The True Tasting Room Experience – A Summer of Wine and Work at Paumanok Vineyards

30 May

The other day I posted a remembrance of my experiences behind the bar. I had meant to talk about a day in the tasting room at Paumanok Vineyards, as I came back to lend a hand over Memorial Day weekend. But somehow the post morphed into a mini-memoir about my time pouring drinks in a biker bar and I didn’t really do enough justice to the original intention.

So….for your reading pleasure, a true taste of The Tasting Room Experience. This is an article that was published in 2007, in Spanish, in Puerto Rico’s Le Connoisseur magazine for which I was a contributor for much of the magazine’s ten-year or so life. It recounts my experience s in the tasting room — what I learned and the fun we had. And explains why I am in that picture with Hillary Clinton. This article has never been published in English before! Please remember…it is  an article published in 2007 recounting the summer of 2005. Some of the information may have changed slightly in the ensuing years!

Salim Massoud serving up on a busy day in 2007

Salim Massoud serving up on a busy day in 2007


At the Front Lines of New York’s Wine Revolution

By Natalia de Cuba Romero, September 2007

Its just before 11 am and I’m already panting. I’m heaving cases of wine from the warehouse onto the bar and stocking the bottles in the refrigerator and the counter, checking the tasting glasses for spots and lipstick stains, making sure there’s paper towel in the bathroom and turning on the cash register. Through the enormous picture window, I can see my colleague, Karen, watering the potted plants on the wooden deck in the back and arranging vibrant pink, purple and yellow zinnias in simple glass vases on the tables. The sun has burned the dew off the the vines that stretch behind us. The exuberant Sauvignon Blanc, I observe, is getting a trim.

I haven’t yet hung the American flag or the “open” sign out by the parking lot entrance on Route 25A, but already I can hear the gravel crunching under car tires as the masses begin to pull in. It’s going to be a sunny summer Saturday on the North Fork, Long Island’s wine country, and Karen and I are anticipating one very busy afternoon in the tasting room.

All hands on deck - 2007

All hands on deck – 2007

It is the summer of 2005 and we are at Paumanok, a family-owned winery that is considered one of the top among the more than 30 now open to the public in this emerging wine region. I started working here a few weekends in May when I rented a summer house in the area. Now, as a teacher who has the summers off, I’m spending Thursdays through Saturdays in July and August in the tasting room, pouring wine and imparting knowledge to thirsty wanderers from the Long Island, Manhattan, Connecticut (just a ferry ride north across the Long Island Sound) and tourists from around the world.

People often wonder to us out loud what it’s like to work behind the counter at a tasting room. “It must be great,” some say, envisioning relaxed days of wine tasting. They are the ones who come during the week, when Karen and I and our colleagues have time to get one on one with the few clients at a time who stroll in. They imagine that like Sandra Oh’s character in the movie Sideways, which came out in this 2005 year, we have multiple opportunities for romance with clients who invite us for expensive meals and even more expensive wines.

The people who see us on a Saturday afternoon like this one, where clients are five deep at the bar while we behind the counter dance an intricate tango at top speed among the cash register, the glasses, the massive – and sometimes dangerous – mounted corkscrew that is the envy of every guy who walks in, the coolers and the dishwasher, all the while spouting information about how to taste, what wines we are serving and how the winery came to be, the people who see us then say – “Wow, how do you do this?”

A view out the back

A view out the back

The truth is, as it always is, somewhere in between. It’s sometimes tranquil, with plenty of time to taste and refine our palates and inflict blind tastings on each other – can you tell our Merlot from Cabernet Franc, the heady Grand Vintage from light-bodied white label? (It takes me all summer to differentiate the reds) On the other hand it is sometimes overwhelming trying to simultaneously run four different tasting groups and remember who has had what already and answer questions like how many months the Cabernet Sauvignon is aged in the barrel and run credit cards through the cash register that from Day One decided to be my enemy. As for romantic opportunities, well, no. Let me explain.

Wine-tasting in the North Fork is primarily an activity for couples and groups of women. What men come in are often desperately hoping to impress a date who almost invariably knows a lot more about wine than they do. Except in the case of one tall, dark and handsome wine club member who comes in almost every weekend with a different beautiful and scantily dressed young lady on each arm and a platinum AmEx card to drink bottles of Chenin Blanc on the deck. He definitely knows more about wine than the girls do. Aside from him, the local men tend to be more familiar – and comfortable – with a Budweiser than a Pinot Noir – although they really wish they had reason to own a big mounted corkscrew like we have. Some men do come in together after a round of golf, say, or as a break for a visiting business associate, but most of them come trailing their girlfriends and wives. The male wine connoisseurs are also usually married – wine tasting becomes part of what they do as a couple. So while it could happen, regrettably for this single woman, it is not likely!

An end-of-season staff party in 2005

An end-of-season staff party in 2005

Having said that, my goal in working in the tasting room is not romance, but to get paid to learn more about wine which might be said to be love in a bottle. The salary is not huge – tasting room staff earn somewhere between $8-$12 an hour, depending on responsibility level and time put in. But the payoff in knowledge is enormous.

This is why I chose Paumanok to ask for a job. In writing about Long Island’s wine country for this and other publications, I had encountered the Charles and Ursula Massoud, the founders and owners of Paumanok. Charles, from a Lebanese family part of whose business was importing and exporting wines, and Ursula, raised in a Riesling-producing family in Pfalz, Germany, had met in the United States. When Charles was sent to the Middle East as an IBM executive, the couple couldn’t get wine. So a friend taught them to make it themselves. Their first wine together was made in a bathtub in Kuwait. Later, back in the States, they were among the first to plant vinifera in the North Fork area; their first vintage was 1991. Their sons grew up in the vineyard. Today their eldest son, Kareem, is the winemaker, middle son Saleem works in the tasting room and with the accounts and youngest, Nabil, is the vineyard manager. Together this family combines incredible knowledge with Old World graciousness and warmth and if I was going to spend my summer working anywhere, it was going to be with them. So I was thrilled when they agreed to take me on.

