. Impose noise limits.
Current. Concerts held by the wineries end at various times, usually depending on what's required by local ordinances.
Under consideration. Set a standard time for all concerts to end.
Current. Visitors to wineries park on the vineyard property but often spill out to local roads.
Under consideration. Require wineries to have a set amount of parking spaces on-site depending on their capacity.