When a tragedy struck one local winemaking family, Christian Wölffer’s progeny picked up right where the patriarch left off with a new-found commitment to life, family and tradition that’s anything but fusty.
Cashmere sweater, $368, Milano slim-fit dress shirt, $92, and Red Fleece 116 jeans, $80, all at Brooks Brothers, Southampton; Etsabrook cap-toe boots, $125, by Florsheim at Richard York, Patchogue. Agnes dress, $998, at Tory Burch, East Hampton; necklace and boots, both Wölffer’s own.
It’s difficult to drive down Route 27 in Sagaponak during the summer without noticing an unusual sort of ruckus around one picturesque spot, even by August traffic standards. Hundreds of cars are parked along a makeshift lot and young and old, singles and families, march toward an ambiguous-looking structure, blankets tucked neatly under their arms. It’s hard to imagine they are heading toward a wine stand. But this Wölffer Estate outpost is no watering hole; it’s the culmination of trials and triumphs of one local family, which turned a humble wine into a national phenomenon.
“When we envisioned the wine stand, we thought of families with young kids,” explains Joey Wölffer, who is the co-owner and creative director. “It became a thing, I guess, but for me this always felt like a great way to celebrate what living in the Hamptons is all about.”
No doubt, she knows a thing or two about local lifestyle. Raised out East, this accomplished equestrian packaged her business acumen and sophisticated savoir-faire, and created a few fashion-centric enterprises, before her family’s eponymous vineyard came calling. “We favor a casual lifestyle out here that’s elevated,” she adds, surveying the elegant yet rustic Tasting Room at the vineyard, a visual testament to that philosophy. “I think our wines do that in a major way.”
Major is an appropriate word to describe Joey, who cuts a strong figure. She is tall, self-assured and walks with purpose. Her face discloses the markings of someone on a search for ideas that could propel the house of Wölffer to new heights. “One of the great things about smaller, boutique brands is that we can try and test just about anything we all feel could be a great idea. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t. But that freedom is very meaningful to us. It’s who we are,” she admits. Behind her a wall is covered in old framed pictures of the vineyard and those who gave it its spirit.
Wool cashmere sweater, $1,890, and nylon evening dress, $11,500, both at Ralph Lauren, East Hampton; Diorcamp boots with double lacing, $990, at Dior, Americana Manhasset.
The question of identity is at the core of Wölffer Estate. The answer is anything but simple, which may be what gives its story and nectar such singular character. This pioneering winery with a decidedly European personality sits atop of a crest where the soil is very rich. A 55-acre former potato field has become the epicenter and quality benchmark of Long Island winemaking known for its sauvignon blanc, merlot and cabernet franc grapes. The estate is also the only local vineyard producing wine overseas, with its vineyards in Mallorca and Mendoza making wines under the Finca Wölffer brand.
“Our wines are more elegant, and more fruit driven. They don’t have the heaviness of other wines,” explains Roman Roth, the estate’s distinguished winemaker whose signature style combines an oldworld refinement with the unique attributes of the native terroir. “Creating a delicate red wine is just as powerful as creating a very heavy red wine, if you ask me, but there is less room for error when you are trying to create these elegant reds. There are many critics of wine from this area. We are trying to patiently change their minds, but often we are fighting against a prejudice, and that’s not easy to change.”
In many ways the estate’s spry spirit is a reflection of its founder, Christian Wölffer, a venture capitalist by training and wine enthusiast by passion who is remembered for his polyglot, bon vivant ways. “At the breakfast table, in a house with two bedrooms, I often encountered 12 or more guests,” recalls Marc Wölffer, the vineyard’s co-owner and Christian’s son. “Where they stayed I never understood, neither did I ask. His house was always alive, filled with friends, music and laughter.”
It took a tragedy to swing the pendulum from a passion project to a thriving business that has recently been nominated as American Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast. Fate stepped in and Christian’s ambition was cut short. Much like the way he lived, his unexpected death was dramatic and remarkable. He was killed on New Year’s Eve, during a trip to South America, where he was finalizing acquisition of an Argentinian vineyard. Struck by a motorboat while swimming in the Brazilian town of Paraty, he bled to death from his wounds after being pulled from the water.
Jacket, shirt, pants, belt and shoes, all Roth’s own.
In the aftermath of his death, the vineyard’s fate was not all too clear. “He talked about giving it to others,” Joey recalls. “His executors didn’t have any faith in our ability to carry on either. And to be honest, in the beginning we didn’t really want it.” Yet two of his four children, Marc and Joey, came around to the idea of taking over. Their first new release was two varietals of sparking hard cider. Then came Summer in a Bottle, the vineyard’s distinct rosé in a cleverly designed bottle that rode the wave of success of pink-tined wine. Ironically the first year Wölffer Estate turned a profit—after the second generation assumed ownership of the estate—was also the year Christian died. Sales have boomed ever since. “When I got involved, we made it a condition that this had to move past a hobby and into a business,” admits Joey, who credits diversification of their offerings as the key to their success. “We simply wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
By all accounts the projections for Wölffer Estate’s future are impressive, in no small part thanks to Max Rohn, Joey’s husband, who runs the company and whom Marc considers an extraordinary leader. “Our biggest investment is in our team,” adds Rohn, who exudes the steadfast resolve of the engineer he once thought he would be. “We can only be as good as the people who surround us, and our team is amazing.”
With the ambition to expand its Argentinian wines to domestic and international markets and continue to innovate, launching new additions— most notably brandy and a light summer red wine— this could be yet another milestone year for Wölffer Estate. With the momentum point in their favor, Roth’s measure of the vineyard’s potential legacy doesn’t seem all that unreasonable. “We want to be the first East Coast vineyard to go into Sotheby’s auction,” he says as he gently sets one of his precious vintages on a shelf in the cave room. “Wouldn’t that be something?”
Photography by Carlos Ruiz; Styling by James Aguiar; Prop Styling by John Dingman