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A Toast to Women Wine Trailblazers on the East End

wine
Lilia Perez; Alie Shaper; Joanne Goerler

Nearly 50 Long Island vineyards have been making award-winning wines for the past four decades, but many of those wineries are able to function only because of the women working behind the scenes.

Many women working in decision-making positions observe that there are more women than ever working in the wine industry. But there is still a long way to go until they are equally represented at the most crucial jobs, such as winemaking and management. Right now a majority of the women in the local wine industry are employed as hospitality workers, but change is underway.

“I’ve observed a much higher percentage of women applying for open positions or inquiring about whether we have an open position,” says Alie Shaper, who cofounded Chronicle Wines in Peconic. “To me that is certainly evidence of a sea change happening in our greater culture, where women are feeling empowered and stepping forward more frequently to bring opportunity into their lives.”

Since being founded by two female winemakers, Shaper and Robin Epperson-McCarthy, 15 years ago, Chronicle Wines has grown into five brands. Shaper also has a second company called Alie Shaper Fine Wines and is the winemaker at Croteaux Vineyards in Southold.

“We presently have a woman in every decision-making position in our company,” says Shaper. “That wasn’t so much by design, but it’s how our team has organically developed. We tend to receive a very high percentage of resumes from women, and we’ve been lucky to create a real powerhouse team.”

And they’re not alone.

Ami Opisso, the general manager at Lieb Cellars in Cutchogue, believes that what attracts women to the wine industry is the beauty and experience that comes with working in the industry.

“I think it’s about the beauty and the balance,” she says. “I spend most of my time in front of a computer, but I get to drive along an iconic farm road to get to work, and the view outside my office window is rows on rows of stunning grapevines.”

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In Cutchogue, Long Island, a picnic table is set for a romantic lunch in a vineyard.

Opisso says her aim is to work hard to make sure every guest who walks through their doors has an unforgettable experience, which is why Opisso believes their tasting room is the key to standing out.

“At Lieb, the elevated guest experience at our tasting room is what makes us different,” she says. “Our servers are all formally trained wine professionals, and we focus on education, food pairing and an intimate experience.”

Lilia Perez of RGNY Wines in Riverhead believes the wine industry still has a long way to go for women to achieve equality in the industry, but she is hopeful for the future.

“I feel so proud every time I see and meet more and more women involved in it,” she says.

The idea behind RGNY Wines is that innovation is key, says Perez, adding that innovation is what keeps the customers coming back and also what sets them apart from the competition.

“We offer a modern approach to wine while embracing traditional winemaking techniques,” Perez explains. “We are passionate and serious about our winemaking. We want our visitors to go back home with a complete wine experience, one that they can share with others and that, hopefully, creates an interest to explore and learn more about the wine culture widely.”

Allison Dubin is a partner and general manager at Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton. Her goal has been to work hard with the rest of the staff at Channing Daughters to produce a quality wine for their customers, but also to provide a fun and educational environment for visitors.

“Our sense of play and creativity makes awesome wines,” she says. “We have an amazing supportive group of wine club members and guests who are an important part of what we do, as well as our team that has been together for so many years in the vineyard, cellar, and in tasting operations.”

Dubin’s career at Channing Daughters began in 1999 when she drove up to the vineyard to meet the founder, Larry Perrine. They have remained close over the years, and he’s someone she considers to be one of her greatest teachers.

“I love this business so very much and feel blessed to have my career going on 20 years here at Channing Daughters,” says Dubin. “We live in one of the most beautiful places, and we get to make something that provides pleasure and simultaneously be stewards of our land and focus on sustainability in our community.”

Epperson-McCarthy, who runs Saltbird Cellars in addition to her role at Chronicle Wines, believes her local knowledge sets her wine apart from others.

“That global viticultural education combined with local knowledge derived from growing up on the North Fork are what go into every bottle of Saltbird Cellars wine,” the winemaker says.

She says her main goal is to make quality wine available to everyone, no matter their economic status.

“Wine is meant to be shared,” she says. “Wine and food are a reason for people to come together. Wine does not have to be the realm of only the elitists. Maybe a conversation with someone new may result in a new culinary tradition that wouldn’t have come about eating and talking with the same people every day.”

