INDIGENOUS INDUSTRY: Peddling Local Juice

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A longtime ally of Long Island wine grows with the region.

RIVER HEAD—If Riverhead is the gateway to the North Fork, then Michael’s Wines and Liquors is the gateway to Long Island Wine Country.

Started in the 1970s and run by Kenny Demchak, the liquor store on East Main Street has been a major supporter of the Long Island wine industry since its dawn.

“I remember Ursula Massoud [of Paumanok Vineyards] pounding the pavement in the early days,” says store manager Bob Angus, who has been pushing local juice at Michael’s for 14 years. “In the early days, Bob Palmer [of Palmer Vineyards] took a bunch of retailers on a cruise around Manhattan. That was a long time ago.”

For Angus, any exposure was good exposure and the market bears it out. Today, the Long Island section, which started out as a couple of shelves, fills a back room in the store with wine from nearly every producer in the region. Salesmen and vineyard owners regard Michael’s as one of their best customers, and locals as well as tourists know to visit the store to stock up on wine grown in their own backyard.

The key to their success with the wine, says Angus, is that Michael’s is a bulk store. They buy 50 to 100 cases of wine at a time and are able to pass the discount on to customers. The bottles typically sell for less than they do at tasting rooms, and the store shies away from higher-end wine. Single-vineyard and wines that cost more than $30 can be bought at the tasting rooms, says Angus. Their business is about economy of scale and customers expect it. But they also enjoy buying local and are often proud of it.

“Most people coming in have tasted the wine at the tasting rooms,” says Angus. “And then locals have guests and don’t know what to do with them. They go to the tasting rooms, and the people buy the wine on their way home.”

Even better than the enthusiasm for local wine is the fact that the wines have gotten better, says Angus. “I think the quality level of what’s being produced is terrific.” And this comes from a man who, when not moving boxes or ringing up orders, is tasting wine from any number of the sales people who come through his door each day selling wine from Europe, South America and Australasia. And the selection at Michael’s proves it. The store is equipped with small shopping carts, and at any time there are buyers browsing the shelves filled with Bordeaux, Argentinean malbec and any number of the hundreds of regional grapes of Italy.

After years of dealing with vineyard and winery owners, Angus feels he knows what it takes to be successful. Deep pockets are essential, as is a healthy sense of self, but also passion. The passion he saw in Ursula Massoud when she was out offering the produce of her family-run vineyard in Aquebogue. He also sees it in Paula Croteaux, who, with her husband, Michael, makes three rosés from grapes growing on their farm in Southold. The faces that show up the most often are often the most successful. They have to believe.

But it works the other way around, too. Massoud says Demchak and Angus come into the tasting room often to check out new vintages and taste the wine aging in barrels. “It’s not just a wine store; they’re very good neighbors and great ambassadors for Long Island wine,” she says.

The two are often seen in the tasting room at Raphael, says winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich.

Peggy Lauber, now of Wölffer Estate, says Michael’s was one of her first customers when she and her then-husband Joel bottled their inaugural vintage at Corey Creek Vineyards in 1993. Michael’s not only ordered that wine, cases of which Lauber delivered in her station wagon. He sold it and reordered it. “We didn’t have that kind of cachet in those days,” Lauber says. “In some stores the wine would just sit there and the vintages got old.”

But not at the nondescript store on East Main Street in Riverhead. On a weekday, the Long Island section was well-trafficked and Angus had ready answers for a woman who was looking to buy some of the Laurel Lake riesling she had enjoyed at the winery’s tasting room

Another plus for the industry is that Michael’s not only handsells the wines, they pay their bills. “Which is not a small thing,” says Louisa Thomas Hargrave, half of the founding couple of the Long Island wine industry. “Some stores just take the wine, but ‘OK, you’re supporting us, now pay us.'”

Hargrave also notes the out-of-the-way location and under-theradar eminence of the store as a major mover of wine. “It’s funny; it’s not a premium location but a premium store in a lot of ways,” she says. “It’s kind of low key, you don’t hear too much about it and then you go in the store, and he knows his wine and does great community research. We really owe them a debt of gratitude.”

It’s hard to see how much more the Long Island section at Michael’s can expand. The wine reaches from floor to ceiling, with bottles stacked up all the way to the back of the shelves. But it’s leaking out. Dessert wines and sparkling wines are mixed in with offerings from the rest of the world, and Long Island rosés are displayed for summer drinking with favorites from the south of France and Spain.

“Long Island wine can only improve from here,” says Angus. “I think they’ve done an extraordinary job.”

Pat Marlowe writes from her home in Southold.

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