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A Man for All Seasons

On the advent of his 30th vintage at Wölffer, winemaker Roman Roth reflects.

Imagine if you had but one chance each year to do your job and do it well — and the efforts of everything you did and every decision you made all year long would hang on the success of this one opportunity. One chance to put out a magazine. One day to open a store and sell your wares. One home to build, one class to teach, case to argue, car to sell, meal to make, painting to paint.

Now consider that you must also depend on the cooperation of the weather and have only one medium with which to work: Grapes. You’d think after 30 years of this annual do-or-die existence at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, Roman Roth might be downright exhausted. Or maybe even a little gloomy. But three decades under his belt only ignite his imagination and fuel the fire to keep creating and building as the winery’s fermenter-in-chief. 

You can see this in some of his recent projects, like Oishii, a creative new cider release that uses sake yeast to turn sugar into alcohol, or Spring in a Bottle, Wölffer’s smart answer to the no-ABV trend and a successful stab at making nonalcoholic wine that actually tastes good. Or that he took his iconic way with rosé from a little 1,500-case release back in the 1990s and spun it into projects spanning Long Island, Argentina and Provençe, now a whopping 100,000 cases strong. 

“We take it very seriously. We can’t buy more hops; we can’t buy a new batch of grain. All you can do is look in the mirror and say shoulda, coulda, woulda.” Roth says. “We don’t want to do that.” 

Over three decades of vintages, he never has. Roth forges ever forward, as both the talent and face of Wölffer (and a partner, since founder Christian Wölffer passed away in 2008 and his children, Joey and Marc, came into the business). He is also the tireless flag-bearer and believer in Long Island wines, which he insists should have their very own float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (If anyone can make that happen, it’s probably Roth.) He turned a generation of rosé skeptics into pink devotees. He proved that Long Island reds can be righteous. And even now, at an occasion to look back and ponder, he’s still looking ahead, dreaming about what’s next. 

It’s not easy to pull out the vintages that mean the most — they all mean something and carry a memory or a marked moment in his time at Wölffer and in his life. His eyes even light up at the mention of 2022 — a gorgeous vintage in the Hamptons and on the North Fork. But at the risk of truncating a career well lived so far, here are just a few memorable vintages among many.

1992: The year that turned Long Island pink

How did Wölffer become synonymous with rosé? You might say this penchant for pink all started in a German beer garden.

In 1992, German-born Christian Wölffer needed a new winemaker for his fledgling Long Island wine project, Sagpond Vineyards, launched in a humble metal Morton building at 139 Sagg Road back in 1988. Roman Roth, sitting through his final master’s classes at the College for Oenology and Viticulture in Weinsberg, Germany, wasn’t looking for a job. He and his wife, Dushy, were planning to move to her home country of Australia and dive into the robust wine industry there. But one afternoon, a professor mentioned a winery in eastern Long Island that needed a winemaker, pronto. On a lark, Roth decided to apply. “I thought, well, most Australian wine is sold in England or America. I’ll practice my English interview skills,” he says. “So I called up this winery and, of course, after the secretary, a German guy answered and I never practiced any English.”

It was 1992 and although he’d been apprenticing and studying to be a winemaker already for a decade, Roth was just 26 years old and newly married. A week after that first phone call, Christian Wölffer flew back to his native Germany to meet with Roth in person. Wölffer landed at 8 in the morning, and straightaway asked to taste the potential candidate’s wine. “Luckily, I’d made a wedding wine for my wife, Dushy, and me, and I had it in a bag with glasses and a little cheese plate. Who goes like this to an interview in the morning?” he says with a laugh. “We sat in this beautiful beer garden that was closed and we had to wipe the morning dew off the table. We sat down in the beautiful sunshine together and we had a beautiful pinot blanc and we started dreaming. I came to America a couple months later and never left.”

When Roth and Dushy arrived, Wölffer threw a big party, as much to welcome his new winemaker as to celebrate the end of summer on Long Island and in the Hamptons, particularly. “It reminded me of the South of France. It was Labor Day weekend, after the Hampton Classic,” Roth says. “And we came to the party and the rosé was flowing and it put the idea in my head: We should make a rosé! And that’s where it started.” 

1994: Gold in the glass

Roth swirls with Perle, Wolffer’s estate chardonnay. (Photo credit: Douglas Young)

The little German-run South Fork winery quickly began to grow, and Roth and Wölffer’s equally ambitious spirits dovetailed into an overflow of ideas and plans. “Our reputation grew, our production grew, our experience grew. We learned, we got bolder,” he said. “But the key was to break prejudice. That’s always the hardest thing to overcome.” Roth refers to the once widely held — and still occasionally touted — notion that wine from Long Island couldn’t possibly be good, let alone award-winning and Parker point-procuring. He knew better, and in 1993 Roth found the inspiration he was looking for. 

He attended a wine conference on Long Island called the Chardonnay Symposium, and it was there that he met legendary pioneering American winemakers Jim Clendenen, from California’s Au Bon Climat, and Bob Cartwright of Leeuwin Estate in Washington State. At Roth’s invitation, the two men came out to Sagpond to check out what the young winemaker with the funny German accent was doing.

