To say Sal Diliberto wears many hats is an understatement. He’s a lawyer, co-owner of Diliberto Winery, a cook and an opera singer.
Though he just wrapped up a two-year stint as president of the Long Island Wine Council, and the North Fork tends to be quieter this time of year, Diliberto is of course staying busy. Every Sunday through April, he and wife Maryann welcome visitors for Sundays with Grandma, dinners with homemade pasta, live musical performances and of course great wine. During a rare free moment, I caught up with Diliberto to talk about his multiple passions, the bourgeoning North Fork and what makes the Long Island grape one of a kind.
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Pulse: How did a lawyer from Queens become a winemaker?
Diliberto: I started making wine back in the early 80s in Queens buying grapes from the Brooklyn terminal market. I came out here in the mid-80s and saw some vineyards and stopped at one. I asked the owner if he would sell me grapes. He was happy to, so I started coming out here every year to buy them. I liked the wines I’d make with Long Island grapes better than those I made with California grapes.
Pulse: Why is that?
Diliberto: The California grapes they ship are very high in sugar. It makes a wine that’s very high in alcohol and it’s not something I’m really into. It’s the kind of wine where if you have a glass, you have to take a nap. These wines are a little softer, a little less alcohol, more 12 percent than 14 or 15 percent.
Pulse: What’s your favorite wine-related memory?
Diliberto: The first time I made wine. The smell of fermentation is something that’s very distinctive and we were fermenting it out on an enclosed patio that I had in Queens and I loved it. I loved the smell. I’ll never forget that. I still love that. Every year, we’ll have 12 to 15 macrobins that each hold up to one ton of fruit, and when they’re fermenting, it’s great.
Pulse: How did you go from winemaking in your home to owning and operating a winery with your wife, Maryann?
Diliberto: We bought a little piece of property here in 1991 with an old barn on it and we decided in 1996 to fix it up into a living space. By 1997 we had living space here. By 1998 I prepped the first acre and planted. The following year we planted another acre and now we have three acres here and there’s another 5.5 acres that I maintain and take the fruit from.
Pulse: What was the best piece of advice you got when you were starting out?
Diliberto: I told [viticulturist and education specialist at Cornell Cooperative] Alice Wise, “I’m only planting one acre, two acres.” She told me right up front, “Whatever problem you have, it’s the same problem that people who have 100 acres have. It doesn’t make any difference. You have to be as aware of what’s going on and what you need to do as anyone.” That was good advice because learning how to maintain an acre helped me maintain eight acres. Learning how to make one barrel of wine helps you to make 60 barrels of wine.
Pulse: You recently finished a two-year term as president of the North Fork Wine Council. What made you decide to serve in that role?
Diliberto: Everybody out there in the wine industry has a vested interest in seeing to it that the industry continues to grow. It started back in 1973. We face challenges, some of the older owners of vineyards have unfortunately passed away. We want to try to do whatever is necessary to keep the industry going the direction we want it to go, which is to continue to grow, to continue to produce high-quality wines and to continue to get the attention of the world which we’ve been getting the last couple of years. We want people to say, “Wow, I didn’t know the wines on Long Island were so good.”
Pulse: What do you think has been the catalyst for the North Fork becoming a destination?
Diliberto: The fact that we have so many people so close and we offer something unique. You can be out here just for the day and once you get passed 105 you’re in another world. You’re in farm country. There’s more and more places where people can stay now, hotels and B&Bs have sprung up. People get to stay out here for the day or however long and experience something totally different than what they do the rest of the time. This is so not the City. It’s relaxing, it’s tranquil.
Pulse: You’re one of the North Fork’s smaller wineries. How does that benefit the customer?
Diliberto: You get to interact with the owner. Our preference has always been to have people show up in twos, fours or sixes. When people show up in a limousine, you’ll meet some really nice people, but the downside is they’re having their own party. There’s eight or 10 of them. They’re having a party inside the limo, outside it and they come in and continue their party on their own. I like when people come in and start to interact with other people who are here too. We’ve had people who meet people here and become friends. They come back here and tell us. It’s more fulfilling for us to have that.
Pulse: It’s kind of a family-type atmosphere, which you and Maryann took a step further when you started hosting Sundays with Grandma a few years ago. Why did you decide to start that event?
Diliberto: In the winter, it’s tough to get people here. You don’t want to be sitting around just waiting for people to show up because this is not necessarily a time people are going to say, “It’s a great day to go out to Long Island, go to a winery and freeze,” but it can be a great time to have an organized event. Something with opera, wine, anything that’s organized and pre-planned and pre-paid, it’s better for the people and us.
Pulse: You’re an opera singer, and sometimes you perform at the winery at Sundays with Grandma and even Opera Under the Stars. What got you into performing?
Diliberto: I was in a choir in my church in Queens in 1986 and about four or five years later a choir director asked me if I had ever gotten professional training. Her family knew someone who was an opera singer, a bass, who was 80 years old and he sung with some of the great performers including [Plácido] Domingo and Franco Corelli. He took me on and I worked with him for two and a half years until he died. I enjoyed it, and it helped me build my voice and make it more professional. I enjoy [singing at Diliberto] because the acoustics, they’re made from it.
Pulse: Being a lawyer can be stressful. How important is it to you to be able to pursue other passions?
Diliberto: I think everybody needs to be able to do something other than what they might do to make a living because it can be stressful and focus you in one direction. You need something to divert your mind. I enjoy working in the vineyard and the winery every year because there’s a beginning, middle and an end. You don’t always have that in law. Things can go on for years and years. Having a beginning, middle and end is good because I can feel fulfillment. If you’ve got multiple things that you want to be involved in and they fit together, then it’s great. If I enjoy singing and I can sing here, then it’s great.
Pulse: What are some tips for hosting the perfect wine-tasting dinner?
Diliberto: I would say do multiple courses with small portions. Try to pair each portion with a wine that you think would do well. If you’re going to do a wine tasting experience, you want to have maybe four different courses. Something that has a white wine, something that might have a rose, something with a red and then a dessert. It’ll give them the whole experience.
Pulse: What are some of your favorite wine and food pairings?
Diliberto: Anything that has to do with mozzarella, I like the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.