Charles Massoud, the owner of Paumanok Vineyards, along with wife Ursula and their three sons, likes to tell the story of the “Long Island Shootout.”
It involved seven Long Island winemakers, Louisa Hargrave, and 18 wine connoisseurs from wine expert Robert Parker’s blog. There was an active discussion about the merits of Long Island wine that culminated in a showdown. “It was February 2005 and the theme was blind tasting… Some brought their own glasses—and some very expensive wines. It was serious tasting—double blind.” Massoud says he was a bit concerned because he couldn’t pick out his wine from the other offerings. “It blended so well with the wines they brought,” he recalls. “The others voted our wines ahead of theirs.” Parker declared it a Long Island victory! And that is how local wine lore is made. And good wine.
With 40 solid years of development behind the Long Island wine region, Paumanok Vineyards is one of the early growers. Massoud, who was born in Lebanon, grew up in a family that kept a “hobby” vineyard with “lots of figs, apples, and oranges,” he says. His father and uncles were importers of food and wine. “For me, the wine is a food experience. I don’t use wine as a beverage,” he says. “Our orientation is to make wines that are food friendly.”
Enter Ursula. Born in Germany to a winemaking family, her grandfather was a vintner in the Pfalz region, the second largest wine-producing region in Germany. Production there is split between 61% white wine and 39% red wine, with Riesling having a strong foothold. (Remember that tidbit.)
Charles and Urusla met when he was studying for an MBA at Wharton and she was at Chestnut Hill. They married and moved to Kuwait for his job with IBM. “It’s a dry country,” Massoud says . “If you want to drink, you have to make your own wine.” The Massouds knew how, and each visit to Germany increased their knowledge base. In 1978, as their the children were getting ready to start school, they moved the family to America, settling in Connecticut.
It was October of 1979, a cold, rainy Sunday. Massoud was reading The New York Times. “I stumbled on this article about a couple making grapes on the Island… we took a drive… and spent a day with Louisa and Alex [Hargrave.]… They convinced us this was the next Napa.” They bought 40 acres with a house and barn.
The Massouds did all the marketing together in the early days. Ursula recalls “in the beginning, it was very difficult… The stores didn’t want it. They thought it was a joke. I said ‘What do you have to lose, just taste it.’ At Sherry Lehmenn [Wine & Spirits in New York] I said ‘just give me 15 minutes of your time. I poured it, and already he said ‘can I have a little bit more…’” Paumanok’s first “coming out” party was there. “We had a store tasting in 1990.” They are now the second-oldest single-family-owned vineyard on Long Island, with 80 cultivated acres. They celebrated their 30th anniversary this past season.
And about that Riesling?
“Growing up in Germany,” Ursula laughs, “they probably said I had Riesling before I had milk…I told Charles ‘of course we have to plant Riesling.’ It has always been a winner—people love it! Many don’t know that it can be dry. Germany always had a dry dinner wine. This was our first wine: a chardonnay and a dry Riesling.
Their 2012 Riesling took the gold medal in the New York Food and Wine Classic. “It took Best Riesling in New York!” Ursula says with pride. “There is so much press about the Finger Lakes Riesling, but a Long Island won!” Paumonok makes three styles: dry, semi dry, and late harvest (dessert wine). They also hold the distinction of being the first Long Island wine to be poured by the glass at the St. Regis.
Paumanok produces about 11,000 cases a year, and even though they are in a multitude of New York and East End restaurants and retailers, the majority is sold through the tasting room. “Over the years,” Massoud says, “We have proudly been able to say: This is a wine made on Long Island.”
Paumanok Vineyards, 1074 Main Road, Aquebogue. 631-722-8800. www.paumanok.com