“We showed them our special little section [of the vineyards] we called the Star,” Roth says. “It was a little south-facing slope in our old vineyard; a chardonnay block. We told them we were thinking we should do something special with this, and they said, ‘You’ve got to do that! When you have the chance to make something special, that’s what you must do, of course.’ And that’s when we realized that the only way we can compete with the world is quality, not with quantity.” 

The next year, Roth decided to make his first selection chardonnay, now known as Perle. That first vintage was aged for 16 months in a just-right balance of new and used French oak and, as he tells it, became the most beautiful lees-driven, layered and textured wine, showing off what Long Island terroir could be — all sea breeze and sun. It made the wine lists of some of New York’s most lauded houses of gastronomy: Jean George, Daniel, Lespinasse, Le Bernardin, La Caravel. “It was unbelievable for a young Long Island winery,” he says. “It wasn’t just a hobby or a little dream.” That year, they built the stunning tasting room with sweeping views of their well-tended vineyards and changed the name: Sagpond became Wölffer Estate Vineyards. 

2000: The 100-point journey

The second half of the 1990s was a boon — between the boost of industry accolades, several incredible vintages in a row, and the arrival of talented vineyard manager, Richie Pisacano, Roth began to look at the point-scoring, price-soaring wines in magazines like Wine Spectator with a new frame of mind. Wine lovers thought nothing of dropping $100 or more on a highly rated California bottle. Why couldn’t Long Island do this? Roth, Pisacano and Wölffer decided to trek to the land of 100-point, $100 (and then some) wines to find out. 

They traveled to Napa Valley and Sonoma, slogging through the tasting rooms of dozens of wineries, sipping, swirling and spitting; seeking the essence of vinous success. At one particularly well-regarded winery, its tasting room walls plastered with boasts of 100-point and 99-point scores, they sat and tasted. “The rosé was sweet, it was a disaster!” Roth says. “The white wine, which is very famous, also had a sweetness to it. It was not great. We tasted the regular cabernet sauvignon, and it was pretty mediocre. And the top, top $150 wine was sold out, so we couldn’t even taste that.” The jolt of ambition nearly powered them all the way back to Long Island, where Roth knew what his next mission would be: Make a wine so extraordinary, people would clamor to have it in their glasses and pay any price. 

“I’m a very realistic dreamer, I think. I have big dreams, but they always have a practical side to them and they have a path. Because there’s no point dreaming of something you can’t have,” he says. “So you dream of stuff that you have a chance to achieve. And with Christian being a Pisces, too, if there was a good idea, it fell on fertile ground.” So Roth and Pisacano worked the vineyard, using new knowledge gained from a consultant who was the former technical director of Bordeaux’s Château Latour. They dropped fruit in order to increase the concentration of the grapes; they upped the ante on the quality of their barrels. 

“The 2000 vintage was when we made that dream come true. We made our first $100 wine — a merlot from Long Island grown right here in Sagaponack on the South Fork,” says Roth. And, to punctuate the point, it sold out. “It was one of the vintages that defined Wölffer.” 

Roth sits among the vintages in Wolffer’s wine cellar. (Photo credit: Douglas Young)

2001: Wine saves

Back in 1986, Roth, along with a cousin, took his very first trip to the United States, with the goal of doing one thing: Stepping inside the famed restaurant in the Twin Towers, Windows on the World. “We didn’t have suit jackets and we had use their jackets, these blue velvet jackets!” he says. “Just so we could go in. We drank Manhattans overlooking the Statue of Liberty. I was just 21 at the time. When I finally became a winemaker, we sold wine to Windows on the World. The Twin Towers were such a symbol of Manhattan for me in those days. To see this collapse and loss and the waste of it — the waste of life — and this icon is gone, it was terrible.” 

Like 2000, 2001 was another stunning vintage on eastern Long Island. Energized by the last near-decade of progress and accolades, Roth, Pisacano and Wölffer made a fact-finding trip to Bordeaux, visiting such storied estates as Château Margaux. And once again, they came back inspired and charged up, dreaming ever bigger. They changed the bottle’s old packaging, opting for an elegant but bold-looking horse head, a nod to Christian’s love for the equine.  It was also the year that Roth launched his own solo project; the thing he jokingly calls his daughter Indira’s college fund: The Grapes of Roth, a name as playful and funny as the winemaker himself often is, but it’s a wine that has the seriousness and presence of a man who’s aiming for the something so much higher.

The season was beautiful — warm and sunny summer days that bled into a fall with clear, blue skies and snappy, dry weather. A perfect recipe that seemed to be leading to the crescendo of a vintage for the record books. On Sept. 11, Roth was juggling a particularly busy day that started with a manager’s meeting at the winery, ended with a trip to New York City and was punctuated by the much-anticipated visit by his newly married brother-in-law and his bride, all the way from Australia. 

