I first fell in love with The Old Field Vineyards on a sunny but crisp afternoon last fall. I’d been to many of the wineries out here during my two years as a full-time North Fork resident but had never ventured out to their quaint Southold estate. On a last-minute whim, I signed myself and a friend up for their Saturday tour and tasting led by the perpetually smiling Perry Bliss. Two hours (and a couple of glasses of delicious wine) later, I was telling everyone who’d listen that I’d just been on the best winery tour ever — and I once spent 10 days in Napa! Naturally, I jumped at the chance to spend an entire day at one of my favorite North Fork happy places learning even more about winemaking from Perry for our harvest issue.
9 A.M.: ARRIVAL
I pull up to The Old Field Vineyards at 9 a.m. sharp and see that Perry, who owns and runs the vineyard along with her parents, Ros and Chris Baiz, has just opened the gate for me. I inch slowly down the dirt path as Dilly Dally, the family’s 9-year-old rescue dog, runs alongside my car. The sun is shining, the trees are swaying in the breeze and it feels like the perfect summer day to spend at an idyllic North Fork vineyard.
9:05 A.M.: THINNING
Perry greets me, and we waste no time hopping in the golf cart to head into the fields with Dilly sitting between us. She rests her head on my lap as she tries to dodge my incessant attempts to take a selfie with her. Perry says she hates being photographed, but I manage to snap an adorable one anyway.
We pull up to a row of chardonnay grapes, and Perry asks if I’ve ever done thinning before. When I say no, she hands me a pair of shears. “These are sharp,” she warns, as I laugh nervously.
She explains that thinning sometimes needs to be done to prepare for an upcoming harvest. “This is unfortunately powdery,” she says, pointing to a bunch of grapes. “We’ve had a pretty rainy, humid summer. If we were having a fantastic summer, you wouldn’t see any of this white fuzz on these, which would be ideal.”
With any type of farming, she tells me, you’re at the mercy of the weather.
She laughs, “So you can either roll the dice, leave all your fruit out there and hope we have an awesome August, September, October — dry and sunny so it will ripen everything — or in a year like this, where we’ve had a lot of rain, you maybe decide not to keep everything.’”
She points out that the chardonnay clusters are tighter than the merlot, which limits airflow and can lead to disease if rainwater gets trapped. Perry says they’re probably dropping half of their crop this year to allow for as much airflow as possible and to make the grapes easier to spray.
Photography by David Benthal
She instructs me to leave one cluster of grapes per shoot and adds that we need to work with some type of speed. Although I’m hesitant to cut anything at first, I eventually find a groove as Perry flies past me down the row.
She says thinning also makes the hand-harvesting process easier because you don’t have to sort through each cluster to pull out the powdery grapes.
For the brand-new vines, we take off all the fruit so the nutrients can concentrate on growing the root systems. Perry, who has a degree in environmental biology, admits there’s a lot of science behind it. “In different seasons, you do different things, which is kind of hard for people to grasp,” she says. “It’s not like baking cake.”
10 A.M.: STILL THINNING
As we continue to cut, Perry and I chat freely. She says they’ve owned the farm on her dad’s side of the family since 1918, but it was row crops at that time and they were gentlemen farmers. Now, she runs the farm with her parents.
“There are a lot of gentleman farmers now,” she notes. “Most of the vineyards out here are family owned, but they’re not family run. That’s a big difference.”
She tells me that when her mom started out, there were maybe only three other women in the field. “Now, there are so many women,” she marvels, “which is amazing!”
She considers herself lucky to have also started out in the vineyards. “Winemakers typically aren’t out in the fields, or they’re out just to check on little things,” she explains, “versus where we go from A to Z through the entire process.”
Perry says she and her dad have been mostly running things since last spring, when her mom had to step back after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. She quickly adds that Ros is thankfully now in full remission.
I ask her if working so closely with her parents is difficult. “My mom and I work really well together. We always want to chop more fruit and have amazing wine, and my dad’s more inclined to leave it,” she says. “Family dynamics are always interesting, but it works. My dad and I can get mad at each other and then 15 minutes later we’re fine.”
As if on cue, Chris Baiz comes rolling up in a golf cart and chats with us as we work.
Perry teases him: “What have you done today, Dad? Just driving around in the golf cart?” He smiles and tells me you have to check each vine probably 60 to 65 times in a season, a fact that kind of blows my mind.
