Kareem Massoud: Winemaker, Paumanok Vineyards & Palmer Vineyard + President, Long Island Wine Country
To Kareem Massoud, New York wine is a way of life. He grew up with his father winemaking at the family vineyard, Paumanok Vineyards. Now, after more than 20 years of great success with his own wine production, he has been named President of Long Island Wine Country (previously Long Island Wine Council). We caught up with him pre- and post-Covid impact to discuss life at the vineyard.
Congratulations on your new role as President of Long Island Wine Country. What are you currently focused on in this role?
Over recent years, New York vineyards have seen tourists from all over the world and we look forward to those days again. There are people who vacation to New York, hear about our wine country, and make it a point to come and visit. It’s a pleasure delight guests from both near and far with a top-quality wine produced right in New York — it is no surprise that New Yorkers can have among the most discriminating palates. It always brings me pleasure when someone discovers that we can make wine as good as California and Oregon, or even Europe. Visitation from afar is of course a great deal less at the moment—although thankfully our wines can now be more easily acquired abroad than in previous years.
In the meantime, we encourage would-be visitors to reach out to their favorite local wineries to see if their tasting rooms are accepting guests in addition to what delivery and pickup options are available. Direct orders help local wineries continue to thrive during this incredibly difficult time. At Paumanok Vineyards, for example, our tasting room is open (with new safety precautions of course) and we have frequent ‘Vinous Antivirus’ specials, selling cases of wine at a deep discount.
Let’s take a step back and talk about Paumanok. When did Paumanok Vineyards start making wine?
My parents started as growers in 1983. They spent three years establishing the vineyard, and then harvested their first crop in 1985. That was the year of the destructive Hurricane Gloria, very inauspicious timing. They continued to raise the crop and sell the crop throughout the 1980s.
Then 1988 was a landmark moment for my parents—they produced one of the best vintages to date. This motivated them to take the leap from just growing the fruit to creating an estate winery. They first made wine at Bridgehampton Winery—only one vintage—the 1989 barrel-fermented Chardonnay—in order to have wine to sell as soon as the winery opened its doors, which occurred after a swift build-out in 1990.
Meanwhile, I graduated high school and went to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I told my parents I wanted to work for them when I graduated, but they insisted that I would do better financially in another field, particularly as the winery was so new and there was no sense in that moment if it would be a success. They didn’t want me to be dependent on them.
Rather than join the business right away, I had a brief career in private equity in New York City. But the desire to work at the vineyard was still within me, so I decided to try it out, although I still wasn’t sure if it would take. That was 22 years ago. Now I’m full time at Paumanok as well as Palmer Vineyards, which we acquired just over 18 months ago. I’ve been making the wines for the last two vintages at both vineyards.
What do you attribute your success to?
For years I aspired to be a winemaker because I saw what my father was doing and it appealed to me. Watching him work made me curious, and when I started involving myself, I simply fell in love with wine.
I learned the most, as many others do, through grunt work. I bottled for many years and then I started helping out with harvest. I did everything and anything to become comfortable, confident, and ultimately, competent as a winemaker. My Economics degree from UPenn is certainly very useful in day-to-day life, but learning through hands-on work in the vineyard, as well as watching my father, was my most critical education.
There are many other stories like mine in the wine world, in the restaurant industry, and elsewhere. For example, in a restaurant you will often see a chef who didn’t go to culinary school, but started his career as a dishwasher and rose through the ranks through dedication and passion with great success, despite the nature of their degree.
Did you have any other winemaking mentors who inspired you?
Eric Fry, Consulting Winemaker at Lenz Winery greatly influenced me. We still work together from time to time, and Lenz handles the aging of Paumanok’s Traditional Method Sparkling Wine to this day.
What is your winemaking philosophy?
As with many other winemakers, I believe that wine is made in the vineyard. There’s simply no substitute for starting out with the healthiest fruit available. You can’t manufacture great wine, you must grow it. If you interview the great winemakers of the world, they’re all going to say, ‘If the fruit’s not perfect, I’m going to reject it,’ and I strongly agree.
How does this minimal- intervention philosophy influence your vineyard management and winemaking?
Our approach is almost entirely ‘Minimalist’, and at Paumanok, we have a range of wines by this name. They are not inoculated and the only additive is a very small dose of sulfites. Wine produced in this line include Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Even for other wines that don’t wear the Minimalist label specifically, our style is decidedly minimal. We do as little to the wines as possible to bring out their true expression. In our white wines, everything comes in directly to the press regardless of machine or hand-harvesting. We’re not crushing or destemming beyond what happens on the machine as our harvester has an onboard mechanized sorter and destemmer. This is advantageous as it mimics whole-cluster pressing. Likewise, when we hand-harvest, we always use whole-cluster pressing.
For the rest of the white wines, the process is the same pre-fermentation. The grapes get destemmed and sorted, but aren’t crushed. The destemmer discards what stems are there, and we sort manually. For the red wines, we conduct delastage—or rack and return—rather than pump over and ferment in stainless steel tanks. Oak is only used for aging.
In addition to our minimal intervention in winemaking, we also believe in maximizing natural resources. For example, we’re very proud that our vineyard is also 100 percent solar-powered, through the use of solar panels.
What are your favorite wines produced at Paumanok?
My favorite white wine is our Chenin Blanc, and if I have to choose one red wine it would be our red blend, called Assemblage. We only make Assemblage in truly outstanding vintages. Those two wines are particularly delicious and incredibly special to Paumanok.
We’ve been the sole producer of Chenin Blanc in the North Fork for a long time. People who don’t know wine love it, and industry critics of the caliber of, for example, Eric Asimov at The New York Times love it. All in addition to people who are new to wine! Fundamentally, it’s a delicious, very special wine on its own with a magical ability to pair with local seafood, shellfish in particular. We’re on Long Island’s North Fork, surrounded by water, and incredibly spoiled to have such an abundance of delicious and locally-sourced seafood to pair with our wine.
The Assemblage is special because there’s no set formula—it varies year to year, and often quite dramatically in expression. The approach is to simply craft the best blend during our very best vintages. The 2015 vintage—my current favorite – is more than 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.
But there are years when there is no Cabernet Sauvignon used at all. Although, I can say that the great majority of the time it includes Merlot and Petit Verdot. But the different vintages will surprise you, and that’s what brings me joy as a winemaker.
Do you anticipate growing more varieties at Paumanok in the future?
For a very long time, Paumanok grew primarily Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot. We added Pinot Noir a few years ago and Malbec and Albariño last year. We will likely add Melon de Bourgogne this year.
In addition, 2020 will be likely be the first year we harvest our Pinot Noir. If harvested, it’s destined for sparkling wines—a special Blanc de Noir or a Rosé.
How does winemaking differ at Paumanok and Palmer?
The vineyards are totally separate, although both owned by my family, and approximately 1.5 miles from each other. The age of the vineyards and the DNA are differentiators, as are the varieties grown.
In the future, I envision making more Albariño at Palmer, one of their historically highest quality and most popular wines, and yet another fabulous seafood wine.
We will wait and see what the future holds . . .