THE VINEYARD: a Memoir

(Here’s a taste of my book for you)

 

BUY THIS BOOK DIRECTLY FROM ME. MAIL YOUR ORDER TO: Louisa Hargrave, PO Box 1405, Jamesport, NY 11947. Hardcover copies are $20; paperback $10, plus $4 shipping. Questions? Contact me at: louisa hargrave at hotmail dot com [no spaces].

Description:

Louisa and Alex Hargrave were pioneers. Fresh out of Harvard in 1969, in love with each other and their dream of owning a vineyard, they searched the West and East coasts before they bought a run-down 1680-vintage potato farm in 1973, on Long Island's North Fork-and planted ten thousand vinifera vines. At the time, experts said that growing wine grapes on Long Island was impossible. Today, the region is famous for its premium wines.








In The Vineyard, the Hargraves learn the joys and hardships of country life. They suffer droughts and storms while learning to navigate the glamorous but treacherous international world of wine. Along the way, they discover that theirs is both a scientific and a spiritual endeavor. Struggling to raise a family, Louisa draws strength from her work in the vinerows. Reveling in the bounty of harvest, the laughter of her children and the magic of a newly blended wine, she tells the bittersweet story of how she and her husband fulfilled their dream.

 


 





Prologue


I was standing in the kitchen of my Long Island farmhouse, looking out the window, when the phone rang. The caller was a woman who had read about our new wine venture in the paper. “You’re a pioneer, aren’t you?” she asked. “I’ve been called that,” I replied. “Well, come quickly,” she said. “Pioneers know how to deliver babies, and my neighbor is giving birth!”

I laughed at the thought that I might be a midwife. And while I didn’t deliver that baby, it was true; my husband and I were pioneers, but pioneers with a twist. We were college-educated suburbanites who had fallen in love with each other and with wine. We decided to make a life together, growing grapes and making wine, and we spent half a year exploring the wine regions of the West Coast before deciding to return to our native East Coast, where we planted wine grapes on a Long Island potato farm. Everyone said that wine grapes wouldn’t grow there, but I became the midwife for a whole new wine region.

At first, we thought of ourselves more as poets than as pioneers, but nearly thirty years of growing tender grapevines on Long Island has proved that it was our pioneering enthusiasm to get the job done and to challenge the legacy of failure for this type of crop that made a success of this new viticultural area. The North Fork of Long Island became a farming frontier with three thousand acres of vines, in a place where rampant suburban development had been a foregone conclusion. In a letter, Gourmet magazine’s Gerald Asher wondered, “Was it Talleyrand or Brillat-Savarin who said the invention of a new dish contributed more to human happiness than the discovery of a new star? What would either of them have said to the idea of a whole new wine region?”








Like other pioneers, we had to overcome natural disasters, pestilence, varmints, and folks who wanted to shoot us down.

As the rhythms of nature gained ascendancy over us—two people who had never before been attuned to its tempests and harmonies—the joys and challenges of family life were complicated by the demands of the business. For me, to be so pregnant that I had to hold my breath while bending over to plant a vine; to stand, arms outstretched, in the face of a hurricane just to feel its force; to stomp grapes in a vat when the press broke down—these were welcome challenges, a part of the frontier life. But I wasn’t prepared for the arrows that were shot at our backs. How could I know that the avuncular professor who came to advise us hoped we’d fail, that the certified plants I tended so carefully were riddled with virus, or that the Bangladeshi woman I had hired would be visited once a week by a slave master who beat her for her wages?

We had to learn all the basics from scratch, from planting to bottling. We also learned about the ways of the wine world, with its princes and professors all vying for a claim to fame, willing to destroy one another for it. I discovered that winemaking is both a spiritual and a scientific endeavor. I learned to let the vine and the wine speak for themselves, instead of imposing my ideas of how they should be crafted.

While I often approached wine in an analytic way, I wasn’t immune to surprises. Once, I went into the chilly cellar, where the wine lay in barrels, with a sample of a wine I hadn’t tasted all winter. It was a Cabernet that hadn’t shown any particular promise. When I put my nose into the glass and inhaled an aroma that exactly matched what I had always hoped for but never really believed was possible to create, I burst into tears.

Usually, I kept those emotions under wraps. I liked the relaxation wine brought, but I felt I couldn’t drink too much or I might let my guard down. There was too much at stake, too much work to do, for me to let myself go. Maybe a little drunkenness would have served me well.

The first day I spent farming, following the tractor with a grape planter, was a model for the next thirty years. Under the open sky, work fell into a rhythm that was at first boring and then consoling. My mind could go anywhere because the work didn’t require much new thinking. I could feel the power of my body increasing as I worked every muscle in my 110-pound frame.

At the end of that first day, I made a pact with the last plant I put into the ground. It was at the end of a row, near the woods to the east. I promised the plant that as long as it lived, I would stay on the farm and take care of it. In the end I couldn’t keep my promise. When I left the farm I made a last stop with apologies to that vine, recently unburdened of its fruit, its leaves yellow and half fallen to the ground, but very much alive.

Despite my broken promise, I am thrilled that the vine has lived. It vindicates all my love, all my effort and attention. I am thankful for those years of marriage and family and farming. Even now, the vine shows the promise of renewal, and its wine offers the example of change for the better.

