Christian Wolffer, the owner of Wolffer Estate vineyard and riding stables in Sagaponack, was killed on New Year’s Eve while on vacation, struck by a motorboat while swimming in Paraty, Brazil, and bled to death from his wounds after being pulled from the water. He was 70.
In a statement released on Monday, his family vowed to continue the winery and stable operation he founded.
Mr. Wolffer started the Sagpond Vineyard, later changing the name to Wolffer Estate as the property grew, on 14 acres off Montauk Highway in Sagaponack in the 1980s and built it into a sprawling winery on 176 acres, which produces 16,000 cases of wine a year.
His counterparts in Long Island’s relatively young wine industry credit his spirited leadership and lobbying with putting Long Island on the American wine-making map. His friends and family recalled him as a fun-loving epicurean and robust personality who left an indelible impression on everyone everywhere he went.
According to accounts of the incident in the Brazilian press, Mr. Wolffer was struck by a boat while taking a midday swim during a party at the private residence of a friend in Paraty, a resort town west of Rio de Janeiro. The Associated Press reported on Monday that Brazilian police had detained and questioned a man believed to have been driving the boat that struck Mr. Wolffer. The boat operator was released, but press reports said the Brazilians do expect to bring manslaughter charges against him.
After being run over, Mr. Wolffer was able to wave for help from people on the beach. Two of the partygoers pulled the German-born entrepreneur from the water, but he died shortly afterward, apparently from loss of blood through two large wounds on his back caused by the boat’s propeller. The Brazilian news reports said that a well-known Brazilian model and actor pulled him from the water.
As news of his death spread last week, friends and colleagues on the East End mourned the passing of the gregarious Mr. Wolffer.
“He was a bigger-than-life figure, and we can’t imagine he’s gone,” said Dushy Roth, whose husband, Roman Roth, is the winemaker at Wolffer Estate. “He’s been our inspiration and our friend. He’ll be missed.”
A native of Hamburg, Mr. Wolffer earned his fortune as a venture capitalist and real estate developer in North America. Fluent in six languages, he lived and worked in Mexico and Canada before settling in the United States. He began his career at age 17 as a trainee at a bank, and then at an import-export company. He later worked for the German chemical company BASF, and later at a company selling printing and packaging equipment, where he managed sales forces in Mexico, Central America and Colombia and Venezuela.
In 1971, Mr. Wolffer moved to Canada and began a real estate business that acquired and sold buildings to European investors. He later got involved in real estate development, constructing indoor tennis and squash centers throughout Canada.
In 1978, he purchased 14 acres of farmland in Sagaponack and in 1988 founded Sagpond Vineyards, now part of Wolffer Estate. Over the next decade, he steadily increased its size, becoming one of the East End’s largest private property owners. The vineyard is anchored by a Tuscan-style chateau, constructed in 1997, overlooking rows of grapevines. It is celebrated as one of the most picturesque wineries on Long Island.
The property’s professional riding stables can board more than 80 horses and include an indoor riding barn, Olympic jumping course and numerous riding paddocks. On Monday, the Wolffer family released a statement that referred to him as “a beloved father, grandfather and friend, who inspired us all.” The family vowed to preserve his vision of Wolffer Estate.
“Christian will always be remembered by his family and colleagues for his commitment to and development of the Wölffer Estate Vineyard and Stables … A labor of love, the winery and stables represent the fulfillment of Christian’s lifelong dream,” the family said. “Christian’s vision for what Long Island winemaking could accomplish and his passion for horses that led to the building of an elite equestrian center represents an enduring legacy which the Wolffer family is committed to uphold. We have all been blessed by Christian’s strength, his charisma, his charm, and his untiring passion to live each day to the fullest.”
Mr. Wolffer is survived by four children: his son, Marc, of Palma de Mallorca, Spain; his daughter, Andrea, for whom a hometown was not listed; his daughters Joanna and Georgina of New York City; and seven grandchildren.
A memorial service will be announced. Visitors to the Wölffer Estate Vineyard have been invited to share their condolences in a remembrance book in the tasting room.
Despite the loss of its charismatic owner business at the Woffer Estate will continue as usual, according to the estate’s general manager, John Nida. He said that Mr. Wolffer’s children have told him they intend to keep the winery and stables open.
“Both the vineyard and the stables are thriving businesses,” Mr. Nida said. “It’s very clear the family is committed to upholding their father’s legacy by continuing to operate the vineyard and stables.”
Mr. Nida said that Mr. Wolffer’s death cast a pall over the estate, but that spirits are rising and the staff is optimistic about the future. “That’s what Christian would expect,” he said, “for us to pause for a moment but then to pull it together and move forward with his vision.”
Ted Conklin, the owner of the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, said on Thursday that Mr. Wolffer’s dedication to his winery had made the vineyard one of Long Island’s best despite a difficult location for such a venture.
“He came out here and took a tremendous risk,” Mr. Conklin said. “If more than three or four other wineries on Long Island had been as dedicated to the business as Christian, it would be a lot more than it is.”
Charles Massoud, owner of Paumonok Vineyards in Aquebogue, said the role Mr. Wolffer had played in recent years in the promotion of Long Island as a mature wine-growing region was critical to the industry and one that will not easily be taken up by someone else.
“He was one of the few in our industry who understood that Long Island needs to be on the wine map as a region,” said Mr. Massoud, who started Paumonok Vineyards in 1983. “Wine isn’t just sold as a single brand, it’s sold as a region. He saw that there has to be a page that says ‘Long Island’ before you could get down the list to Wolffer Estate. That understanding was singularly important for Long Island becoming recognized as we think it should.”
He was also one of the great personalities of the East End, Mr. Conklin added. “He was a joyous character,” he said. “He had more friends than 100 people.”