A Vineyard Grows in Baiting Hollow

horeses horses at Baiting Hollow Farm winery

Where the days are filled with wine and horses.

There are a couple of things that make Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard unique in Long Island wine country. First, the 17-acre vineyard near Riverhead also hosts a horse-rescue operation, with the horse stables and pens and wine-tasting house on the northeastern side of the property and the vineyard stretched out to the southeast.

Second, the Rubin family, which owns and operates Baiting Hollow, have developed a business model for wine tourism that is similar to the Weight Watchers franchise that had been their previous family business. Both involve developing particular “recipes” that are tested with a customer base. Based on the balance of supply and demand, the wines that sell well are those that will continue in the inventory. To help determine those best sellers, Baiting Hollow employs winemaker Tom Drozd to create various wines based on the Rubins’ input; another company concocts the wine-based jellies and sauces sold under the Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard label. The accessories sold as accoutrements to the wines (sleeves, corkscrews, butlers, appetizers, etc.) round out the “meal” based on the main entrée—one of the 12 Baiting Hollow wines.

Overall, there is a warm, homey feeling to the place—everything seems cozily put together and made for socializing. (“We have a family that loves to entertain and we treat everyone as guests,” one of the proprietors tells me.) The tasting house—a converted, mint-green two-story farmhouse from the mid-1800s—sits right off Sound Avenue, beckoning visitors to make an impromptu jaunt through the grounds. Inside are honey-hued wood floors, two tasting bars, steellegged stools and perching tables enclosed by merchandise (Baiting Hollow brand chardonnay, merlot jellies and chocolate merlot sauce, salty and sweet munchies, wine paraphernalia), and, of course, the wine (from merlot to riesling to chardonnay).

Door-height windows are interspersed between the shelving and food set-ups. Scattered across the lawn behind the wood deck are outdoor tables and a pagoda comfortably weathered by the elements. A series of horse exercise pens enclosed by white picket fences extend beyond the public seating area. Although it is mid- November when I visit, I can imagine the place in the summertime, when warm air and a fresh vineyard crop surround people with a Mediterranean vibe (yet with American tunes piping out from the tasting house and traffic inching along Sound Avenue).

What had once been a hobby of the family patriarch Sam Rubin— planting small crops of vegetables for family and friends on Vermont farmland—had evolved into a Long Island destination. Rubin’s starter crop of grapes at Baiting Hollow had not only created a blossoming vineyard, but a new legacy for his family.

As I progress through a series of electronic, phone and in-person interviews with Sharon Rubin Levine and Richard Rubin, the sister-brother proprietary duo of Baiting Hollow, I sense a corporate business-savvy—in a prior career, Sharon and Richard ran another family-owned venture, the previously mentioned Weight Watchers franchise (Suffolk County), which employed 200 people.

When I speak with Steve Levine, Sharon’s husband and the Baiting Hollow general manager, about the details of the wine tastings and vineyard visits, he is quick to point out the popularity of the bachelorette parties and limo-escorted wine tours. There is a welcome center with staff on hand to greet limo drivers and visitors, advising them of the regulations of the place and offering free refreshments and discounts for frequent patrons. Usually, Steve is there to greet visitors on busy weekends (a friendly, bearded man decked out in khakis and a collared shirt and sweater), in which, by his account, they see numbers in the thousands. Other family members are also on hand to welcome customers.

Local restaurants, such as the Cooperage Inn in Baiting Hollow, Café Testarossa in Syosset, and La Parma II in Huntington Station, carry Baiting Hollow wines. Kevin Carson, general manager of Cooperage Inn, pairs the cabernet franc rosé with the pistachio-dillcrusted wild salmon for a Restaurant Week offering in November. The dry sweetness of the wine complemented the rich texture of the fish.

Winemaker Drozd describes the wines more definitively in an e-mail: “Our rosés are fruit-forward, off-dry, everyday wines designed to appeal to a wide range of consumer palates. The off-dry riesling is filled with peach, jasmine and citrus aromas and flavors, a great aperitif and good with pork or roast duck. The dessert wine, Cheval Bleu, has intense strawberry aromas and flavors and an unctuous mouthfeel, a perfect match with blue-veined cheeses or fresh fruit.”

