By Lenn Thompson, Executive Editor
There was a time not long ago when, if you wanted to find live music at a Long Island winery, you had to do some research. Only a handful of wineries hosted performances on any given weekend. Now, it's more difficult to find a winery without music.
Similarly, you'd rarely find food beyond maybe cheese and bread at a tasting room just a few years ago. You'd certainly never find DJs and dance parties, cover charges or beer trucks. Collectively, I refer to these as winertainment, and it's a growing trend in wine country.
In just 40 short years, the Long Island wine industry has started to cement a reputation as a fine wine region, but what impact could this growing reliance on winertainment have? I guess you could also call it the "bar-ificiation" of wine country, because some local tasting rooms are become more and more like dance clubs and bars every year.
I'm not talking about periodic winery-hosted events -- I'm talking about what goes on during a typical weekend at a winery.
Before you jump to any conclusions, know this: I have extremely mixed feelings about the proliferation of winertainment in Long Island wine country, and here's why:
As a tasting room visitor, it's just not for me. I prefer an environment within which I can taste wine at my own pace, can ask questions without raising my voice and truly evaluate the wines. I could be in a small minority. Winertainment clearly isn't targeting people like me.
Then again, what's not to love about a weekend afternoon in wine country -- out on the lawn with family or friends, a chilled bottle of sauvignon blanc or riesling in a bucket, eating cheese or sandwiches, listening to music, overlooking row after row of vines? Music and food will rarely draw me to a winery, but they can add to the day, for sure. Wine, music and food belong together.
As someone who has an affection for my local wine region and the people who depend on it for their livelihoods, I want the wineries to be successful. I'm not going to tell anyone that they can't or shouldn't explore every revenue stream possible. If the wineries can't sustain themselves and be profitable, they are going to start to vanish. No one wants that. I certainly don't.
But I wonder if winertainment -- once found primarily at less-serious producers that survive at least in part by catering to the bus and limousine crowds -- could negatively impact the region's wines and reputation, no matter the short-term financial benefit.
Tough Times. Tough Decisions.
Times are tough. Making local tasting rooms more attractive to a wider audience makes a lot of sense. It's vital, in fact. And different wineries will go about this differently, depending on their business model
Rich Pisacano from Roanoke Vineyards -- a winery that typically eschews activities that distract customers from the quality of its wines -- feels strongly that it's up to the individual winery to decide how they conduct business. "I think every businessman needs to do whatever they think it takes to improve there business," he said in an email.
Winertainment can be seen as a quick-fix money grab, but it is also an important way to set your business apart -- especially in an industry seen as "snobby" or "uptight" but some.
Peconic Bay Winery has music every weekend and even brings in a Blue Point beer truck for special music performances. For general manager Jim Silver, it's all about differentiation and exposing more people to his wines "Even though the marketplace is not that crowded, we are all competing for essentially the same consumer. Many tourists will plan to go to one or two wineries, but they mostly improvise on the third or fourth place to visit. Of course we want them to come to our place."
Silver hopes that consumers will discover how good his wines are "while listening to a band and being entertained with their friends (and) they’ll buy it or request it when they get home. That is the idea," he added.
Hal Ginsburg, managing partner at Clovis Point told me in an email that "Obviously, there is significant demand for the type of wineertainment that many tasting rooms now employ as evidenced by the fact that they are employing it."
But does winertainment really do what these wineries think it will do? It certainly seems to lead to larger crowds, but is the initial and on-going investment worth it?
Silver, who has had success using winertainment to get more people to visit Peconic Bay than ever before, warns that while the boost in sales looks good on the surface "The cost of handling massive amounts of customers makes the profitability slimmer, and the take away -- the wine -- was smaller, per customer." Silver has begun to reduce the amount of entertainment at Peconic Bay and is now focusing instead on the tasting experience. "The margin for profit, the reduced expenses, and the improved customer experience tell me I am doing the right thing, even though gross revenue is sacrificed," he said.
Evolution and Maturation -- or Regression?
