Monday, August 30, 2010


This is an interview with James Silver, General Manager of Peconic Bay Winery in Long Island. Jim Silver is a 1989 graduate of Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia, whose business and culinary degree included study at the famed La Varenne in Dijon, France. Over the past twenty years, Mr. Silver has served as the Sommelier for the 29-point Zagat rated Fountain Room at the Four Seasons Hotel (also Philadelphia), as the sales director in the New York region for Grupo Codorniu (Spain), Remy Amerique (France), and Hess Collection (Napa). Recently Mr. Silver served as the National Sales Director for Pindar Vineyards and as the Senior Vice-President of Bedell Cellars (both North Fork of Long Island). He lives on the south shore of Long Island with his wife Claire and their daughter. Jim is one of the most outspoken General Managers on the North Fork, and certainly within the state. He is also one of the most experienced. He commands great respect. When he speaks, people listen. He's not always on the popular side, but always believes in two things: New York state wine and quality.


What is the biggest challenge facing wine in your state today?
In short, distribution and profitability. Common complaints from consumers seeking the NY wines are that they can’t be found easily at retail or in restaurants. Common complaints from distributors are the wines aren’t in demand, and fall short of their profitability when compared to a typical California brand. Quite a quandary, especially when larger distributors are actually dropping small brands altogether. Further, a common complaint from wineries is that wholesale robs them of the profit margin they need to survive and they turn more and more to selling at the tasting room to maintain themselves. Both sides seem to be moving in opposite directions away from each other and yet both would agree they need each other.

What is the difference between wine in your region from ten years ago to today?
Ten years ago there were great Merlots (for example) being made on Long Island. They were and still are smooth, complex, long, elegant and balanced to age well. Today that same quality exists, just more of it. What’s been left behind are the bad imitations of California Chardonnays, the pyrazine-bombed green bell pepper reds, and the totally flawed wines – not to mention the extremely over-oaked. Long Island wine today is far cleaner, brighter, and more elegant than ever, as winemakers have embraced the natural acidities and made more earlier-to-bottle crisp whites and stylish, terroir driven reds.

Where do you think wine in your region will be 10 years from now?
Hopefully in distribution! Hopefully on the wine list; not just in the “Other Reds” section either. They’ll be in the “Long Island Wines” section of the wine list. Our tipping point was 2007 in my opinion. You had to really work hard to make bad wine in this great vintage, and yet, the wines lacked “typicity”. The generous nature of the fruit and the richness of these wines started to attract the attention of a lot of taste-makers here and in New York. I think, at the time of this writing, that 2010 will be superior, and astonishing – combining the power of the 2007 with the terroir, and expressive elegance of 98, 01, and 05. Especially since the West Coast vintage 2010 is looking mediocre at this point, “suffering” through a cool vintage. Maybe the alcohols will moderate a bit?

What’s the trend in wine in your region that has surprised you the most in the last 2-5 years?
There’s a few trends that aren’t local to Long Island but are taking hold here like the rise of Sauvignon Blanc, and the un-oaked Chardonnays. In this region however I’m noticing a trend towards marketing savvy that wasn’t there until recently. That is, newer and more exciting packaging, and stylish labels, but not limited to outer packaging – there is a move to interesting blends, essentially the repackaging of the wine itself for a more global market consumer.

Is there a new trend you expect to see in the next 2-3 years?
Not really. That’s too short a window. The only thing in the short term could be sudden and drastic but unpredictable events – who knows what’s going to happen? Maybe a big merger, maybe a hurricane, or maybe another stunning quality vintage that makes the world take notice of us?

Do you find liquor stores and wine shops have been a good partner for your state grown wines? What have been some challenges?
Some are excellent partners, and really care about the products from NY. Many are passive partners. Some are not so good. It seems amazing to me that we still have to explain that the wine is actually good to some retailers. But you check in most reputable retailers and you’ll find owners and buyer “in the know” and they know that NY is right there. They want more customers to ask for NY wines too. They’re creating new customers for us. We need more of them.

