Guest column: Fifty years making ‘beautiful wine in a beautiful place’

In 1973, when Alex and I came to the North Fork looking for a place to plant grapes, make wine and start a family, we wanted to make beautiful wine in a beautiful place. 

While America was awash with cheap bulk wine, and the predominant grapes were alicante, Thompson seedless and concord, we had a different goal: to grow and make wines from cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, the vitis vinifera grapes of France’s best regions. Three hundred years of history said they couldn’t be grown on the East Coast, but our travels, research and diligence convinced us that we could grow them here. 

We weren’t afraid to challenge old ideas and learn by our own observations. We devoted everything we had — every thought, every muscle, every minute, every penny. 

It’s hard to understand, looking back after 50 years, how much of a challenge that was. But we wanted a challenge, and we met it head-on, as I have detailed in my 2003 memoir, “The Vineyard.”

How to sum it up now? What mattered most that led to our success, and the success of Long Island as a wine region? 

First, we had a (flavor/aroma) vision and a business plan. Because of that plan, although we had never farmed, Art Kilborn at L.I. Farm Credit believed in us and approved the loans that launched us.

We did our own research and collaborated with everyone. There were no winemaking textbooks. I used to call Cornell professor Terry Acree and Napa Wine Lab founder Lisa van de Water to troubleshoot lab tests. 

The North Fork was an established farming region, with equipment dealers, farm suppliers (thanks, Bruno Rolle, Dubois Smith and Bill Terry) and a political environment that innovated farmland preservation and agricultural districts here. In 1976, the N.Y. Farm Winery Act empowered those who followed us.

Our neighbors — the Wickhams, Kaloskis, Simchicks and Tuthills especially — welcomed us with selfless generosity. I will never forget how Jean Zuhoski greeted me, walking down our driveway with a homemade pie, the first day I arrived in Cutchogue. 

When others planted new vineyards here, we came together, first as the L.I. Grapegrowers’ Association, then as the L.I. Wine Council, to share a vision of our new region defined by estate-grown wines based on vinifera grapes. Our symposia and barrel tastings brought us international friendships, attention and raucous fun.

The dozens of people who came to our door hours before the release of our first wine taught us that these regular customers would define our business. We marketed by their exponential dinner parties, not by advertising.

We were supported by wine retailers and chef/restaurateurs like John Ross, Ted Conklin, Tom Schaudel and Matt Kar — and, in New York City, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Tom Colicchio — who shared their enthusiasm for our wines and sold them. 

As the wineries multiplied, an ecosystem of food, wine and visitor-related businesses also grew, and we supported each other. Today, I make the rounds from Pattie’s Berries to Braun Seafood; from 8 Hands to Sang Lee, with many other detours for the world’s best food. I’m zig-zagging all over the Fork, senses super-charged, imagining the flavors and aromas I’ll soon enjoy with a glass of local wine.

Wine critics like Frank Prial of The New York Times, Gerald Asher of Gourmet and Bob Schoolsky of Newsday applauded us and validated our wines. In 1984, Robert Parker Jr. wrote: “Hargrave Vineyard 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most exciting domestic cabernets I have tasted.” 

Goal met! I was overcome with emotion last month when the Long Island Wine Country group invited me to help jumpstart its “Cheers to 50 Years” celebration. The young winemakers (including my son Zander) who joined together to raise a glass are the new force who will bring their own zeal, talent and creativity to define the next 50 years of Long Island wine.

Cheers to 50 years!