Louisa and Alex Hargrave stood under a sunny sky one unseasonably warm winter afternoon with two grape experts who had come from afar to take a gander at Long Island’s very first vineyard.
The young couple, neither of whom had any viticulture experience, were soliciting advice on growing stronger, more fruitful grapevines. The expert, who grew grapes in California, told them to keep the vines with the thickest wood and cut off the side shoots.
The Hargraves exchanged puzzled glances. Just minutes earlier, a grape expert from Cornell University’s Agricultural Experiment Station in upstate New York had given the exact opposite advice: Keep the thinnest wood and do not cut off the side shoots.
“We decided not to take anyone’s advice,” Louisa Hargrave recalled in a recent interview. “We had to inform ourselves. We couldn’t rely on anyone else.”
Exactly 40 years ago, the Hargraves left Harvard University, where they met, and headed for Long Island’s East End, a rural landscape covered with potato farms, cornfields and churches. There was not a single grapevine in the region, now characterized by a bustling wine industry.
The Hargraves had driven across the country to Napa Valley to visit vineyards and explore owning one but were disappointed at the time by the quality of the West Coast’s highly oxidized wines. They knew they wanted to grow vinifera grapes, which grow well in Europe, and were told by Cornell University researcher and agricultural scientist John Wickham that the climate and soils on Long Island were similar to those of France and other regions where vinifera grapes prosper.
And so, they set their sights on grape-growing on Long Island.
“We weren’t satisfied with anything else,” Hargrave said of their decision. “We were young and we thought we had nothing to lose.”
Alex Hargrave had majored in Asian studies and his wife earned degrees in teaching and government. If college taught them anything, though, it was that experts didn’t have all the answers. They couldn’t farm — neither had grown so much as a cherry tomato in a backyard garden — but they knew how do research and banked on their learning skills.
“We took a huge risk,” Hargrave said. “It’s the arrogance of youth — you think you can’t fail. You do what you want to do and just go for it.”
Sixty-six acres and many challenges later, the Hargraves had created a small winemaking operation, population two. The early days were fraught with challenges: diseased plants, destructive birds, natural disasters and nosy, anti-alcohol neighbors.
“There were people who would call reporters every time they saw a bug on a grape leaf and then there’d be some big story,” Hargrave recalled. On the whole, the couple were well-received by fellow farmers on the North Fork, but the “small but vocal faction” caused them their fair share of headaches.
Not having anyone to look to for advice or examples, the Hargraves made fresh decisions — and tragic mistakes.
Eric Fry, 20-year winemaker at Lenz Winery, which was founded a few years after Hargrave Vineyard, said other early vineyard managers and winemakers looked to the Hargraves to glean insight on what to do — and what not to do.
The biggest lesson the fledgling Long Island wine world learned from the Hargraves was where not to plant, Fry said. The Hargraves had planted vines in low spots, which turned out to be a vine’s arch-enemy. Lower ground is typically wet and cold — destructive conditions for a grapevine.
“They didn’t exactly know what they were doing and they made a lot of mistakes,” Fry said. “They were experimenters. Someone had to do that for us to find out.”
Their first wine, Hargrave admits, was a disaster. They stored a sorry Sauvignon Blanc in whiskey barrels instead of customary oak barrels.
“We didn’t know how important oak was,” she said.
The whiskey barrels stripped the wine of its color and added a heavy char flavor.
Though the early days were peppered with flops and faux pas, the Hargraves had fallen in love with the art of grape-growing and winemaking.
“I wanted to do work that was physical and meaningful and for my children to experience work effort,” Hargrave said. “I wanted our work to have results — something we could eat and drink.”
The couple’s two children did learn the hard work of farming a vineyard. Their son, Xander, remembers the endless work and spirited energy of each fall’s harvest — and his parents’ faithful devotion to their love of wine.
“They were stubbornly committed to wines they enjoyed drinking — wines that had an old world connection and quality,” said Xander Hargrave, who is now assistant winemaker at Peconic Bay Winery in Cutchogue.
He believes the local wine industry’s prosperity is rooted in a like-minded community with the same goals. “The health and success of the wine industry is linked to the health and success of the community,” he said. “Forty years of the wine industry is just the beginning.”
The Hargraves ended up selling their beloved vineyard just after harvest in 1999, leaving behind two decades of winemaking and a burgeoning wine region now dotted with dozens of vineyards.
True pioneers, the couple set the stage for scores of winemakers who would produce world-class, award-winning wines.
To this day, Louisa Hargrave wants not much more than an alluring glass of wine to relax with. Her idea of a great wine, she said, is one with subtlety, “an interesting and intricate aroma that doesn’t hit you over the head.” She likes dynamic wines with energy, fruitiness and earthiness.
“Making wines that are very dynamic and have energy from the first taste to the last,” she said. “That’s where I think we succeeded and that’s where winemakers on Long Island today succeed.”