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The vineyard that produces Shelter Island’s Domaine Assouline wines. (Photo credit: Martin J. Dempsey)

Joel Assouline did not set out with a plan to create a vineyard on Shelter Island, let alone an eponymous wine named Domaine Assouline.

He and his wife, Vibeke Lichten, discovered the Island several years ago when visiting friends. They fell in love with the place, began renting, then acquired property in the Heights in 2016. Lichten, an architect, designed their home on a hillside overlooking Peconic Bay. 

The grounds are planted with grasses and other deer-resistant vegetation that is native to Shelter Island and thrives in this climate. But the steep slope on part of the property would not lend itself to conventional gardening. That was the “aha” moment: Why not plant a vineyard?

Assouline realized he could fulfill his longtime fascination with wine by cultivating grapes to make his own. Along the curving slope, rows of vines are neatly planted in the sandy soil, which drains well, a plus for a vine’s roots. “The plants seem to be happy,” he said, seven years into the growing. There are challenges, like warding off the mildew that has an affinity for vines, as well as the bane of every Island gardener: “The deer do love the vines,” says Lichten.

Overall, though, the vineyard is thriving, with only a 10 percent loss on vines over the winter. Assouline babies them, placing stones around the roots to keep hold the sun’s warm.

“The vines go really deep,” he says, “to look for water, and that helps them to resist the temperature changes in the environment.” 

The first year, 2021, he produced a rosé, diversifying last year’s wines to include a red, a rosé and a white. This year he’s focused on the rosé and the red. 

He’s taken inspiration from France’s Loire Valley, which has a similar latitude and topography to this region. The red wine he produces is a cabernet franc, which is popular in the Loire. After preparing the wine in steel tanks, he ages the red in a seasoned French oak barrel. He describes it as a light red, which pairs well with seafood, a favorite aspect of Island cuisine.

Making it a full family project, the labels for Domaine Assouline are designed by the owner’s daughter, Arielle Assouline-Lichten. (Photo credit: Martin J. Dempsey)

“I’ve been extremely lucky,” he says of the help he’s received from two local winemaking experts, islander Tom Spotteck and Gilles Martin, a French ex-pat whose work is renowned across several acclaimed North Fork wineries.  

He has produced 65 bottles this year, and 43 last year. He donated some of the 2022 vintage to the Shelter Island Historical Society’s fundraising auction this summer.

The labels for the wine bottles, featuring a rendering of the vineyard, were designed by his daughter, Arielle Assouline-Lichten, who is an architect. The winemaking process takes place in the space originally designed as a garage.

Their home is a modern, streamlined concrete structure positioned to enjoy cross-ventilation from the breeze off the bay (an especially good position for grape vines in our humid climate). Its design enables them to live with a zero-carbon footprint. They run a surplus of electricity thanks to solar panels, and grow vegetables on the roof. He charges his Tesla for free. 

The couple built a second structure, a guest house adjoining their pool, with the concrete construction making it possible to build both buildings in under a year. Later, they added a shed which serves as Lichten’s studio.

Assouline’s background is in the food business, followed by real estate development in the Philadelphia area. The couple currently divide their time, when not on the Island, between New York, where he has a large wine cellar, and Paris.

Right about now, Assouline is getting ready for harvest and to begin pressing the grapes for the next Domaine Assouline vintage — or as it may come to be known, Shelter Island in a wineglass.