Food, wine and a vintage fight

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05/13/2010 12:00 AM |

What could be more peaceful and pleasing than a Mother’s Day brunch?

For some local restaurateurs, it’s the complete absence of such meals — at wineries, that is.

An old and unresolved dispute between restaurant owners and vintners — how much food can a winery serve without violating code limits meant to protect local eateries — flared up anew this past week when two wineries advertised Mother’s Day brunches.

Whether they violated town law is moot since the town chose not to investigate the complaints. And that, says at least one restaurant owner, is the heart of the problem.

Eric Russell, who owns Founders Tavern in Southold, argues that the town has purposely stayed on the sidelines as the wine industry has steadily shifted its emphasis from tastings and sales to catering and events. The issue is a family dispute as well, since Eric Russell is Supervisor Scott Russell’s twin brother.

“This is not about the pros and cons of wineries,” Eric Russell said this week. “I’m pro-winery and I pour local wines. Most of the wineries are top notch. It’s a few instances of people pushing the boundaries of what we currently allow.”

Diane Harkoff, who owns and operates Legends Restaurant in New Suffolk with her husband, Dennis, filed a complaint with the town building department over the winery brunches. She filed an identical complaint in 2004. At that time, the one winery cited, the former Gallucio vineyard in Cutchogue, canceled its brunch. This year, the two wineries that advertised Mother’s Day brunches offered them as scheduled, with no interference from the town’s code enforcement officer, who does not work weekends.

“The wineries do bring a lot of people to the North Fork and they do send us business,” Ms. Harkoff said. “But by the same token, some of them seem to want to be in the restaurant business. Is everybody going to become a restaurant? Where does it stop?”

Chris Baiz, owner of The Old Field winery in Southold and a past president of the Long Island Wine Council, said those are legitimate concerns.

“We have always known and espoused the policy that you can’t serve plated meals during public hours,” Mr. Baiz said. “We’re not restaurants. And for the most part, other wineries are straight up on this.”

The town code includes a provision designed to prevent wineries, which are considered agricultural operations, from having an unfair advantage over restaurants. In part, the code states, “Wineries may not have a commercial kitchen as an accessory use, but may have a noncommercial kitchen facility for private use by the employees.” That section is silent on bringing in food prepared elsewhere or prepared in mobile kitchens.

Supervisor Russell said the problem lies in the law’s vagaries.

“I think that we all need to evaluate what is permissible and what is not,” he said. “It will serve everyone’s interest to know where the lines are.”

It’s clear that the code does not permit the weekend brunches, the supervisor added.

“The town is in the process of organizing all rules and codes governing these facilities,” he said. “In the near future I’ll be meeting with the winery owners to get their help and cooperation in ensuring compliance.”

His brother argues that the law is not as vague as some make it out to be and that the town is not enforcing existing restrictions for political reasons. Several wineries have added full commercial kitchens in a blatant violation of the code. “How did that happen?” he said.

Chapter 97 of the town code deals with “transient retail merchants,” a description Eric Russell believes fits the food vendors who supply wineries. A transient business is defined as one “conducted in a temporary structure, or tent, from a truck, van or trailer.” Those businesses require a town license, and food sales are limited to ice cream and other dairy products and items customarily found on hot dog or coffee trucks.

“The vagaries of the town code is not what we’re talking about,” Eric Russell said. “Right now they don’t investigate who is following the code and who is not.”

Many people coming to vineyards for live music on Friday nights bring coolers, some carrying alcoholic beverages, said Mr. Russell. That would be a violation of state liquor law, he said.

“The issue is when they start holding events that siphon off my trade,” he added. “Why can’t the town enforce the limits as they do with restaurants?”

Just this week, Peconic Bay Winery posted a new safety policy with the first item reading “Under NYS law, no outside alcohol of any kind is permitted on these grounds.”

Mr. Baiz said it’s not up to the Wine Council to enforce that law. “If there’s one offender in the lot, it casts a dark light on the rest of us,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of us try to operate very carefully within the law. We have a great deal of respect for our licensed privileges.”

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