New York's Long Island wine industry has lost a larger-than-life personality. Christian Wölffer, the owner of Wölffer Estate Vineyards who helped bring attention to the region's wines with his aggressive marketing and pursuit of quality, was killed on New Year's Eve while swimming in Brazil. He was 70.
"It's a great loss," said Roman Roth, winemaker at Wölffer Estate Vineyards. "He was very passionate. When he said he would do something, he always followed through. He'd work twice as hard as anyone else."
The financial investor and winery owner was on vacation in Brazil and attending a lunch party on a beach in Paraty, about 150 miles west of Rio de Janeiro. Wölffer was swimming when a boat's propeller cut two diagonal wounds across his back. Fellow partygoers rescued him from the water and he was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Local police are investigating and have detained a suspect. News reports said there have been previous complaints about boats traveling too close to area beaches.
Originally from Hamburg, Germany, Wölffer didn't plan to get involved in wine when he moved to Sagaponack, N.Y. A successful investor who had previously worked for German chemical company BASF and was fluent in six languages, Wölffer began buying land in 1978 in the Hamptons community for a horse farm, eventually building a state-of-the-art equestrian center on 175 acres of land. He did plant a few Chardonnay vines, however.
Wölffer's father had always wanted to make wine, and soon Christian was hooked, hiring German winemaker Roth, building a 12,000-square-foot winery and planting 55 acres. Originally named SagPond Vineyards, Wölffer Estate now produces 16,500 cases annually, and many of the wines score in the very good range in Wine Spectator tastings. Wölffer's substantial investment—reportedly more than $15 million—demonstrated that Long Island wine was no longer a cottage industry. The Wölffer tasting room, built to look like a European estate, and the winery's $125-a-bottle Premier Cru Merlot all stressed his serious nature. He was a businessman first and foremost, looking for a balance between quality and success in his wines. He sometimes expressed frustration at the slow pace of the Long Island industry's development.
Wölffer was also actively investing in the Argentine wine industry, projects he detailed in a recent visit to Wine Spectator's offices. For one project, he was developing 2,000 acres of land in Mendoza for a winery called Santa María de los Andes.
He is survived by his ex-wife, Naomi Marks Wölffer, three daughters and a son. One of his daughters was in Rio on Monday, arranging for his body's return. The family issued a statement on the winery website that read, "Christian's vision for what Long Island winemaking could accomplish … represents an enduring legacy which the Wölffer family is committed to uphold."
"The whole family is committed to the winery," said Roth.
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