Gabriella Macari, director of operations for Macari Vineyards, is a member of her winemaking family’s third generation. As the North Fork of Long Island, where Macari is located, is still in its infancy — the region didn’t start producing wine until the 1970s — that makes her a bit of an anomaly. “I’m just reminded of that Harvard Business study that said something like 85 percent of family businesses fail before the third generation,” says Macari. “So it’s really exciting to see the third generation here getting involved.”
At 35, Gabriella Macari is currently poised to become one of the youngest Masters of Wine in history, certainly the youngest woman, and the first from the North Fork to hold the title. “2022 is going to be the year that the world finds out about the North Fork,” says Macari. Recounting a conversation she had with another North Fork winemaker, they were referring to the favorable weather conditions in the 2022 vintage that pose the possibility of especially elegant wines, but this confidence about the region’s inevitable rise also speaks to the seriousness of purpose that Macari has toward constant learning and world-class winemaking, which all but guarantees that, with her energetic leadership, Macari Vineyards can expect to continue well beyond its third generation.
Macari spoke with VinePair about helping to raise the stakes in the North Fork — particularly in terms of visibility for the region — leading by example with sustainable farming, and the constant pursuit of excellence.
1. What inspired your pursuit of the Master of Wine (MW) title?
I was just always curious as to the “why” in winemaking and viticulture, and even growing up surrounded by wine and grape growing, I didn’t really understand the science until I had to teach myself for the examination. Part of the reason I started initially with the WSET was because I was selling our wine in the city, and I was intimidated by people that knew more than me. I didn’t just want to sound like I knew what I was talking about; I actually wanted to know the why behind a lot of the science. I love academia, and it just felt really natural to me to keep going.
2. What impact has pursuing the MW had on your family’s winemaking, and on the visibility of the North Fork?
There’s such an incredible community within the Master of Wine world. We have friends all over the world now that are talking about Long Island and the North Fork — people that didn’t even know we existed. From a family perspective, sharing knowledge is actually inspiring to the people around you, so my brothers are now more interested in wines from around the world. That’s something I’m very grateful for. We really try not to develop a cellar palate. Some people only drink their own wines. For us, though, we were inspired to start planting Sauvignon Blanc, because my dad was really into Sancerre. With Chardonnay, we’re pushing that Chablis style because we like drinking Chablis. I think you have to taste worldly, and that can only bring more experience to your tastings in the cellar and your decision-making process.
3. Your family has always had biodynamic and regenerative principles at work in the vineyard; can you speak about how you’re continuing those practices and influencing other North Fork wineries?
I do think that overall, sustainability is absolutely No. 1 now on the minds of growers on the North Fork. It was just kind of natural to my dad. He wanted us to grow up in an environment that was safe, to be honest. He didn’t want us entering the vineyard after being sprayed, so it was initially a family decision more than a business or environmental one. We had this mentor from California, Alan York, who was an incredible man that started a lot of wineries down this biodynamic path, and he said the first thing you need to do is buy a cow. That’s what still sets us apart in the North Fork. I don’t know anyone else that has their own herd, picks up their manure, and makes their own compost. I do see a future where research will really help, like finding different ways to eradicate mildew. We can learn more about microbes in the soil and how they impact grape vine quality. There’s so much going on, and if you’re not on top of it, you lose out. Herbicide needs to end, and it’s just something that we need to figure out in terms of different solutions for weed management in this wet, rainy, maritime climate. We’ve been a champion for not using glyphosate, and I think our soils are proving to be extremely healthy. The issue is, it’s very labor-intensive and expensive. So can we work together with other wineries to find different solutions? Or can we be on top of the research? Or can we work with our partners at Cornell to see what other solutions there are?
I believe the rising tide lifts all ships, so we’ve definitely spoken to other growers about what we’re doing. It’s a work in progress in a really challenging climate, but there are people that are absolutely changing their ways for the better around here, and I think that that’s coming from consumer demand, consumer awareness, and consumer questioning. It’s gone beyond whether your wines are vegan; it’s now, “Hey, what are you doing in the vineyard?” The vineyard story is one we like to tell people when they sit down in the tasting room. We’re not just about “cherry cola, raspberry, and black pepper.” We’re like, “Hey, this is how we farm, and this is what’s important to us.” And that story for us is really fun to tell.
4. Besides the climate itself, what are some of the biggest challenges that you think that the North Fork is going to have going forward?
