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North Fork wine region aims to balance growth, rural appeal

Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue, seen here on

Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue, seen here on Wednesday, May 25, 2016, and other North Fork wineries are working to create less of a party atmosphere as the industry matures. Credit: Randee Daddona

Long Island’s North Fork winemaking region is struggling with its success.

The area, where former potato fields were transformed into vineyards that have attracted legions of visitors and congestion, is trying to come to terms with how to balance explosive growth and its bucolic charm.

The equation is complicated.

The industry, which was born in the ’70s, has grown to 43 vineyards that dot the winding roads from Riverhead to Orient, intermingled with fruit stands, garden centers, boat sales and repair businesses. The vineyards have become a mainstay of the local economy, generating jobs and revenue. East End officials credit the winemakers with preserving the rural feel of the North Fork and preventing suburban-style development.

Now, the challenge is how to create an environment that allows the vineyards to flourish without ruining the elements that brought them to the East End in the first place: natural beauty and calm.

“We’re trying to brand the area, brand the business, and help people navigate,” said Jim Waters, founder of Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue. “You have to realize that there are a lot more folks coming here, and we want to manage that, and we don’t want to create a quality-of-life situation for our neighbors.”

Winery managers said that over the past year they have begun sharing practices for creating a calmer environment for neighbors, curating a more upscale experience for customers, and moving traffic smoothly along the North Fork. Among the ideas, which wineries can voluntarily adopt, are:

  • Requiring reservations for groups of more than six people.
  • Limiting tasting pours to one ounce and standardizing the number of wines offered in a tasting, known as a flight.
  • Providing a way for customers to spit out wine after tasting rather than drinking more alcohol.
  • Training tasting room staff to recommend wineries and restaurants based on the kind of experience a customer wants, in order to avoid conflicts between serious tasters and visitors looking for fun.

Leaders of the Long Island Wine Council trade group said they are working to rebrand the area as a destination for quality wines rather than partying.

“The idea is to change from the day-tripper kind of agri-tainment person to someone who wants to come out here and buy wine,” said Steve Bate, the council’s executive director.

Juan Micieli-Martinez, general manager of Martha Clara Vineyards in Jamesport, said his winery will offer table service for the first time this season and will no longer have live music on weekends.

“People were pulling up and saying, ‘What band is playing this weekend?’ And not a lot of people were calling about the wine,” he said. “As a region, we feel that our wines should be on the stage.”

Ami Opisso, general manager of Lieb Cellars in Cutchogue, said talks among wineries have also included tips for improving service and educating customers about wine.

‘Shared interest’

“The reality is all of us wineries have different business models and different ways of doing things, and that won’t change. But a healthy exchange of ideas and a shared interest in elevating our wines and guest experience can only be of benefit to us, our local community and our visitors,” she wrote in an email.

Last summer’s collision of a vineyard-touring limousine and a pickup truck that killed four young women fueled the soul-searching at the vineyards and two town halls.

“These are the things that raise questions in our minds,” Southold Councilman Bob Ghosio said. “How far do we let it go? Does this become the primary focus of people coming to our town — have a few drinks, have a little fun? There’s so much more that our town offers.”

But Rich Vandenburgh, a founder of Southold’s only brewery, Greenport Harbor Brewing Company, said that while town officials are right to try to curb “questionable behavior” at drinking establishments, they shouldn’t close the doors on an agricultural industry that creates jobs. Greenport Harbor Brewing Company, which opened seven years ago, now has 13 full-time and 17 part-time workers, he said.

“It’s an amazing industry — we have been working with the governor, who has been one of our big champions,” said Vandenburgh, who also serves as secretary of the New York State Brewers Association trade group.

“I just think it’s really short-sighted to say, ‘We have enough wineries and breweries out here, we don’t need any more,’ ” he said.

Visitors top 1 million

The North Fork’s wine industry, which began with a handful of vineyards in the 1970s, has swelled to 43 producers. Those wineries last year attracted 1.3 million visitors, industry officials have said.

East End officials credit winemakers with keeping miles of former potato fields in agricultural production and saving some of the region’s farming heritage from suburban-style development while infusing the area’s economy with new levels of tourism.

The changes created some tensions with residents as some wineries started hosting ever-bigger events.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell summed up the concerns in his Feb. 25 State of the Town address, saying residents should “start asking hard questions about what we want our future to be . . . What do we want Southold to be five, 10, 20 years from now?”

