The Paumanok Vineyards origin story is the stuff of North Fork legend. Charles and Ursula Massoud (he of Lebanon and she of Germany) made wine together as a young married couple in their bathtub in Kuwait, before returning to the States in the early 80s. They bought some land in Aquebogue in 1983 and started planting, while Charles continued to work as an IBM exec and Ursula raised their three small boys and built the retail and wholesale business from scratch.
Forty years later, Paumanok Vineyards is one of the premier wineries in New York State and beyond. In July of this year, New York State Wine Classic awarded Paumanok Vineyards Winery of the Year for an astonishing fourth time and its 2019 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc won the Governor’s Cup—essentially the Best in Show award. The small boys are now big men who run the family business and have their own kids, and the vineyard has grown from 14 to 130+ acres, including Palmer Vineyards—another legacy vineyard which the Massouds acquired in 2018.
I have told that bathtub story hundreds of times. I tell it pretty much every time I share a bottle of Paumanok with an uninitiated friend, although few of them are still uninitiated.
I first learned the tale around 2003, as I was working on a feature article for a Spanish language magazine. I was so charmed and learned so much from the Massouds that day in the airy, raftered Paumanok tasting room overlooking fields of Sauvignon Blanc—about the North Fork, wine, and the bathtub plonk—that a couple of years later, I asked them for a summer tasting room job to continue my education.
I was in good company in 2005; Karen Ward, who now runs local wholesale sales and special events at the winery and is married to eldest son, Kareem; and Carolyn Iannone, now owner of Love Lane Kitchen in Mattituck, also started that summer. We drank a lot of fantastic wine and had a lot of fun in our quest to soak up knowledge. We’d hang on Charles and Ursula’s every word—so many words!—and observe them work tirelessly, but still make everyone who came in feel valued and special. And we told that bathtub wine story again and again.
Those memories got me reflecting on the far-reaching impact of Paumanok and the Massoud family in the North Fork.
So I called up Kareem, now general manager and winemaker for Paumanok and Palmer. Charles and Ursula have pulled back from day-to-day management, but Kareem and his brothers continue: Salim as administrative manager and Nabil as vineyard manager.
“In the early years we had no employees; my parents did everything and Salim and I were, well, child labor,” he laughs.
When they opened the tasting room in 1989, Ursula built retail and restaurant relationships with local businesses that had never sold local wine before. “My mother was the first sales rep that we had,” he says. “She was going all over Long Island and she was running the tasting room. She was the guiding light of hospitality at Paumanok from Day One.”
In the meantime, Charles made the wines and led innovation as president of the Long Island Wine Council during much of the 90s (Kareem is current president), when the region grew from 13 original wineries to 30 plus.
From moving away from double trunk vines to pioneering screw caps and wine kegs, to going solar, to lighter weight glass bottles, to committing to sustainable practices, Paumanok has led the way.
“In terms of growth and leadership, Paumanok is a pioneering winery that demonstrated the quality potential for Long Island,” Kareem says. “Why have all these people invested? Why did new players buy in? Because the quality has been demonstrated by people like my family.”
And Paumanok has impacted the industry through the people they have trained.
Take Carolyn Iannone who stayed on until 2009. “I was so impressed by their 100 million percent commitment to craft and quality,” she says. “Because of them I went on to get my sommelier certificate and that created the opportunity to go to Love Lane Kitchen and eventually buy the place in 2012.” She adds, “Ursula taught me everything I needed to know about hospitality. It’s an art form coming from her.”
Macey Reichel, now tasting room manager at Lenz, is another Paumanok alum (2013-2018) [who reminded me that she learned to open bottles with the iconic giant corkscrew from me (back in the days of cork) on her very first day]. “I started not knowing anything at all. They helped mold me, helped diversify my service knowledge,” she says. “They are one of the primary vineyards, one of the originals, a backbone of this industry. It’s really important having been a part of that.”
Patrick Caserta did a stint as harvest and production assistant before becoming winemaker at Rose Hill (formerly Shinn Estate) in 2011. He says they helped him learn the new climate and quotes one of Charles’ signature phrases, which pretty much sums up the Massoud humor and humility and approach to their craft: “Winemaking is less of an art and more of a partnership with Mother Nature. Unfortunately, we are the junior partner.”
Paumanok Vineyards may have come a long way from the bathtub in Kuwait, but the story continues through the winery, the family, and all the folks they have touched through these 40 years, including me. We are all so grateful. Happy Birthday, Paumanok Vineyards!
Paumanok Vineyards (and Palmer, which also turns 40 in 2023) will be holding special 40th Anniversary celebrations throughout this year, including a Ten Mile Dinner (everything served will come from within a ten mile radius) with chef Tom Schaudel on August 13, a 40th Anniversary Celebration on September 23 and a Harvest Festival on October 14 & 15. For more information, please visit www.paumanok.com.