CULT OF TASTE: For the Love of Wine

cinque

A powerhouse purveyor of vino continues to evolve.

AMAGANSETT-The Trophy Room, the inner sanctum at Amagansett Wine & Liquor, seems inherently correct, an inevitable development in the life and restless entrepreneurial career of Michael Cinque. This store within a store carved out of former storage space in 2004, this recherché territory, stocks rare and precious wines. Petrus, Hundred Acre, Gaja, Romanée Conti, Caymus-these are just a few of the labels that dazzle the eye and devastate the bank account.

For Cinque, however, the real trophies are not these opulent bottles waiting to be bought and consumed, but a collection of empty wine bottles, their labels either inscribed by winemakers or archived with names, dates and notes recording when, how and with whom they were emptied. Each bottle evokes a Proustian flow of remembrance for Cinque, with all the retrieved details of scent and taste, of time and setting, people and conversation. Each label is a probing trip into the past, a remarkably vivid and complete story that he exuberantly recalls and is only too happy to share with a visitor.

Cinque is more than a wine merchant. For him, wine-the selling of wine, the making of wine, the drinking of wine-is more than a profession or even a lifestyle; it is life itself. Call it an elegant obsession, if you will. It is deeply rooted in his psyche, inseparable from his identity. He started sipping at the age of four in his grandfather’s house in Brooklyn, wine made by the grandfather with a hand press now tucked away in a corner of the Amagansett Main Street store.  He keeps a framed picture of himself as a young boy, glass in hand, grandfather nearby, the wine stains on his shirt his “medals.”

Having bought what was a quite ordinary shop 31 years ago with an inventory valued then at $1,400, Cinque has built a powerhouse of a business with an inventory worth millions. The space still has a deceptively retro country-store look, but because of its national reputation and its large and knowledgeable customer base, much of the business is now done via e-mail offerings that wine drinkers seem to find irresistible. And it is not just the exalted and expensive; the store carries many value-priced wines for everyday drinking.  The staff comes mostly from top New York City wine stores, and they all participate in the buying end. Cinque likes to view it as a family operation-his version of the fruit and vegetable store his father and grandfather operated on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

Cinque could easily have drawn the line as a successful retailer enjoying the money and recognition that accompany success, but at the top of his game he continues to push out in other directions as a winemaker and grape grower. It is as if he cannot resist the impulse to get closer and closer to the wine itself.

He has for 15 or so years produced Amagansett Cuvée, a line of varietals sourced from North Fork grapes and fermented and bottled there under his supervision. It started as a way to give wine donations to local organizations and to show his confidence in Long Island grapes. The bottles feature a stylish label with original artwork that along with the quality of contents belie the moderate retail prices. Along with chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, the whites include a terrific unfiltered pinot blanc, best enjoyed right now while it is bright, young and fresh.

More recently Cinque became a partner in a venture called Red Hook Wine Co. It’s an interesting and unusual concept, in which grapes are grown on the North Fork and the wine is produced in a historic brick building that dates from Red Hook’s days as a Brooklyn port. Cinque’s function is to contract with growers, watch over the field operations and bring the best grapes to a pair of winemakers who are aiming to take Long Island wines in a new direction. The winemakers, Robert Foley and Abe Schoener, are both prominent in the world of California cult wines and presumably will blend a little of that mystique into the barrels.

While it is normal for a winery to identify the specific vineyard location where the grapes were cultivated, it is less common to see front labels with Red Hook’s creative mix and match pair ing: two winemakers, four principal grapes (plus others for blending) and a handful of field locations. So under the umbrella of the Red Hook label you might have a cabernet franc made by Schoener with grapes from the Split Rock Vineyard in Greenport or a chardonnay by Foley with Jamesport Vineyard grapes.

Cinque keeps a diplomatic distance from some of the more zealous claims made by an associate at Red Hook about revealing and defining the real character of Long Island wines. While Cinque’s goals are ambitious and he clearly loves his Red Hook wines, he’s smart enough-and loyal enough to local winemakers- to avoid comparisons, especially revolutionary ones. In any case, it will take a few years before the rest of us can accurately judge how well Red Hook has done and evaluate their place in Long Island winemaking. In the meantime, Cinque immensely enjoys getting out in the fields early in the morning and being, as he calls it, “on the frontlines with the growers.”

On a recent trip to the south of France, guided by Peter Mayle, who lived for a while in Amagansett but is best known as a connoisseur of all things Provençal, Cinque got his hands into the barrels and tanks of some Luberon wineries to create a rosé and a red blend that will be sold with his own labels in the store this summer.

As he gets closer and closer to every aspect of wine, Cinque has begun to bring all this winemaking and grape growing closer to home-literally. Home happens to be a modest but stylish house that he shares with his wife, Amy Slack. The property, located off Amagansett’s Main Street not far from the wine shop, has an intimate, well-landscaped backyard and about 100 grapevines where the front lawn ought to be. The vines are planted so close to a master bedroom wing that you can lean out the windows and touch the trellised leaves. There is something oddly compelling about it.  When you enter the room, your eye is drawn to the windows, as if there were some magnificent mountain or ocean view waiting. But there is just a bare wire trellis off-season and a wall of grape leaves and clusters in-season-nothing dramatic really, but you can’t help staring, mesmerized. It says a lot about Cinque, his values, and his perspectives on life, something as basic as what he wants to see when he wakes up in the morning.

The surprise is that the entire property is only about a third of an acre. A further surprise is a garage structure built to become-you guessed it-a winemaking facility now that the vines are mature enough to furnish a crop. What is not surprising is that Cinque has upended convention, or at least an orthodox front yard and entrance, to get closer to his passion and become an Amagansett garagiste. And, not incidentally, closer to the family tradition he knew in his grandfather’s house in Brooklyn. Unlike the grandfather, Cinque will grow his own grapes rather than purchase them at the Brooklyn Terminal Market, and his winemaking equipment will be considerably more sophisticated than that of his Italian grandfather’s generation. The resulting wine will no doubt be higher quality, but when he begins bottling at home, the die that was cast, the emotional roots that were planted when he was so young, will be quite recognizable.

Michael Braverman, editor at large of Hamptons magazine, lives in East Hampton and and writes primarily on wine, food and local history.

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