The Women of Wine

Kelly Koch, the winemaker at Macari Vineyards. David Benthal photo

Wine culture on the East End has taken on many forms. Though considerably new compared to traditional agriculture and farming, the Hamptons and North Fork are the two most prominent areas of Long Island wine country, and today are recognized nationwide. It’s not just the viniculture that has helped define the industry landscape, but beverage programs at restaurants and curated wine shops elevating the drinker experience. There is also the undeniable growth of a movement of women making their mark in all industries. Locally, women leading the way in the world of wine is not a new concept.

Louisa Hargrave pioneered winemaking on the North Fork when she and her then-husband Alex Hargrave planted the area’s first vineyard in 1973. What spawned from a few vines was a thriving agricultural industry that has since evolved to amass approximately 3,000 acres of land under vine and 500,000 cases of wine produced annually on Long Island. As more women take the reins, both in the field and out, they inspire the next generation of winemakers, sommeliers and purveyors.

From grape to glass, female pros on the East End are shaping change in the world of wine.

“Wine and vineyards have always been part of the landscape of my life,” says Macari Vineyards winemaker Kelly Koch, who grew up in Napa Valley in California. “I love being a winemaker. Every day at my job is something different and fresh. One day we are bottling, the next we might be disgorging sparkling wine, another day we are sampling fruit in the vineyard and preparing for harvest.”

Koch has noticed a new generation of winemakers joining the local industry, bringing new ideas and perspectives to a centuries-old practice. With 45 years under its belt, the region is also home to many experts who have now grown up in wine country, while also attracting vintners with diverse backgrounds from around the world. New York is also the third largest wine growing region in America, with Long Island being the state’s youngest and fastest growing region. The trend continues upwards. “With the growth of the industry comes the opportunity for all people, both male and female, to enter the industry and become a part of it,” Koch says.

Robin Epperson-McCarthy didn’t intend to become a winemaker when she made her entry into the industry. In 2003, she began working at the Premium Wine Group lab in Mattituck as a way to put her biochemistry degree to use. This led her to work in New Zealand and Australia with the intention of becoming a better enologist, something that ultimately stuck.

Robin Epperson-McCarthy of Saltbird Cellars. David Benthal Photography

“Somewhere along the journey I developed my own artistic take on wine and evolved into a winemaker,” says Epperson-McCarthy, owner and winemaker at Saltbird Cellars and co-owner of Peconic Cellar Door on the North Fork. “It was the abundant crop of good quality fruit in the 2014 North Fork vintage and encouragement from my friend and business partner, Alie Shaper, that inspired me to get my boots back into the cellar. Now I am making wine under my own wine label, Saltbird Cellars. The whole experience has been incredibly fulfilling in that it satisfies my scientific way of thinking with my natural artistic tendencies.”

Social perceptions have led to an increase of female winemakers being recognized for their contributions, something Epperson-McCarthy believes will encourage other women to venture down similar career paths. She and Shaper agree that Louisa Hargrave was a pioneer in the industry as a woman making new world wines in a traditionally male-dominated, old world business.

“If it weren’t for [Hargrave] and what she and her family accomplished, I wouldn’t be here doing what I love,” says Shaper, co-owner of Peconic Cellar Door and winemaker with labels including As If Wines, Brooklyn Oenology, and Haywater Cove. “To that end, this speaks directly to how I think the wine industry both here and abroad has evolved; it’s the inspiration of seeing your role models charging forward. It is also very much a function of ‘passing it down the ladder,’ and making a point of encouraging your younger female peers to go after what they want, recommending them for new positions, and advocating for them in deed, in word and in attitude.”

Alie Sharper, owner and winemaker at Peconic Cellar Door.

Terroir plays a role in every wine region and determines the characteristics of what is produced. Long Island is noted for its fertile, well-draining glacial soil, maritime air, and climate that extends warm, dry summers into a mellow fall, allowing fruit to ripen well for the harvest season.

“As the East End wine industry has matured, we have become smarter about planting types of grapes that are matched to our terroir, as opposed to farming simply what is a household-name variety, or a wine that we really want to grow, despite the challenges that variety may have,” Shaper says. “As an industry we are now really tapping into our regional potential and we’re discovering possibilities for wines that will really set the East End apart.”