The Homestead

On the first day of june in 1973, I drove myself from Rochester, New York, to our new farm in Cutchogue, eighty-five miles from Manhattan on the North Fork of Long Island. My husband, Alex, had already moved down there to start planting at the beginning of May, but I had stayed behind to finish the courses in calculus and chemistry that I was taking at the University of Rochester. We had never grown grapes or made wine before, and one of us needed to learn some science. In the four years of college and one year of graduate school I had recently completed, I had avoided studying science. I had passed the required “science for poets” course by memorizing questions and answers from past exams, not by understanding the material. History and languages were more my thing, but now that we were planting a vineyard, I wanted to understand what lay behind the mystery of wine. While I studied theories of solutions and exothermic reactions, Alex studied the more practical issues: What kind of farm equipment did we need? Where could we find the right grape varieties? How should we plant the vines, and what would come next? He was the one, we agreed, who would figure things out and get the ball rolling. I was twenty-five and Alex was twenty-seven. With no farm experience and little life experience, we really didn’t think the vines would need much attention.

Before we bought the farm in Cutchogue, neither one of us had grown so much as a vegetable garden. That is, unless you count the tiny garden that had been my family’s project when I was about eight years old. My father, who worked in Manhattan as a book editor and knew nothing about plants, had gotten a bee in his bonnet about wanting a vegetable garden—something that had never interested him before. We lived in the woods where the soil was poor and there was no sunlight, but still my father, mother, sister, and I hacked away at a six-foot-square plot of clay while my baby brother threw clods of grass around. Every day we checked the garden to see if anything had grown, and I remember jumping up and down with my sister, Wendy, when some tiny radish leaves sprouted. After we harvested the radishes, the garden got weedy and we gave up on it. I felt cheated by the radishes; they looked so inviting in their fabulous red skins, but they tasted unbearably bitter. We never planted another vegetable. I didn’t learn much of anything about plants until after I was married and I was preparing to grow acres of grapevines.

Before making the five-hundred-mile drive to Long Island I should have been entirely focused on becoming a vintner. I certainly wasn’t paying much attention to my studies. In fact, I was unable to focus on much of anything. I was numb, except for my jaw, where every ounce of tension in my body was stored. One night, about a week before moving, I gave in to the physical pain and cried myself to sleep. I never told anyone that I was anything but happily excited about my future as a grape grower. For me it was “all systems go” once the decision was made to plant grapes. Never once did Alex and I have any sort of conversation that would have permitted the shadow of doubt to fall over our plans.

The idea of the vineyard at that point was still a fantasy whose only tangible basis in reality lay in the ten thousand rooted, grafted vines we had bought. On the first of May, we had packed our vines into Alex’s brother Charlie’s VW Beetle convertible for the trip to Long Island. Alex had enlisted Charlie and their sister Meg, both fresh out of high school and with no other immediate plans, to accompany him with this load, and to help with the planting until I could get down there. There was Charlie, his long hair and shaggy beard helping to hide his shyness, which was belied by the deft way he loaded the car. Meg was equally capable, but her quick, sardonic laugh was anything but shy.

The vines were bundled in plastic bags to keep their roots moist. Peeking into one of the bags before the others took off for Long Island, I noticed the delicacy of the vines. Some buds, pushing up prematurely in the darkness of the bag, were a fleshy white, like tangled bean sprouts. Before we could plant the vines, we would have to chop their roots with a hatchet, so that they would fit into the plowed furrow. That’s what we had learned from the University of California textbook called General Viticulture that we had bought a few months before. It was a book we were relying on to teach us everything about grapes. The authors of that volume were pretty explicit about what to do with the plants, but they neglected to address the needs of the planters. What about our own roots, which were chopped, too, as we moved from everything that was familiar in our bookish suburban lives to the pastoral greenbelt of the North Fork of Long Island? That the farmland looked nothing like a wilderness was a gentle deception.







Making the drive from Rochester to Cutchogue, impatient with the time it took to get there, I was oblivious to how fundamentally my life was about to change. I might as well have been sleepwalking through time and space. When I left Rochester on that June day, I was a student; when I arrived in Cutchogue, I became a farmer instantly. Before the move, the time spent planning the vineyard had been no different from preparing for a science or a history exam, something I was familiar with. How many years of history exams had I taken? Do a bunch of reading, be a little intellectually excited and a little bored, come into a roomful of familiar people all rustling papers, and write like crazy knowing just what the professor wants. I had always done well at that. But what good would those skills do me now? In preparing for this new life, I had only the vaguest sense that there would be a massive disconnect between my old life and my new one. Whenever feelings of anxiety arose I would tell myself, “Don’t have a kitten.” The irony of it is, that’s exactly what I did—I adopted a kitten, a real one.

The day before I left Rochester, an acquaintance had called me, urging me to adopt a six-week-old kitten from her Siamese cat’s new litter. Her cat was a prima donna who had lost her virtue to a neighborhood rapscallion, a black tomcat. I sorted through the kittens and noticed one, a black female with a white patch under her chin, staring at me. That was the one I adopted. When it came to naming her, I heard in my mind my old Latin teacher saying, “I don’t give one iota what you think,” and I called the kitten Iota.

I was preoccupied with Iota as I drove myself from Rochester to Cutchogue, a nine-hour trip in a car with no radio, just a squalling kitten. I hadn’t told Alex about Iota—maybe I hadn’t wanted to run the risk of having him say that it was too soon to be adopting a pet—so I was worried about how he might react. When I saw the sign for Cutchogue on the highway, I realized that I didn’t have a clear idea of what the farm we had just bought looked like. I’d only seen it once, in the pouring rain, five months previously.