As he drives off, Perry tells me he mows all 23 acres and is their sprayer as well. She estimates it takes him 30 to 40 hours a week just to mow. He’s also the vineyard manager.
Photography by David Benthal
Perry runs the tasting room and says she has an awesome crew of part-time staff, many of whom are now close friends she met through their wine club. “We’re so small and there’s not a lot of turnover, so you get to know people. Our wine club members become part of our family in a way,” she says.
11 A.M.: FAMILY TIME
Once we knock out the entire row, we hop back in the golf cart with Dilly and head up to the house where Perry lives with her husband, Zak, and their two kids, Rozzy (11) and Claire (8).
We run into Zak along the way, who excitedly tells Perry the name he came up with for their boat. She smiles and laughs, and we continue on to the house, stopping in front of the aforementioned boat that’s parked in the front yard.
Perry tells me she and Zak have been together for 10 years, and that he’s a wooden boat builder who grew up on Shelter Island. She adds that her brother is also a carpenter who works on TV and movie sets in Los Angeles, so they’re blessed to have a lot of help building and repairing things around the vineyard.
I watch Zak work on the boat for a bit as Rozzy assists and Claire swings on a homemade swing in front of the kids’ treehouse. I can’t help but think how good this life must be.
11:30 A.M. BLUE DUCK AND GRATEFUL
We leave the homestead and head to Blue Duck Bakery so Perry can place pie and bread orders for the upcoming lobster bake they’re hosting for wine club members. On the way back, we swing by Grateful Deli, a favorite spot for us both, to grab sandwiches for lunch.
12:05 P.M.: FARM TOUR
When we get back, Dave Benthal — northforker photographer extraordinaire — is waiting for us surrounded by a flock of friendly chickens. Perry estimates they have about 45.
I ask if she has any favorites. She points to one and says, “Limpy with the bum leg; we raised him. When he was a chick, we had him in a little sling, so he’s probably my favorite, but it’s just because he lived in our house for two months.”
As I’m refilling the kiddie pool for their three new ducks, Ros rides out of the vineyards on an electric bike and sometime later Chris glides by on the riding mower.
We all walk up the small hill to explore the tasting room, a hodgepodge of buildings from the ‘60s with homey, eclectic interiors that include an old chicken coop that Perry’s grandfather built, customer artwork of the farm, a clay Elvis head made by budding artist Rozzy and a pot-bellied stove for cozy fall and winter afternoons.
Perry says the reaction to their space is pretty polarizing. “People either love it or they don’t!” she laughs. While some people walk in and turn right back around, she says, most who visit think the space is amazing.
“During the winter I love it because our tasting room is so small and the people who come in — that’s exactly what they’re looking for,” she beams.
12:45 P.M.: TOPPING
We close up the tasting room and head into the wine cellar, Dave and Dilly in tow.
After we wash our hands, Perry tells me the reason you top wine is because it evaporates over time and will become vinegar if you don’t.
She points out a selection of carboys (glass jugs often used by home brewers) filled with overflow from their 2021 merlot. She says they made a lot of really good red wine in 2021, so the four best-tasting barrels will become Commodore Perry Merlot, their high-end wine.
Perry tells me you always have to taste wine before you add it to a barrel, adding that if you don’t spit out the wine, you can get drunk really fast.
Our conversation goes like this:
Me: What are you tasting for?
Perry: So… if it tastes like basement. There’s bacteria that can sometimes get into wine.
Me: So… a damp, moldy type of thing?
Perry: Exactly. Like basement.
Luckily, all the wine we taste is divine, so Perry lets me top off the barrels while Dave takes photos. She tells us that even though she’s been making wine for a while, she doesn’t have any formal training in it, so it’s a lot of trial and error.
“We have a white pinot noir. Dilly is on the bottle and we donate $1 from every sale to the animal shelter,” she says. “It’s kind of funky — a white pinot is different from what everyone does.”
1:30 P.M.: STACKING WINE
We bid Dave adieu after he takes more photos on the grounds, and Perry, Dilly and I hop back in the golf cart to grab some boxes of wine to stack in the cool box.