“My brother-in-law and his wife were on their honeymoon and planned to stay at the hotel closest to the World Trade Center and planned to be the first in line at 9 a.m. to visit the towers,” says Roth. But he and Dushy weren’t ready for them to dash off the day before, and he offered a compromise: How about they stay in Sagaponack that night and then drive into the city with Roman and Dushy the next day, since he was going in anyway? He reasoned that the young couple could save the money they would have spent on the Hampton Jitney, and they could all have dinner together to celebrate the marriage. 

“Every Tuesday morning was our management meeting, and I was also the general manager as well as winemaker. We were in our regular meeting that morning when our mechanic ran in and said, ‘Stop the meeting! Turn on the television!’ There was a television in Christian’s office, so we all ran in and saw the second plane hit. We were all crying. Literally, everybody was crying. Just in shock. And my brother-in-law and his wife never went into the city. It was pretty crazy,” he says, his face turning somber and serious. “They probably would have been on line or up in the elevator when it happened.” 

2005: Beauty from adversity

If you were to go to Wölffer winery at the end of harvest and poke your head into that still-standing Morton building that started it all, you’d see rows and rows of grapes drying in layers of flat wood and mesh bins. It’s a heady-smelling, beautiful site and part and parcel to the creation of an Amarone-style red called Fatalis Fatum that’s become one of Roth’s favorites to produce. But the inspiration for it came from one of the most nail-biting vintages he ever experienced.

Roth delights in the 2022 vintage at Wolffer. (Credit: Douglas Young)

The growing season for 2005 was wonderful — until it wasn’t. “It was one of the best years. By harvest, we were far ahead in ripening. All the whites were picked and all the grapes for rosé,” Roth says. But when the top reds were still hanging, the sunny, dry October weather viciously turned on a dime. Over a seven-day period, 28 inches of rain fell on eastern Long Island, flooding towns and leaving vineyard managers and winemakers scrambling to decide what to do: Pick in the rain or perish from the deluge? Neither choice seemed great.

Roth and Pisacano decided to wait it out. When the skies cleared and the winds off the Atlantic blew, drying out all that wet and mud, something interesting happened. The grapes, which had swelled from the rain and then dried from the sun and the wind, developed tiny little cracks and became extraordinarily concentrated. The sugar levels — or brix, as winemakers call it— began to shoot back up in the much-improved weather. Eyeing the bunches, Roth plucked some and chewed — my God, he thought, this is kind of like Amarone,the voluptuous, lovely Italian wine made in Valpolicella from semi-dried red grapes. 

“The last fruit that came in after the storm was cabernet sauvignon, which made our first Amarone,” Roth said. “This again is one of the gifts — that fact that you never give up. We have this tenacity to overcome problems. And as a result, we made out of one of the most difficult years into one of the best wines we ever made. We watched it and we were patient. And didn’t wise men say only fools rush in? That started our whole Amarone series that we do now.”

2014: Bottling summer

The passing of Christian Wölffer on New Year’s Eve of 2008 was a devastating, unexpected blow. For Roth, it was the loss of his fellow German, fellow Pisces, fellow dreamer; and, truth be told, a moment of uncertainty, albeit a brief one. Brother and sister Marc and Joey Wölffer were no strangers to their father’s successful winery and, quickly after coming on board, made Roth a partner. What he didn’t realize at the time, though, was he hadn’t completely lost his fellow dreamer; he found two new ones. 

Roth knew back in 1992 that there was something about Long Island rosé — the influence of the maritime climate on the grapes, yes, but also the lifestyle of the Hamptons that embraced the refreshing, joyous, summery vibe. With a youthful eye, smart business sense and a new sense of purpose, the three set out to make a new mark in the wine world — and, like that job ad Roth answered so many years before, it would come from a very unexpected place. 

Roth sits among the red, white and pink. (Photo credit: Douglas Young)

Roth, Joey and Marc held a fundraiser at Wölffer as a benefit for the Group for East End and, naturally, the three agreed to place an ad in the program for the event. But they decided to up the ante — maybe they’d ask the designer who’d recently helped to upgrade their wine packaging to create something special to show off their estate Gold Label rosé. “The nickname of the estate rosé was Summer in a Bottle, and he made this image with a Tiffany-blue background color and the bottle made of butterflies and bumblebees — it was the most beautiful ad, our first real professional ad!” Roth recalled. “We’re all sitting at this fundraiser and we’re all admiring our ad on the last page of the program. Then lightning strikes me, and I say, ‘man, we should make Summer in a Bottle.’ ” 

The Wölffer siblings lit up at the idea, and they all began to work in earnest to release the very first version in 2014. “It was unheard of to make a $24 rosé at the time, so we made 1,500 cases and thought, ‘oh boy, I hope this will sell!’ ” Roth says. Those 1,500 cases? They vanished in less than a month. The next year they made 5,000, and then 10,000, and then 12,000, and then 20,000. “A winery can only dream of a wine that becomes so popular that it’s basically sold on allocation. But a rosé? It’s unheard of.” 

But for practical dreamers like Roth? Something like that comes as no surprise.