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The Close of a Chapter in Long Island Winemaking

Kim Marcus
Posted: February 3, 2000

Call it "El Nino East," but the summer so far has been unusually cool and rainy on the east end of New York's Long Island. That has a few grape growers and vintners mildly concerned that the grapes are maturing in less than optimal conditions. But the very fact that they have a harvest to worry about--or wines to make--is the product of the single-minded determination of two individuals who made it their personal quest to put Long Island on the winemaking map.

I'm referring to Alex and Louisa Hargrave. Twenty-five years ago they decided to grow fine-wine grapes and make wine in a region best known for its potato fields. Last Friday night, many of the vintners and growers who benefited from the foresight of the Hargraves gathered at the folksy Ross' North Fork Restaurant in bucolic Southold to bid the couple farewell. For, you see, the Hargraves have put their winery up for sale at the very moment that Long Island may be poised to solidify its reputation as the East Coast's premier wine region.

It's not often that you get to see the founders of an industry, let alone a wine industry, bow out with their shirts still on. Most go bankrupt or are lost in the sands of time. But the Hargraves are going when times have never been better for Long Island wine. Vineyards are expanding, new wineries are being established and there's a growing pride in the homegrown wines.

But now Alex wants to go on to pursue another primary passion in his life--the study of ancient Chinese linguistics. Alex, a tall, professorial type, would indeed appear to be more at home in a university library than a vineyard. He seemed relaxed about the decision to leave, but one can only imagine the incredible sacrifice, hard work and determination it took to build and operate a winery in what had hitherto been an unknown region for wine.

Louisa was a bit less controlled and more equivocal about the decision, but there's no doubt she's proud of what's been accomplished. Besides planting a vineyard and establishing a winery, she's helped raise a family--daughter Anne and son Zander, who provided eloquent testimonials for their parents at the celebration at Ross' restaurant.

If there ever was a time when one event could catch all that was and all that could be in one snapshot, this was it. For all the pretensions and jet-set atmosphere of the Hamptons on the South Fork of Long Island, known for celebrity pizzazz and exclusive estates, the North Fork, where most of the wineries and vineyards are located, is almost a polar opposite. Farm stands and villages straight out of a Fourth of July setting dominate this area. The vibrant summertime green indicates the fertility of the region.

The fete for the Hargraves took on the feeling of a small-town testimonial as local politicians read proclamations honoring them for their role in establishing a new farming community--no easy accomplishment in a region where the local identity was tied up in potato fields and semi-isolation.

But the Hargraves learned an important lesson early: Trust and honor the advice of the locals. At the Hargraves' table on Friday night were Mike and Irene Kaloski, their Long Island neighbors since the beginning, and potato farmers through and through. Long Island has long since been eclipsed by Idaho as a major potato-growing region, but the willingness of the Hargraves to listen to the Kaloskis for their experience with the local soil and climate proved invaluable to the Hargraves' success.

Now there are more than 20 wineries on Long Island, and while there's still a small-town feeling to most of what they do, they also have the luxury to think of something greater. "What was once a confederation of warring tribes has been transformed," said Charles Massoud, owner of Paumanok Vineyards, who helped organize the dinner for the Hargraves. "It's wonderful that we've come together as a real community."

There were many affirmations in the gathered assembly, as well as some refreshing honesty about the challenges that still lie ahead. "The more things change, the more they stay the same," said one wistful grower of the unfulfilled potential of Long Island.

"The beautiful thing about wine is the humility involved," said Alex Hargrave. There were some chuckles around the room, for one does not come away from Alex Hargrave with a sense of humility when he talks about his wine. But the emotion came across as genuine enough in the end, and it truly seemed as if the first and perhaps most critical chapter in the history of Long Island's wine industry is coming to a close with the impending departure of the Hargraves.

The future is up for grabs. For the better part of the last decade, no other region has been more on the edge of realizing its potential than Long Island. The Hargraves were the catalyst, but it is now up to those who remain to shape and guide the destiny of Long Island winemaking, whatever it may be.

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