Guest Column: A new approach needed for North Fork’s wine region
My wife, Carey, grew up on Skunk Lane with the back of her family’s home butting up against what would become a Pindar vineyard. Her brother, Chris, spent his high school summer days working in the vineyards of Lieb.
Like so many of you, her family watched the change come with both excitement and, unfortunately, creeping skepticism — the latter falling neatly under the umbrella of a phrase I’ve heard uttered often since I became a winemaker and winery owner in Southold: “Winery fatigue.”
I’ll be honest, I can’t help but agree. The last thing this area needs is more large wineries on Main Road, solely reliant on heavily trafficked tasting rooms, weddings and large events in order to stay afloat.
With all that said, this region cannot and should not turn its back on an industry that is now truly finding its footing and resonance in the international wine consciousness. Yet, unfortunately, the current town code does nothing to protect neighbors or foster a healthy, competitive wine industry — and that should change.
Just as much as we don’t need more buses and limos clogging Main Road, we do need a proactive approach that fosters small startups and limits, or even prohibits, new large operations. In relation to our region, one would define a small operation as one producing 5,000 or fewer cases of wine per year. These operations cannot rely on a low margin/high volume business model; instead they must justify the higher cost of their goods. These prices and production levels naturally relieve the pressure to generate traffic. Critical vineyard site selection, no crowds, less traffic and ever-heightened importance focused on farming are all qualities of wineries this size.
But if you ask, some will tell you the current (old) winery code was written not to ensure a healthy industry or even protect nearby neighbors, but simply to protect those already established. Currently, the town code requires 10 acres of agriculture land for a winery, which does nothing but ensure a higher hurdle for those wanting to invest in this region, and worse, it does nothing to protect neighbors.
Add in unclear bulk schedule requirements and suddenly anyone looking to set up a winery automatically has to build a larger facility and drive a much higher amount of traffic in order to get close to recouping just their land investment.
Here are a few changes I believe could help alleviate these issues.
WINERIES NOT TIED TO LAND
Requiring a winery facility to be attached to 10 acres means fewer potential customers for folks who would simply like to make a living growing grapes. In 2014, we saw wineries leave hundreds of tons of fruit on their vines because there were no buyers. The code should clarify and allow the use of industrial parks and other warehouses for winemaking facilities with limited or no customer access. More production means more successful farms.
LIVING ON THE PROPERTY
Living on the property where one is farming and making wine has been in practice much longer than Southold has been a town, yet the code makes this practice very difficult, confusing and expensive. This is what makes farming a bit more viable by spreading costs. It also inherently makes that operation a better neighbor, because who wants loud music and a drinking crowd in their own backyard? I don’t.
LAND WHERE DEVELOPMENT RIGHTS HAVE BEEN SOLD
While land preservation has proved to help maintain the character of the North Fork, how much land we preserve shouldn’t be the primary yardstick of success. The number of preserved and new farm businesses created, however, should. Allowing for processing of naturally grown products (in this case, grapes into wine) under a certain threshold of production should be allowed on development-rights-sold land. Doing so will lessen the coverage and intensity of buildable parcels where the home and/or sales spaces are allowed and gives owners flexibility on where to site these quiet non-public farming facilities.
PROMOTE THE NOTION OF SMALL
Like other wine regions, the town has the ability to streamline the permit process by capping production.
Some of the best advice I have ever received was to do everything in our power to stay small. Staying small means doing much of the work oneself, keeping overhead low and allowing the focus to remain on producing a high-quality product. Without a single sign on any main road, we were able to sell out of our first year production within six months. Being small also means we can work with distributors to get our products past New York into places like California, Virginia, Texas, etc., alleviating the need for traffic to our farm while helping elevate the prestige of the North Fork.
Other things should be on the table as well, such as limiting events, parking tied to occupancy and other common sense regulations that protect neighbors.
We were not the first to start a small winery operation here and I know we’re not the last. Southold has an opportunity to be a model in the future growth of New York’s winegrowing industry, promoting small farm manufacturing businesses reliant on what is now our agricultural heritage. And they can do so while limiting the current sticking points that have caused less desirable issues.
Let’s seize this opportunity.
Photo Credit: Randee Daddona
Regan Meador is the co-owner and winemaker of Southold Farm + Cellar. He is currently seeking a setback variance from the Southold Town Zoning Board of Appeals to build a winemaking facility.