As Wölffer Turns 30, Winemaker Roman Roth Looks to the Future

“The prejudice has changed against Long Island wines,” says Roth, whose beloved wines have had a huge role in helping to change the conversation.

In addition to his beloved wines, Roman Roth also uses his own juniper berries to make gin at Wolffer Vineyard. • Photo by Lindsay Morris

This year, Sagaponack’s Wölffer Estate Vineyards will celebrate its 30th season, an impressive feat for any winery—and especially for one on eastern Long Island.

Although Wölffer began making wines in 1992 (particularly a Chardonnay that has enjoyed great cosmopolitan success in 4-star New York City restaurants), they opened the doors to their Sagg Main winery in 1997.

The project began as the brainchild of Christian Wölffer, who recruited a young German winemaker, fresh out of a master’s program, to help make quality Long Island wines. “At the time,” Wölffer winemaker Roman Roth said, “Christian Wölffer was planning on starting a winery and needed a winemaker, somebody who could fulfill the ambition of making great wines. My wife and I came in 1992 and started buying a press. We had to beg people to taste our wines at the beginning—they didn’t want to touch it with a stick. It had to be French. It had to be big, fat California wines.”

Of course, a lot has changed in the intervening three decades, including the American palate. Americans may always prefer juicy, robust wines to refined, bright ones, but we’re coming along. Long Island, too, has enjoyed a certain reputational renaissance, and Wölffer has been one of many beneficiaries of this shift of narrative. The East End, once known for wealth and beaches and more wealth, is now seen as a hotbed of agricultural riches and winemaking innovation. Once a beach destination, we’re now a wine destination, a shift that has to do with underlying culture, yes, but also with the reliable presence of Wölffer.

“We always focused on the quality of the wine, but now we have the right home for it,” says Roman Roth. • Photo by Bridget Elkin

“We always focused on the quality of the wine, but now we have the right home for it,” Mr. Roth said of the massive brick-and-mortar space. In fact, the inception of the winery itself has allowed the winemaking to grow with time. In 1992, Wölffer’s inaugural vintage, the winery produced 3,100 cases of wine; in 2018, they produce 78,000 cases. “To make this jump with building a great reputation is a big achievement,” Mr. Roth said. “You’re increasing your quality while increasing your quantity.” The winery, which began as a 4-person operation, now employs 120 people. The winery can now dedicate more money to vineyard care, which includes vine management, early leaf-removal, and hand picking. The vines have aged (older vines means more concentrated flavors) and the method has become refined. The winery has added new equipment, like a de-stemmer that aids in sorting by removing stems and particulates from grape clusters, which contribute to “green,” underdeveloped flavors in wine.

Climate change, too, has been a factor in Wölffer’s evolution. “We’re picking two or three weeks earlier than we used to. It gives you riper fruit. It has brought out the best of this region. We’re the same latitude of Madrid and Naples, but we have this cool ocean influence, so the more heat we have gotten, it has ripened our fruit, with lower acidity and alcohol. Twenty years ago, there were more green flavors,” Mr. Roth said. In any other industry, climate change may feel like a liability, but in regions where warm weather and reliable sunshine is a dice roll—and where the conflation of a late harvest and hurricane season may render a vintage obsolete—the warming planet may just produce one thing of value.

Wölffer began as a serious winery with a serious dedication to red and white wine. Somewhere along the way, however, the winery became synonymous with one word: rosé. And although categorizing Wölffer as a Rosé Winery is not at all accurate, it’s also a definition that the winery does not shy away from. “A couple of years ago,” Mr. Roth said, “we made the decision to embrace rosé instead of treating it like the evil stepchild. We deliberately make our rosé. We’ve always focused on it and picked our rosé early. The consistency of our rosé—there’s nothing like it, every year. Maybe the rosé was the one that could be the most easily accepted.” The rosé has enjoyed such popularity, in fact, that the winery sells out of the current vintage before Labor Day every year.

 “Failure is not an option anymore,” says Roth. Photo by Bridget Elkin

Still, Wölffer is far more than “drink pink.” The winery produces high-end wines, like Chardonnay and Merlot. They produce dry ciders and gin. The brand has grown with time, and now includes an impressive array of well-crafted wines and spirits that speak to the terroir of Eastern Long Island. With the evolution of the palate comes the evolution of expectation, too. Mr. Roth describes his winemaking now as “bolder” and “more confident.” At the beginning, tannic wines were shunned, since they were not immediately drinkable. But, as Wölffer’s reputation has grown with the times, so, too, has the drinking public. The winery can now make tannic wines that need to be laid down, wines with longevity, wines with gravitas. “The prejudice,” Mr. Roth said, “has changed against Long Island wines.”

Christian Wölffer died in 2009, though his children, Marc and Joey, continue his namesake, with Roman Roth at the helm. The family-owned estate embraces authenticity above all else. “Failure is not an option anymore,” Mr. Roth said.

Wölffer Estate Vineyards will be celebrating the occasion of their 30th season with a number of upcoming special releases and events, including the limited-edition Amarone-style 2014 Claletto, released only in anniversary years; a Tuesday night education series at the wine stand; a “Grilling with Roman” event on August 15, during which Mr. Roth will team up with a high-profile chef for a hosted dinner; a limited-edition, October release brandy; and a sustainability series called “Sustainable Wölffer,” designed to educate the community about sustainability.

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Hannah Selinger

Hannah Selinger is a freelance food and wine writer and sommelier living in East Hampton. Her work has appeared in the such publications as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and RawStory.com. She is the wine columnist for the Southampton Press.