Wine is sometimes associated with health as some studies suggest it has beneficial properties for the human body. But rarely is it associated with healthcare, especially healthcare institutions.
However, at Peconic Bay Medical Center (PBMC), located on the “North Fork” of eastern Long Island, a vineyard occupies part of the main drive leading to the hospital entrance, and that vineyard produces enough grapes in a decent season to make five to 10 cases of wine (in off years, the grapes are simply donated to a local soup kitchen). The wine is served at special catered events and sold at auction to raise money for the facility.
The hospital vineyard came about when PBMC underwent an expansion about a decade ago and found it had little money left for landscaping after completing the infrastructure portion of the project. While most of that problem was solved through donations of sod from local firms (sod is a major “crop” in the area) there was still room for something else, so PBMC President/CEO Andy Mitchell approached one of the hospital’s board members, Charles Massoud, who is also owner of the nearby award-winning Paumanok Vineyard.
“I asked Mr. Massoud if he could recommend some grape vines we could also put out in front of the hospital to demonstrate our commitment to the local community and its heritage,” Mitchell recalls, noting the North Fork’s prominent winemaking history. “After a lot of research, he came up with the norton variety and purchased a hundred vines that we planted. The rest is history.”
Norton is a native American grape variety that requires significantly less maintenance and care than most other viniferous varieties like merlot and pinot noir, which are prone to mildew infestation—especially in a high-humidity environment like the North Fork—and often require repeated treatment with pesticides and fungicides.
“Norton is a very hardy grape that we don’t have to spray with anything,” Mitchell explains. “And we definitely don’t want to be spraying chemicals around a healthcare facility anyway.”
Any other maintenance of the vines, such as occasional trimming, is done by the landscaping service that takes care of the rest of the greenery on the grounds.
The grape harvest, usually performed by volunteers from among the hospital staff, generally takes place around the middle of September, and “the amount we get usually depends on how busy the birds have been in the previous several weeks,” Mitchell laughs. “That’s a real challenge for all the vineyards on the North Fork because we are in the migratory pattern.”
The usual way of keeping hungry birds away from grapes is to net the vines, but that is a very labor-intensive process—as well as unattractive—so the hospital basically lets the birds have at it and harvests whatever is left.
“We have very happy birds here,” Mitchell quips, adding that as the grape harvest is not meant to be a profit-generating enterprise, any loss to the birds is not worth the trouble it would take to prevent it.
After harvesting, the grapes are taken to Paumanok’s nearby winery for processing by winemaking professionals.
The wine derived from the PBMC-grown norton grapes is drinkable if not of the highest quality, Mitchell admits. “It’s not going to be a wine Robert Parker will put in the New York Times, but it’s a very nice table wine, one that certainly can be enjoyed, even if it’s not an award-winner.”
“Paumanok does produce award-winning wines [though none from norton grapes] and they work very hard to make it the best it can be,” adds Samantha Vigliotta, vice president of the PBMC foundation & external affairs.
The PBMC wine doesn’t have a single brand name for its label. Rather, there is a naming contest each year. A recent winner was “B-Positive,” playing off both the medical mission of the institution and the look of the wine.
PBMC’s vineyard runs along the main road of the hospital and takes up about half the space. The rest is planted with sunflowers, though Mitchell says he wants to plant corn as well in the near future.
As for the grapes, they are primarily an aesthetic and promotional showcase for PBMC, Mitchell stresses.
“I think people find it aesthetically pleasing to see that we’ve stuck with our heritage, and as far as I know we are the only hospital in New York State with its own vineyard so it’s a differentiator for us.”