When vintners Ros and Chris Baiz founded The Old Field Vineyards in Southold in the late 1990s, they received advice from local farmers and vineyards managers that was often helpful but sometimes confusing.
At the time, Ros Baiz was a mother of two in her fifties with no farming experience. She remembers asking a farmer if she was plowing her field correctly and being unable to get a straight answer.
“I said, ‘How am I doing?’ He said, ‘I don’t know,’ ” she recalled recently. “I said, ‘Well, am I going too fast, too slow?’ He said, ‘Maybe.’ ”
As frustrating as that exchange may have been, it contained a truth that colored the Baizes’ approach to farming for years to come.
“He finally said to me, ‘You need to learn your own land. Nobody can teach you,’ ” Ros Baiz said. “You need to understand the high points, the low points. You need to know where it is going to dry out. You need to know where you are going to have problems with bugs.”
The Baiz family has spent the past 20 years getting to know their 22 bayfront acres on Main Road, a unique parcel with its own “micro-climate,” due in part to salt water from Peconic Bay and fresh water from nearby ponds. A high water table means irrigation is rarely needed, while hundreds of years of farming — along with years’ worth of washed up seaweed and discarded oyster shells — has created a nearly perfect neutral pH.
But if things had turned out differently, condominiums could stand today where visitors enjoy rows of vines overlooking the bay, a rustic tasting barn and wines made from the family’s one-of-a-kind terroir.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this could all go away,’ ” Chris Baiz said of the decision to buy the land, which his great-grandmother Mathilde Stricker Lang purchased a century ago. “The realization was that this was coming to an end.”
The couple bought the property in 1996 from the estate of his grandmother Clara Lang, who died in 1993. Several developers had expressed interest in it, but Lang’s three children — Chris Baiz’ mother, aunt and uncle — couldn’t seem to agree on a buyer.
Eager to save the rural property, which had once been home to The Parker Hotel, the Baizes chose to take a gamble on the North Fork’s still-emerging wine industry.
“I knew it couldn’t be a raw crop, like pumpkins, cauliflower or potatoes,” Chris Baiz said of the decision about the farm’s future. “Then one day somebody told me about Alex and Louisa Hargrave [the founders of Long Island’s first commercial vineyard] and what they were doing and I said, ‘That is it!’ ”
It would be more than two decades before Chris and Ros Baiz would purchase the property and plant their 10-acre vineyard, officially founding The Old Field. For most of those years, the land was leased to the Krukowski family, who continued to honor the land’s storied agricultural tradition.
“In 1639, this farm was the largest Native American village on Long Island,” Chris Baiz said.
The couple was living in Bronxville in Westchester County, before they moved to Southold full time. Neither had any real farming experience: Chris’ background was in finance for the mining industry and Ros had worked in various industries.
“It was interesting learning how to be a laborer,” Ros Baiz recalled. “It gave me an enormous appreciation for farmers, I’ll tell you that. I remember looking down a row [after hours of pruning] and realizing I hadn’t done a thing.”
Today Ros is the Old Field’s winemaker, but also spends long hours in the vineyard, as does her husband. She shares her roles with her daughter, Perry Weiss; they’re the only mother daughter vineyard team on Long Island.
There are two Civil War-era farmhouses on the property. One, where the Baizes now live, housed the hotel. The other is home to Perry Weiss, her husband and their two daughters, Rozzy, 4, and Claire, 1.
Even Ros’ son, Ryan Weiss, a Hollywood set worker, devotes about a month per year to the family venture.
“When he shows up he just accomplishes so much,” she said. “It’s an enormous help to us.”
Though they make majority of the wine on site — including almost all the reds and some sauvignon blanc — The Old Field’s chardonnay and sparkling pinot noir are made and bottled at The Lenz Winery in Peconic under the guidance of a consulting winemaker, Long Island veteran Eric Fry.
“They’ve always been involved and I encourage that with all my clients,” said Fry, who has worked with the family since the beginning. “I’m pushing [Ros] in my direction all the time but she’s got her own style. Their wines are not Lenz wines.”
“I’ve gotten braver in the past five years to say ‘I want this’ or ‘I don’t want this,’ ” Ros said.
In the vineyard, they embrace sustainable practices like using mostly organic sprays, raising chickens for pest control and fertilizer and hand-harvesting the grapes.
“I want my kids to take it over, so it makes sense to keep the land as nourished as possible,” Perry Weiss said.
The family focuses on pulling in the best quality grapes. That sometimes means picking off more than a quarter of the crop and dropping it in the field.
“We let the fruit do the speaking,” Ros Baiz said. “We don’t have fancy equipment. It’s a natural, hands-off approach.”
Two decades later, vineyard management and winemaking are still learning processes. That requires constant revaluation of what works and what doesn’t work for their small operation, which produces about 1,000 to 1,500 cases of wine a year.
This year they will graft chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and a bit of cabernet franc onto some of the 6.5 acres of merlot planted in the field.
“Long Island is awash in merlot,” Chris Baiz said, adding that he wish he’d instead had the foresight to plant double the two acres of cabernet franc now grown at the vineyard. “We planted way too much [merlot].”
Grafting onto the vines will allows them to make use of the existing root stock — and save them from having to wait three vintages for new vines to mature.
“By next September , we’ll have a full yield crop,” he said. “All of this is problem solving.”
Growing wine is not a venture for those looking to make easy money, Chris Baiz cautioned.
He doesn’t plan to pay off the mortgage on The Old Field until 2034. By then, he’ll be 88 years old.
But the rewards of vineyard life — being able to hand down the family business to the younger generation, spending time with their grandchildren and working so closely with nature — make it worthwhile.
“I’ve had a lot of different jobs in my life,” Ros Baiz said, “and this is the one that never bores me.”