Succession Plans

Perry Weiss of The Old Field Vineyards

As one drives up to the Old Field Vineyards in Southold, a tall attractive woman in a beige workman’s jumpsuit comes into view. She is pruning grapevines. Her dog snores on a cushion nearby. She’s Perry Weiss, 34, vineyard manager and assistant winemaker.

The Old Field is owned by her parents, Rosamond and Chris Baiz, who have been tending the family’s vineyard since the first vines were planted in 1974. The vineyard expanded with subsequent plantings in 1985 and 1997. More hands were needed. So when Weiss finished college, her mother asked if she wanted to be a part of the family business. “It was me or they had to hire someone else,” says Weiss. “My brother helped out at the winery but had no interest in taking over.”

Luckily Weiss was interested. She had studied environmental biology. And she liked the idea of working outside and being her own boss. She hasn’t regretted her decision, especially when her daily work—in concert with nature—brings good results. “When I see my grapes at harvest time and it’s a good year, I’m joyful,” Weiss says. “We celebrate with a family dinner.”

Weiss’s family dinner is just one on the East End that celebrates not only the bringing in of the grapes, but also the continuity of a family business: a new generation of winemakers and winegrowers on the East End are learning from their parents while appreciating the lifestyle it affords them. “This wine region is evolving as the second-generation winemakers build upon the experiences of their parents and learn by doing themselves. They are taking on principal capabilities,” says Steven Bate, executive director of the Long Island Wine Council, the region’s member organization, who has recognized this for a while. “They have grown up in the vineyards seeing their parents’ success and disappointments.” Bate acknowledges that this second generation is among the driving forces behind the wine region’s growth, and that the half-dozen vineyards that don’t have kids coming up or obvious inheritors may not be as successful.

Keeping younger generations on a farm is far from the norm. Many traditional farmers on the East End have found themselves without a succession plan and have ended up selling. In the wine business, however, the younger generation seems to be sticking around not only to make wine, but to improve farming methods— installing solar power, composting, finding ways to use less water and fewer pesticides. “Being a young industry, not yet 40 years old, allows them the freedom to experiment with grape varieties and styles of wine,” Bate adds. “They are not tied to tradition like wineries in France, Italy or even California.”

Pindar Damianos, 35, of Pindar Vineyards plans to install a wind turbine on the family property that will power the whole building. Leaning against one of his stainless-steel tanks, wearing a gray sweatshirt with a Pindar logo, Damianos says his father, a fixture in the local wine community for three decades, and known to all as Dr. Dan, is a source of valuable input. “My dad still does tours,” he says. “He encourages new ideas.”

After growing up amid the vines, Damianos never saw himself in a three-piece suit. His higher education centered on farming; at the suggestion of his guidance counselor, he went to SUNY Cobleskill and then California State University at Fresno for a degree in viticulture. Damianos’s brother Jason followed the same path and now has his own vineyard, Jason’s Vineyard; brother Alex manages another family property, Duck Walk Vineyards. Like many of his peers, Damianos believes the sandy soil and maritime climate on Long Island frees winemakers to develop their own styles—earthier, with lower alcohol. He also likes the proximity to his colleagues. “With 40 wineries, the industry is still small, the vineyards butt up to each other,” says Pindar. “We’re a community, we help each other and share information and sometimes even equipment.” Inter-winemaker dinners and collegial tasting sessions are legendary, and frequent.

At Pugliese Vineyard in Cutchogue, Peter Pugliese started mowing the vineyard during summer vacation when he was 10 years old. In his last year of college, his father asked if he wanted to open a tasting room and join the family winery. He never looked back. Pugliese’s father, Ralph, who recently passed away, made wine in the family’s basement in Queens. Little did his father dream that a hobby—making three barrels of red table wine a year—would become a family business that now yields 10,000 cases of wine each year. The Puglieses produce chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, cabernet franc, pinot grigio and pinot noir, among other varieties. Pugliese is immersed in his vineyard’s day-to-day activities. He watches the Weather Channel to track rainfall, especially around harvest when winegrowers are monitoring any number of grape characteristics (from sugar levels to acid content to disease pressures), which tells them when it’s optimal to pick. At 42 years old, he’s still learning, building on what his father taught him. “I wouldn’t change my life for the world,” he says.