It was late in the afternoon as I entered the farm. I took a deep breath to fortify myself as I made the turn south down a pitted dirt road. First I passed the two ranch houses of the Zuhoskis, the family who had set aside a few plots for themselves when they sold the farm to a developer, who had then sold it to us. Their houses were new, with only a few locust trees dividing their carved-up lots. I gave no thought to what these neighbors would be like until later in the week, when young Jeannie Zuhoski came walking down the road, carrying a pie to welcome us. Had I arrived a few years later, I would have had to contend with some new neighbors who hated the dust that blew into their windows every time we drove past them, and who came out screaming and swearing when they saw us. This first time, there was silence.

There were potatoes planted on the west side of the driveway, belonging to Wes and Rose Simchick, whose land we bought a few years later. On June 1, the potato plants would have been low-lying, darkly leafed vegetables, separated by finely cultivated beige soil.

The railroad tracks came next, without any guard or crossing gate. I’m sure I bounded over them, not realizing that the tracks were still in active use by passenger and freight trains that ran on erratic schedules. They looked too abandoned to be dangerous.

After the tracks there was a stretch of farmland still planted in a cover crop of rye grass, which waved in the breeze like the sea. It could have been any farm anywhere. Then, coming up on a rise, I could see the stakes that Alex had set out to mark the new vine rows. This was it! I slowed down to look at where he had planted the first vines, which I knew were Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon to the west and Sauvignon Blanc to the east. They were almost invisible—just little sticks poking about two inches out of the ground, one every seven feet. My heart started to beat faster. I glanced around, but I still didn’t see Alex.

At the end of the half-mile drive there was, first, a garage-sized tractor shed that was encased, like the house and a bigger garage, in chipped white asbestos shingles. To the left was the classic Long Island cedar-shingled barn, very angular, with a sliding front door, a lean-to on the side, and a concrete potato storage building running behind it. These buildings were full of rusted and broken farm tools, piles of old burlap bags, and the greasy spill marks of countless leaky crankcases. I didn’t enter them for weeks. It was a whole year before one of us broke through a rotten floorboard in the barn, revealing an old and empty bootlegger’s cellar. Later we were told that a prior owner of our farm had been arrested for hiding hooch there during Prohibition.

It took me a year, too, to dare enter the tattered strawberry sorting shed, whose east side had housed a farm worker. The destitution of that long-gone man left its traces in the rat-infested mattress of an old bed. A primitive refrigerator, containing the mummified remains of a dead raccoon, waited unopened until the following summer, when I finally had to go in there and transform the shed into a habitable space for Alex’s sister Meg, who returned for the season to help us out.

At last, getting out of the car, my legs wobbling from the long drive, I found Alex out in the field with Meg and Charlie. There were hugs and kisses all around, and I needn’t have worried about Iota. Alex was too busy planting to be very interested in a kitten, but he did reach over to pet her little head. With a grin on his face he proudly showed me how he had laid out the vineyard rows in a nine-by-seven-foot grid. He pointed out the precious new leaves that were unfurling from the grapevines’ buds, which had turned a brilliant green edged in pink, like a Lilly Pulitzer dress.

Meg and Charlie were staying in a rental house down the road until the planting was finished a few days later, but Alex and I stayed in the farmhouse from the day of my arrival. I was glad that when quitting time came Alex and I would be alone, but as I stood watching them finish their day’s work, I felt like an outsider. I didn’t know Charlie or Meg well. They were half a decade younger than I was, and I had seen them before only on the occasional vacation. The two were so close to each other that they communicated like identical twins, with looks and gestures being sufficient between them. They baited and goaded each other; they met in a huddle with Alex; they all mumbled and giggled about something I couldn’t quite get. I was jealous of these gangly postadolescents, kicking pebbles absentmindedly in the field with a familiarity that made the farm seem more theirs than mine.

I was reassured in a short time, when we heard the village firehouse sound the six o’clock whistle, announcing quitting time for the three of them. I put my kitten down while Alex carried me across the threshold of our farmhouse. He had already carried me across the threshold of our first apartment, where we had settled in as newlywed students at Harvard in 1968, but this time I felt it was for keeps. The house was practically empty, but it was ours. The man who had been renting it had moved out the day before, and our own furniture had not yet arrived out of storage, where we had left it two years before. Having made only a cursory inspection of the house before we bought it, I now took a closer look.

Right in front of the cottage was a pump house. It covered a well that the original settlers must have dug. Now there was a pipe running down the well that indicated it was still in use. Looking down the hole, you could see that it was lined with the red stones that had come from New Haven before the Revolution. The first Long Island settlers had traded flax for these building stones, since their own soils yielded plentiful crops but no stones larger than pebbles. A steel windmill tower rose above the pump house, no longer equipped with the blades that used to pump water and generate electricity for the house. I liked its look of self-sufficiency, even though it was ugly and hazardous.

