Vineyard Pioneer Christian Wölffer Killed in Boating Accident


Christian Wölffer, one of the pioneers of viticulture on the South Fork, and proprietor of the vineyard and horse farm that bears his name, died in a boating accident on New Years Eve while swimming in Brazil. Wölffer, who was vacationing when he was struck by a boat, was 70. According to the Associated Press, Mr. Wölffer was struck by the propeller of the boat, opening a deep cut. He was off the beach at Paraty, a colonial town about 100 miles west of Rio de Janeiro. According to reports, he had been visiting a friend’s home and had decided to go for a swim in an area where boats are restricted within 650-feet of shore. After being struck, reports indicate Mr. Wölffer waved for help and was pulled from the water by, among others, Brazilian soap opera star Rodrigo Hilbert. The Associated Press reports police have interviewed the driver of the boat, and are considering charges.

Mr. Wölffer’s rambling 170 acres along Montauk Highway in Sagaponack is a popular landmark, with rolling fields of wine grapes. He first purchased the property in 1978 as a 14-acre parcel with a farmhouse surrounded by potato fields. By 1997, he had amassed the rest of the acreage and built a state-of-the-art winery at a cost of more than $15 million. On the property are 55 acres of vineyard and the 100-acre Wölffer Estate Stables, including an 80-stall facility with the largest indoor riding field on the East Coast.

“He was one of the few guys who came and took a big financial risk with building a winery here,” said Ted Conklin, proprietor of the American Hotel. “He hired wisely 20 years ago and continued to stand by the business model, continually investing in the winery and staff.

“Had other operators been so dedicated to their business model, the future of the wine industry on Long Island would be more highly elevated. The problem is, there are very few Christian Wölffers,” said Conklin.

Mr. Wölffer, whose careers have included investment banking, venture capital, real estate, agriculture and entertainment parks, was born in Hamburg, Germany, where, as a teenager, he began as a trainee in a bank. He later worked for an import/export company, and later with the German chemical company BASF, as a manager of their sales force in Mexico. He spent more time in Mexico, Central and South America with a firm that sold printing and packaging equipment to commercial printers and publishers worldwide.

His interest in South America apparently continued to the time of his death.

According to a blog from the Wine Spectator, Mr. Wölffer was investing in vineyards in Argentina. In an interview with the Wine Spectator’s James Molesworthy, Mr. Wölffer noted, “‘You can’t make money here doing quality,’ he said bluntly. ‘You can only make money here if you do volumes.'”

Among his investments in that country are a minor share in a winery known for sparkling wines targeted at Argentina’s domestic market and 2000 acres he was developing in Mendoza, with 740 acres already planted, and plans for a hotel.

Molesworthy’s blog also says Mr. Wölffer was planning on purchasing another Argentinian winery, and a property outside Buenos Aires for a residential, spa, golf and equestrian complex.

“Christian’s vision for what Long Island winemaking could accomplish and his passion for horses that led to the building of an elite equestrian center represents an enduring legacy which the Wölffer family is committed to uphold,” the family said in a statement released Monday.  “We have all been blessed by Christian’s strength, his charisma, his charm, and his untiring passion to live each day to the fullest.”

The family is also committed to carrying on the operations at the estate in Sagaponack.

“The vineyard and stables are fully operational and thriving businesses,” said John Nida, general manager for the estate. “The family is fully committed to upholding Christian’s legacy and continuing the operation of the vineyard and stables. We are left with the tools to move the businesses forward.”

Mr. Wölffer is survived by his son, Marc of Palma de Mallorca, Spain; his daughter, Andrea; his daughter Joanna of New York; his daughter Georgina of New York; and seven grandchildren. Two marriages ended in divorce.
Contrary to earlier reports, Mr. Wölffer’s remains were not to be sent to Hamburg. A memorial service will be announced at a later date. Visitors to the Wölffer Estate Vineyard are invited to share their condolences in a remembrance book in the tasting room.