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Winery code proposal, under fire from agricultural community, is withdrawn after five-hour town board hearing

Louisa Hargrave, co-founder of the region's first vineyard, addresses the Southold Town Board.
Photo: Katharine Schroeder

It’s back to the drawing board for Southold Town in its effort to set parameters for winery operations in residential areas.

The town board voted unanimously to withdraw a proposed code revision after a contentious marathon hearing that lasted about five hours last night, where speaker after speaker blasted the proposal — and board members for bringing it forward.

The hearing drew people from across the North Fork in a show of solidarity and support. Winery owners, grape growers, shop owners, farmers, B&B owners and concerned citizens packed Town Hall and dozens addressed the board.

The hearing drew a standing-room-only crowd to town hall. Photo: Katharine Schroeder

The proposal would require a winery to have 10 acres planted in wine grapes specifically — the current code just says “agricultural production” — and would also require that wine made at a winery be made from grapes of which at least 80 percent are grown on the premises or other land owned by the winery.

“This proposed new code, in my opinion, is a 100 percent anti-farming code,” said Steven Mudd of Southold, a farmer who for more than 40 years has grown grapes for sale to wineries. Mudd asked the board who would buy his grapes if the code changes. He urged the board to reject the proposal.

Louisa Hargrave of Greenport, a member of the alcohol farm products working group and the co-founder of the region’s first vineyard, said that the language in the code did not reflect the work of the working group, which she said would like an opportunity to present a “more comprehensive and flexible view.” The working group members weren’t even aware there was going to be a public hearing on a proposal until it was publicly noticed by the town board, she said.

Hargrave said although she was one of the people who, decades ago, advocated a 10-acre minimum, farming has changed.

“That minimum size means that anyone who wants a winery will be forced to spend so much money — and we’re taking about a minimum of $5 million — that they will have to depend on special events and weddings for their business model,” she said.

“The town board has awakened a sleeping giant. The farm community will no longer stand for being pushed around,” Rob Carpenter of the L.I. Farm Bureau told the town board last night. Photo: Katharine Schroeder

Rob Carpenter of the Long Island Farm Bureau expressed anger that the “overly restrictive” proposal had no input from the broader agricultural community.

“The farm communty will no longer be denied a voice in matters affecting our industry,” Carpenter told the board. “The town board has awakened a sleeping giant. The farm community will no longer stand for being pushed around. We will no longer be intimidated,” he said.

“Withdraw this code or vote it down so we can move forward,” Carpenter said. “Remember the farm community is watching. Are you with us or against us?”

Local winemaker Adam Suprenant of Southold said that citizens of Southold deserve better from a town board.

There’s no way you could possibly address a complex industry such as the wine industry with just 10 lines in the code, he said.

Changes that Gov. Andrew Cuomo made transformed the wine industry and made it possible for small operators to buy grapes and open up a storefront to sell products, make friends and build a brand, Suprenant said.

Russell Hearn, vineyard owner and founding partner of Premium Wine Group. pointed out that Vineyard 48 would be “100-percent compliant with this new code.” Photo: Katharine Schroeder

Russell Hearn, vineyard owner and founding partner of Premium Wine Group in Mattituck, said if this code was adopted, things like hurricanes or spring frosts could cause a winery that was in compliance to have a percentage of their crop wiped out, forcing them to buy grapes and causing them to become non-compliant.

“There’s a winery currently in the Township of Southold that grows 26 acres of their own fruit,” he said. “They produced it all into their own production over the years and to my knowledge they haven’t bought a grape from anyone else in the last 20 plus years. They don’t buy or resell anyone else’s bottled wine, so they would be 100-percent compliant with this new code. That winery is Vineyard 48.”

He added that the code would set up an uneven playing field for future wineries to try to get into the business.

“I cannot believe that is the goal of the town board,” he said.

The proposal, drafted by the town board’s code committee, grew out of the discussions of the alcohol farm products working group, a task force created by the town in April to help deal with issues specific to vineyards, wineries, breweries, distilleries and cideries. The group was tasked with reviewing the current town code for “its sufficiency addressing current operations and flexibility to address new models.”

The supervisor, who said last night the working group’s chairman Frank Purita brought to the town board the recommendations that formed the basis for the proposal, was incredulous when other members of the group said they were taken by surprise by the proposal.

The hearing wrapped up well past midnight. The town voted unanimously to withdraw the proposal and the audience broke out in applause.

“Some of the angst is understandable,” Russell said this morning of the community’s reaction. “Moving forward, we should continue the conversation but, in an informal setting. With the proposed amendments withdrawn, hopefully the angst is gone and we can get right to the heart of the issues.”

Katharine is a writer and photographer who has lived on the North Fork for nearly 40 years, except for three-plus years in Hong Kong a decade ago, working for the actor Jackie Chan. She lives in Cutchogue. Email Katharine