Most wine industry in America — and in the world, really — have sort of trade organization formed to support it. In the Napa Valley, it’s the Napa Valley Vintners. Next door in Sonoma you’ll find the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance. In the Champagne region of France, you have organizations like the Comité Champagne. Closer to home, the Finger Lakes region has organizations like the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance and Finger Lakes Wine Country. You get the idea.
Here on Long Island, the primary trade organization is the Long Island Wine Council. The LIWC website describes the group as an “organization dedicated to protecting, promoting and advocating on behalf of its members. Our vision is to unite our community in an effort to establish the Long Island as a world-class destination for premium wine.”
It’s hard to suggest that the group has met that goal to this point. And the immediate future is a bit murky.
Executive director Ali Tuthill left earlier this month. A new executive director hasn’t been named yet and, with harvest fast approaching in the region and current council president Roman Roth’s tenure coming to an end at the end of 2017, one has to wonder if they’ll hire a new executive director before 2018.
I’m not a winemaker or a winery owner, but as someone who has observed the industry and seen the results of some of the wine council’s programs over the years, it’s apparent to me that this is a crucial moment in the organization’s history.
There are and have long been different opinions on what Long Island wine country should be and nearly as many different business models for wineries being utilized. That in and of itself makes the creation and success of a group like the LIWC difficult. Add in the fact that some of the people who own these wineries made and still make their money (and a lot of it) in other industries and things get even more complex.
Some owners are active in the day-to-day operations of their wineries. Many are not. Regardless, they’ve all been successful in one business or another — and no doubt feel confident that they know what is best not only for their wineries but for the industry as a whole. That’s a lot of — no doubt often differing — opinions to sort through into a cohesive plan. And let’s not forget that several wineries are for sale, officially and not so officially. That changes the goals even more for those members.
The executive director’s job for the LIWC is a challenging one, to say the least. Perhaps even impossible.
What’s next for the LIWC? Members need to figure out what they want to be from here on out. Do they want to be a catch-all organization that tries to deal with local, state and federal government while also promoting tourism as well as Long Island wines locally, in New York City and beyond?
Can an organization do all of that for all of its diverse membership? I’m not so sure.
Does the LIWC even need to have tourism as part of its mission? With groups like the East End Tourism Alliance, North Fork Promotion Council, various chambers of commerce and Discover Long Island already in place, maybe not.
Instead, maybe the Long Island Wine Council should focus solely on public policy and governmental issues. Many wineries are already working with Wine America and the New York Wine & Grape Foundation to deal with federal and state government issues, respectively. But with the way local government is scrutinizing the Long Island wine industry, a group to represent local wineries locally is an obvious and immediate need. It’s also something that every winery should care about. It could be a common interest that unites membership.
If that were to happen, maybe second organization whose goal would be to promote the wine of Long Island is required too. Read that carefully: It’s the wine that should be promoted, not tourism, jazz festivals or free party bus tours. It has to be about the wine.
Many local wineries would not be interested in such an organization, but a separate trade group that concentrates on quality wines, quality winemaking and quality tasting room experiences could be a boon for its membership. It would generate press attention; help members of the media and trade avoid those producers who don’t put the wine first; and potentially change the minds of many locals who lament the direction the industry seems to be moving in.
I’ve long written not-so-nice things about wineries who treat their tasting rooms like wine festivals every weekend, but I know that it is a legitimate business model. If that’s how certain owners want their wineries to run, that is their right.
But perhaps through the creation of another organization, one designed specifically to help those wineries that don’t want that for their wineries or their region, Long Island wineries won’t all be lumped together anymore in the minds of locals, consumers, the media and the trade.
My suggestion for a name for this new organization that only exists in my head? “Wine First Long Island.” I think that name says it all.
A version of this story originally appeared in The Suffolk Times/northforker