Once we have a pallet of boxes stored (sans help from a forklift; The Old Field is the only winery on the North Fork without one), Perry tells me it’s my turn to drive the golf cart. I execute a flawless 12-point turn á la Mike Myers in the first Austin Powers movie and lurch us forward toward the back of the property.
2 P.M.: LABEL MAKING
Somehow, we all arrive back at the wine storage shed intact, although Dilly looks a bit more relieved than I’d like to admit.
Photography by David Benthal
Perry asks if I want to try labeling and whips out a clunky device that looks like a close cousin to the typewriter I used in high school.
“Normally, a labeler in a labeling line is like $50K,” she explains. “So this is ours — it’s old school, but it’s great and it does the job. This thing was still a thousand dollars.”
She shows me how to feed the labels through the machine and position the lines on the bottle so they don’t run down the middle of the label. As I label, we chat about some of the challenges of North Fork winemaking, particularly when it comes to the cost of equipment.
“A harvester is like half a million dollars!” she exclaims. “And then you’re not harvesting thousands of acres. The biggest winery out here maybe has 400 acres, and the average is about 80 acres. We always say all of us could fit into one medium-sized vineyard in California.”
She tells me new bottling machines can run about $200,000, which is why they bottle everything by hand. “We’re true farmers in the sense that we’re land rich and cash poor, so we’re on a budget,” she says.
According to Perry, The Old Field produces 10 different types of wine and only 800 cases in a season, which is micro in the wine world.
3 P.M.: TASTING NOTES
After labeling and storing several cases in the cool box, Perry and I sidle up to a picnic table and sip a glass of 2020 cabernet franc to work on tasting notes for the label description.
She says some winemakers make labels as they’re bottling, but The Old Field makes them when the wine is ready to sell because it tastes different once it’s been sitting around.
Perry asks what I taste in the cab franc. Being the wine tasting expert I clearly am, I eloquently reply, “I mean, this is more tart, I would say …?”
Perry responds kindly: “So I’d say cherry then. And you also get some clove and black pepper. I love the spiciness of cabernet francs — that’s why they’re always my favorite.”
I ask her about the harvest process while we continue to taste.
Harvest season usually begins in mid-September and runs through October, she says, but sometimes they harvest into November. “For an optimal harvest you want it to be dry and sunny,” she explains. “We don’t want any rain now [mid-August] all the way through to harvest.”
They harvest one varietal at a time over the course of a day or two so it all gets processed at once. “First we bring in our sparkling [grapes],” she says, “and we don’t make our sparkling here — we make it over at Lenz, so it goes directly there, which is great.”
After the sparkling, Perry says, they pull in sauvignon blanc and white pinot in mid-September, followed by chardonnay at the beginning of October, then rosé and rooster tail, followed by cab franc. Usually, the last grapes they pick are petit verdot and malbec.
She walks me through the winemaking process.
“So when grapes come in, they go up here on the crush pad,” she says, pointing out the equipment as she goes. “And we have hoses that get attached to a crusher destemmer. Then they come down into here, and if you’re making red wine, the skins stay with it. If we’re making white wine, it goes into a bladder press — this gets the skins off — and then it gets fermented. That’s how we can make a white pinot noir. You can make any red grape into white wine, just no skin contact. Once it’s fermented, it goes into barrels, or if not and it’s white wine, we keep it outside to cold stabilize it naturally.”
Perry says they rely on nature as much as possible. They don’t use reverse osmosis, avoid sugar at almost all times, don’t add flavoring and use only a small amount of sulfur.
“We let the grapes do the talking for the wine, so we’re more Old World style,” she explains. “New World is taking a grape from anywhere and making it taste like somewhere else by altering it. I don’t think it matters what style you’re producing, it’s just our motto is to make something that we want to drink.”
After the harvest, the skins and seeds are composted with chicken manure and put back in the fields. “Everything goes back into the earth in the vineyard world,” Perry says.
3:50 P.M.: RUNNER DUCK STANDOFF
We’re treated to an Old West-style standoff as the three older resident ducks (the inspiration for their Dashing Duck wine) stare down the three newcomers, and my day on the vineyard winds to a close.
I ask Perry if she thinks Rozzy and Claire will one day follow in her footsteps.
She shakes her head and says, “My parents were so good about not pushing me into this world, and I want to do the same for my kids. If they want to grow Christmas trees or they want to do something else entirely, that’s their choice — diversify, like everyone’s doing out here.”