The internet is a place of quick judgments and irrational over-reaction. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when the Long Island Wine Council, led by executive director Steve Bate and marketing director Ali Tuthill, met with the Southold Town Board to discuss some recommended changes to how local wineries operate, people lost their minds. Lost. Their. Minds.
Many supposed-longtime wine club members vowed in Facebook posts to never buy another drop of local wine. Others called the plans — which include things like eliminating live music on weekends, one-ounce tasting pours and requiring reservations for groups larger than six — an over-reaction. Some even attacked Tuthill personally, suggesting she “must know absolutely nothing about the Long Island wine industry, what makes it successful or the economics of the North Fork in general,” which is simply ridiculous and untrue. Since her hiring, the industry has made great strides and I expect those to continue.
They have to. If it is to survive long-term, the Long Island wine region must refocus on making the best wine possible instead of making “good enough” wine for the types of tourists who would never buy another bottle of wine from a winery because it limits tasting size to one ounce or because it wouldn’t accommodate a group of 12 without a reservation. Those tourists are the lifeblood of some wineries today, but many — or at least the 15 wineries mentioned at that Town Board meeting — don’t think the old model is sustainable over the long term.
If Bate, Tuthill and the wine council are guilty of anything, it’s of making their plans public the way that they did — or at all.
When I first contacted Tuthill about the local coverage following that meeting, she told me, “We did not intend to make the initiative public. The goal of the meeting with the board was simply to update them on our initiatives. What was reported was taken completely out of context.”
I have to defend my colleagues in the local media for a moment: They were simply reporting what they heard at the meeting. That’s their job. And, if the stories are lacking context, I think it falls to the Long Island Wine Council to help provide that context.
We’re a few weeks beyond the meeting and the initial burst of media attention and subsequent reader backlash, and we don’t know any more about the initiative today than we did then. Tuthill told me there was a press release in the works, but I learned earlier this week that it wouldn’t be coming. “Our board decided against issuing a press release on this subject,” Tuthill said in an email.
That’s probably a smart move. The fervor has faded. No one is really talking about it anymore now that the 24-hour news cycle has moved on. Avoiding the press — myself included — is probably the best way forward.
In fact, this probably should have never been made public. I’m sure Bate, Tuthill and the wine council were trying to impress the Southold Town Board with their plans, but there is probably limited value in doing so. I don’t think the town cares about plans like these, nor should it.
Nobody cares what the industry is “going to do.” People care about what has already happened and what is happening today; that includes customers, critics, members of the local community and government officials. It’s like my college creative writing professor always told us: Show. Don’t tell.
If the wine industry — or at least part of it — wants to change how it operates, it should make the changes, not talk about them. Make the changes and perception can change as well. By making the potential changes public, in an incomplete way, the industry has only opened itself up to more scrutiny, misconception and confusion.
Effectively leaking the (partial) plans themselves didn’t do the wine council any favors. That it’s decided not to say anything more on the matter is the right move.
Show. Don’t tell.
All of the internet trolls and over-reactors needn’t worry so much. Only 15 members of the Long Island Wine Council were part of this initiative. That’s less than half of the tasting rooms. If you still want to treat a winery like a concert venue, dance club or bar, you’ll still have options. There will still be wineries that will gladly take your money.
The North Fork is home to high-end restaurants like Caci and North Fork Table. It’s also home to McDonald’s. There has always been a similar divide in the wine industry. It’s just becoming more obvious now.