Regional wineries sometimes find it hard to sell wines outside of their state. How easy or difficult is it for your wineries to export their wines to other states…countries?
In some cases easier in some cases harder. Canada is bogged down in their own foggy mess of bureaucracy, trade issues and massive alcohol taxes. If only we could establish an experimental “free trade zone” between Canada and New York. Can you imagine all of the ice wine whose prices would moderate and find customers here, and all of the Long Island Cabernet Franc that would end up on dinner tables in Vancouver and Toronto? A couple of years ago I established a foothold in the Miami market for my brand. I did it by introducing the product as an “exotic” right there with the other imports. Buyers in that market hadn’t seen the wine from NY for the most part, and the ones they did see were larger and more commercial in nature. By selling myself as a rare and desirable import from NY issues of price started to fall away – and the quality of the wine spoke for itself when the presentation took place. In a couple of weeks I had my wine on five of the top ten wine lists in Miami Beach. Today, our most successful export market at Peconic Bay is the People’s Republic of China. Sure, the paperwork is gargantuan, but the TTB has been very helpful with that – and my agent has already re-ordered. That’s a great start. In the closest states, I’ve found great interest from Connecticut retailers who, with the laws of that state, only need to buy one case at a time, so a small but growing foothold is getting established. As for New Jersey, it seems as soon as you cross the George Washington Bridge, interest in the wines of NY melts away.

How big a part do festivals and farm markets play in your state‘s wine distribution?
My position on that is more controversial, since I am one of the few wineries who try to eschew the festivals and farm markets. The return on the investment in time, money and energy is way too little. Frankly, I’ve had it with organizers selling me “exposure.” To get exposure, I took all of the money I would have spent in festivals and fairs and charity tastings this year, and gave a young fellow a job as my NYC sales representative. He works every day, on the street, bringing my wines to key retailers and key restaurateurs, and supports my distributors efforts in wholesale. Believe me, this is better exposure than any fair or any festival could ever bring. For all of the happy hand-shakes and kind words exchanged over the table with consumers at wine festivals, a single retail placement in Manhattan is worth (literally) five thousand of those. We had better get used to that. You don’t see too many Napa wine festivals happening in NY do you? No, they promote to the trade, so should we.

What are the challenges of getting your wines covered by local press and the wine media?
That has been easier for me, because the owners of Peconic Bay Winery are adventurous, deeply interested and generous. They allow us the latitude to create powerful marketing, by using our land, our staff members, and our resources to create media friendly information. We’ve had two concert events at the winery where a total of 3,000 people attended, plus we’ve got a strong line up of live music every weekend that draws attention. Our tasting room is absolutely the most progressive and welcoming. At our place, the customer sits and relaxes while the tasting is brought to their table, rather than across a bar. We serve interesting food. Three television programs have been filmed here in the last year and a half. Lately, we built the second largest ground mounted solar array at a winery in the country. By embracing the media, and understanding their needs for story, for content, for ready to use photos, and by constant contact, we’ve expanded our Google presence from thousands of hits to millions.

Are their any media streams that you have found that are more effective than not? Presently, the most remarkable impact comes from newspaper content, not advertising. And from the blogosphere, which brings actual interested people into the tasting room.

Are there any fears you may have too many wineries in your state?
Hell no. Too many poorly produced hybrids yes. Too much good wine (to include vinifera and well made hybrids), absolutely not.

Do you have any wine trails in your state? If so, how effective have they become? If not, why? How do your wineries effectively market themselves in groups? Or not? If not, why not?
We do not operate chiefly as a group, which is a shame, but lately, as the local towns have threatened to make our tourist marketing more challenging, I’ve seen a sudden and very positive move back to the teamwork mentality. The LI Wine Council is gaining strength from the adversity perhaps, and the current president (Ron Goerler) and the director Steve Bate are a good team.

Are you finding there are enough grape growers to fill the demand created by wineries in your state?
So far, yes. Prices remain high on Long Island which is challenging especially when you want to produce a popularly priced table wine, which we all do at least in part. Some FLX fruit makes its way down here which has added some vitality to blends when used judiciously for the pretty fruit and acids they possess. My most popular wine is Nautique Blanc, the majority of which is estate grown Long Island Chardonnay and Riesling, is supplemented in part with crisp Seneca Riesling and Pinot Grigio. Having to pay $2,000 a ton for Cabernet Franc intended to be Rosé can be nearly cost prohibitive, but the wine sure is tasty.