They sit on mantelpieces and countertops and atop wine racks scattered across Suffolk County.
The wine bottles’ corks remain covered beneath layers of maroon wax; lift them up and the swishing cabernet and merlot is still sealed safely inside. The labels all bear the distinctive vines of Hargrave Vineyard’s earliest vintages, labels that are now peeling from decades of age.
These bottles — some of the first to ever hold North Fork wine — are relics from the region’s wine past, their collectors now say with due deference. The bottles offer a peek into a time when Alex and Louisa Hargrave “pioneered” winemaking in the fertile soil, long before the North Fork became the wine hot spot it is today.
“We want everyone to see them, see the history made miles from here,” says one of those collectors, Mattebella Vineyards owner Mark Tobin, who has three vintage Hargrave bottles on display at his tasting room.
“You can’t drink these bottles now, but the historical significance is special,” Tobin says.
Tobin found his bottles — a Cabernet Sauvignon from 1976, a 1985 Candlelight Burgundy made from pinot noir grapes harvested as Hurricane Gloria struck and a Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé whose vintage date has worn off — among others in a wine cellar at an estate sale.
“The guy didn’t even know what he had,” Tobin says. “I’m a junkie for those. I can’t help myself.”
He bought the owner’s entire wine lot for $30. The bottles, at least one of which is among the Hargraves’ first wines, are worth much more today, though Tobin says he doesn’t bother worrying about that.
“To me it’s not about the financial value,” he says. “It’s the connection to the history of the region.” It’s also a connection to the Hargraves themselves, whom he greatly admires.
“They had the guts and vision and passion to pull the trigger and it was brilliant,” he says.
Three more bottles — two numbered 1977 Whole Berry Pinot Noirs and a Cabernet Sauvignon from 1980 signed by Alex Hargrave — rest comfortably above the wine rack near a Wi-Fi router at aMano restaurant in Mattituck.
The wines aren’t for drinking, says their owner, Eric Roe, a trained sommelier and a bartender at the eatery.
“It’s a bit of history,” he says. “We get a lot of people from the wine industry in and it’s a great conversational piece. People chat about it.”
Mr. Roe rediscovered the wines in his late parents’ collection in Bellport about a year and a half ago. He’s holding onto them for “posterity,” he says, having brought them to aMano a few months ago.
Mr. Roe speaks excitedly of the bottles, as if they are old friends he’s introducing to new ones. Their history is not lost on him.
“I get chills thinking about it,” he says.
It’s not just those in the industry who have collected the old Hargrave vintages. Bill Curran lives in Freeport, but summered on the North Fork going back “as long as I can remember,” he says.
“We watched the whole North Fork transform,” he says.
Curran and his father bought a case of the first Hargrave wines in 1976 from an ad in The New York Times.
The whites, he jokes, didn’t survive; they were all popped and drunk long ago. But two bottles of the Cabernet Merlot Blend have made it.
“They’re not good to drink anymore, but it’s sentimental,” Curran says. “They’re old. They’re cool. They’re sort of historic.”
The bottles are more than that. Curran’s father died nine years ago and his mother recently passed away. The bottles, still sitting in their former house, remind him of the times he spent with family.
“Why do you do it?” he asks himself, seemingly not expecting an answer. “You can’t drink it, but you can’t part with it either.”
Louisa Hargrave, the winemaker behind these bottles, is delighted by stories of her early vintages. She gets messages from those who spend evenings talking about her wines and the “good times.”
“Calls like that make me really happy,” she says.
Hargrave herself has a few early bottles left, though hers are all unlabeled.
“Honestly, some of them are really intriguing to drink,” she admits with a laugh. Hargrave herself collects old bottles of wine. She recalls a bottle from 1889 that she discovered as it was about to be dropped into a dump.
The fact that wine she helped create is now counted among those worthy of being saved is an honor.
“It’s a great tribute,” she says.