In Memoriam: Bob Pellegrini

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I couldn’t imagine, when I wrote my last column in memoriam to Walter Channing—the founder of Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton—that we would soon lose another man whose early and persistent devotion to quality would similarly set the tone for our growing wine region. But on April 4, Bob Pellegrini, co-owner (with his wife, Joyce) of Pellegrini Vineyards in Cutchogue, also departed to vintner’s heaven.Since I knew the Pellegrinis from the beginning of their time as vintners here, and since, fortuitously, my son, Zander, has been the winemaker there since last August, I’ve had the pleasure to witness both Bob’s and Joyce’s enduring devotion to doing things right.

When the Pellegrinis first came to the North Fork in 1982, it was in partnership with another couple whom they had met casually. Pooling resources, they bought land and planted vines in Cutchogue, near my own vineyard. We bought their first crop and were witness to a battle that ensued over crop quality that, in short, left the Pellegrinis on the side of the angels, but without a vineyard.

It would take them 11 years to make their Cutchogue comeback, but when they did, it was on their own terms. For a while, they searched for property in California, but returned to Long Island where they felt they could make a greater impact. Himself a graphic designer, Bob had firm ideas on how to create a winery that would be inviting to visitors, maintain integrity with the North Fork aesthetic, and introduce winemaking innovations that were cutting edge at the time. Samuels & Steelman, the Cutchogue-based architects who worked with Bob to bring his concept to fruition, have since designed other Long Island wineries, most notably and gorgeously Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue and Sparkling Pointe in Southold, both of which echo the most successful design seen at Pellegrini Vineyards.

The Pellegrinis brought in Australian winemaker Russell Hearn—now a proprietor of Premium Wine Group in Mattituck—which proved to be a most felicitous and long-lasting partnership. As Mr. Hearn told me at Bob’s funeral on April 9, if Bob occasionally seemed grumpy, it was only because he cared deeply about his wines. Backing up their commitment to quality, Bob and Joyce were willing to invest in the best: hydraulic punch downs for red wines, jacketed stainless steel tanks to control fermentation temperatures, and select French oak barrels to add complexity and quality to the wines.

Bob had a wry wit and enjoyed seeing the pleasure of others in his creative efforts, though he himself was shy and often stayed in the background.

When Bob became interested in something, his commitment to it was boundless. His son, Gregg, told friends assembled for Bob’s funeral how, early on, his father had become interested in raising tropical fish. Within a few years, the young Pellegrini family’s small New York apartment had wall-to-wall fish tanks. Later, Bob became interested in antique arcade games and developed a collection of pinball machines and arcade automatons to rival any. And when it came to making wine, Bob similarly went all-out.

Gregg told of how Bob would encourage others to commit themselves in the same way he did. While doing design work for the new National Lampoon magazine, Bob made friends with some of the players in a spin-off production, the “National Lampoon Lemmings.” One evening, he sat in a bar next to one of the Lampoon actors, who was bemoaning his own lack of talent. All his friends were getting involved with a new comedy show on TV. This actor wanted to be part of it, but didn’t dare try out. “I’m just not funny enough,” the actor complained. “I can’t sing and I can’t act. They’ll never hire me.”

Bob said, “Don’t be ridiculous. Just go try out. You’ve got nothing to lose.”

The show? “Saturday Night Live.” The actor? John Belushi.

I must thank Gregg for that story because Bob was never a name-dropper. But his personal attachments, and his devotion to detail, informed everything he produced.

On the April day Bob died, he was eager for winter to end, to see bud break and to taste the new wines. He approved a new label design for the 2014 vintage of Pellegrini Vineyards Rosé and okayed the purchase of a new tractor. Sadly, his body was no match for his spirit. It’s just coincidental, but shortly before his death, his favorite automaton—a banjo player—broke down.

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