The East End is still home to many family businesses that have stood the test of time, pandemic and online shopping, and one especially shining example among them is Raphael Winery, part of a family of businesses owned and operated by the Petrocelli clan—including Preston House & Hotel, Atlantis Banquets, Long Island Aquarium and J. Petrocelli Construction.
Founded by general contractors John and Joan Petrocelli in the early 1990s, Raphael gets its name from John’s father, an oenophile and home winemaker. After purchasing 50 acres of farmland and agreeing to permanently preserve 40 acres as such, the Italian monastery-esque winery was built on the remaining 10 acres while the soil was allowed to rest after the previous owner had rented it out for the growing of potatoes and other vegetables.
“It gave us time to research and find people to help us create what we wanted to do,” says Raphael Wine Club Manager, Special Events Coordinator and daughter of the founders Julie Petrocelli Vergari. “We worked with Steve Mudd’s father, David, and Steve as well, and we decided that, because of our terroir, we wanted to go with a Bordeaux-style farming plan.”
Red varietals chosen included merlot, cabernet franc, petit Verdot, malbec and cabernet sauvignon, and white varietals included sauvignon blanc and Riesling. The initial planting took place in 1996 with two-year-old vines purchased from a nursery upstate. Located in Peconic, the winery’s original winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich helped the family connect with Paul Pontallier from Chateau Margaux in France to consult and help design the winemaking area. The winery design, starting 12 feet underground, utilizes gravity flow and natural temperature regulation for maximum energy efficiency.
By 2006, the Petrocelli family had purchased an additional 20 acres from a neighboring farm and planted their first pinot noir. This sizeable addition made the winery team’s commitment to nurturing and picking grapes by hand an even greater labor of love.
“Where does the wine grow? We want it to grow in a happy place and create nice fruit for us,” Petrocelli Vergari says. “We get the most out of the vineyard as we can, but we also drop some fruit during certain times of the year if it’s too much on the plant. We don’t want to overstress the plant—we’d rather get more quality than quantity.”
In 2012, popular East End vintner Anthony Nappa took the reins of Raphael’s wine production after Olsen-Harbich left, though John Petrocelli initially had slight reservations about the hiring decision. “When Rich decided to leave, Anthony had interviewed for the job, and my father, a stern Italian, was a little upset because he knew that Anthony had his own label,” Petrocelli Vergari explains. “But we liked the fact that he’s a businessman himself and knows that we have to make money at the end of the day. We’re really lucky to have him, plus his [label’s] wines are totally different than our wines.”
By 2016, the team realized they had an overabundance of merlot and, at Nappa’s request, grafted clippings of Steve Mudd’s pinot grigio onto six acres of merlot. The young plants are expected to begin producing the new varietal by 2026.
Throughout Raphael’s history, many Petrocelli family members have contributed to the thriving business—including Petrocelli Vergari’s children, her sister JoAnn, nephew Jerome, nieces Jill and Jennifer and Diandra Petrocelli-Schultz. “We all work together, all listen to each other and all respect each other,” Petrocelli Vergari says of the winemaking and management teams.
“I like a family member here when we’re open. I have great staff and a great team, but I do feel it’s nice for people to see a family member here every time when we’re open,” Petrocelli Vergari says. “I’ve pretty much been involved since day one, because my husband (General Manager Joseph Vergari) is a chef, and I’m a wedding planner, so my father was like, ‘Oh, you can do events here!’”
While her father and mother, now 90 and 88, founded the winery, they “never really had anything to do with” the day-to-day management and winemaking. “My parents drink Johnnie Walker Black—they’re scotch drinkers,” she jokes.
The lineup of recently released wines is as enticing as can be, though it comes after a time of great challenge on Long Island. “The last couple of years have been pretty challenging for the region—the 2017, ’18, ’19—but the 2020 is going to be phenomenal, so we’re really excited about the 2020 vintage,” Petrocelli Vergari shares. “We did an estate malbec with the 2017 vintage; that’s a new release for us that’s so delicious. I did a tasting the other day, and it’s got blueberry, blackberry, such great flavor to it. Our 2020 vintage has just been released, and that’s the cab blanc, pinot grigio and rosé of pinot noir. Those are our three new white releases, and they’re just so delicious and a little different. That’s the beauty of our region, it’s not going to be the same every vintage; there’s always going be a slight little nuance that’s going to change the flavors or the profile.”
Those who visited Raphael during the pandemic may find some of the new procedures still in place, as many of these changes created benefits beyond the realm of health. “We do like the seated tasting,” she says. “It’s been nice to have people sit and enjoy the flight. And we kind of like the reservation thing, because you can manage what we have. Staff is an issue, so we’re better able to control that. (With the old way) you can pack the people in, but can you take care of them?”
Looking forward, Raphael hopes to restart winery tours, host private events year-round and bring back the winter cabin fever series. The team is also striving to add more club members and educate them on the fascinating winemaking process. “Our wine club is so supportive of us,” says Petrocelli Vergari. “They come in and they feel like they’re coming home—that’s the point that we want to make, so that our visitors come back.”
Petrocelli Vergari’s influence in the Long Island wine scene stretches beyond Raphael, however, as she is on the board of the Long Island Wine Council and is working with her fellow members to “rebrand the whole wine region.” She continues,” We’re working on doing regional events with Stony Brook University, and that’s hopefully going to be happening this fall, maybe November. We’re also working on a [program] where if restaurants carry like at least 50% of Long Island wines, they get a special medallion on their wine list and free access to Long Island Wine’s website. In 2023, it’ll be 50 years that we’ve been making wine in the region, so we’re getting ready for a big anniversary.”
Raphael Winery is located at 39390 NY-25, Peconic. To learn more, call 631-765-1100 or visit raphaelwine.com.