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Fermenting leadership: King Ferry winery's heir apparent makes mark with new music venue

At 7 years old, Lev Saltonstall knew what he wanted to do when he grew up: He wanted to work with wine. 

The son of Treleaven Wines owners Pete and Tacie Saltonstall, Lev was born and raised at the King Ferry winery. Every day, he said, the school bus picked him up and dropped him off at the winery on Lake Road, where he began doing his own tours in the first grade. 

"The running joke is I've always been a part of this business — my mom was out pruning the vineyard with me in her belly," Saltonstall said, laughing. "I took a tour of about 15 people off into the winery when I was 7 years old ... and that was how I got hooked and knew I wanted to be part of the company." 

Since then, Saltonsall has done a little bit of everything at the winery, from cleaning tanks and working in the vineyard to staffing the tasting room and managing tables at different markets. 

One of the most important markets, he said, was the Union Square farmers market in New York City, which Saltonstall visited during his sophomore year of college in 2008. 

"It's just this beast — 50,000 to 100,000 people walk through that market on a nice summer day — and we realized we were missing a major market here," he said. "At that time there was a recession, so it was crucially important to find the sales. ... Luckily, we did." 

Every weekend for the next two summers, Saltonstall commuted from the King Ferry winery to sell Treleaven wine in Union Square. Then, after graduating from Ithaca College in 2010, he moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, and began managing one of Treleaven's smaller facilities there — handling the books, inventory and staff while communicating with his parents back home. 

"This was an important part of my growth because it was the first managerial position I held in the company," Saltonstall said. "It was a smaller version of the winery, but it was an important stepping stone because it showed everyone in the company that I knew, more or less, what I was doing."

He managed the Hoboken facility for roughly four years before moving back to King Ferry in January 2013. At that time, Saltonstall trained as the company's regional coordinator before transitioning to operations manager that summer. He also met his wife, Ally, who supported his growing role in the family business. 

Fortunately, Saltonstall said, he didn't have to battle his two older sisters for control of the company, as their career interests — marine biology and fashion — wildly differed from wine. 

"Family dynamics in business are always tricky because you've got to really toe the line between family and business, which is something my parents and I are always working on," he said. "While at times it makes me nervous to ... lead the charge at Treleaven, it's also nice to not have to fight my sisters for leadership. In a way I think that's why we've been able to grow so quickly as a company." 

Saltonstall is now 29, and vice president at Treleaven. As such, he has taken the local winery to a new level by designing a large timber-frame pavilion on the property to host live music.

The pavilion, also known as The Hangtime, houses a large drinking and dining area as well as a long bar that serves both wine and beer. It also features a stage and a new concrete dance floor, which can accommodate hundreds of people. 

Saltonstall said his wife actually came up with the idea in November 2015, proposing that the business build its own structure rather than rent tents for special events. The family broke ground on The Hangtime in April 2016 and opened it up to the public last July. 

"No one is doing live music venues on this side of the lake, so I figured, 'How could this not succeed?'" Saltonstall said. "I wanted to explode off the scene and become an instant hit ... so I knew I needed to build something really big and beautiful and real." 

So far, Saltonstall said, it's been a big success, bringing in 500 to 600 people Friday nights for the winery's new Garden Concert Series. Every Friday, visitors can listen to live music at The Hangtime from 6 to 9 p.m. while sipping on wine or beer and snacking on fare from local food trucks. 

"We have something to satisfy all tastes," Saltonstall said, noting that he began introducing domestic and craft beer at Treleaven in 2015. "We understand that not everyone likes wine ... so we have a wide variety of products so everyone can enjoy something."

Still, with over 400 wineries in New York state — and at least 100 of them in the Finger Lakes region — Saltonstall said changes at Treleaven aren't over yet. 

"You can't make a good bottle of wine anymore and have people come to the winery," he said. "You have to bring something new and distinguish yourself (because) every year you don't do something new ... someone else is changing and someone else is adapting to the new market and getting a step ahead of us."