I'm willing to concede that this trend towards more winertainment may be nothing more than the natural evolution of a wine region. Bedell Cellars CEO Trent Preszler thinks so. "The Long Island wine region has matured into a destination where people can enjoy a range of activities -- such as world-class dining, lodging, beaches, and entertainment -- all of which comprise the wine culture and economy here, along with world-class winemaking," he said. Preszler points to Napa Valley as one example of how "in America, world-class winemaking can and does co-exist with and, in fact, anchor the other elements of the wine culture and economy."
Despite that comparison, I'm not convinced that this turn to winertainment isn't a step back for Long Island wine, where for many years, the sole focus has been on pushing wine quality forward. Winertainment isn't new, but more (and traditionally better) producers are turning to it to boost business.
Maybe this is a sign that Long Island hasn't "arrived" as a serious, respected wine region, after all. Maybe it needs to become an agri-tourism destination in addition to -- or instead of -- a wine destination.
Pisacano wonders about that, telling me "Perhaps the recent trend of vineyards focusing on things other than wine is testimony that the region has not yet arrived as a pure wine destination," he said. But Roanoke Vineyards is one winery that won't turn its attention away from the wine itself.
"I learned shortly after opening in 2004 that for long-term success, the vineyard needs to be a place where we enjoy being. We love the relaxed tempo that you'll find at Roanoke Vineyards and I don't want to do anything, even in the name of profit, to ruin that. Red wine is our opening act, our main event and our encore," said Pisacano.
Wine Quality Can Suffer
With so much going on at local tasting rooms, I wonder if some winery owners and managers aren't saying, in essence, "Come listen to music and enjoy yourself.... oh, and we make wine too." If so, that is a terrible message and can easily lead to a scenario where the wine has only to be "good enough."
That has already happened at some local wineries and could spread quickly. Making wine that is "good enough" is easier and cheaper than pushing the quality envelope.
Charles Massoud, co-owner of Paumanok Vineyards, is an outspoken advocate for wine quality above all else. "No matter how you slice it, our region is saying that the North Fork is too beautiful to limit it to wine and since we can, we are going to take it all the way to the bank. In that context wine quality goes out the window and there is no need to be selective, attentive, judicious, skilled, creative, thorough and no need to further invest in better winemaking facilities," he said.
Massoud, who planted his first vines in 1982, laments what he sees as a"pulling back from the passion that characterized the first wave of wine growers," adding "The bottom line for our industry is that it may be missing the boat by losing its focus and dedication on producing higher-quality wines, which are absolutely possible to produce by every one. It is the will and the passion that are disappearing."
Silver isn't as concerned, but warns that pushing down quality to chase quick dollars will "push away future business when the economy rebounds, and it always does."
Are Reputations Really at Stake?
It is impossible to know for sure how winertainment will affect Long Island's wine reputation going forward. In fact, it may not have any effect at all.
Still, many of Long Island's top producers are unwilling to trade in their reputation for short-term gains. "We rely on our reputation as a wine destination to thrive. If our business slides, I don't want it ever to be because the music stopped or the band stinks," said Roanoke Vineyards' Pisacano. Ginsburg echoed those sentiments, telling me "My partners and I got into the business not to run a bar but to produce high-end wines that we want to drink and are proud to pour."
But in such a small region, even those that steer clear of winertainment and keep their focus on the vineyard and in the winery could suffer if the trend continues, if it's true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Over time, consumers could come to expect the bells and whistles and care less and less about the wine itself.
Many wine country visitors can probably tell the difference between tasting rooms designed as party locations with dance music, excessive drinking and mediocre wine as compared to tasting rooms where the focus is set squarely on the wines themselves. But even if only 10-15% of customers can't tell the difference until it's too late, that's reason for concern.
There are and will continue to be those who lean on winertainment and those who do not. As the number turning to winertainment grows, there are many questions and possible risks. But we likely won't understand the important impacts for many years.
Can Two Long Island Wine Industries Co-Exist?
Maybe Trent Preszler is right. This all might be part of a natural evolution -- the natural progression of a region growing up and reaching adolescence. But maybe we need to recognize this as an step on a path towards two divergent and distinct wine industries on the East End -- wine destinations and agri-tourism destinations.
Can such a dual industry work over the long haul? Maybe. It seems to work fairly well in the Finger Lakes, but there would be many challenges to overcome. Most would likely make things far more difficult for those producers interested in being wine destinations. Split personalities are never good for anyone.