A small covered entrance to the house led from the front door into a hallway that had hooks for coats. On the immediate left was a small bathroom that had a rusty steel shower stall, so that anyone entering caked with mud or contaminated with pesticides could get clean before going any farther. To cover the chipped wallboard, Alex later hung an art nouveau print that had been in his childhood bedroom. It was a storybook view of aristocrats in sculpted wigs and flouncing dresses, having a picnic in the countryside. The closet in this bathroom was the only closet in the house, and it had never held either wigs or gowns. When I entered the kitchen, I thought I was in the wrong house. I hadn’t paid enough attention when the Realtor had shown us the place, and I hadn’t noticed how nasty and rotten the old linoleum was. This room and the dining room next to it were the entirety of the original house that had been built around 1680. Until we dismantled the walls and ceilings later that winter, there was no sign of the beautiful, handhewn beams that supported the structure, nor could we see the original, hand-milled pine boards, as wide as an ancient tree, that lay under the gouged-out linoleum. I would have been much less distressed if I had been able to foresee that within a couple of years, the shabby space would ring with the laughter of our own child, as she zoomed across the old floors in her bright green walker. Nor would I have disparaged the circular fluorescent light that hung over a dented steel table if I had known that before the summer ended, we would sit at that table with our neighbors, sharing a feast of freshly caught crabs whose colors shone in the glow of that lamp.

“Oh, good! A gas stove,” I said to Alex, pointing to a sixties-model range in the corner.
“It’s good if you like the smell of dead rat,” he replied. Apparently, something had died in the insulation. We’d have to get a new stove. I wondered what else we’d have to replace.

The next thing I saw was a crooked chimney, looking precariously close to collapse. It rose from a furnace in the basement up through the ceiling. The last family to live there must have taken out the old colonial hearth in order to modernize the heating. It looked as though they had started building the chimney from the roof down and had had to alter the chimney’s course when they got inside and realized it wouldn’t meet the furnace below. I could see old mortar crumbling from the stress of bad physics.

The doorway that led from the dining room to the living room was the only one that remained from the original colonial structure. Built for seventeenth-century-sized people, it was so low that I could foresee Alex, who is six-six, whacking his head on the lintel. The doorway led to a small living room that the owners of the house had built some time shortly after the Civil War. I did not imagine how bright this dingy space would become with our first Christmas tree, decorated with cookies that Iota would bat around until they fell and she ate them. The living room also had a door that led outside to the back of the house. Later, when we took the ugly pink paneling off the walls, we uncovered the little row of windows known as “lights” that had commonly surrounded the front doors of New England houses more than a century ago. These lights indicated that originally the house had fronted a road that ran along that edge of our property. Now the land only a few yards from our house was heavily wooded. I could see a line of old cedar trees that marked the abandoned traces of that road, and I wished the open road were still there to bring more sunlight into the house.

Looking out the window, I thought about others who had lived here and farmed this land—how it had looked to the early settlers, and why they had chosen the crops they had grown, going back to the time they shared it with the natives who already tilled the soil before the Pilgrims landed.

When the first English settlers came to the North Fork, they would have found tall forests, with small clearings where the natives had planted corn and squashes. Along the shore were sandy inlets with sheltered coves and creeks full of clams, oysters, mussels, crabs, and spawning fish. Historically, most of the farms had grown a little of everything, with some extra dairy, strawberries, and asparagus for the market. An influx of workers from Poland at the end of the nineteenth century had changed the emphasis to cabbages, cauliflower, and potatoes. In the fifties, when the farmers replaced their horses with tractors and bought combines to harvest the potatoes, they had too much capital tied up in equipment for potatoes to afford to grow much of anything else.








Before the American Revolution, the English settlers burned down the trees in the land known as “the Devil’s Belt,” which ran along Long Island Sound on the North Shore, facing Connecticut. They were worried about the Spanish Armada and wanted to make it easy to see any approaching warships. The fires chased away all the wolves, bears, and rattlesnakes that had been living there. What remained were the eastern deer, squirrels, possums, and garter snakes. I felt relieved, thinking that all those dangerous beasts were gone. The dangers that lay ahead for us—not as cataclysmic as a war but challenging nonetheless—were unimaginable at the time.

Leaving my reverie about the settlers, I went on to inspect the bedrooms. At first, I was annoyed to see that one of the two small bedrooms that came off the living room was completely filled with the worldly possessions of the man who had been renting our house just before we bought it. Alex explained that he hadn’t wanted to get on the bad side of this fellow, whose temper had left its mark in various holes he had punched with his bare fists in the walls of the bedroom and the garage. We thought we’d have to store those things for a month at most. In fact, they ended up there for much longer. The only one of us who wasn’t bothered by this arrangement was Iota, who loved to hide in the jumble of moldy stuff.

There was a second bathroom in a sort of lean-to off this bedroom. It must have been an exciting innovation when it had been added some time in the fifties, but now its plastic tiles were pitted and dirty. This was the first room that we wallpapered, in a pattern of vines and songbirds. A few years later, when real songbirds threatened our crop, I wished we had chosen paper with flowers or Chinese pagodas.

The other downstairs bedroom had two windows, one to the north that looked out on the barn and one to the east where there was a big old blue spruce tree. Alex chose that room as his study—officially the vineyard office. Charlie built a bookcase along one wall, and along the opposite wall Alex placed a gift from his parents, an old rolltop desk that had once belonged to the mayor of Rochester. I didn’t have a room of my own, but I didn’t expect to have one, either. Alex was supposed to be the manager, so of course he needed an office. It became a sort of refuge for him, and eventually, after the work of the vineyard piled up and closed in on him, he painted the room saffron yellow. It enveloped him like the robe of a Buddhist monk.