An understanding of terroir is one small but necessary part of being a sommelier. It is a certification that is not easy to attain, and to be a master sommelier in The Court of Master Sommeliers is one of the most prestigious titles one can hold in the wine industry globally. Of the 158 master sommeliers in the American chapter, just 25 are women. Sharing a “proven mastery of the art, science, and history that inform a sommelier’s work,” these wine professionals work to improve the standards of beverage knowledge and service in hotels and restaurants.

Nick & Toni’s general manager and Honest Man restaurant group wine director and sommelier Julie Berger is a certified sommelier by The Court of Master Sommeliers and has recently completed the level II certification as she works toward the ultimate goal of master sommelier. Despite being around wine and having an interest in it growing up thanks to having parents that were avid wine collectors, Berger says she was not immediately ready to make it her career at first.

Sommelier Julie Berger of Nick and Toni’s in East Hampton.

After moving back to New York from California, Berger set out on a path that has afforded her the opportunity to taste unique wines few others have access to by learning from other sommeliers, and during a stint at the three-star Michelin restaurant, Jean-Georges in New York City. It was the opportunity to run her own wine program at Nick & Toni’s that brought her back to the East End, but still she wanted to be part of getting the juice in the bottle, not just serving and selling.

“I did a full harvest in New Zealand, working in the cellar and making wine,” shares Berger, who has been traveling to different wine regions for the last few years visiting wineries, meeting winemakers, and taking part in various harvests. “It was incredible. You understand so much more when you meet winemakers and visit the wineries. You can see their personalities coming through in the wine itself.”

Through her meetings with various growers and makers, Berger has been able to share the stories behind the bottles she serves, adding a personal touch to her role. She travels to the southern hemisphere as it does not conflict with the Hamptons summer season and has visited South Africa for the past two years. She plans to return again this year.

Berger says in New York City and Los Angeles there are many female sommeliers in high end positions, something that has changed within the last decade. “Ten years ago, it was super male-dominated,” she explains. “It’s shifting to a balance more. There’s a big percentage of women in the industry now. What I have really started to see is women winemakers, getting a lot of press and making beautiful wines. Everything is kind of changing and always evolving. Climate changes, style changes. What’s interesting now is different people making different wine in different places. The world is growing as a whole in wine production.”

Anneris Blair, owner of Montauk Wine Company.

Finding an appreciation for rosé while traveling in France with her husband, Anneris Blair found the “rosé all day” adage to be particularly true there. She became passionate about the idea of recreating her own back home in New York, where she had moved to in her early 20s from the Dominican Republic. Blair’s background is in retail fashion, but she knew she was capable of managing a new type of business. She enlisted Premium Wine Group to make a French-style rosé with local grapes. With a 2016 vintage bottled, Montauk Wine Company launched last year.

“From the first time we met at Premium Wine Group, we knew we wanted the wine to be as close to a French rosé as possible,” Blair recalls. “It doesn’t have to be too sweet, the color doesn’t need to be too pink or red, but a nice blend. This year we launched Montauk Great White, a blend of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and Riesling.”

Blair notes that the common misconception of only women drinking rosé has changed as well. Male or female, a party host has the opportunity to become an ambassador for what they are serving and drinking and as a result learn more about what’s going into bottles locally and around the world. Though rosé is Blair’s personal favorite, she says the best wine is the wine you like.

“I’ve met a lot of amazing women,” Blair says. “They may not have their own company but are promoting wine in some capacity. Restaurants, managers, hotels and more, there are a lot of women that are very successful. We can be as amazing as the men.”

As rosé is reminiscent of summer on the East End after all, North Fork winemakers Koch, Epperson-McCarthy and Shaper all note there has been a trend of lower alcohol wines becoming more desirable. They can have a fresh, crisp flavor profile, be food friendly or stand alone. “The lower alcohol allows the delicate aromatics of cool climate whites and rosé to be the center focus of the wine,” Epperson-McCarthy says. “With alcohols around 11% you can now drink rosé all day!”

As the industry continues to evolve, where these women take wine next will be founded on passion and support. And they just might give novices and aficionados alike a little more appreciation of what’s in their glass.