Southold Nixes New Winery Code

Sunset in the vineyards, Jamesport
Sunset in the vineyards.

After nearly five hours of testimony from farmers and vineyard owners Dec. 5, Southold Town has withdrawn a controversial new measure to define use regulations for wineries in residential zoning districts.

The code amendment was designed to be part of a larger effort on the part of the town to define current agricultural practices, which differ greatly from the North Fork’s history as a commodity potato supplier to the country.

The amendment would have required vineyard operators to have 10 acres devoted to wine grapes on property they own in a residential area before they are allowed to build a winery on that land, and the winery built would have been required to process primarily grapes grown on site — with 80 percent of the grapes grown by the winery’s owner and up to 20 percent from other sources.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the code was drafted after a potential winery owner came to town officials with an idea to build a 4,000-square-foot winery on residential land, planting just 4 to 5 acres in grapes and planting the remainder of the 10-acre property in privet, a move he said was contrary to the spirit of the code.

“You’re talking about a commercial operation on agricultural property where there is no perceivable agricultural operation,” said Mr. Russell, who added that such operations should be placed in commercial zoning districts, not on agriculturally zoned land, which is considered a residential zoning district.

But, as drafted, grape growers said, the code change would disproportionately hurt small growers who are just starting out. Many also said it showed an ignorance of the way wines are made on the North Fork, with many vineyard owners buying and trading grapes with their neighbors due to crop failures or the desire to experiment with different types of grapes than the ones they grow themselves.

Steven Mudd of Mudd Vineyards told the Southold Town Board at the Dec. 5 hearing that he was concerned the change could ruin his business. 

“I’m just a grape grower. I’m just a farmer. I don’t make wine,” he said. “I sell my grapes to local wineries, and now, going into my 44th year, I’ve gotta ask myself ‘who’s going to be allowed to buy my grapes?'” he said. “Can anybody answer that?”

Louisa Hargrave, whose Hargrave Vineyards was the first vineyard on the North Fork in 1973, said changing the winery code “is like making new clothes for a dinosaur.”

She said that, by drafting the code to require a 10-acre minimum size, the town board would be virtually guaranteeing that wineries will need to hold special events and host weddings in order to pay to buy the land.

She added that venture capitalists have bought large acreage on the North Fork “waiting to grow marijuana.”

“As soon as marijuana legalization is expanded, that’s what they’re going to do,” she said. 

Rob Carpenter of the Long Island Farm Bureau asked the board why they were requiring vineyard owners to own the land, when a great deal of North Fork farming is done on leased land.

“The town board has awakened a sleeping giant. The farm community will no longer stand for being pushed around,” he said, adding that many people have been afraid to speak up for fear of retribution from the town. ”

Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he was offended that people feared the town, and that the town board had attempted to draft the code with input from the agricultural community.

“Our original proposal was 100 percent. Some wanted 60/40. I met with several people in the industry… everybody thought 80 percent was viable,” said Mr. Russell of the percentage of grapes to be grown on-site. “You guys keep moving the goalposts here. We’re trying to find a number that works for you.”

Mr. Russell added that the rule would only impact wineries that have yet to be built, and would not apply to existing wineries.

Abra Morawiec of Feisty Acres Farms, which grows game birds for meat and eggs, said she started her Jamesport business with $11,000 and help from farmers who provided mentorship and rented land.

“This would make it prohibitive for young farm businesses to walk before they run if we were forced to purchase a minimum of 10 acres,” she said. “This would put a halt on new and growing farm businesses.”

Ian Van Bourgondien, whose family has a large greenhouse business on the North Fork, is also a member of the town’s Alcohol Farm Products Working Group. He said that group “did not write or suggest the amendment being discussed tonight.” He said he also worries that “the natural succession of young people in the industry will be impeded.”

Premium Wine Group co-founder Russell Hearn said there’s one vineyard that grows 26 acres of their own fruit. 

“They don’t buy and resell anyone else’s wine. That’s Vineyard 48,” he said.

Vineyard 48, on Route 48 in Cutchogue, lost its liquor license in October of this year after years of complaints from neighbors about the drunken debauchery of its customers.

Giovani Borghese, whose family owns Castello di Borghese Vineyards, on the land that had originally been Louisa Hargrave’s vineyard, explained that most North Fork wines are sold through distributors at less than it costs to produce those wines, leaving vineyards to rely on tasting room events, winery tours and special events to cover their cost of doing business.

“You’re going to see a lot of vineyards max themselves out in the next few years,” he said. “Traffic is going to get worse.”

He added that the North Fork wine industry is now 45 years old, and grape vines usually don’t last more than 30 to 50 years.

“In the near future, we will replant every single plot, one-third at a time,” he said. “Every single vineyard needs to go through this process.”

“If you look at wine on a global level, this would be a story that would be very embarrassing to be a part of for a very long time,” he added. “You guys have the power to change that.”
 
As the clock ticked past midnight, town board members all agreed to withdraw the proposal.
 
“It’s obvious to me based on the overwhelming comments tonight that, while the idea may not be ill-conceived, the process was not the right process,” said Councilman Bill Ruland, the sole farmer on the board. “This issue certainly needs to be visited again. There needs to be involvement of people with the expertise.”
 
Councilman Bob Ghosio said he was heartened by the collaborative spirit among members of an industry who could be seen as competitors, but he said that, when on the campaign trail this fall, many other people in the community were “worried about the unbridled growth of this particular industry.”
 
“I didn’t hear anybody complaining about potato farmers or cauliflower or squash. I only heard ‘what are we going to do about wineries?'” he said. “There are issues we need to address for the rest of the community as well. This doesn’t come from a nefarious place where we’re anti-winery. There are people that are worried. Based on the input we’ve received tonight, I’m not sure this is the right way to go.”
 
Councilwoman Jill Doherty said when she was growing up, her grandmother brought scallops to Sep’s Farms in East Marion to trade for cauliflower. 
 
“That’s community. You trade. You help out,” she said. “The perception that I had of what this code did is obviously different than the perception that all of you have. I feel we failed in writing this code…. We need to take more time to get more input from you. I do not want to tell you how to farm.”
 
Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he believed people misconstrued the intent of the code.
 
“This was about getting agriculture back into agriculture zones,” he said. “We have a right to say you have to grow grapes if you want to have a winery.”
 
“This conversation isn’t new tonight. We’ve been working on this for many years,” he added. “The suggestion that people are afraid to speak because the government might punish them —  there’s not one example of that. Everything else, that’s fair.”
 
“You can grow grapes, pick grapes, process them, crush them and bottle them on any piece of land you want. That doesn’t make any difference to me,” said Councilman Jim Dinizio. “When it comes to ‘sell,’ that’s what’s sticky. Some of the marketing techniques are cumbersome for the town…. I didn’t hear much of anyone addressing what they need for special events to make a living. I just don’t want to hear a band at 11:30 at night. There shouldn’t be any in a residential zone. Besides that, do your thing.”
 
Mr. Dinizio added that the Alcohol Farm Products Working Group had eight poorly attended meetings.
 
“My assumption was that people who deal with alcohol farm products would show up,” he said. “We need to do our homework better. We didn’t learn what industry was until tonight.”
 

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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