Ron Goerler Jr., 45, vineyard manager, proprietor and winemaker at Jamesport Vineyards came to the business the same way. “I have literally done it all with my father. He’s 85 now, and I’ve learned how to run a business because of the way he’s done things,” he says. “I admire the entrepreneurial spirit of the early pioneers of winemaking. They had vision.” Yet Goerler knows vision is based in practicality. “We need vision to see the area grow. Restrictions on farming need to be eased. You don’t make money growing grapes, only by making wine.” After attending SUNY Cobleskill, Goerler took over the family business. “I’m an outdoor person and I like to make things grow,” he says. “I didn’t want a desk job.”

Goerler is excited about the next generation of wine farmers and believes that the only way the industry will exist and grow is with their energy and leadership. As president of the Long Island Wine Council, Goerler goes to Albany once a year with Joseph M. Gergela III , executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, to lobby for the industry.

As farm bureau head, Gergela, who also grew up as a farmer on Long Island, has watched many East End farms struggle as patriarchs and matriarchs pass away, or retire. In a region dominated by small, family-run businesses, such challenges also confront vineyard management companies, wine storage firms or other local firms that support the wine industry. “Wineries without succession plans are in a vulnerable position,” he says. Without agreement from family members on what to do with the vineyard, or a business plan in place, “they could be sold for development.”

Kareem Massoud grew up around Paumanok, the vineyard in Aquebogue that he and his two younger brothers, Nabeel and Salim, helped his parents, Charles and Ursula, plant. After Kareem earned a degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, his parents said, “Get a job.” So he worked for two years at a private equity firm on Wall Street. But he returned to the winery, and what started as a temporary job has turned into a 13-year career as a winemaker-winegrower, marketer and salesman: all the hats a member of a family business has to wear. “If you love what you do, it’s not work,” says Kareem, 39, as he looks through the morning mist at his vineyards.

“The romantic things about wine are true. Harvesting the fruit of our labor and making it into wine is biblical. At the end of the day to share a bottle of your own wine is a privilege. It’s not about the money. I don’t take the lifestyle for granted. I feel thankful.”

Like many of his generation, Kareem thinks constantly about how he might build on what has come before him. That might mean pounding the pavement picking up accounts for their wine in kegs—on tap at a dozen New York City locations and growing—or continuing education and international exchanges that stretch his notion of what Paumanok should be producing.

“The mandate of sustainability defines the age in which we live,” he says. “We have solar but going forward would like to be 100 percent renewable. A windmill would make sense. To grow the healthiest, ripest grapes in the most sustainable way are one and the same. If it doesn’t make sense economically, it’s not sustainable.”

For Zander Hargrave, 34, carrying on his parent’s legacy is as much about continuing a lifestyle as making a living. The son of local wine royalty—his parents, Alex and Louisa, planted the first wine grapes on Long Island in 1973—Hargrave left behind his master’s in education and jumped at the opportunity to work as an assistant to Greg Gove, the winemaker at Peconic Bay Winery, where his uncle works as vineyard manager. “Working in the vineyard and winery has a pull for me as I consider farming to be tremendously gratifying work,” he says. “The strenuous exertions of the field and winery bear tangible fruit. You can see, and ultimately taste, the difference you make, which is exciting to me.” He loves the whole process: the planting, harvesting, blending and, of course, drinking. “It’s a lifestyle. It doesn’t get any better than this,” he says. “I feel so good surrounded by grapes growing, knowing that they will someday be made into wine. I love that every year is different; every year is a bottle of history.”

For Goerler, it’s more than history, which might explain why sticking with winemaking holds such a draw for the next generation of Long Island grape farmers. “We put passion and desire into every bottle. Wine is a living beverage.”