Three rows of grape vines follow the long, narrow driveway to the newly built home and wine barn of the Bella Vita Vineyard in Cutchogue, where a fresh approach to the local wine culture is under ferment.
There, owners Anthony and Lisa Sannino offer visitors something few other vineyards in the region -- or the country -- have chosen to: the opportunity to become winemakers themselves, from vine to bottle.
For those who have ever thought of trying their hand at winemaking without owning the vines or wine cellar, the Sannino's say the next best thing is a "membership" in an existing vineyard. Members learn grape growing and winemaking from the ground up, and finish with a barrel of wine they can call their own.
Located on land that was formerly home to Ternhaven Cellars' vineyard on five acres, Bella Vita is the brainchild of a couple whose love of winemaking matured at their previous home in Manorville. There, the Sanninos planted vines on part of a two-acre parcel, honed their winemaking skills and spent considerable time traveling to the North Fork wine country to immerse themselves in the culture.
"It's been an idea in the works for years and years," Anthony Sannino said. "The location was key. We wanted to be on the North Fork."
The love of the culture led Anthony, a general contractor with training in enology and viticulture from an online course with the University of California, Davis, to purchase the Ternhaven vineyard last year and put up a home and a separate barn for winemaking and storage. Vines on the property, around from Ternhaven days, produce merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc grapes.
Eager to parlay their passion for winemaking into a business, they came up with the idea of vineyard "memberships," where people interested in learning wine from the inside out could do it with a personal touch.
Membership in Bella Vita costs $3,500, and includes just about everything one or up to a dozen people per membership would need to produce a barrel of fine local wine -- enough for 237 bottles, the Sanninos say (or $12.72 a bottle). In addition to personal lessons in viticulture and winemaking, the price includes labels, an annual harvest festival, step-by-step help through the process and barrel storage.
Members can follow the vines from winter pruning to summer leaf pulling to fall harvest.
"We're not selling wine," Anthony Sannino said. "We're selling the experience." He expects to offer memberships to up to 30 people or groups per year.
Lisa Sannino, an Adelphi University-educated MBA, said the more social, intimate roots of Bella Vita are in keeping with the spirit of Ternhaven. That "garagiste" operation was launched by Harold Watts, a retired economics professor who developed a passion for winemaking in his New York City apartment.
"We wanted to keep it very small, very family friendly," Lisa Sannino said. "This is our hobby, and it's taken over a little ... We've been on the home wine-making level forever. This is an opportunity for family and friends to be a part of it."
Anthony Sannino said winemaking has been in his family for generations. His grandparents made wine on the Italian island of Ischia off the coast of Naples, where he visited the winery built into a cave. The passion for winemaking has stayed with him all his life.
Jim Waters, owner of Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue and treasurer of the Long Island Wine Council, said the concept has been successful in other wine regions and could be here, too. Either way, he said, it's a welcome addition to the wine region.
"It gives people a true perception of how much time and energy goes into a bottle of wine," Waters said. "I think it's good for the region because it adds a different spin on things."
Sannino's Bella Vita Vineyard
7490 Alvah's Lane, Cutchogue, 631-734-8282