Until recently, Long Island's East End grew only potatoes and million-dollar mansions. Now it has first-rate wineries, like Wölffer estate.

By Andrew Essex
Updated March 31, 2015

For some, it is the oceanfront playground made famous by Jaws or The Great Gatsby, but the east end of Long Island may soon be the setting for another classic American narrative: the rise of a great winemaking region.

After 20 years of quiet growth and humble production, the Long Island wine industry seems about to explode; some have even started calling it the new Napa Valley. Certainly the sums that have changed hands recently seem Napa-size. Last fall, Hargrave Vineyard, one of Long Island's first wineries, was sold to an Italian prince for a figure in excess of $4 million, while one of the region's most respected wineries, Bedell Cellars, is currently working out a $5 million deal with Michael Lynne, the president of New Line Cinema (the Time-Warner money-spinner that gave the world Austin Powers). Meanwhile, winemakers from abroad are also interested in Long Island properties; Chilean winemaker Francisco Gillmore recently purchased local vineyard Laurel Lake.

"Tremendous things have happened in a short period of time," says well-known wine educator and New York resident Kevin Zraly, who further noted that Long Island is the only region on the East Coast to grow exclusively European vinifera grapes, the so-called noble grapes--such as Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot--instead of American hybrids or lowly indigenous grape varieties like Concord or Catawba.

Perhaps no one better represents the region's iconoclastic possibilities than Christian Wölffer, whose Wölffer Estate--Sagpond Vineyards (until recently known as Sagpond) produces fine wines not on the farmlands of the North Fork (home to most Long Island vineyards) but on the posh South Fork, just minutes from the grand mansions of East Hampton.

Wölffer has been turning out Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, a Champagne-method sparkling wine and a terrific rosé ever since his first bottling, in 1991. While the Wölffer rosé is a local favorite, the Merlot has won more widespread acclaim, nabbing gold and silver medals at a recent San Francisco Wine Fair. And in a notable reverse commute, Wölffer wines can be found on the wine lists of such high-profile Manhattan restaurants as Le Bernardin, Oceana and Union Square Cafe. Says Oceana managing partner Paul McLaughlin, "Long Island wines are where California wines were 25 years ago. There are a handful of blue-chip vineyards, and Wölffer Estate is one."

German-born Christian Wölffer, 62, has the no-nonsense demeanor of a successful venture capitalist and investment banker, a career he built in Mexico and Canada before immigrating to the United States some 22 years ago. "I bought this place in 1978," Wölffer says of his now-$15 million investment, while proffering a hunk of Wölffer Estate-made Emmentaler. "It was 14 acres with a farmhouse, surrounded by potato fields."

Like most Hamptons residents, Wölffer originally purchased his property as a weekend retreat. "I didn't like to have potatoes around me, so over the years, I thought about what else I could do." His decision to plant grapes wasn't so much a contrarian move (the unlikely South Fork versus the established North Fork) as it was serendipity. Shortly after moving in, Wölffer set up a tree nursery. It was destroyed by a hurricane. Not long after that, Wölffer was given some wine made from grapes grown on a nearby beach. "The wine wasn't brilliant," he recalls, "but it was good--drinkable and pleasant. So I thought, maybe I'll grow grapes instead."

Wölffer admits he had no technical knowledge of the winemaking process--and wasn't much more than an ordinary wine lover at the time--but he had a hunch: "I said, 'If someone can grow grapes in sandy soil without much clay, why shouldn't I be able to do it here?'" He ordered soil tests; the results were definitely promising.

When Wölffer began planting in the late 1980s, not everyone shared his enthusiasm. "People thought I was crazy," he says simply. So his first step was to find a fearless winemaker. Roman Roth, a young German from Rottweil, in the Black Forest, was on his way to Australia to begin his winemaking career when Wölffer hired him. Roth encountered a great deal of skepticism too. "Everyone told me, 'You can't grow grapes on the South Fork,'" he says, "but Long Island's latitude is a lot like certain parts of Spain, where grapes flourish. The sun hits the ground the same way. We can grow Merlot and Chardonnay next to each other and get great color in the reds and high acidity for the whites. You can't do that in Germany or in Bordeaux." Roth who, along with his team, picks all of his grapes by hand, also had faith in the salubrious influence of the ocean breeze. "You don't get any winter kill here," Roth says confidently, but adds, "touch wood."

Now, nearly 20 years later, Wölffer Estate produces about 13,000 cases of wine a year. Wölffer claims it won't get any bigger, "otherwise, the fun goes out of it.

"Would you like to see the property?" he asks, sounding very much like a man who's in it for the fun. The Wölffer Estate now encompasses more than 50 rolling acres, with a neoclassical manor house that would fit easily in Napa. In the distance are the stable, the greenhouse and Wölffer's sprawling home, bracketed by a private pond and tennis court. The ocean is just two miles away.

After a brief tour of the château, Wölffer and I hop into a muddy golf cart and take off toward the stable at an alarming speed. In addition to making wine, the estate is home to a serious equestrian operation with some 80 horses. Today, a woman is taking her horse over some jumps, while nearby, another horse awaits a grooming. "They get treated better than we do," Wölffer jokes. Outside the barn are the seven cows that provide milk for the Wölffer Estate cheeses. They may soon have a second job. "I'm planning to sell bags of organic manure to tourists," Wölffer says with a laugh.

Today, Roman Roth, his wife, Dushyanthi, and a few of Wölffer's friends are joining him for a lunch in the garden prepared by Ina Garten, co-owner of the acclaimed East Hampton specialty food shop, the Barefoot Contessa, where the food is as honest and straightforward as Wölffer's wines. The meal begins with chicken tabbouleh and a platter of crudités, followed by halibut in a tomato-caper sauce, perfectly matched with the 1997 Reserve Chardonnay. The cheese course features Wölffer's farmstead Emmentaler and the rich, ripe 1995 Estate Selection Merlot. As Wölffer pours a glass, he considers the future. "I never had a master plan," he says. "This was all done without a map." He may have produced first-rate wine without a map, but he still hasn't turned a profit. "If I'd known when I started the whole process that it was going to cost $15 million, I would have probably done things differently," Wölffer admits.

But he can finally take satisfaction in seeing his name on every bottle of wine. It was only last year that Wölffer was convinced the wine was good enough to put his name on the label (hence the change from Sagpond). "All my life, I sold other people's things," he says. "And I have to say, there's nothing more satisfying than putting your name on something. The day I did that was an exciting one for me."