Grape Grower

A part-time grape grower makes a life of it.

Joseph Reilly is kind of an odd character in the East End wine community: he doesn’t really drink wine, but he grows seven different varieties of grapes on 17 acres of his 37-acre farm in Cutchogue. He has been doing this part-time since he bought the land in 1990, never giving up his day job in air traffic control in Ronkonkoma.

“I don’t know,” he says while driving his golf cart around the vineyard in early September assessing the bird damage. “I’ve just always wanted to grow grapes.” He says he remembers growing up in Islip Terrace where his neighbors grew grapes and he spent a lot of time eating them. “I just like them,” he says, pulling up to the block with malbec. “These are my favorite. If I was going to eat the grapes, I’d eat these guys.”
So Reilly, who will only give his age as over 65, drives to Cutchogue every day after work and on the weekends. He mows between the rows to keep down weeds (no spraying). Fixes the irrigation pump, secures nets and curses the birds. When he’s not on the farm he’s making deals with winemakers to sell his grapes. Some will commit to a certain number of tons but then, at harvest, take a look and decide they don’t want it any more. More dealing ensues. He talks to his neighbors at Pindar; sometimes they will take some grapes. Sometimes not.
He has never made any money. If it bothers him, it’s hard to tell, because he’s so busy trying to keep up with the chores necessary to bring in clean, ripe grapes.
Winemaker Anthony Nappa has bought grapes from Reilly, some he intended to and others at the last minute. “He has given me some high-quality grapes,” Nappa says. “But growers and winemakers have different goals in mind; it’s an inherent conflict. They want a good crop, we want to make good wine.”
An example of this is one year when Reilly’s gewürztraminer never really got off the ground. It was plagued by rot, and a committed buyer backed out. Nappa took a look at it and suggested Reilly let it hang longer to get riper. What was there to lose? As it turns out, the rot was botrytis, a mold integral to some of the world’s best sweet wines. Reilly picked at the last minute, and Nappa turned it into what he believes is one of his best wines: his 2010 Spezia.
Reilly rounds another block in his vineyard and points out the petit verdot. “They’re tiny,” he says, “and the last ones to come in.”
Reilly is not doing this alone. He son, Shawn, who used to be an electrician in New York, works the day shift. Shawn came out to help with the 2006 vintage, which Reilly calls a disaster, and never left, finding that he liked farm work. There are also part-time workers to prune and pick.
Last year, damage from birds prompted Reilly to go on Craig’s List and get a Jack Russell terrier that he’s calling Mr. Russell, in the hope that the dog will chase the birds away. But, as of early September, Mr. Russell has been there just one day; his birding skills have yet to be tested. Dog or no dog, a trip around the riesling leaves Reilly wondering why the birds have left the crop alone so far.
This year, too, Reilly is trying something really different: he wants to make wine from his grapes and sell it to make some money from his labor. The farm is accessible from Main Road, but a tasting room is, as the law stands, out of the question. When Reilly bought the land from a potato farmer, the development rights had already been sold to the county.
So now he’s in a maze of permits hoping to open a farm stand. He already has a permit from the county, where the definition of a farm stand includes the sale of wine, as long as it’s made from grapes grown on the property, but processing is not allowed on site. Southold Town code, however, does not allow the sale of wine at a farm stand, as processed agricultural products are limited to 40 percent of a stand’s revenues.
This doesn’t seem to bother Reilly much either. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. He’s got his eye on an acre of land in front of his farm that fronts the Main Road and is not zoned agricultural. “If I could buy that…,” he says.
Reilly reaches the barn and steps out of the golf cart. “It’s a struggle,” he says. “But it’s also nice, a sense of accomplishment. That’s why they have harvest parties. Oh, man.” •

Eileen M. Duffy is Edible East End’s deputy editor and has no desire to grow grapes.