Transforming a Tasting Room 

A prominent shot of the late Christian Wölffer draws the eye to a wall adorned with photographs at Wölffer Estate Vineyard. His arms are wide, giving an elated air-hug to a new vineyard. He’s there again in another, riding one of his beloved horses. And there’s winemaker and partner Roman Roth, looking handsome in his iconic Lederhosen. The photos hanging in the current building—an elegant offspring of a Tuscan villa and a Bavarian hunting lodge—record Wölffer Estate’s beginnings as an old barn in the Sagaponack potato fields. The visual timeline stops sometime before Christian’s death in a tragic swimming accident in 2009, before the Long Island wine scene became what it is today.

“They’re all family pictures from our private library,” said Christian’s daughter Joey Wölffer, who designed the collage as a tribute. “We want to always honor our past and where we came from.” Joey and her brother Marc Wölffer, co-owners of the winery, have completely redesigned the tasting room to reflect the family aesthetic, simultaneously transforming the business model to keep pace with the evolving East End wine-tasting experience.

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The updated décor is a balance of comfort and timeless modernity. image: bridget elkin

Wölffer Estate has always been like the large country house of a wealthy European family who really appreciate horses and wine. The 55-acre vineyard is part of a 175-acre estate that also has stables, paddocks, an indoor riding ring and a Grand Prix field. “The old tasting room space reflected more of my father’s roots,” Joey said. “Marc and I want people to feel like they could be hanging out at a friend’s house, albeit a very big and beautiful one.” These friends are (apparently) also world travelers with flawless taste in décor and an enviable ability to strike a balance of comfort, efficiency, luxury, timelessness and modernity. They also have a sense of humor. Christian’s worn riding boots have been repurposed into matching lamps resting on a narrow table by the photo wall. It’s a slightly irreverent remembrance of this highly successful German entrepreneur who loved most of all to spend time at his winery and stables here on Long Island.

The renovation started at the beginning of 2017. The layout was redesigned and walls moved to enlarge the tasting room, create a separate wine sales shop and add more floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the wide stone terrace. Five bathrooms and extra office space were carved out. Groups of comfortable chairs, a bar area and family-style high-top tables can now accommodate up to 80 people inside. Leather, metal and hewn wood accents complement the bar wrapped in stainless steel. “These are decisions we made working with our designer Alden Fenwick of Sag Harbor. We love the mix of raw materials with the leather banquettes, the fabrics that are a nod to my own living room and love of color and prints. Of course, we kept the original wood ceiling beams intact.”

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Leather, metal and wood accents complement the stainless steel bar and highlight the ever-present equestrian motif. image: bridget elkin

A wide-plank hardwood floor, wrought iron and the enduring equestrian theme make the space feel a bit like a Spanish-style hacienda. That’s not surprising as Marc, a restaurant and property developer and manager, also has a vineyard in Spain. The core Wölffer team has taken to visiting Argentina each year to collaborate on the Finca Wölffer Rosé, which includes grapes grown at another of Marc’s vineyards in that region.

In the late spring, after the construction dust was mopped up, Joey carted in pillows upholstered in exotic textiles, animal hide scatter rugs, woven throws and tooled metal votive holders. They add a touch of the same vibe that’s at her eponymous shops in Sag Harbor, Nantucket and Los Angeles. Joey’s career has been in jewelry and clothing design and sales. She’s the creator of the luxury mobile boutique, the Styleliner. I like to pop into her Sag Harbor shop to check out the lovely eclectic things I’d absolutely need if I were off on a jaunt to Mendoza, Lamu or Cap d’Antibes: tasseled tunics, pony hair slippers and chunky bejeweled cuffs.

As Steve Jobs said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Thus the big changes are less visible but have a huge impact on how visitors experience Wölffer. Everything has been reconfigured to run more smoothly. The most significant innovation: Wölffer is now operated like a high-end restaurant, explained marketing assistant Nicolette Diodati. In the past, servers at the bar poured out small tastes and explained each wine. This model worked well when the tasting room was relatively quiet, but as the crowds increased, customers were sometimes left waiting for the next inch of wine while staff rushed around pouring as fast as they could.

Now, a host or hostess directs visitors to tables either indoors or on the terrace overlooking the vines. Customers are presented with a menu that includes about 25 wines by the glass or bottle. There are also two flight options ($25 each). The Grand Tasting includes the Grandioso Rosé, the Perle Chardonnay, Fatalis Fatum Red Blend and Christian’s Cuvée Merlot. In a stroke of user-friendly genius, small carafes hold each wine in the flight that are labeled and nestled onto a wooden board. People pour for themselves. It’s enough for two to enjoy at leisure. The bar also has the No. 139 Dry Rosé cider on tap.

The menu offers cheese, flatbreads, dried fruit, nuts, olives and charcuterie. A four- or five-member staff can work at once in the new commercial kitchen. There’s a dedicated cheese person and a plating person, multiple dishwashers, a huge fridge, bar backs and runners. It became clear that the restaurant model made sense once the company opened Wölffer Kitchen restaurants in Sag Harbor two years ago and in Amagansett this past summer. The Sag Harbor restaurant is more “serious,” while the Amagansett Square location is light and fun—it has a rosé theme.

At the winery, another innovation is separating wine sales into an on-site shop. This means no more staff trying to pour while working the register and no awkward carrying of wine boxes and bags through the tasting area to spoil the elegant atmosphere. The wine shop’s look is clean and orderly. All superfluous merchandise is gone except for a few branded items. The team decided they were no longer interested in carrying lots of wine-related knick-knacks, Diodati said. The walls are lined with various wines in a logical fashion. The yellow horse labels are the regular wines, the white horse labels are the top-end. Tasting flight wines are grouped together.

An entire wall of rosé speaks to the fact that Wölffer’s production of the pink drink has risen to about 50,000 cases a year—and more is planned. Rosé continues to be wildly popular in the Hamptons and across Long Island. Wölffer has become most famous for its Summer in a Bottle Rosé. “It’s an elegant wine done in a lush, soft style that’s been a winning recipe,” Roman Roth explained. Its stunningly pretty label (designed by U.K. design team IWANT) makes Summer in a Bottle an easy choice to bring to a party or as a gift.

When I stopped in to see Wölffer Estate Vineyard in action, it was midday during the week and yet the place was already half full. Visitors sipped and chatted quietly on the terrace as the sun beamed down on the vines. Tourists admired huge stainless steel tanks through a glass wall and took selfies in front of the Summer in a Bottle mural. The kitchen cranked out cheese platters and uniformed staff ferried cases of wine out to vehicles. The atmosphere was serene and everything ran like clockwork, which is of course, the whole point of great design.