The biggest challenge in regards to raising the prominence of the region is that there is such high foot traffic (from the Hamptons) and such high demand from an agritourism perspective. There isn’t a massive need to wholesale; there isn’t a massive need to sell in certain markets outside of New York at this moment. If there was a need, I think that people would become more quickly aware of what we’re doing and realize the quality of the wine. Because of our high farming costs, we really have to rely on direct-to-consumer sales. So I think the challenge is balancing those sales from the tasting room while also using wholesale and retail to market our wines by people that really feel passionate about them. They’re our best ambassadors, but if you really need to rely on direct-to-consumer sales for your bottom line, it’s more difficult to be known outside your immediate area. But we also have this opportunity because we have such high foot traffic and demand with people looking for small-production, experimental wines. That’s been really fun.
5. Do you also find that it’s a marketing challenge for the North Fork in not necessarily having a signature varietal that’s associated with the region, like Riesling is for the Finger Lakes?
This is the constant debate. We chat about this a lot with the New York Wine and Grape Foundation and with other Long Island growers. I think diversity is what makes us strong out here, especially when you have a thirsty consumer market two hours away that can hop in a car and come see you. I think that diversity is what excites many people. The grape that does have tremendous potential, that some people are already associating with our region, is Cabernet Franc. I think that people are starting to know that, and I think that grape will continue to do incredible things for the region since it can shine in those marginal, cooler years as well and be really full of character. But I do think that overall, the diversity is what brings people here: We’re making pét-nats and full-bodied reds when we can, and the storytelling and vintage variation is exciting. If we had constant temperatures every single year, I think it would be quite boring. Not really having a signature varietal can be a challenge, but from a critical thinking point of view, it can have the potential for an exciting journey. We’re still young and still figuring things out.
6. Having recently recruited a winemaker from California, Byron Elmendorf, can you speak about why pursuing excellence and having an experimental mindset have always been important to your family, and what your goals are moving forward?
We’ve always had quality in mind, so if something didn’t meet the standard — if it was rainy and we felt like the wine was weak or thin — we’ve always sold it on the bulk market or tried to shrink production to the barrels and the tanks that we felt really were shining. How you push quality forward is really by not putting something out that you don’t believe in. It’s been a very expensive decision to put quality first, but that’s always been our ethos. There’s a winemaker in Oregon that I saw in a seminar who said, “If people only knew the amount of wine that I dumped down the drain,” and I could relate.
I think people are extremely quality-focused right now in the North Fork. Because 2022 was such a good year, now we just have to make sure we don’t mess up the wine in the cellar; we all got such phenomenal fruit. There’s always that drive in a winemaker and a winemaking team and a winery to make the best wine possible. So I’m excited by people that have that passion, and I’m seeing it a lot more in the North Fork every day. In regards to Byron, he’s extremely quality-focused. He’s also an academic, and what we love is that he’s constantly trying new techniques and constantly reading and learning and asking how we can make this better. We sat down right before harvest for four hours and tasted everything from 2021 and said, “How can we make this specific wine better? Is it longer time on the lees? Is it perhaps a little bit lower Brix, or trying to wait until the acid plateaus?” There are so many options in winemaking that sitting down and pausing for a second and asking what you can do better is really important. I think that the minute you become complacent, the minute that you’re trying to just make wine, is the minute things can start falling downhill. You really just have to focus on quality, and that’s what he lives for.
7. Where do you want Macari to be five years from now?
I think first and foremost — and this is what I live for — I want the team to be happy and satisfied with their jobs. Part of what I’ve been doing these past couple of years, especially with the stress of Covid, has just been focusing on the team and making sure that they are set up for success. That is really important to me, and it’s really important to my family. It’s kind of a strange way to answer this question, but No. 1 for me is making sure that the people that are working for us are working with us, honestly, because we’re not just family ownership — we’re a family operation. I think that when you have people that are happy, and are doing a good job and contributing to the success of the company — and to the success spreading our wines around the North Fork, New York, the country, and eventually, hopefully, the world — that joy is contagious. That’s what I hope will continue to grow in five years, for sure, and if that equals more recognition for the North Fork, fantastic. Or if it equals more recognition for New York wine, awesome. But No. 1 is just making sure that everyone that’s part of this team is happy and contributing. I think the message for us is, there’s no better time than now for New York wine.