Salim and Carolyn Iannone - now owner of Love Lane Kitchen!

Salim and Carolyn Iannone – now owner of Love Lane Kitchen!

The job itself is very simple. There are around 14 wines available for tasting at any given time. Guests can mix and match their own flight or – more usually – taste one of the two available flights, one made up of the light-bodied white label line and the other of the more full-bodied Grand Vintage wines. We pour each wine, let them taste, then go to the next. At the end, we either charge them for what they’ve tasted, or, if they buy three bottles, eliminate the tasting fee. For me the register is a continual challenge, but otherwise the technicalities are not very tricky.

This is where Paumanok is different from many other local wineries. In other tasting rooms, the pourer might give you tasting notes and leave you alone – often in embarassing silence. Most of us are not able to tell one wine from another, or discern leather, tobacco, strawberries or black cherries from a wine. What are we supposed to do?

“It’s not just about people tasting,” says Ursula Massoud. “We need to educate them about the region.”

The house I rented that summer

The house I rented that summer

So at Paumanok, you will get guidance. The guy trying to impress his date will get discreet suggestions on how to approach the tasting glass, how to swirl (“Keep the glass on the counter – it’s easier”); the ladies on a girls day out will be guided into recognizing the difference between stainless steel and barrel-aged Chardonnay; the wise guy who thinks he knows it all will find out why Paumanok’s microclimate makes for a better Cabernet Sauvignon than farther east on the North Fork peninsula (“Because we are slightly west of the bay, we don’t get the cooling breezes over the water out of the southwest. That makes us about five percent hotter than the peninsula and Cabernet Sauvignon needs the heat to fully mature”). Some of the facts I learn directly from the Massouds; Karen, who has been there for several years tells me more. Other information requires keeping my eyes and ears open. Charles and Ursula entertain many visitors to the tasting room and by eavesdropping on their tours, I glean more information.

Chenin Blanc on the porch with housemate, Michele and landlord, Toppy

Chenin Blanc on the porch with housemate, Michele and landlord, Toppy

And then I repeat it back to the clients. On a Saturday, where there might be up to 500 clients, I repeat it a lot. So much that two summers later, I still remember it all.

“Paumanok is the only vineyard in New York State to grow Chenin Blanc. It is an unruly cousin to Sauvignon Blanc that requires a lot of tending. See if you get a pineapple note or if you think it’s more grapefruity. This is phenomenal with seafood.”

“The Vin Rosé is a sweet rosé. It is sweet because of a short fermentation. In fermentation, the yeast eats up the sugars, but when we make Vin Rosé it doesn’t get a chance to eat them up.”

“The Semi-Dry Riesling is our most popular wine. Semi-Dry means that it is sweet, balanced and cut with a crisp acidity that makes it, not only a dessert wine, but an excellent accompaniment to spicy Asian and Indian food.”

“The North Fork’s topography is similar to Bordeaux: between two bodies of water, sandy soil, moderate temperatures. That’s why you don’t get the sunburnt flavors of California wines, but something more subtle.”


Clamming; Photo Richie Fiedler

You would think that so much repetition and dealing with so many people in a day would become tiring, boring, tedious. But it doesn’t. I enjoy every minute, even that bachelorette party that rolled out of a limousine at 5:45 p.m. (we close at 6) after a long day in other tasting rooms farther east, demanding drinks and getting ugly and belligerent (Paumanok  has since instituted a policy that only accepts larger parties by previous appointment, resolving that issue). Once they were gone, we had plenty to laugh about. And there are memorable moments that break the routine – when Sen. Hillary Clinton appears for a press conference to put her weight behind changing the Prohibition laws to allow the shipping of NY wines across state laws (she wins); when Slow Foods – Charles and Ursula are founding members of the Long Island chapter – holds a lobster and clambake in the vineyard that requires digging a pick-up truck-sized pit and lining it with coals, seaweed and local shellfish and local sweetcorn. The clam pit very nearly swallows its digger and chef, perhaps due to the massive quantities of Cabernet Franc he requires to fuel him for the job. There are family barbecues (my family is invited too) out the back or under the stars at the house on the other end of the vineyard that the sons share. There are visits from friends. There are the employee discounts on wine. And there is the end of the day, when we’ve taken down the American flag and the “open” sign, there’s no more crunching gravel in the parking lot and Karen, Saleem, me and whoever else is around pull out Riedel glasses, pour our favorite wine (the Chenin Blanc while it lasts) and sit on the back deck, watching the rabbits and the hawks head for home while the sun sets, discussing the day, the wines and life in general.

With then-Senator Hillary Clinton

With then-Senator Hillary Clinton. Photo: Kareem Massoud

Now I am back to journalism and teaching. But when I think back to those days, or visit the Massouds at the winery, I really want my job back.

PAUMANOK Vineyards
North Fork of Long Island
1074 Main Road (Route 25)
P.O. Box 741, Aquebogue, NY 11931
Phone: (631) 722-8800 Fax: (631) 722-5110

Open daily 11 AM to 6 PM



2 Responses to “The True Tasting Room Experience – A Summer of Wine and Work at Paumanok Vineyards”

  1. Ted May 30, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

    Time flies. That like yesterday!

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