If you asked Jim Waters, he’d never agree that he can spin a silk purse from a sow’s ear; what he might say is that the collective efforts of good, hardworking vineyard managers and winemakers make for many happy surprises in the sometimes nail-biter vintages of eastern Long Island. But how Waters gets so much concentration and out-and-out verve from the cold and wet 2008 vintage in his Campania Rosso is still nothing less than a marvel. Or, perhaps, it’s just better to throw down and say it’s marvelous.
“It was a tough growing season, but the finish was good. We had good hang time, and it was warm and dry at the end. But yeah, there was a lot of rain in the beginning and crop loads were low,” he admits. “But the extended season helped, and Mother Nature did a good job; there’s great vibrant acidity on ’08.”
Sniff at it, and there’s the gorgeous, dark, juicy fruit: black and red cherries; dribbly plums; a little cigar box and baking spice lingering around the edges of your tongue when you sip (likely from the French oak Waters insists on using; and, oh, he is picky about his barrels: “I have a particular direction; I buy from small négociant coopers who make 600 to 1,000 barrels a year.”) and the bright, buoyant zip of acidity that keeps the party sitting up straight at the table.
The 110 cases that came out of ’08 are a blend of 68 percent merlot, 18 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent cabernet franc and 2 percent petit verdot. All of which brings up the question of origin. Campania Rosso is a pretty Italian-nodding name, but those grapes? That’s straight-up classic Bordeaux. What’s up with that?
Family, in a word. “My wife is Italian, and that’s where her family from. They moved here before and after World War II, and her dad first, and then her mom after, they came here to restart their lives.” And they also happen to be the people who unknowingly pushed Waters toward his current career. As Waters tells it, his in-laws tried to make wine, but weren’t exactly producing award-winning juice. “My mother-in-law wanted to pass on traditions from the homeland. She’d do the roasted peppers and make soppressata. She was trying to get my brother-in-law to make wine, but he had no interest.” So, in the ’80s, Waters started with a 5-gallon kit in the garage; soon enough, the hobby took over the space, and he built a 200-square-foot building to house what was growing into much more than mere weekend wine warrior status. “My wife would laugh that I was spending so much time in that building,” he says. “It was like my hidden girlfriend.”
He started buying fruit from his good friend, the late Ray Blum, then vineyard manager for Peconic Bay Winery. He started working a few harvests on the North Fork to get to know winemaking from the roots up. He worked in the cellar. He met people and made more connections to the East End’s then-burgeoning wine community. By the late ’90s, Newsday’s Alan J. Wax did a story on amateur winemakers from Long Island, blind tasting their wines with other professionally made bottles from the region. Waters finished on top. “It was the kind of thing that made you feel better about what you were doing,” he says.
Still, Waters stuck to his day job. He’s gone to school for hotel and restaurant management and wound up working for Sheridan for years. After that, he moved over to the fleet transport business, where he remained for many years as the regional director for Budget truck rental. In addition to tooling around with winemaking, he was also a volunteer fireman, one of those who rushed in to help in flames and fury in the aftermath of September 11. “It was a big turning point for me,” he says. “After that, I decided to chase my passion.” His wife, Linda, an air-traffic controller, was 100 percent supportive.
The first vintage commercial harvest came immediately in 2001, thrusting him from Ground Zero into the cellar for solace. By the following year, he moved into his current tasting room/winery on Route 48 in Cutchogue in a very work-a-day strip mall that includes a kitchen remodeling company, and where dusty trucks of general contractors bounce in and out of the broad parking lot. In 2003, the tasting room officially opened. His first wine was a red blend—180 cases. Today, he has around a dozen reds and whites, and lately has been playing with sparklers, too.
“Everyone’s working very hard, and the quality has really gotten there, as producers, we’ve cross-communicated and pollinated. We’re getting a lot of upstate support, thank God!” he says, his blue eyes opening wide. “One success is everyone’s success.”
Amy Zavatto would never have the guts, organizational skills or punch-down worthy abs required to become a winemaker but likes to live vicariously through her interview subjects. She lives, eats and drinks in NYC.
Sniff at it, and there’s the gorgeous, dark, juicy fruit: black and red cherries; dribbly plums; a little cigar box and baking spice lingering around the edges of your tongue when you sip and the bright, buoyant zip of acidity that keeps the party sitting up straight at the table.