The Vineyard And Its Kitchen

A rosé-focused couple creates a place to eat, drink and relax.

In 1992, Paula and Michael Croteau were riding bikes through Southold, Long Island, when they first bypassed their current home, just west of Southold Village. Without a word, as Paula explains, they knew that this was “it.”

Hundreds had looked at and passed on the property, the Howell Farm, which included a raccoon-infested 1880’s farmhouse. But the couple, who had previously restored two historical properties in Lower Manhattan, lacked intimidation. Paula, a potato farmer’s daughter from Peconic, was then working as an executive at Ann Taylor, and Michael was a graphic designer. Working with Paula’s father, they restored the house to its current charm, and when the farmer across the street passed away in 1994, they purchased his property, to prevent the development of 28 more homes on South Harbor Road.

Initially, neither planting a vineyard nor opening a cooking school were a part of the couple’s vision. Now, Croteaux Vineyards is a popular winery that annually produces 2,500 cases of rosé. They own 10.5 acres of vineyards, from which all of the grapes go into the making of their wines. In the home, Paula uses the family’s personal kitchen to teach her cooking classes, highlighting local ingredients. When the instructive parts of the class are done, Paula and her students sit around the family’s dining room table to share the meal that they have produced.
As a North Fork native, Paula spent the weekends on the Island with her husband and two young children, Ivy and Markis. When they happened upon the property, it just “felt like the right place.”

They didn’t relocate with a winery, a farm or a catering business in mind. “The concept of Croteaux was born in an afternoon, sitting, looking out at the vista,” says Paula, gesturing toward the kitchen window that overlooks the garden and vineyard. “We sat, and Michael said we should plant grapes, but I never wanted to be a farmer again…. I said, ‘I don’t want to do what everyone else does…your family is from the South of France, so let’s do rosé.’” And in that moment, Croteaux Vineyards was born.

With an equally auspicious beginning, Paula’s Farmhouse Kitchen Cooking School, which led to the recent publication of her cookbook, Farmhouse Kitchen Favorites, has been in the making since she was quite young. “My daycare was in the kitchen,” she says as she brews me a cup of coffee at the counter of her own classroom kitchen. Surrounded by stacks of bowls and plates, spices and herbs, wood panels and beams and farmstead colors, it is clear to me that the hub of this household is all about entertaining and nourishment. “I couldn’t wait to get there,” she says with an apple-cheeked smile referring to her Polish grandmother’s kitchen, “where I learned how to make everything. From a young age, I learned that food is comfort and family.”

And it was this sensibility that led Paula to take “every [food] class under the sun” at the New School, while they lived in the city. She earned certification in “World Cooking” and “Holistic Cooking,” and took “Advanced Baking” with New York baking pioneer Carol Walters. Yet still, she wasn’t anticipating a career in food. Once they relocated to Southold in 1993, the Croteaus wondered how they might make a living. What do New Yorkers want when they come out East on a Friday night? they asked themselves. Scones, biscuits, flowers and tarts! And so, soon, Michael was building a farm stand on the side of the road so that Paula could sell her wares. Up at 4:30 a.m. to work with her staff of five, Paula produced thousands of scones that were sold on the honor system, so that she and Michael could spend the day with their two young children.

Outgrowing itself, the business transformed into a catering affair, but then that took away from time with the family. And so, wanting to better incorporate their children, who were then five and three, with their work, they began hosting high-end tea parties. Traditional yet modern, and held along the South Fork, at the Botanical Gardens and on Shelter Island, the tea parties were a wild success. “We have 500 tea cups in the basement!” says Paula, and laughs, adding that it wasn’t long before friends began to inquire—“When you’re cooking and baking can we come and watch?” Looking through years’ worth of fliers offering classes, recipes and tips—a paper trail of the natural evolution of the Farmhouse Kitchen—Paula says that it was an “angel dust moment,” when the couple realized that they could “do things, but keep it at home.” Nine sweet years ago, Paula began with fliers for a class with 12 spots, and within two days it had filled up. “I knew I was onto something,” she says.
Starting with Farmhouse baking classes that October, Paula continued, month by month, to create sessions that resonated with the season. In 2005, she started laying out a year’s worth of work. And as of mid-June this year, her classes were already full for October and half-full for the months of November and December. Adding to the mix, since Croteaux Vineyards’ production began in 2008, Paula started creating conceptual classes with Croteaux rosé in mind—“Rosé by the Pool,” “Rosé and Chocolate,” “Art and Rosé” and “Rosé and Croquet.” To better pair their wines, which are served with the meals that are produced in each class, Paula’s focus is now more savory than sweet.

“We can’t do the same thing over and over,” says Paula as she leads me from the house and through the gardens to their infinity pool, where she sometimes hosts class overlooking the vineyards. “Even with the rosé, we keep the base but keep changing.” Last year, they produced five rosé wines, and this year they have eight, two of which are made from specific Bordeaux and merlot clones: 181 and 314, in addition to Merlot 3, which is from UC Davis. For this vintage, they’re working with a new winemaker, Les Howard from Raphael Vineyards, who makes the wines that the couple have in mind. And because they’re open to experimentation, they often don’t know what’s going to come next. Last fall, when all of their wines had sold, Croteaux made a Beaujolais nouveau–style wine for the first time, a young wine that’s meant to be consumed quick. It sold out in three weeks’ time. Fans of Croteaux (self included) buy their wines by the case, because they know that they won’t last long.

“Chloe,” one of their newest blends, is a delicious rosé made with sauvignon blanc and a touch of cabernet franc for color. “Savage” is merlot 181 made with wild yeast, and “Jolie” and “Ruby” are sisters—the former made from the first pressing of cabernet franc grapes, and the latter, a second press of the same vat that is a much deeper, dark-pink-colored wine that spends 22 hours on skins. And because this is a family business, Michael designs the bottles and labels, just as he shot the photographs for Farmhouse Kitchen Favorites, before designing and publishing the book, a collection of eye-popping imagery and collages, alongside 80 carefully culled recipes. In addition to this, Michael’s firm does Web and design work for the Long Island Wine Council, Channing Daughters Winery, and a few others. Through designing an app and an improved online clearinghouse for information on Long Island wineries, many say that Michael has played a significant role in bringing the Long Island wine country into the digital age.

The tasting room, located a few steps from their home where the classes are conducted, is a small, dark, intimate space that opens out into the gardens and transports one immediately to “the South of France.” With wrought red chairs, weathered wood tables, red umbrellas, gravel underfoot and restored barns, the tasting garden is one of the most pleasant on the Fork. And because Paula and Michael both like to garden, there are flowers and plants that adorn and frame the space—crepe myrtle, cannas, French irises, and dahlias. On weekends, the couple circulates, greeting and speaking with guests, many of whom have become friends. “The garden is so much more than wine,” says Paula. “It’s all about making people feel loved. We emphasize it in the cooking school and the tasting area, and people feel it…that’s a part of our success. We’ve created a safe space where people can come and relax.”