Rosamond Baiz wasn’t particularly sure what she wanted to do with her life as a young bride in 1984, the year she and her husband, Chris, moved to his family’s old farm on the North Fork. She certainly didn’t know that she wanted to be a thoughtful, talented winemaker and land steward: one who would become deeply attuned to the whispers of the soil and the vines and part and parcel to solidifying the farming legacy of her ancient in-laws.
“I always find something wonderful and wondrous about it — this beautiful fruit we worked so hard on and babysat all the way along,” she says on a cloudy winter afternoon, vines sleeping just outside the windows of her Southold home, one of their two vineyard plots. “For someone who never did this until I was into my 50s, it’s fascinating how quickly you become attached.”
And Ros Baiz has come to know the land well. She talks and sings to her vines; she and the rest of the family — because really, the Old Field is nothing if it’s not a full-on family effort — are about as hands-on as it gets. Pull into the dirt driveway and enter the thoroughly charming and unpretentious tasting room, retrofitted into the chicken coop portion of the old 1850s-era iconic red barn, and you’ll find at least one of them on hand at all times. When we talk, Ros takes a moment to coo her two-year-old granddaughter back to sleep, a next-generation farm-to-glass winemaker, perhaps. She’s in good hands; she’ll have much to learn from her grandmother.
It was Chris who took a serious interest in the land in 1974. A geologist and oceanographer who worked in the mining industry (their ubiquitous, sweet farm dog is named Dekka after an African mine), he traveled back and forth between Manhattan and his grandmother’s Main Road farm, where through local connections he met and befriended Louisa and Alex Hargrave, inevitably got bit by the wine bug and caught up in those early, heady winemaking days of camaraderie. Using clippings from the Hargraves, Chris teased out some vines to plant on a plot he purchased for a song on Ackerly Pond Road in the early ’80s. When his grandmother passed away in 1993, there was a frightening moment when it looked like the farm they’d grown to love may well be sold for a condo development. Determined, Chris and Ros hatched a plan and bought the land in three different parcels until they owned it all outright. But it wasn’t until 1997 that the Old Field officially came into being, their first vintage made by longtime Lenz winemaker Eric Fry, who continued to make their wines for eight more years, helping the small-production family farm winery with their 1,300 to 1,500 case operation.
All along Ros had been tending the vineyards, but in 2005, she knew her knowledge of where her fruit best came from would allow her to take the winemaking reigns.
“I really felt like we had understanding enough. Although I had Eric over a lot then!” she laughs. “I’d say, ‘Oh my God, does this smell right? Does it taste right? What do I do?!’ And he’d tell me to calm down and that everything was going to be okay. But it was really nerve wracking.”
When I taste her 2009 cabernet franc, I don’t taste insecurity or self-doubt — things she tells me she was riddled with in the beginning of her metamorphoses from know-nothing newbie to full-fledged wine maven. I taste brilliant, bright fruit that makes me think of summertime in my parents’ backyard. Juicy, fresh blackberry, plump, dense, dribbly Italian plums that are lifted and bright with a lively presence on the palate. Bits of spice and black peppercorns, and then a sly finish that gets an almost sweet, sticky subtle but intense balsamic quality on the edges of my tongue. When you smell it, there’s all of that bright fruit, plus a gentle undercurrent of earthiness, like a just-tilled backyard vegetable garden.
“I have to admit we were surprised by how pretty it ended up,” she says. “The ’09 vintage was a challenging year. Rainy, cloudy — we wondered if the fruit would ever get ripe!” So she and Chris and their daughter, Perry Weiss, who also works full time at the Old Field, waited it out. “We’re fortunate in one sense because we are on the bay, so we have a lot of that water influence, and we’re one of the last ones to freeze. We typically wait until the first week of November for cabernet franc, and that worked out to be a nice week in 2009. That sort of rescued us.”
That and the notion she knows exactly what she’s doing. A simple statement by her flower-growing neighbor, Joe Kobe (whose own family had once farmed the Baiz’s land as tenant farmers around the turn of the last century) became to be a bit of a mantra for her. Ros was hemming and fretting over the vines and the wines, the decisions she needed to make and her worry that she was making the wrong ones. “He just kept saying, ‘Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh, and then when I was done he said, ‘Ros, you just gotta learn it yourself.’”
Indeed, she did.
“I feel most comfortable in the vines, but I’m liking winemaking more and more. When I’m alone and just tasting and sampling and topping off, and it’s quiet and I’m thinking about what I’m doing, it’s a pretty interesting thing.” Ros is quiet for a moment, but when she starts to talk again, the smile in her voice is as clear as the bright fruit of her wine: “Then you get it out there and it’s been years since making it, but somebody’s tasting it and going, ‘Wow, I love this!’ That’s pretty great.”