In 1974, John Ross was a bright-eyed kid with a dream. He wanted to open a restaurant in Southold. And he wanted to make everything from scratch.
Five miles away in Cutchogue, Louisa Hargrave was seven months pregnant with her daughter, Anne. And she was on her hands and knees in the dirt, planting Chardonnay grapes. She, too, had a dream. She would stop at nothing to reach it.
The pair was naive. They were out of their league. But they were determined.
Together, they founded the North Fork food scene and wine region, launching them into international stardom from very modest beginnings nearly 40 years ago—never seeking a path bound for glory or fame.
“When you start doing something, anything, you don’t think, ‘Oh God, I’m going to change the world,’” Ms. Hargrave said on Sunday morning during a telephone interview at her Jamesport home, after returning from a three-week tour of the Czech Republic and England. “I just wanted to make some wine and have a nice life. A challenging life. Now, my daughter will say when we’re stuck in traffic, ‘Mom, this is all your fault.’”
The winemaker laughed. “I’m not sure I can entirely take credit for that.”
What she and Mr. Ross can claim though is earning enough distinction in their respective fields to be honored by the Harvest East End food and wine festival. The fourth annual gathering, the brainchild of Wölffer Vineyard Estate winemaker and technical director Roman Roth, will bring more than 40 local winemakers and 35 chefs together on Saturday, August 24, at McCall Vineyard & Ranch in Cutchogue.
“I think, maybe, there’s a lot of other people deserving of the same thing,” Mr. Ross said, humbly, of the recognition last week during a telephone interview. “But I’m, of course, happy about it.”
A man who first imagined himself as a poet, Mr. Ross picked up cooking as a side job while studying English at the University of Michigan. It was just a way to make an extra dollar, he said. But by his junior year, he was disenchanted with college.
He dropped out for reasons he still doesn’t understand, the founder of now-closed Ross’ North Fork Restaurant said. But his father’s death during an industrial accident contributed to his decision, he added.
“I was 21 years old. At the time, I was a little mixed up,” he said. “It made me feel like I better take responsibility and make something of myself.”
He did. In 1966, Mr. Ross joined the U.S. Coast Guard and worked as a cook on a 300-foot-long cutter with 120 crew members. It was the height of Vietnam. When his ship left port, it was never headed into safe seas.
“My first trip, I was involved in a hurricane rescue and it was terrifying,” he said. “The boat was pitching and rocking so much. I had to hold onto the rail overhead with one hand while cooking with the other.”
In 1970, he was discharged as a first-class petty officer after cooking at a life boat station near Jones Beach, New York. There, his love affair with fresh ingredients, particularly seafood, began. Two years later, he graduated from the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and set his sights back on Long Island.
He soon discovered that the Carriage House in Southold was for sale. With a loan from his mother, Helen, the college grad bought the property, changed the name to Ross’ North Fork Restaurant and made a commitment to fresh ingredients—before the farm-to-table movement even existed.
It was the early 1970s and fast food was booming, he recalled. To keep himself honest, he never installed a full freezer—except for two small uprights in the basement, one for ice cream and the other for bones and leftovers—and established a daily menu, the first of its kind in the area.
“For whatever reason, I just thought, ‘That’s not the way to go. I want to cook from scratch. I don’t know if my stuff is better than processed food, but it’s gonna be my stuff,’” he said. “I was a little full of myself and I think graduating from Cornell gave me a bunch of confidence, maybe some confidence that wasn’t well-grounded.”
The first year the restaurant was in business, he lost $20,000. His local wine list was the laughingstock of the town. And he didn’t care.
“Mom, it’s going to be okay,” he recalled consoling his mother at the time.
“You know, I knew that was a bad place for you to go,” Mr. Ross said that his mom had said of Southold. “I knew it was a bad, sleepy little town and you weren’t going to make it. But I still love you.”
Five years later, he broke even and paid his mother back.
“I knew you were going to be okay,” Mr. Ross remembered her saying then.
By his 10-year anniversary, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t know Mr. Ross’ name and reputation, which flourished for 27 years until he retired from the restaurant business in 2000.
“It was a struggle, but we made it okay. I loved it. I would still do it today if I could,” he said. “I’m almost 70 years old and it’s a very physical job. I literally destroyed my legs and feet at Ross’ and had them rebuilt. I worked crazy hours, but it was a great experience. I don’t have any regrets.”
To this day, Ms. Hargrave still remembers the first meal she ate at Mr. Ross’s restaurant: cream of mussel soup and roast duck with “an incredible plum sauce” for $5.99, she said.
“He always had Cornell bread and he always had a relish tray,” she said, “and he supported us from the very beginning.”
In 1973, Ms. Hargrave and her then-husband, Alex, took a risk. The couple—“two suburban college kids with heart and idea,” she said—bought 66 acres of land and founded Hargrave Vineyards.
They were pioneers, planting vinifera grapes where they had never successfully grown before. And until that point, neither of them had ever farmed.
“I will take credit and Alex will take credit for the huge amount of work we did ourselves,” she said. “I think we were innovators. I think we completely put our souls into it. But we couldn’t have done it without the support of the farming community. Back then, a winemaker was someone who made wine. No glory in it. Now, they’re traveling superstars. From our point of view, we wanted to do something tangible because I grew up in a very intellectual family. My father was a book editor and all about ideas. And I love ideas. But at the end of the day, where’s the product?
“To have something you’ve grown and you can taste, even years later, to me that was incredibly motivating and very exciting,” she continued. “Worth the risk of a lifetime of work. Hard work.”
Today, the vineyard lives on as the Castello di Borghese Vineyard and Winery since it sold in 1999 to Italian Prince Marco and Ann Marie Borghese. Ms. Hargrave created a legacy—one she hopes will continue in perpetuity.
“This is a phenomenal place to grow crops—grapes, potatoes, raspberries, corn—and we cannot let it go. It’s not trivial and it’s not decorative,” Ms. Hargrave said. “I’ve done a huge amount of traveling all over the world and agriculture is very sensitive. We have beautiful, beautiful natural farmland that is as good as any place. And we can’t abandon it. Grow grapes, grow raspberries, grow whatever you want. But don’t give it up.”
The fourth annual Harvest East End local food and wine festival will be held on Saturday, August 24, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at the McCall Vineyard & Ranch in Cutchogue. Tickets are $150. Advance entry to the tasting at 6 p.m. is $250. For more information, call (800) 838-3006 or visit harvesteastend.com.