Wine Column: Charitable giving can come at a cost

In a recent wine quiz I included a question about the change in State Liquor Authority regulations regarding how many charities a New York farm winery may support with donations of wine. Although New York law had limited these donations to five per winery, per year, the state Legislature recently changed the law so that wineries may now support an unlimited number of charities via wine donations for charitable events.

For those of you who are heading for the phone to ask a winery to donate to your own favorite cause, please pause a moment to consider that there are still many hurdles posed by the SLA to wineries and charities that wish to join forces for a noble purpose. The winery must give the SLA 15 days’ notice of any “off premises” event being held away from the winery. Furthermore, at a charitable event, an official agent or representative of the winery must do the pouring. If you figure that the retail value of most of these wines is around $18 a bottle (often much more), and any employee sent to pour will cost the winery a minimum of $10 per hour, it’s not an insignificant cost for a winery to donate and pour its wines at any charitable event.

Even the donation of a single bottle for a wine raffle bears a requirement that the charity accepting the donation must obtain a permit to raffle it off.

Most charities are well intentioned when they ask wineries for donations, and have no idea how much cost and effort are involved in these donations. The usual request for a donation goes something like this: “Hi, I’m calling from United Tearjerkers. We’re having a bike-a-thon tomorrow and we’d like to serve your wine to the bikers as they wobble en route. It will be great exposure for you. We only need 50 cases. These are real connoisseurs, so we’d like you to send your Exquisite Reserve Merlot.”

If you are chuckling now, you probably think I’m exaggerating. If you work for a winery, you know I’m not.
At Roanoke Vineyards, Scott Sandell says, “We get a lot of requests for donations, mostly from Wall Street and the film industry.” Those would not ordinarily be considered “charitable” organizations, yet their principals still feel somehow that a nice little (10-acre) family winery like Roanoke is just waiting to give away wine to people as rich and powerful as they are. (Remember, celebrities rarely pay for anything.) Like most wineries, Roanoke is selective. This year, they have chosen to provide wine for Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Library’s “One for the Books” dinners, and are “absolutely ecstatic about the contribution.”

McCall Vineyard is also small, with only 10 acres of merlot and 11 of pinot noir grapes, yet owner Russell McCall — who says, “Land preservation is my favorite project” — gives wine to several local charities, including Peconic Land Trust and Eastern Long Island Hospital. He also hosted this year’s ELIH benefit at his ranch.

A representative of Macari Vineyards — which is generous with donations, giving wine or gift certificates for wine tastings especially to local businesses, charities and schools — told me, “We receive fax/email/phone solicitations about 20 times a week. We also receive quite a bit of walk-in solicitors that are visiting multiple wineries.”

Because there are so many requests for donations, many Long Island wineries prefer to work cooperatively with their colleagues and give wine to events coordinated by the Long Island Wine Council. The Sept. 17 “Harvest” event, for example, featured auctions to benefit three local charities: Peconic Land Trust, East End Hospice and the Group for the East End.

Apart from the wines given to charitable events, most winery owners have personal pet charities to which they give money. For example, Ursula and Paul Lowerre of Peconic Bay Winery have for several years sponsored Kebba, a African boy whose schooling in Gambia ended when he was orphaned and could no longer pay for school. Kebba lived literally on Gambian garbage, hunting for addresses of Americans or Europeans whom he randomly wrote to requesting assistance. When his letter reached the Lowerres, they checked out his story and found it was entirely true: Kebba was young, brilliant, abandoned and destitute. Now, with the Lowerres’ help, Kebba has finished high school and college, and entered business school in Switzerland. Meeting him recently when he came to Cutchogue, I saw in him the true value of charitable giving.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.