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LARRY PERRINE: Art From The Vine

Ilene Roizman | June 22, 2000

When the journey is its own reward, life is indeed satisfying.

Such is the case with Larry Perrine, executive winemaker and managing partner at the Channing Daughters winery in Bridgehampton. He calls his five years at the winery "the best work experience of my life," and he anticipates a long and fruitful future there as well.

While everywhere around him people bustle about living by clock time, Mr. Perrine is grounded in Mother Nature's rhythms. "As a farmer," he said, "you learn to live more by the rhythm of the work as an annual cycle."

Nature's Rhythm

He is fascinated with "trying to understand how people lived without watches" and offers a reminder that insects and birds keep time through "a whole series of biological phenomena that take place according to the season." When the first birds appear in the spring, for instance, they're telling us, in a sense, what time it is.

In the latest program he's developed for the winery, a select group of wine lovers will have the opportunity to experience that rhythm first-hand. Some members of the Channing Daughters wine club - a diverse group from all walks of life - will become part of the winemaking team, creating one batch of wine from start to finish.

"They'll do everything with their actual hands all the way throughout," Mr. Perrine said, and that includes tending the grapes on the vine all the way to corking the bottles.

Creating Character

Though he still keeps a hand in the barrels by overseeing quality control, Mr. Perrine has become less involved in day-to-day winemaking operations, now in the capable hands of John Witherspoon. He spends more time on marketing and promotion, becoming "better at the financial aspect of the business" and striving "to grow as a manager," he said.

Happily, this involves "getting to create the character of the business." The way to accomplish that, he said, is to "communicate clearly to the public over time by your actions what you're about."

Involving dedicated wine aficionados in every aspect of your operation is one way of demonstrating part of what Mr. Perrine and Channing Daughters are all about: teamwork.

"Something Of Value"

"We believe in employees, including myself, working together as a team and creating a business from scratch," allowing everyone to share in the satisfaction of creating something of value, he said.

This value is demonstrated also in the very nature of viticulture itself.

Andrea Immer, who in 1998 was the top sommelier in the country and represented the United States in an international competition, has said, "One thing that's great about viticulture is that, done correctly, it's a very healthy thing for the earth, for the environment; when quality wine is made it's a type of farming that's really pretty friendly to the earth, relative to other things."

Working with the Peconic Land Trust, the Channing family considers itself as steward of the 125 acres of farm and woodland that make up the winery property, "one of the last unbroken tracts on the South Fork," according to information on the company's Web site,

"We give back to the community through the beauty of art, wine, and land preservation," it continues. (The art is Walter Channing's wooden sculptures, which can be seen amidst the vines and in and around the winery building.)

Mr. Perrine first came to Long Island in 1985 after completing the graduate program in oenology and viticulture at Cornell. He'd gone there following undergraduate studies in soil science at California State Polytechnic University and agriculture and microbiology field work in the Minneapolis area.

Early Interest

"In the '70s, I was interested in feeding the world," he said. In Minnesota, he worked with soybeans, but found that unsatisfying; he wanted to work with a product he really liked.

Having developed an interest in wine at about age 18 in his native California (he grew up in Los Angel-es) during the early stages of the industry in the early '70s, Mr. Perrine decided, "I can do anything I want. I'm going to do wine."

But not in California, home of "instant culture." He moved to the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where viticulture was in its infancy but the area itself was steeped in history. That's when Long Island appeared on his radar screen, and he was drawn here by the opportunity to live in a beautiful area with historical tradition while working in a fledgling industry that could surely benefit from his expertise and passion.

His first job was with Mudd's Vineyard in Southold, one of the industry pioneers on the North Fork. He then spent some time as a research viticulturist for Cornell, and from 1988 to 1994 he was winemaker at Gristina Vineyards in Cutchogue.

In the spring of 1995, Mr. Perrine left Gristina to do full-time consulting work for vineyards in New England and on Long Island. One of his clients was Walter Channing, who had planted about 12 or 13 acres of grapes on his Bridgehampton property.

Before long, "We put together a project and he said, 'I want you to do it.' So we did," said Mr. Perrine. Channing Daughters produced its first wine in 1997, and the winery itself opened in 1998.

"We produce fine wine, nice wine. And we present it in such a way that we don't pretend to be separate or elite." There's too much of that in the business, he said. And he sees no practical use for wine rating, which is ubiquitous in the media.

"Rating wine is like rating sex. If the score isn't over 90, you couldn't have had a good time, could you?"

Who Needs "Experts"?

Channing Daughters doesn't send its wines to reviewers like Robert Parker of The Wine Spectator. "We're satisfied with being effective and bringing pleasure to people. We prefer to have fun than to have ego."

Mr. Perrine feels that people don't have enough confidence in their own ability to determine what they like or don't like, and the reliance on so-called "experts" is "a phenomenon that has emasculated the wine trade."

With the winery's newsletter, which he produces and writes, Mr. Perrine has a personal forum to express his somewhat iconoclastic viewpoint, which he does eloquently and humorously, as in this excerpt:

"Have you ever stuck your tongue into a glass of wine and left it there for two minutes, allowing every possible oeno-tactilic sensation to go directly to the analytical nooks and crannies of your brain, unencumbered by thought, conversation, appetizers, or other stimuli?"

"And then attempted to describe the sequence of organo-leptic excitations in the rarefied dialect of 'wine speak'? And finally, transformed this exhausting sensory experience into a mathematical equation that results in a single number from 50 to 100?"

"And then repeated it for 50 different wines? Perhaps I don't know you well enough to ask such a personal question."

Tending The Garden

When he's not in his office aerie overlooking the vineyard creating the next newsletter - and awaiting the purchase of a new Mac, with which he plans to expand his graphics capabilities - Mr. Perrine can be found on the golf course or at home with his wife, Alice Lyon, in Sag Harbor, tending his extensive perennial and herb gardens.

Or reading, as any writer is inclined to do. Mr. Perrine has a particular fondness for psychological crime fiction, especially the work of Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith - the latter known for the novel "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

These two authors, he said, "occupy the psyche of the criminal, so you begin to get a sense of what it might be like to be amoral." Spoken like a true self-described hedonist.

With an easygoing, understated approach to things, even-handed managerial skills, and a talent for crafting velvety rieslings, a crisp yet understated sauvignon blanc, a new rose made from merlot grapes ("If I'd known it was going to be this nice, I would have made more"), and several other varietals, Larry Perrine is in the enviable position of being perfectly content doing exactly what he loves most.

"It's a joy to be in the wine business," he said, "and a pleasure to be in business with Walter Channing." A fruitful partnership, indeed.

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