Lieb Behind the Scenes – March 2019

Hey all,

Spring! Well it’s not officially here but it is in my mind. The next month or so I’ll step out of my house in the morning with a light jacket and refuse to turn around to swap it out for a winter coat despite immediately realizing it’s still cold out and I’m inappropriately dressed. Spring is here dammit!

So what’s going on at Lieb “behind the scenes”?

At the winery, spring is bottling season. It starts in January with our Bridge Lane Rosé and continues through June, when we bottle our estate Chardonnay. It’s not terribly exciting but it is a lot of work.  Especially when “bottling” for us really means bottling, boxing, canning and kegging.

In the vineyard, our crew is wrapping up pruning, the single largest job in the growing cycle, and preparing for the new season. We’re about 70 acres through our 85 so right on schedule. Bud break is less than 2 months away!

Spring is generally considered “off-season” for the North Fork and our tasting rooms, but that doesn’t mean down time for #TeamLieb. We’re busy making plans, working on budgets, setting schedules and ordering materials for the “on season.” On Oregon Road, our patio awning goes back up on March 25, and then it’s go time.

In wholesale, March and April are two of our busiest selling months. Our new wines are in bottle (and box, keg, and can!) so it’s time to get them in front of as many buyers as possible. We were selling in 10 states in 2018 but just added an 11th earlier this year. Welcome to the fam, Crush Distributors in Maine! The foodie scene in Portland is killer and we’ve been eyeing that market for some time now.

That’s it! Short and sweet update this week. I kept it brief so that I can take the remainder of this blog post to touch on a topic that has been top of mind for me lately – the future of the wineries on the North Fork. As it turns out, it’s a topic that’s also top of mind for our local government and press, as the Suffolk Times scheduled a “town talk” in a few weeks to address this very subject. (I was invited to be a panelist.)

What got me thinking about it was my sit down with Cyndi Zaweski back in October. She was interviewing me for a feature in the NorthForker’s March Women’s Issue. As I spoke about my childhood on the North Fork (Mattituck high school class of ’98!) and my journey back “home” after a big city career, the themes that kept coming to the surface were just how lucky I feel to be living back here and whether my kids will have the opportunity to do the same.

I have two daughters. Renny is 4 and Gabi is 2, so we’re obviously a long way off from knowing what path they’ll take with school, career, family etc. In no way will I force them into anything they don’t want to do, but my dream would be for one or both of them to have the desire to live on the North Fork as young adults and work in the wine industry.

I found my former corporate career to be grueling and stifling. My days were long and thankless. In Chicago, I spent 2 years working in a windowless office. On the other hand, working at Lieb on the North Fork has afforded me a quality of life that I TREASURE. I work hard, don’t get me wrong, but I also get to take walks in the vineyard and taste wine that I helped create. My 11 year old Golden Retriever naps under my desk, and I can’t run out for coffee without bumping into at least a few of my friends and colleagues from other wineries. As I said in the NorthForker piece, I truly enjoy coming to work every day. And when I’m not at work, I cherish my surroundings. The beaches, quaint villages, farm stands, art, culture, dining. I revel in all that is North Fork.

This is what I want for my girls. To be truly happy in what they’re doing and where they are.

The question I keep coming back to, though, is – will it all be here by the time they’re ready? Will the wine industry be strong and thriving in 20 years from now?

My emotional response to that is, it HAS to be. Because if it’s not, my family and I won’t be here. And that will devastate me.

But if I more pragmatically look at industry trends over the past 8 years (since I’ve been back on Long Island), I’m not so positive it WILL be. I can count at least 7 wineries that have closed and only 2 or 3 that have opened. I also know that a number of potential new wineries have started the process of trying to open but eventually abandoned the pursuit. And in a few cases, we’re seeing consolidation. There are less dots on the wine trail map now than there were in 2010. The wineries, from my (non-scientific) perspective, are experiencing a period of decline.

What’s causing that? I’m not sure. A combination of factors I assume. For one, there seems to be a misconception out there that the wineries are cash rich and rolling in money. That’s NOT the case at Lieb. After I took over as GM, it took us 4 YEARS to become profitable and we busted our butts to do it. The costs of farming wine grapes and making wine on Long Island are astronomical. Just because our parking lots are full does NOT mean we’re making money. Owning a winery is a labor of love, not a cash cow. And that means some wineries wind up closing.

The industry is also not as unified as we should be. Our regional trade organization, the Long Island Wine Council, is at its lowest membership level ever because of dissention over the direction and mission of the organization. We as wineries need to get our sh*t together, get on the same page and start marketing our region again.

And lastly, town government doesn’t seem to be as supportive as they could be. I’m sure you’ve heard about the moratorium and food truck fiascos. Southold also tried to pass changes to town winery code that would have crippled our industry last year, and from what I hear, it’s harder to get approval to build a new winery in Southold Town than it is to get a PhD in rocket science. The town isn’t making it any easier on us.

Now, I get it. The town must represent all viewpoints, and I’m very aware of a contingent of locals who resent wineries for disrupting the “quiet” of the North Fork. They blame the wineries for bringing traffic, crowds and a drinking/party culture to our precious community. To them I say, you’re right – but only to a certain extent. Wineries are not the only traffic driver out here, and the roads are only clogged up 2 months of the year. Crowds are here, yes, but that means our businesses and main streets can survive. As for the drinking/party culture? It left with Vineyard 48. The rest of the wineries aren’t Vineyard 48. We loathed Vineyard 48.

I’d further counter by saying, I agree, there are downsides, but let’s also consider all of the things that the wineries have done to ENHANCE locals’ quality of life. Like preserving over 3,000 acres of farmland (because that’s what we are, farms!), bringing jobs to the North Fork, funneling customers to all other North Fork businesses, and cultivating an industry that will keep our kids here!

I’m a local through and through. I was born and raised in Mattituck, NY. I want the North Fork to remain “our little secret” just as much as everyone else out here does. But if I have to give up a little bit of the quiet and take side roads on Saturdays in September so there’s a viable agricultural industry here, sign me up.

The wineries must survive. And they need everyone’s support.

Cheers,

Ami Opisso

General Manager & Certified Sommelier