Town officials this year are to update a 2010 comprehensive plan to guide decisions about Southold’s future with new “goals and objectives” related to the beverage industry, Southold planning director Heather Lanza said. That update will expand to include breweries and distilleries — segments of the adult beverage industry that also are growing in the region.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said his town, which has hosted several major concerts at wineries in recent years, is “kind of at almost capacity, a breaking point” in terms of traffic.

An August music festival planned at Martha Clara Vineyards by musician and producer Nile Rodgers — his third concert at the vineyard since 2013 — will be a crucial test of whether the town’s roads and police force can handle major events, Walter said. Rodgers’ festival drew more than 5,000 people to the vineyard last summer, with no reports of major traffic or other problems.

Finger Lakes problems

New York’s upstate Finger Lakes region — the state’s largest concentration, with more than 130 wineries — grappled with similar issues as it grew in popularity, said Bob Madill, acting executive director of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance trade group.

“I think most wine regions that experience a lot of tourism, whether it’s wine-related or culinary or whatever it may be, wrestle with the same issues once you start to become a victim of your own success,” he said.

The Finger Lakes’ wine industry began in the 1800s and grew rapidly in the 1980s and ’90s.

Finger Lakes winemakers have coordinated tour policies to curb drunkenness, Madill said. Many have agreed to turn away tour groups after 3 p.m. Some don’t accept tour groups that have already visited another winery.

The upstate wineries also opened conversations with tour operators to warn them against bringing around groups of intoxicated people, Madill said.

“They weren’t necessarily the best sort of people you wanted in your tasting room,” Madill said. “They didn’t necessarily spend a lot, they don’t add a lot to the environment.”

Ali Tuthill, marketing director for the Long Island Wine Council, said the shift from a focus on increasing traffic to one about quality wine education is a natural one as the industry matures.

Wine council officials launched a new website this spring with information about the policies of each winery, including whether they allow pets or limousines. Tuthill said the goal is to help customers easily find the experience they want.

“We understand our role in protecting the very nature of the East End,” she said. “But we also understand that in order to keep this sustainable, we need to work together with our communities, and we need to grow responsibly.”

Cuomo pushes industry

East End officials said their efforts could be limited by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s enthusiastic promotion of the state’s craft-beverage producers, which could attract a crush of new wineries, breweries and distilleries to the North Fork.

Cuomo has championed the state’s beverage industry as an economic sector with potential for growth, and has unveiled several regulatory changes designed to help producers.

“By cutting more red tape and encouraging creative investments, we are cementing New York’s role as a leader in the craft beverage industry,” Cuomo said in October at the state’s third annual Wine, Beer, Spirits & Cider Summit in Albany.

“Southold is certainly a place where people want to invest in agriculture,” Russell said in his February address. He predicted that the governor’s promotion of the industry would result in “a substantial amount of investment” coming to Southold.

“If we do nothing, Southold risks having an economy built around drinking,” Russell said. “ . . . I think we must to do what we can to accommodate them to make sure they complement the community, not overwhelm it.”

Since Cuomo took office in 2011, the number of licensed wineries in the state has grown 67 percent and brewery licenses have risen 436 percent, the governor’s office said in October.

Cuomo appointed a group of beverage producers last year to weigh revisions to the state’s alcohol control laws, including a reduction in paperwork and restrictions on producers.

He also unveiled more than $16 million in initiatives for the industry, including $5 million for marketing and $5 million in no-interest loans for beverage makers to begin exporting to other countries.

East End officials said local efforts to regulate wineries have been opposed or overruled by officials with the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Sagaponack Mayor Donald Louchheim, whose village is home to one of the South Fork’s three wineries, said the department intervenes when village officials complain to winery managers about roadside crowds, and overruled the village when it issued a code violation for building a wine stand and wine shed without a permit.

“As soon as you even make a verbal complaint to them, they run to state Ag and Markets,” Louchheim said. “And we get . . . letters from Ag and Markets saying we have no right to do this, that they can overrule all our codes and any restrictions that may be placed on them whatsoever.”

Russell said any attempt to stem the growth of the industry in his town could bring officials “toe to toe” with the department, which he said has aggressively defended the region’s beverage producers from local regulation.

Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment. An Agriculture and Markets spokeswoman said the department “does not directly cite any business,” but enforces state law “that protects the rights of start-up and existing farm operations, including the state’s growing beverage businesses” within agricultural districts.

Much of the North Fork and other parts of the East End are in state-designated agricultural districts, meaning the department can take legal action to protect producers from rules deemed to “unreasonably restrict or regulate farm operations.”

Bate, the wine council executive director, said there’s a “natural limit” to the number of wineries that can open because of limited land and high real estate prices on the East End.

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