A steep and narrow staircase led upstairs to two more small rooms, each with a single window at the only point one would fit under the sloping roof. There was also an attic, which had been the sleeping loft over the original two-room house. When winter came we removed the attic floor in order to raise the ceiling of the kitchen and found, hidden under the floorboards, a handgun with “1884” embossed on its handle. It was too small a firearm for hunting animals. We wondered what danger had led the family who lived there at the time to buy a handgun. We speculated about husbands murdering wives, or neighbors shooting neighbors. We even entertained the possibility of ghosts, but if there were any ghosts in our house, they didn’t reveal themselves to us. Once, when we were staying in the spare bedroom of my sister’s pre-Revolutionary house in Connecticut, the ghost of a solemn young man dressed in late-eighteenth-century clothing had appeared in the night. We were ready to meet any lonely, searching specters who might have inhabited this old place, but we never did. Maybe we were too preoccupied in the ensuing years to notice them.

After a disoriented night spent on a mattress upstairs, I awoke early, eager to try my hand at planting. I thought it would make me feel that I was a part of it all. As it was, not much remained for me to do. There were only a few rows left to plant, but at least I got to see what it was like. When we unbundled the plants to trim their roots and sort them for quality, some of the tender graft unions fell apart. I was reminded that it was the very fragility of these plants that had brought us to Long Island.

Every old farm on the east end of Long Island has a grapevine on a trellis between the back door and the outhouse, but that wasn’t the kind of grapes we planted. We were defying three hundred years of history by planting Vitis vinifera. These are the noble wine-bearing grape varieties that were first planted in Persia and resurrected by Noah after the flood. Just as the Greeks stole Helen from Troy, they also brought the vinifera vines from the Middle East to flourish in their land and beyond. During the reigns of the Caesars, the imperial Romans took these vines from Italy to France, Spain, and Germany. The descendants of these grapes that they planted in Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc) and those that they planted in Burgundy (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) were the vinifera varieties we chose to plant. These varieties have a refinement and elegance that can never be found in wines made from Vitis riparia and Vitis labrusca (the native American grapes, like Concord or Catawba).

In fact, we found wild native grapes throughout the woods around our house. They are the kind of vines that led the Norseman Leif Eriksson to call the East Coast “Vineland.” These native American grapes are coarse cousins of the European vinifera. They grow like tall, ungainly weeds, trying to reach the tops of trees in the forest to get a little sunlight on their big, hairy leaves. American grapes have a strong, grapey aroma, like the smell of Juicy Fruit gum. From the days when foxes lurked around henhouses, these grape aromas were called “foxy.” It’s not a compliment.

Before we came to Long Island, Alex and I had learned that the early settlers to America’s East Coast had been intrigued, then disappointed, by the native grapes. They didn’t like the taste of them, and they found that the fruit, with its oddly pulpy “slip-skins,” had too little sugar and too much acidity to make stable, palatable wines. Starting in the seventeenth century, from Virginia to New York, vinifera vines were planted and tended, and died. The London Company, a land developer in colonial Virginia, required every household to plant ten vines and learn how to train, prune, cultivate, and tend them. The company brought over indentured French workers to do the work but treated them so badly that the Frenchmen sabotaged the young plantings. In 1662 Lord Baltimore of Maryland planted three hundred acres of wine grapes in that colony, only to see them wither and die. New York’s first English governor, the despotic Colonel Richard Nicholls, actually discouraged widespread grape-growing by giving his friend Paul Richards a monopoly on winemaking, including a tax on vines of six shillings per acre a year.

These young vinifera vineyards were all too delicate for the funguses, pests, and cold winters of eastern America. Horticulturists of the early 1800s had some success in toning down the less desirable qualities of the native grapes by hybridizing them, but, while they planted hundreds of acres of these native hybrids just to have something to drink, they still wished they could grow vinifera instead. In 1846, Nicholas Longworth of Cincinnati, known as “the father of American grape culture,” complained, “I have tried the foreign grapes [vinifera] extensively for wine at great expense for many years, and have abandoned them as unfit for our climate.”

Since growing grapes was going to be a labor of love for Alex and me, we were determined from the outset that we would grow only the kinds of grapes that were used in the wines that had made us starry-eyed newlyweds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and (most romantic and elusive of all) the Burgundian Pinot Noir. When we learned of the long history of failure with these grapes, we were even more determined to grow them. Without the challenge, we might not have done it at all.

While we did plenty of research to convince ourselves that we could succeed where others had failed, now, as I handled the young and tender plants, I had an inkling that success would not be easy. My first job was to weed out the weakest vines. On every plant is an inch-long piece of wood with a single bud called a scion. The process of attaching a scion from one plant to the rootstock of another is called grafting. The puslike tissue that grows around the graft in order to heal it is what holds the two parts of the plant together. If it’s not strong, the plant isn’t likely to survive. There wasn’t any point in planting vines that had bad grafts, broken buds, or insufficient roots.

If we had been growing native American grapes, they wouldn’t need to be grafted. It was actually a disease brought from America to France that made this grafting a requirement for vinifera vines. A reckless nineteenth-century French tourist who visited the extensive Ohio vineyards of the 1850s got very excited about some sparkling pink Catawba wine he tasted there. The Catawba was a grape that was first promoted in the 1820s by Nicholas Longworth himself, and popularized by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who declared:

For the richest and best
Is the wine of the West
That grows by the Beautiful River;
Whose sweet perfume
Fills all the room
With a benison on the giver.

The Frenchman decided he could make a killing producing a similar wine in France. But the native American vines he took back home carried a bug on their roots—a little louse called phylloxera—that did no damage to the woody roots of the American vine but quickly spread to feast on the fleshy roots of neighboring French vinifera vineyards, choking them to death.