Jamesport Vineyards offers their guests a full experience when visiting.

“Our staff is quite knowledgeable about our wine and can assist guests in determining their wine preferences,” says Office Manager Joanne Goerler. “In addition to this, we also have a wood-fired oven on site, operating as Little Oak Wood-Fired Kitchen. Our chef incorporates our wine in many of his dishes and educates our staff on wine suggestions to pair with his foods. We hope that our guests can enjoy, relax and take a break in our vast backyard.”

Jamesport Vineyards is a great example of how women are starting to gain some footing in the wine industry. Seventy-five percent of the staff at the vineyard are women. However, Goerler still believes there is more work to be done to get women more hands-on jobs.

“There are studies that show that women actually are better suited when discerning flavors in wines, something that can certainly be an asset in a female winemaker,” she says. “I’d love to see more women represented in that capacity.”

For more food and drink coverage, visit longislandpress.com/category/food-drink.

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Northport Students Displaced By Toxins Fear Impact on Studies

Northport Middle School (Photo courtesy of Northport-East Northport Union Free School District)

After Northport Middle School was recently closed due to toxins being found on campus, concerns are growing over how the closure will impact the education of nearly 700 students who were transferred to other schools as a result.

Parents and students aired those concerns to the Northport-East Northport Schools Board of Education at its meeting on February 6, when the board gave an update on the situation.

“We owe our children the best,” Kelly Schwartz, a concerned parent, told the school board. “Let’s not pretend that the education is the same. It’s not. Let’s not pretend that the social and emotional aspects of middle school haven’t changed. They have. Yes, children are resilient, but let’s not continue to test their resilience. We need a plan.”

The students were transferred in January after the school’s environmental firm, PW Grosser Consulting Inc. (PWGC), reported to the school district that soil samples from two different septic systems at Northport Middle School contained elevated levels of benzene and mercury that will require further remediation per the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long-term exposure to benzene can lead to anemia and cancer. Some short-term effects are headaches, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, and tremors. Low mercury vapor concentrations over a long time can cause neurological disturbances, memory problems, skin rash, and kidney abnormalities, the CDC reports.

It’s not the first time a Long Island school has been at least partly shuttered due to toxins. A similar situation occurred at three schools in 2019, when mercury vapors were detected, forcing school officials to close sections of Norman J. Levy Elementary School in Merrick, Park Avenue Elementary School in Amityville, and Miller Place High School. In those cases, the culprit was found to be synthetic flooring.

In Northport’s case, well-documented complaints about mysterious odors making students and staff members sick date back to the early 2000s. An inspection done in May of 2017 showed that there were higher than acceptable amounts of airborne chemicals in several classrooms.

After the inspection was completed it was discovered that the district was using the school’s basement to store petroleum-based products directly underneath the classrooms kids and teachers were spending hours in every day. The items were removed, the wing remained closed and kids were able to return to classes as normal. However, parents were still on edge about where they were sending their kids every day.

After PWGC’s recent report, middle school eighth graders were relocated to the high school, seventh graders were relocated to East Northport Middle School, and sixth graders were relocated to Norwood Avenue Elementary School. But students who were among those transferred say they feel ostracized as a result. Middle schoolers in the high school also don’t have locker space and must lug all their belongings around, students say.

“We are escorted to other parts of the building and it is embarrassing,” eighth grader Carly Ferara told the board. “We are not allowed to walk around without a sign on our neck basically stating that we don’t belong there. The high schoolers don’t want us there and I don’t blame them.”

The board has been trying to allay concerns. Before the meeting, Northport-East Northport Schools Superintendent Robert Banzer emailed parents to clarify what he said were inaccurate media reports on the findings of mercury in the cesspool.

“While the lab testing of the sediment showed an elevated level of mercury in the sample, the preliminary results showed no detectable concentrations of mercury vapor in the sample, the rain within the leaching pool, or anywhere within the building,” he wrote. “It is important that everyone understand that the assessment of the environmental concerns at [Northport Middle School] is not about the district taking a position or side that any individual or gripe may have. It is about gaining closure on those issues.”

As for the fate of Northport Middle School, final test results are due to be released at the end of March or beginning of April. The district will then decide if and when students will return.