His name is Gasper Pisacano. He doesn’t always drink wine, but when he does, he drinks an extraordinary cabernet franc sourced from 12 rows of immaculately hand-groomed vines only he is allowed to touch, from a bottle that has his name and face on the label.
Pisacano, 83, is the father of Rich Pisacano, co-owner, with his wife, Soraya, of Roanoke Vineyards on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. He is affectionately known by a single name, Gabby: proof of his iconic status and perhaps a comment on his love of conversation, which peaks around 5:00 p.m., when he can be found enjoying a glass of his wine on the patio and chatting happily to the somehow ever-present adoring crowd of women of all ages.
“I would never do that, put my face on a bottle of wine,” Gabby says, about the black-and-white photo on the label of Roanoke Vineyards Gabby’s Cabernet Franc. He is deliberately making mischief; his son has just come over to join us and is now standing right next to him. “People always ask me, ‘When are you going to release the wine?’ I tell them, when we’re done with the lawsuit, I’ll release the wine.”
Rich sighs; he knows any attempt to keep Gabby on-message to media is an exercise in futility. As is keeping track of the man; this evening, we are at a barbecue at the vineyard, and at one point, Gabby is simply nowhere to be found. Finally, he appears on his golf cart, glass of wine in hand. He had taken a spin through the vines. That Gabby’s colorful personality is indulged, even celebrated, by the Roanoke team is refreshing in an industry where branding can be fierce, with talking heads flawlessly deploying pre-approved sound bites. The big picture, in fact, is that Roanoke is elegantly branded and marketed under the auspices of Scott Sandell, a nationally acclaimed artist in his own right, who also creates the stunning artwork for the labels of the many Roanoke wines. Sandell is genius, actually, to let Gabby do his thing.
And there’s certainly no lawsuit. Every vintage of Gabby’s Cabernet Franc sells out in pre-sale reserve; the 2010 was just released, all 170 cases of it, and the 2011 is already sold out, two years before its release date. Earlier, we had tasted some vintages of Gabby’s. The wines are made by Roman Roth, winemaker and co-owner of Wölffer Estate in Sagaponack; Rich has been the vineyard manager at Wölffer for many years. The 2006 is 100 percent cabernet franc and has a cult favorite among serious Long Island wine fans. It’s subtle and nuanced and is now wonderfully mature. There’s a passionate set of wine people who believe cabernet franc equals if not surpasses merlot in its performance on Long Island, and this wine certainly shows what the varietal can do. The 2007 Gabby’s is a bold wine; it got a 91 from Robert Parker, the influential wine critic. The 2010 is half cab franc from Gabby’s rows, which came in at 25 brix—a high sugar level—and half cab sauvignon from the Hill, a favored, sandy-soiled vineyard block. It’s big and lush, young but already drinking well after more than a year in the bottle.
“I’m not proud of my wines,” Gabby says. “Hey, I can’t be proud of it just because the sun shines. If the rain ruins it, what, I’m not proud? I’m happy. I’m happy it turns out great and people like it.”
That first year, 2006, when Gabby declared “eminent domain” on his 12 rows, he spent every day manicuring the vines to perfection—pulling leaves, dropping clusters that were too high up or that had berries too tightly packed together, trapping moisture that would encourage rot. It became apparent by harvest time that his grapes were superior. The flavor profile was more advanced, and the sugar levels higher than adjacent grapes. The fruit hung well into November and was vinified separately. A big release party for that wine was held two years later, on Gabby’s birthday, September 25.
Every year since, Gabby has done the same. “My 12 rows, I surgically take out what don’t belong there,” he says. “I bring it way down to about two and three-quarters [tons per acre]. I de-leaf early; I disbud early, the stuff you’re not supposed to do. But it works.”
Gabby credits his grandfathers for his talent for viticulture. “Huntington was all country back then,” he says. “They both had farms, they both had animals, they both made wine; that was survival in those days, during the Depression. As a kid, I had to work for both of them. That’s how it was. So I learned a lot from my background, growing up and getting beat up by my grandfathers—the willow tree branch—ouch! So all those little things I learned as a kid, I applied to the grapes.”
“My one grandfather, he was a nut-job. In them days they believed you couldn’t let the light in on the wine barrels; it had to be dark. There was webs all over, and the vinegar, the whole bit. I was a kid; what the heck did I know? I used to push the door open. He’d go crazy! Because the light went in. They had about 25 barrels and they sold their wine for two dollars a gallon. Two dollars a gallon! On weekends they held poker games to make money off these guys that came out from the city to buy wine. All these Italian guys. As a kid, it was ‘Go get this; go get that!’ That was life.”
Gabby is a former U.S. Marine; he has sold real estate, had restaurants and bars, a camera store, “Everything!” he says. Never take on partners is his advice. “Whether it’s your best friend, your cousin, whatever, whether you’re making money or losing money, it always starts out great and then it’s trouble. Honest, it’s the truth.”
This touches a nerve. He pours a little more wine and looks out to the vines beyond. “The vineyard. It’s a lot of work. But I enjoy it. Everything I ever did in my life, I enjoyed. I always tell people I never felt like I was working.”
Gabby’s work is finished, now, for this year. “Richie put the nets on this week, so I can’t do any more manual stuff. It’s all done. I told Richie and Soraya, I made a prediction: This year’s crop is going to be the best ever. I look at those clusters hanging there, the grapes are not tight, there’s plenty of space around them, no disease, no rot. I’m happy they’re not big berries, like they get when it rains a lot. Dry, that’s what I want to see.”
The Pisacano family originally planted the vineyard in 1983 on land that had been farmed for hundreds of years. Gabby drove the tractor slowly along the rows, and the young Pisacanos hung off the back, inserting bare baby vines into the rich Riverhead soil. They planted the seven acres in five hours. When Hurricane Gloria knocked down many of the vines in 1985, Gabby put them back up singlehanded, in one day. This hands-on approach is something Rich seems to have inherited, along with the Pisacano tenacity. “My dad taught me to embark on any project with your eyes wide open,” Rich says. “To enjoy the process and not have unrealistic expectations. Things first take work—a lot of work. Then they become rewarding. The wine club members are like family now, we do private tastings, we have the Love Lane [Mattituck] wine bar…that’s the direction we want to go in. Let’s see how small we can grow.”
Gabby approves. Asked what he thinks of some local wineries becoming venues for large-scale agritainment, Gabby declined to offer an opinion. A rare moment. “I take the Fifth,” he says, laughing. “But I’m happy for Richie and the family. When you do something, and it works, it makes you happy. And you’ve got to stick with it. I had five kids. My wife and I, we stuck it out. My kids, that’s my life. They’re a pain in the neck. What else is there?”
Everything he’s learned in life, he said, can be distilled down to this: “Whatever you do, you try. Right or wrong, you try.” And with that, Gasper Pisacano, aka Gabby, drinks a little more of his wine.