Cinque’s Fourth Leaf

Garagistes, they call them — men who make wine in their garages
An old family photo, left, of Michael Cinque, age 4, and his grandfather makes an ideal label for his homemade wine called Mi Famiglia. Right, Mr. Cinque shows off the mini-vineyard at his Amagansett house. Durell Godfrey Photos

   Where most people’s houses are landscaped by trees, shrubs, or flowering plants, Michael Cinque’s, set back from Montauk Highway opposite an Amagansett gas station, is surrounded on three sides by grape vines, 100 or more, neatly trained against wire trellises but growing so closely up against the windows that you can reach right through and touch them.
    Which, in fact, Mr. Cinque did one night last week, when he and his wife, Amy Slack, were awakened at 3 a.m. to a rhythmic thump-a-thump outside. He threw open a bedroom window as the motion-sensor lights came on, “and there stood a deer with a mouthful of pinot grigio.”
    They have a word for people like Mr. Cinque in France. Garagistes, they call them — men who make wine in their garages.
    Most wine merchants are in business for one reason only, to make a buck. Not this one, not anymore anyway. Mr. Cinque, the owner of Amagansett Wines and Spirits since 1979, has, as they might say in the trade, a full, rich, complex life with sometimes nutty overtones, all revolving around wine.
    Besides the pinot gris, he grows chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot blanc, chosen, he said, because those grapes ripen earliest. A few years ago, when he first started making wine, he would pick each kind separately, which meant monitoring four different vats for a month while they fermented, then “racking” them (siphoning off the sediment) one by one, once or twice a month for the next three months.
    “It was crazy,” he said. “So last year I made a skin-fermented cuvee [blend] of all four.”
    The cuvee, which Mr. Cinque wouldn’t dream of selling — it’s for benefits, friends, and house guests, of whom there’s a steady stream — is similar, he went on, to Grav­ner, a little-known wine from a little-known wine district in northeastern Italy called Fruili, where a man named Josko Gravner produces some of the most sought-after whites in the world. “It’s not good — it’s great!” he raved, speaking as much of the Cinque cuvee as the Gravner Gravner. Once Mr. Cinque is off and running on his favorite subject he becomes almost oblivious to his audience. “He ferments his wines in clay pots lined with beeswax!” he marveled.
    There was envy in his voice as he said this, and sure enough, 15 minutes later, he remarked that he’s been thinking about keeping bees.
    Every day during the 140-day growing season, Mr. Cinque gets up with the sun and pads out with his morning coffee to check on the vines. Watering is not a problem: He’s devised a drip irrigation system buried under the neat rows of crushed stone in which the posts holding the trellises are planted. But trellising, training, spraying, pruning — especially pruning — that’s another story. “Otherwise, it would run wild,” he said. “The vines don’t know they’re supposed to grow fruit. They want to grow leaves and go to the sky. So you’ve got to control them. I force everything to grow at the same level, about three feet, the ideal fruiting height.”
    He learned by doing. “You prune at the top, like privet. Who knows how to prune? It seems easy for the first five vines, then there are 15 to go.” From one plant, he said, he gets six bunches of grapes, though “someone else might have 20. It’s like snipping off the flowers on tomato plants. You wouldn’t have 2,000 tomato plants on a bush, you’d have 12 beauties.”
    Where pruning is predictable, spraying is weather-dependent. Sun-worshippers may remember the summer of 2012 as an almost endless procession of cloudless days, but vintners saw mildew under every leaf. “This was the toughest season,” said Mr. Cinque. “Evening rain, morning rain, 90 days. I was constantly spraying.” All by hand, too — the vines are too close together, on a lot of maybe a third of an acre, to admit of any other way.
    Commercial vineyards, of course, are mechanized. “They put the sprayer on the truck, they turn the handle, and they go,” he said. “I put a 40-gallon sprayer with 32 gallons of spray on my back.” Even that big a load covers only half the vines. He has to fill the thing twice, but “it’s spiritual, it’s good, it’s therapy for me. It’s beyond growing your own tomatoes. It’s raising another kid. What does a wine guy do? Plant more grass? Mow more lawn?”
    When he was a kid himself, growing up in Lynbrook, it was a Sunday ritual to go to his Italian grandparents’ house in Brooklyn, “a brownstone with a tiny backyard and an amazing garden,” where his grandfather grew fig trees, all kinds of vegetables for putting up in winter, and table grapes. The old man bought his wine grapes, though, at the Brooklyn Terminal Market, and 4-year-old Mikey would watch wide-eyed as he made wine on a venerable hand press. “I’ve tried to use it, but it’s too old,” his grandson said regretfully. The press now resides on Main Street, Amagansett, in a corner of his store. “It’s my good-luck charm.”
    Grandpa Cinque lives on also in a homemade red wine that Mr. Cinque calls Mi Famiglia. On the label, made from an old family photo, grandpa and grandson, both beaming, are holding wine glasses. The stains on the 4-year-old’s shirt suggest that he started in the business pretty young.
    The family name, which means “five” in Italian, was originally pronounced chin-quay, but “when my father went into the Army they could never get chin-quay, so he gave up and went to sink-you,” said Mr. Cinque. “They wound up calling him “C.Q.”
    Ever mindful of the past, he would like to revive the old pronunciation, but even with Italian-speakers he runs into snags. “When I call a restaurant and say, ‘Reservation for eight, Chin-quay,’ they say, ‘Is that eight or five?’ ” Some friends simply call him “Mikey Five.” It was the late Jeff Salaway of Nick and Toni’s who started that, years ago when Mr. Cinque set up the restaurant’s first wine program.
    “I have almost 100 friends through food and wine over the years,” Mr. Cinque said: chefs, suppliers, buyers, winemakers, retailers, oenophiles, and others. When they have dinner out together, eight or twelve at a time at top East End restaurants, everyone brings wine. “Last time, someone said, ‘I’m bringing a Barolo.’ I knew it would be a great Barolo, so I brought one too.”
    At one of those dinners two weeks ago everyone agreed to bring Rhone wines. One man was new to the group. “I told the new guy, ‘Bring your best Rhone, because they will.’ ”
    He pulled down a bottle of red from a kitchen shelf. It was a gift, he said, from “my paisan from Arthur Avenue. People bring me their home brew. He has Mike’s Deli in the Arthur Avenue Market,” in the Bronx.
    Deli Mike also dropped off packages of homemade prosciutto and sopressata, a large pan of tiramisu, and a tall bottle of deep gold olive oil with a label you have never seen on a store shelf, when he was here cooking for a charity event they did together in Southampton, one of dozens Mr. Cinque contributes to each year. Among the beneficiaries are the Peconic Land Trust, the Hayground School, the Children’s Museum of the East End, the Ross School, Guild Hall, Souper Tuesday at Eli’s Farmers Market — the list goes on. Mr. Cinque, a member of the all-volunteer Amagansett Fire Department, president of the Amagansett Library board of trustees, and active on more committees than a flowchart could comfortably contain, is nothing if not community-minded.
    On or about Oct. 2, their wedding anniversary, he and Ms. Slack, who is CMEE’s program director, will bring in the last of this year’s grapes. “She picks and I crush,” he said. “This will be my fourth leaf” — winespeak for harvest.
    A visitor left Mr. Cinque to wander among the vines, where, he said, “most mornings, I sing and pray a lot and laugh and cry. I don’t know how many dead relatives have visited me.”