After the phylloxera appeared in France, it took years for French scientists to figure out why all their vineyards were dying. First, they pulled out the dead vines and fumigated their soils with poison. Once they realized that phylloxera didn’t kill native American vines, they then tried grafting their vinifera vines onto American rootstocks. In the grafted grapevine, the scion, made from the type of vine whose fruit is desired, grows above ground, while the native American rootstock puts out roots in the soil. It took many more decades to discover which varieties of American rootstocks were compatible with which varieties of vinifera. Research continues to this day, in fact, for specific soils and climates. The vines that we bought were grafted, but their rootstock had never been tested in Long Island soils. There was no way of knowing if they would be compatible. When I looked at the callused plants in Alex’s hand, I thought that like the vines that were grafted onto each other, he and I were grafted, too. I wasn’t worried that we might not be compatible. By the time we made a serious search for vineyard land, we were used to doing everything together. As Alex showed me the grafts, touching my hand as he passed a bundle of vines to me, I thought, This is what I always wanted.

It felt right for me to be so close to my husband. I always craved that closeness. I recall a tussle I had with my mother back when I was a kindergartner, on the day that class pictures were to be taken. She chose a pink dress for me to wear. As usual, my dress had buttons up the back, with a sash at the waist—a fashion that made it impossible for little girls to dress themselves. The sash was a two-inch-wide strip of fabric stitched into the side seam of the dress—a vestige of the Victorian obsession with bows. My mother did up my buttons, and then tied my sash. “It’s not tight enough!” I cried. She tied it again, tighter. “It’s still too loose!” I cried. She did it again. Now, it was time to go, and my baby brother was crying, too. As I walked to the car, I could feel the sash loosening. “Fix my sash,” I wailed. My mother yanked the sash so hard that it tore right off the dress, and I had to go to school that way. In the class photo, I can see myself, twisted sideways in a loose, wrinkled-looking frock. Years after I was married, my mother told me that she wishes she had just picked me up and hugged me, because that was all I really wanted.

After we finished sorting our vines, we loaded as many of the plants that had passed our inspection as could fit into the bin of our planter. The rest waited in a bucket of water. The planter was like a little surrey that attached to the back of the tractor. It had a tray to hold the plants and two metal seats over a blade that parted the soil. While Charlie kept soaking and preparing the vines and Alex drove down each row, Meg and I worked together, one of us handing a plant to the other, who would insert it into the furrow. Two wheels would then push the soil back over the roots. Immediately, I found out how hard a task this was. Our tractor, a new John Deere, had an exhaust pipe that pointed directly into our faces as we rode behind it. The tractor dealer hadn’t bothered to tell Alex, who had custom-ordered this particular machine because the local potato growers’ tractors were too wide, that he should have specified an exhaust pipe exiting from a smokestack in front of the engine. Whether the dealer was playing “Welcome, stranger” to what must have seemed to him like a young man pursuing a ridiculous venture, or whether he had made an honest mistake, we’ll never know. The net result was that within minutes Meg and I were choking on the fumes. We had to dismount at the end of every row just to breathe some fresh air. This experience was something new that I shared with Meg, Charlie, and Alex, but they had been doing it for weeks. In light of that, I certainly wasn’t going to complain.

As we rode on the planter, it lurched and rocked over the lumpy soil. Our planting had started so late in the season that there had not been time to prepare the soil properly. If we had it to do again, we would have plowed and limed the land a month sooner, before the winter cover crop of rye grass got so tall. We hadn’t known before Alex arrived in Cutchogue with his load of vines that we wouldn’t be able to buy a tractor off a dealer’s lot. While he waited for delivery of the custom tractor, he realized that if he couldn’t find someone to plow our field soon, we would never have time to get the plants in the ground before they sprouted and died. When he asked the dealer to suggest someone who could do the job, all the farmers who were recommended were busy planting their own fields in potatoes.








Alex called me in Rochester despairing of finding anyone to plow for us. There he was, on his own, with his young brother and sister, trying to figure out how to start this enterprise, and he had never planted anything in his life. How was he going to pull it off when he didn’t even have a tractor? Finally, he discovered that we had something that most potato farmers need—a large potato storage barn that was empty. We wouldn’t be using it for a couple of years, until we started a winery. Frank McBride, the man who had rented our farmland from the previous owners, had been worrying out loud about how he was going to find another storage building now that these kids from Rochester had moved in and bought this one out from under him. Ever the diplomat, Alex went to him and said, “Frank, if you’ll plow our land, you can use our barn until we need it.” A hearty handclasp sealed the deal, and the next morning Frank was over with his plow. Alex called me again a few days later, a little tipsy from sharing a bottle of Taylor’s sweet wine with Frank after the plowing was done. Frank had brought him the bottle as a gesture of welcome; he had cried when he told Alex how much he loved farming our land, and he hoped we would take good care of it.

Because the soil was plowed so late, the grass had no time to decompose before we planted, so the blade of the planter kept getting caught on rotting stalks. The stalks would throw off the rotations of the coulter, a wheel alongside the planter that measured the distance between plants. Just as I was about to stick another vine in the ground, the grass would accumulate on the blade and we would have to stop, clean it off, and start again, having lost our measured distance between plants.

