In the beginning there was John Ross and Louisa and Alex Hargrave.
That was the message Thursday night in the auditorium at Peconic Landing in Greenport, where Ms. Hargrave and Mr. Ross spoke on the beginnings of the North Fork’s wine industry and the farm-to-table food movement.
The pivotal year in their talk, part of the facility’s Lifetime Learning Series, was 1973, when the Hargraves began putting down roots on the region’s first vineyard growing European vinifera and Mr. Ross started his iconic Ross’s North Fork Restaurant on Main Road in Southold.
“John, my old pal from 1973, he and I have lived somewhat parallel lives in the world of food and wine,” Ms. Hargrave said. “I started the first commercial vineyard that year with my then husband Alex. John started his farm-to-table restaurant that year and that was a brand new concept.”
Mr. Ross’ journey to Southold has its roots in Michigan, where he went to college as an English major wanting to write poetry. Born in Canada, Mr. Ross said after college he quickly learned that he had “more talent scrambling eggs than writing poetry.”
He joined the U.S. Coast Guard to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam and soon saw his future.
“I knew I wanted to be involved in food and my love of cooking,” he said.
He learned to cook in a ship’s tiny galley, and then went on to the Coast Guard’s cooking school. He said when he was assigned to Governor’s Island he discovered where he wanted to live and work as a chef.
“During that period, I came to discover Long Island and the best thing I discovered was seafood,” he said. “I was introduced to fresh lobsters and clams and everything else we have here on Long Island.”
Ms. Hargrave had a similar life-changing discovery of all that eastern Long Island offered. “My former husband and I decided in 1972 — he had a Masters degree in Chinese from Harvard and I had a degree in government from Smith College — well, we had this idea,” she said. “We both loved food and wine, but we knew almost nothing about them. We had some money to grow grapes. But clearly not enough. We searched on the West Coast and came back to the East Coast. We only wanted to do this if we could grow European wine grapes. We studied the whole situation and we found the right spot.”
The “right spot” was a former potato farm in Cutchogue where their experiment to try something that not been tried before on the East End took root and was soon receiving high praise for their wine. The couple sold the winery after their divorce in 1999. It is now Castello di Borghese Vineyard & Winery.
Mr. Ross showed a picture on a large screen of his restaurant’s first menu. “The innovation I began was a daily menu,” he said. “This was not heard of then. It was literally a daily menu and a limited menu. We decided from the beginning we would use only the freshest food, period. There wasn’t even a freezer in the building.
“It would be fresh or we would not have it. And it would be cooked from scratch.”
That early menu on the big screen drew some oohs and aahs for the prices. Long Island duck, $7. Lobster, $7.50. The steak, Mr. Ross pointed out, was $8. He pointed to the menu of a Greenport restaurant of the same time that had more than 20 entrees; he had just six.
“With that many entrees, it can’t be fresh,” he said. “I decided we didn’t want a menu like that. It had to be limited.”
In another photograph on the big screen, Ms. Hargrave showed a bottle of an early merlot from her winery. The image on the label — a flowery vine wrapped onto a line — was drawn by former Cutchogue cartoonist Rob White.
“That was our Merlot,” she pointed out. “That was a serious turning point in the growth of Long Island wine. Our first wine was 1977. That was not an outstanding wine. It was a cabernet Sauvignon. We had the first merlot east of the Rocky Mountains.”
“For Louisa and Alex, this was their baby,” Mr. Ross said. “This Merlot, 1980 vintage, was serious. I sold it from day one in my restaurant. That wine was delicious.”
After a stint in an East Hampton restaurant, Mr. Ross said he borrowed money from family and bought an existing restaurant on Main Road in Southold. From day one the goal was straightforward: the freshest food acquired as close to the restaurant as possible. He would cook there and at a second location for the next 27 years.
“I developed an early relationship with the farmers, like the Krupskis and the Wickhams,” he said. “That gave me a bit of an identity. I wanted to be myself. I didn’t want a phony French restaurant. I wanted to be unique on the North Fork. I knew this place was something special.
“What Louisa and her family did was add the missing piece: wine,” he said. “This is how the North Fork developed as a food destination. You have to give a lot of credit to Louisa. We had the fish, we had the produce. The wine brought the region to the next level.”
The longtime friends spoke for an hour before an enthusiastic crowd. Several times they were interrupted by applause. All in all, history will record them as pioneers and the start of something unique on the North Fork.