As many of you know, the Finger Lakes hosted the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference in August. As a benefit of the trail’s sponsorship of the conference, I had the luxury of participating. I chatted with many of the writers and got a sense for what they thought about the region and our wines. In addition to the interactions with our visitors, the part of the conference that resonated most with me was a session called “Women in the Wine World, Seneca.” Three panelists, including Meaghan Frank, general manager of Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellar, spoke of their experience working in the wine industry, a traditionally male field.
I was moved by their words of wisdom and their emanating confidence in themselves, regardless of their prefix. Throughout the entire session, I never got the impression that they felt inferior; rather, they thought themselves brave pioneers, each with similar stories of superseding their male peers.
Their tales had me wanting to highlight some of the key females along the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail. During the busy month of September, I actually managed to pin a couple of them down to chat about the industry, their roles and their aspirations for the Finger Lakes wine region.
Quite literally, I started at the beginning, speaking with Ruth Lucas, owner of Lucas Vineyards and one of the five founders of the trail in 1983. Ruth’s passion for the industry was evident from the start of our conversation. In 1975, she and her family planted 4.5 acres of Cayuga white grapes, and a couple years later, sold their first crop to industry partner Glenora Wine Cellars. In the meantime, the Farm Winery Act of 1976 was passed, which allowed grape growers in New York to establish wineries and sell directly to the public. Ruth and her family realized that grape-growing was a “labor of love,” and with the new legislature, decided to make their own wine in 1980. The Lucas family planted 20 more acres of vinifera vines and produced 400 cases of wine in its first year. The first tasting room was in the kitchen of the family home, with wine bottles lining the countertop. Daughters Ruthie and Stephanie, teenagers at the time, learned the trade and joined what Ruth refers to as a “family affair.” The girls helped in operation while Mr. Lucas was working as a tugboat pilot, thus the famous Tugboat wines.
Just one year later, production increased from 400 to 2,500 cases of wine. With continued success, Lucas Vineyards is currently celebrating its 35th anniversary.
I also spoke with Lindsay Stevens, winemaker at Treleaven by King Ferry Winery. Lindsay is a Cornell University alumnus with a major in food science and a concentration in fermentations. She was one of the first to endure the enology curriculum which was being crafted while she was in attendance, experimenting with cheese and dairy processing, which translates well into winemaking practices. While studying, she worked at Finger Lakes wineries Lamoreaux Landing in Lodi and Sheldrake Point Winery in Ovid. Stevens was hired as assistant winemaker at Sheldrake upon graduation and just two years later, was anointed winemaker at King Ferry Winery.
Since introduction to the Finger Lakes wine industry, Lindsay has realized a generational change. She said, “The younger generation has brought a fresh breath of air to some of the 30-year-old businesses." This rebirth could potentially lead to a new era for the wine world. Lindsay would love to see some of the pretention and mystique dissipate from the wine industry. She said, “Wine doesn't have to be put upon a pedestal and worshiped. I think in the U.S. it has been considered a fancy drink for special occasions. Wine doesn't have to be only for fancy dinners."
As Stevens points out, millennials are realizing that great wine can be found at any price range and it can be part of any meal, fancy or plain, formal or informal. “Wine is a food, after all. It's made from grapes, and why not enjoy it with family or friends any night of the week?”
Lindsay is forever thankful for her multitasking skill, an honorary female trait, that allows her to manage a demanding career while being a mother of two. Her husband, along with King Ferry Winery owners Tacie and Pete Saltonstall, are very flexible and supportive throughout the harvest season, which make being a female winemaker a possibility.
I then chatted with Kelly Miller, production assistant at Six Mile Creek Vineyard & Distillery in Ithaca. Miller is an Ithaca College alum with senior research in “The Effects of Climate Change on the Viticulture Industry of Upstate New York." She said, “The wine world that I have become a part of combines three of my favorite things: plants, science and alcohol! The more I learn about vineyard maintenance and wine production, the more I want to know. I’ve caught the bug!"
Although Kelly has only been a contributor in the industry for two years, working for a small business has given her the chance to experience all aspects of the operation, from events to retail to production. She loves and appreciates the industry as an “extended family of genuinely passionate people who have welcomed me with open arms." She would love to see the already unified industry continue to become more supportive of its sisters and brothers in wine, spirits, beer and cider.
When asked if she has ever felt judged based on her gender in the winemaking field, she remarked that she has more so seen adversity due to her young age, but that “the most important way to deal with doubts that people have in you, is to prove them wrong by performing in accordance with your own high standards."