I planted only for a day. All of the vines we had bought that year, seventeen acres of them, were now in their designated rows, putting out new rootlets in the soft soil. The tension I had felt in my jaw had been replaced with a new feeling, one of total physical fatigue and mental exhilaration. Alex and I embraced as we celebrated the completion of planting and the beginning of our life as vintners.

The following day, after a night of sweltering under the eaves of our upstairs bedroom, we elected to move our mattress outside while we tore down the upstairs walls to make a single bedroom there. In the same way that planting the vines had tied my physical self to the earth of my new home, sleeping outside wove the location into my psyche. Each night, my bare feet trod on dewy grass as I made my way to the large mattress we’d placed under our maple tree. The leaves above us made a pattern of cutwork design that was especially beautiful in the early dawn, when the air was completely still and the sky behind the leaves looked like handblown cobalt glass. The grasshoppers played a stacatto tune while owls announced the night, and sometimes we could hear the shriek of a fox. Soon, the lilac hedge bloomed, mingling its fragrance with that of the grass and the newly plowed field. We knew the phases of the moon and saw the Milky Way on nights when it wasn’t obscured by humidity. The night sky was also filled with the constant blinking of aircraft going from New York to London or Paris, or left in a holding pattern, as seventy miles to the west the air traffic controllers at Kennedy Airport dueled with the controllers at La Guardia Airport for airspace. In August we moved the mattress into the open so that we could watch meteor showers pierce the slow-moving tracks of these planes. Rain showers sometimes sent us back indoors, dragging the mattress, but they happened infrequently during the long, dry summer.

Iota loved to pounce on us in the mornings. She was becoming a sleek and wily cat, as loyal as a dog and just as demanding. Her Siamese blood revealed itself in her ability to make her every desire known. She expressed herself with humor, like Alex, and it didn’t take long for him to appreciate her intelligence. The few white whiskers she had over her eyes made her face expressive. If she was worried, she’d twitch them. If she was relaxed, they would droop as she slowly lowered her eyelids until her green eyes were like slivers of a newly waxing moon. I could tell her mood by how she switched her tail—slowly like a hula dancer when she was contented, or stiffly like a drum major’s baton when she was on the prowl. She knew how to get my attention by making figure eights around my bare legs, touching her fur against my calves like silk pajamas.

Naturally, as time went on she learned to hunt and left us little presents by the front door. She knew enough not to bring them inside. The presents were usually dead moles, because if she caught mice, she’d eat every trace of them herself. I did a little research and read that cats don’t eat moles, because they taste bitter. The enterprising scientist who came up with this theory must have interviewed a lot of cats, or tasted moles himself.

After the planting was done, we went into town to buy groceries. In 1973 the village of Cutchogue consisted of a single block of stores. There was a post office, a dingy pharmacy, a “variety” store with inventory that hadn’t been touched since the 1930s, and a small grocery store that smelled of rancid kielbasa. What the town lacked for shopping, it made up for in churches. To serve a population of under three thousand souls, there was a Methodist church, a Presbyterian church, a community church for the folks who split with the Presbyterians a century ago (now used as a library), and two Roman Catholic churches—one for the Polish and one for the Irish. We kept on driving two miles west to Mattituck and saw another church for the English Catholics. Mattituck also had a new, modern supermarket. In those days, stores were closed on Sundays, and before I arrived Alex had discovered that if he shopped near closing time on Saturday, he could bargain with the bakery department in the new supermarket for pastries that would otherwise be thrown out. He liked the mocha layer cake—doubly good at half the price.

I was eager to get started with my own baking, so we soon threw out the stove with the rat in the insulation, and bought a six-burner Garland range with two large ovens and a griddle. That restaurant stove became the heart of the house and the means to comfort, nurture, reward, and inspire anyone who entered the vineyard and became part of our great experiment. What is wine without wonderful food? Who would want to toil in the fields without the reward of an ample supper? I wanted to be the big farm mama, making big farm meals. In the morning, I would pick wild mulberries off the weeping mulberry bush in our front yard. I’d blend an egg, a cup of sour cream, some vanilla, and a little sugar with a cup of flour and a teaspoon of baking soda, throw in a handful of mulberries, and thin the batter with a shot of milk. When the griddle was hot, I’d bake batches of pancakes that Alex and I devoured. You can eat any amount of pancakes when you’re a farmer.

However much I enjoyed cooking at home, that first summer in the vineyard we ate most of our suppers with our neighbors, Mike and Irene Kaloski. Within days of our arrival on the farm, Mike, a thin, balding man in a long-sleeved shirt and faded trousers, had come poking around to see if the rumors he’d heard about a couple of kids with a cockamamy vineyard scheme were true.

Where I had grown up, sixty miles west of our vineyard in the Long Island suburb of Cold Spring Harbor, neighbors pretty much kept to themselves. My family lived next to a cemetery on one side—not a lot of conversation there. There was another family in a wooded area on the other side of our house. They were friendly with us and they even said they’d let us share their bomb shelter if there was a nuclear war, but otherwise we all minded our own business. When Alex and I looked for property on the North Fork, we didn’t think about what our neighbors would be like—all we cared about was the suitability of the land for grapes. We were completely consumed by the task of starting our vineyard. We hoped that if we didn’t bother them, they wouldn’t bother us, like pioneers and Indians.

