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Jamesport Vineyards patriarch was an industry pioneer

Like a fine wine, Ron Goerler Sr. aged well.

One could say Mr. Goerler lived his 95 years to the fullest. He wasn’t cheated on life experiences.

It wasn’t until he was in his mid-50s when Mr. Goerler embarked on a venture that he became most well-known for. He and his wife, Ann Marie, established the fifth vineyard on the North Fork.

And yet, operating a vineyard was only a slice of Mr. Goerler’s rich life. He was a man of varied interests, that included harness racing, sailing, scuba diving and golf.

“He liked to keep tight control of everything that he chose to do, but he also loved life,” Charles Massoud, proprietor of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue, said. “He was at an age where others would be thinking about assisted living, [and] he goes out and buys a Porsche.”

Mr. Goerler, a pioneer in the North Fork wine industry, died at his Cutchogue home Aug. 30. The family did not disclose the cause of death.

Working with family can have its ups and downs. Ron Goerler Jr. has firsthand experience from the many years spent with his father at the family-owned Jamesport Vineyards.

What was it like working with his father?

“Tough,” Ron Jr. said. Then, tongue in cheek, he added, “I was fired probably a half a dozen times and I quit, too, probably a dozen times.”

In 1980, the Goerlers purchased a property called Early Rising Farm in Cutchogue at an auction and began planting vines. With that, Jamesport Vineyards was born, the fifth vineyard to be planted on the North Fork. The North Fork/Riverhead area now includes more than three dozen winery tasting rooms.

Like other founding fathers in the area’s fledgling wine industry at the time, Ron Sr. didn’t have a farming or grape-growing background. He had a plumbing manufacturing business. Venturing into a new, largely untested industry took courage.

“You have to be willing to take risks and he was always willing to take risks,” said Ron Jr., who now oversees the vineyard with his wife, Joanne.

Mr. Massoud, who had worked in marketing for IBM before entering the vineyard business in the early 1980s, said: “When you look at the background of everybody from those days, nobody was a farmer. What we have in common as a group is that we like to drink wines.

“He was no different from the rest of us in the sense that he came at [it] as a secondary avocation, [with] a lot of passion. We never really called it a business. It was always an expensive hobby that we’re trying to turn into a business. We didn’t know if it was going to be a successful project in those days. It wasn’t a proven thing.”

Born in New York City on Nov. 6, 1925, Ron Sr. graduated from high school in Rockville Centre and enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a pilot during World War II. The war ended before he had a chance to fly in combat, although he continued to fly for more than 60 years.

Kip Bedell of Southold, the retired former owner and founding winemaker for Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, recalled a time when Ron Sr. flew the two of them and their wives to Block Island for a weekend. Fog had delayed their return flight a couple of hours before it finally lifted a bit.

“He said, ‘OK, we’re going to take off,’ ” Mr. Bedell said. “So, we took off, and I’m telling you, I think we flew about a hundred feet above the water the whole way back … I tell you, that was a pretty hairy trip. We laughed about that for years, but it probably wasn’t all that funny at the time.”

Ron Sr. studied business law at Cornell University and earned his master’s degree at the University of Miami. Then he worked for his father in the plumbing manufacturing business, Crest/Good Manufacturing, becoming president and chief executive officer in 1970. One of his sons, Philip, oversees that company now.

Ron Jr. said the Goerler family vineyard “struggled in the early years. We were not a winemaking family, just like most of the families that came out here. They were not winemaking families. We loved wine. We loved being a part of an industry that was growing, and that’s really what fascinated my dad about the business, which was that you could take a crop such as grapes, convert it into alcohol wine and then sell it. My dad was a numbers guy. He loved the nuts and bolts behind what made up a bottle of wine.”

As co-founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973 and one of the founders of the Long Island Wine Council, Louisa Hargrave merits a place on the industry’s Mount Rushmore. She said Jamesport Vineyards found its niche in those early days with “a really good sauvignon blanc” that gave the vineyard a certain cachet. “Everyone makes wonderful chardonnay here, but to broaden the scope with the sauvignon blanc was really a good thing,” she said.

The two Rons worked as a mini-team.

“My dad was the guy with the financial wherewithal; I was the brawn, but I learned a lot from my dad,” Ron Jr. said. “We toiled in the vineyard. We toiled in the winery, but I took a liking to it at that point. I was 17 years old.”

Ron Jr. said his father was “a borderline genius, charismatic guy. We called him a renaissance man because he did everything. He was from a German background. His grandfather and his father came from Baden-Baden. There was a sternness to him, but he was always smiling. When he walked into a room he had life.”

Ron Jr. said perhaps the most valuable thing he learned from his father was to never give up. “And that’s the one thing that I tell people all the time is that you have dreams, and if you want them to become a reality, you can’t ever give up,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of things along the way that get in your way. We’re fortunate that he never gave up and I think that’s the one thing I take home from him is he really, just everything he did, he did it with life and he did it with courage … and he never gave up.”

Jamesport Vineyards will hold a celebration of Ron Sr.’s life Nov. 7 (one day after what would have been his 96th birthday).

“If you make 75, maybe you didn’t get to do everything you wanted,” Ron Jr. said. “If you make 85, you lived a good life. If you make 95, you’ve done everything you wanted to do.”