After nearly five hours of testimony from farmers and vineyard owners Dec. 5, Southold Town has withdrawn a controversial new measure to define use regulations for wineries in residential zoning districts.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