Raphael’s Anthony Nappa wasn’t always enraptured by vino

05/05/2013 2:30 PM |

RACHEL YOUNG PHOTO | Winemaker Anthony Nappa with dogs Beckett and Smooch in the Raphael winery storeroom.

Growing up in the outskirts of Boston, Anthony Nappa couldn’t have imagined that his life would one day revolve around grapes and oak barrels.

“I didn’t find wine,” Mr. Nappa said from his new office at Raphael vineyards and winery in Peconic, where he became winemaker in late January. “It sort of found me.”

That’s not to say the path to viticulture hadn’t been at least partially cleared for the 35-year-old Mr. Nappa, who lives in Southold with his wife, chef Sarah Evans Nappa.

Plants had always been one of his primary interests, so after graduating from high school, Mr. Nappa studied botany at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, earning a degree in fruit and vegetable agriculture.

But it wasn’t until Mr. Nappa traveled to Italy, his father’s birthplace, that his interest in wine was piqued.

“I found out I have a decent palate, a really good sense of smell and an ability to do this,” he said of making wine.

Soon, Mr. Nappa was halfway around the world, in New Zealand — a cool-climate region famous for its dry white wines — where he studied winemaking at Lincoln University in Christchurch, earning degrees in viticulture and oenology.

“If you understand grape chemistry it translates to wine chemistry,” he said. “Some people only study wine but when you want to make better wine you have to start in the vineyard. If you take it back all the way to the grape chemistry, you have a better holistic understanding of the whole product.”

After graduation, Mr. Nappa moved to southern Italy, where he has dual citizenship, to make wine. He also worked as a winemaker in Massachusetts and California. In 2007, he moved to Long Island, where Long Island Sound, Peconic Bay and the Atlantic Ocean help regulate the temperature and create a unique winemaking experience.

“Long Island is one of the most positive and interesting regions on the East Coast,” he said. “I think we can make wines that rival any of the high-end wines in California and Europe.”

Mr. Nappa’s first major professional foray into the wine industry was also in 2007, when he and his wife produced 200 cases of Long Island Pinot Noir, creating Anthony Nappa Wines.

That same year, he became the winemaker at Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck. He left there in 2011 to concentrate on Anthony Nappa Wines, which currently sells nine varieties as well as a hard apple cider at its Peconic shop, the Winemakers Studio.

“Anthony is a talented winemaker,” said David Page, co-owner of Shinn Estate Vineyards and Farmhouse. “I wish him nothing but the best.”

As much as Mr. Nappa enjoyed his solo venture — “I was just working for myself, making wine,” he said — he missed the stability an established winery often provides.

“It’s nice to have a home base,” Mr. Nappa said. “You have some consistency and better control.”

Enter Raphael, an estate-owned vineyard and winery that opened in 2001. Last December, Raphael’s owners, Joseph Vergari and Julie Petrocelli-Vergari, approached Mr. Nappa about taking over the winemaking position, which had become vacant.

“We courted him for a bit,” Ms. Vergari said. She and Mr. Vergari had chatted with Mr. Nappa at various industry events and sensed he’d be a great addition to the winery.

“He gets it,” she said. “He gets what we’re trying to do. The way he makes wine and the way we make wine is very similar.”

The timing seemed serendipitous. Just before starting his new position, Mr. Nappa had finished bottling wines at his own shop, allowing him to focus on blending and bottling Raphael’s whites. Next up? Fine tuning the reds and seeing where the rest of the year takes him.

“We’re turning toward reds and figuring out the summer,” Mr. Nappa said. “Things happen slowly in the winery. Things are always in motion but it’s a slow, steady pace.”

For the laid-back Mr. Nappa, who often brings his two dogs, Beckett and Smooch, with him to the vineyard, it’s a pace that suits him just fine.

“I enjoy the creative side of winemaking,” he said. “We’re not changing the world here; it’s just wine — but we do make something that people enjoy, and that’s rewarding.”

ryoung@timesreview.com