In partnership with the Rubins, Drozd crafts the wines from start to finish and works to develop a “portfolio of wines.” As I read through Drozd’s descriptions of the wines and of the winemaking process, I feel as if making a good wine is analogous to parenting a child: both involve an intense involvement in the nurturing and nourishing of a nascent being. “From the first bud break to the final bottling day, the grapes and wines from every vintage become part of your daily life,” writes Drozd. “You learn to respect their personalities and help them express their full potential.”

Drozd earned his winemaking degree “through hard, work, sweat, and lots of calluses.” His local wine country pedigree includes work at Jamesport Vineyards, Pindar Vineyards, and Palmer Vineyards before becoming the production winemaker at Pellegrini Vineyards and eventually consulting for Baiting Hollow. Like many North Fork soils, Baiting Hollow’s ground is “mostly sand loam with a small layer of topsoil,” said Drozd. (“Grapes do not like wet feet, so good drainage is key.”) The family has been using manure to build up this layer.

The day of my visit, I only meet two of the Rubins in person (Sharon and her father, Sam): both of them have light-colored eyes, petite frames and a steady energy. Sharon is the middle child of the five siblings and is down-to-earth with a stylish bent. She used to compete in dog shows before Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard opened in 2007. Now, her focus is concentrated in the horse-rescue venture, as the family works toward securing funding for keeping the costly process going.

In the family’s previous business, Sharon had handled the advertising and PR for Weight Watchers; currently she plans catering events and wedding parties at the vineyard. Her older brother, Richard (known as “Ritchie” to the family and staff), dealt with the hard-core business (legal, accounting) and negotiated with the vendors as the executive vice-president of WW. His role at Baiting Hollow is similar in scope, and his influence (from the Web site copy to the background music selection at the wine-tasting house to the live band bookings) contributes to the operation’s image. The Weight Watchers buyout was used to invest in farmland in Baiting Hollow, which would become Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard.

The Rubin family—Rhoda and Sam (parents), and children (Richard, Paula, Sharon, Janet and Carolyn)—live on western Long Island within a 10-minute drive of each other. Most of the family looks Romanian (dark-haired, green/blue eyes, delicate features), owing to their grandparents’ Russian, Romanian and Polish roots, says Sharon. We drive to the vineyard with her two retired show dogs, Codi and Tori, a mother-daughter, gray-haired collie pair, who are kenneled off in the back trunk of her black, tidy SUV. She acknowledges that she is careful in crafting the business’s message (“at Weight Watchers, all you need is one person to say something stupid, and that’s it”) and serves as the main voice of the place during my tour.

While she has a hand in caring for the horses at the horse rescue, the daily training is left to a handful of Latin American workers who have a sixth equestrian sense (all grew up with horses in their childhood villages). They speak to the horses in both English and Spanish (“Encargarse,” orders one trainer, coaxing the black horse to stretch its hind legs). All agree that Romeo is the smartest horse of the bunch— only he has figured out how to open the stable door and fence latches and can sometimes be found roaming freely at night.

Currently, there are 16 rescue horses and eight boarding horses in the stables. Most of the horses have been rescued from auction houses, which sell off unwanted racehorses or workhorses for the slaughterhouse. Levine views the “stable-to-table” mentality as cruel, noting that, “in many cases, it’s what the horse can do for the people, not the responsibility or compassion the owner has for the horse.”

There is a two-week quarantine period for each horse that comes off the auctioning block, to see whether the horse carries a disease (these areas are sectioned off with yellow “Caution” tape). Each animal is an investment of time and resources, a business unto its own, depending on the progression of his/her physical and behavioral rehabilitation. In a series of snapshots, a story of each horse is posted on the Web site—the ultimate goal being an adoption or purchase by an owner who will continue the horse’s current lifestyle. Many of these horses have had racing careers: Romeo, a black gelding, used to race at Belmont, and Laredo is a retired thoroughbred racehorse. Baiting Hollow is accepting donations for the horse rescue and raises funds by selling Stephen Lang’s photographs of the horses at the tasting house.

“We did it from the heart,” says Richard Rubin. “If we had looked in a crystal ball and seen that we would be doing this, rescuing horses and growing a vineyard, we would have looked at it in disbelief. You get a good feeling from both businesses; it’s terrific to see people loving the wine and appreciating our rescue efforts.”

Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard, 2114 Sound Avenue, Baiting Hollow, bhfvineyard.com, 631.369.0100 Wine-tasting House Hours, Monday–Thursday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.–7 p.m.

Regina Geok-Ling Tan’s childhood home was built on farmland in rural New Jersey.