It came as a complete surprise when one of our new neighbors gave a small reception for us, which they called a “social tea,” to introduce us to some of the congregation at the Presbyterian church. Alex and I had both been brought up as Episcopalians of the most lax variety, but I had many ancestors who were staunch Presbyterians, so that wasn’t too great a stretch. Even so, I felt as if we had traveled back in time, to somewhere at the beginning of the century, as I stood in our neighbors’ parlor that hadn’t been changed for a hundred years and shook hands with those teetotaling old Yankees. They stood at a careful distance from one another, balancing their teacups and raising their eyes to meet mine for only split seconds at a time. Time would prove that our neighbors in Cutchogue would help us in ways we could not have imagined. Of them all, Mike was the most helpful in the first and most critical year that we farmed. He was a sort of pioneer himself, because he had dared to go into territory where he didn’t belong, and because he planted crops that everyone said he couldn’t grow. Mike spoke like an engine that has just kicked in, with hesitant pauses that were followed by rapid-fire assertions. He had lived all fifty-odd years of his life on the same farm in Cutchogue, with Polish parents who never learned to speak English. Since most of the other farmers in town were also Polish, they didn’t need to. He had learned English in the one-room schoolhouse that still stood as a historic curiosity on the Village Green in Cutchogue.

One day when Mike was in his mid-twenties and still single, he went to the movies and met a beautiful girl named Irene. When he asked her for her address, he realized he had a problem. Irene lived in New Suffolk, a fishing village only about a mile from Cutchogue whose residents were of either English or Irish descent. They didn’t want to have anything to do with the Polish. But Mike was smitten with Irene. So he went down to the bar in New Suffolk. He bought a round of drinks for all the men, and then another round, and by the time he let on that he was there to see Irene, they all thought he was a jolly good fellow and let him get on with his courting.

After Mike and Irene got married, he couldn’t afford the rounds of drinks anymore, so he wasn’t welcome in New Suffolk, and she wasn’t welcome in Cutchogue. This went on for many years, until they had children, which opened everyone’s hearts and doors. Maybe that’s why they knew how to be good neighbors—they had been snubbed themselves.

Mike loved farming, and he loved trying anything new. Every winter, he liked to peruse the seed catalogs, and he would order things that weren’t supposed to grow in our zone. He grew peanuts, which Irene canned as if they were chickpeas. When we went fishing one day on the motorboat Mike shared with his brother, Chet, they treated us to these boiled goobers, washed down with blackberry brandy. On the boat, we discovered that neither Mike nor Chet could swim—another legacy of having grown up Polish in a place where the beaches were the province of older, English stock.

Watermelons were another marginal crop that Mike grew. The big, southern-style melons didn’t ripen well, so he tried the round icebox melons, which he’d share with anyone who stopped by his house when he and his family took a break from harvesting potatoes. Rivulets of sweet red juice from the melons streaked their dusty faces as they bantered and teased each other, sitting outside their cottage in a tight circle of nylon-webbed chairs. We could also find them in the same circle of chairs when they sorted their crop of shallots. Mike was the first to plant shallots on Long Island, and it took him several years to find a source of seed for the little onions. Other growers earned such a premium on shallots that they did not want more of them on the market. Mike had been raised on whatever meat his family could hunt, and he still hunted rabbit and duck. There were plenty of those in the fields and marshes. Every morning, I enjoyed the hauntingly sad cooing of the mourning doves that fed in our fields, so I was taken aback when I stopped over at Mike’s one lunchtime and was offered mourning dove soup that he had made himself. It was a clear broth in which the headless doves floated, with their fat legs sticking up and their pale skin, bumpy from having just been plucked, shimmering in the surrounding liquid.

>From the first day that Mike wandered over to our farm, he was our mentor. Even so, we didn’t always take his advice. My introduction to the danger of weeds began as a warning from Mike—a warning we didn’t heed until it was too late. I recall walking into the vineyard that first year, just a few weeks after the grapes were planted. The soil looked nicely cultivated to me, but Mike wanted to show me something. Bending down, he pointed out the primordial leaves of some reddish stuff that looked like an inconsequential dusting of color. “Red weed,” he announced. “Now is the time to get rid of it. And this”—he pointed to a fleshier sprig—“is puzli.” He meant purslane.

I learned the names of dozens of weeds because they became such a familiar menace. Some of them, like the purslane, dandelion, sorrel, chamomile, lamb’s-quarter, and pepper weed, were edible. But the definition of a weed is a plant that grows in the wrong place, so it didn’t matter how desirable it might have been under other circumstances. In the vineyard, these interlopers would compete with the vines for moisture and nutrients, and promote the growth of bugs and funguses.

We hadn’t thought about weeds as such an imminent threat, and it took a few weeks for us to get a cultivator set up for the size of the vineyard rows. Meanwhile, the weeds became taller than the vines. Even after we cultivated the rows, until the vines were mature the only way to control the weeds under the trellis was by hand, with a hoe. Alex found that hoeing was too hard on his back, but my back was strong, so I went out into the field and started whacking away at them. Never in my life had I thought I could spend seven or eight hours a day repeating the same motion over and over. For a while I fought it, but out of necessity I learned to let the hoe blade and gravity work with my muscles. This motion would feel good, then it would hurt, then I would just go elsewhere in my mind as my arms went numb and my brain went on automatic pilot.

I spent most of that first vineyard summer hand-hoeing seventeen acres of vines. I did it three times, by myself, and I ended up doing it for part of every summer after that—like the mythical Sisyphus, whose eternal punishment was to roll a boulder up a hill and watch it roll back repeatedly. I didn’t think of it that way then.