In the 1970s, Mike Wilson hopped in his Volkswagen van and drove up the California coast. But it wasn't the cliff-lined beaches or redwood forests that inspired the teen's trip: It was wine country.
A fourth-generation Californian, Mike said his family spent summers in Bayonne, France, so he was no stranger to the wine world. But it was that solo trip in the '70s that made him thirst for more.
For the next 15 years, Mike toured the hillsides of Napa and Sonoma valleys, and he studied winemaking at the University of California, Davis. However, his studies were mostly in secret, as his family pushed him to major in medicine.
"Mike's father and grandfather were both orthopedic surgeons ... so when that fork in the road presented itself, he didn't stray from the family path," said Mike's wife, Donna Wilson. "But his passion (for wine) was always there."
And now, after nearly 40 years as a full-time orthopedic surgeon, Mike's passion and patience has paid off, as the Wilsons have opened their first winery in King Ferry.
Last month, Bright Leaf Vineyard had a soft opening at the tasting room on Clearview Road, and so far, the Wilsons said, business has boomed.
"We've gotten a lot of really nice feedback from people that have been in the business for a long time ... and the community has been embracing us," Donna said. "That's what's great about the Finger Lakes — everybody wants everybody to be successful."
At first, Donna said, the Wilsons had been looking for wine land in Massachusetts, where they had settled down after graduating college in California. The couple lived in Boston for 25 years while Mike worked in medicine, and Donna began taking winemaking classes on her own.
Then, roughly 10 years ago, Donna surprised her husband with a wine tour of the Finger Lakes, and the two fell for the region.
In 2011, the Wilsons bought a home in Lansing and opened the Federal House Bed and Breakfast, and for six years, Donna ran the B&B while Mike worked at the local hospital. And in 2012, they purchased roughly 100 acres of land in King Ferry overlooking Cayuga Lake.
"This was just the perfect place for us," she said. "There's so much green space here. We started looking at wine land and it just was such a beautiful spot and it's a very easy place to live."
Donna said the family planted their first crop in 2013 — 14,000 vines on 14 acres of land — and in 2016, they had their first harvest. The Wilsons have now finished making seven wines at the vineyard — a mixture of 2016 and 2017 red and white table wine, Riesling, cabernet and chardonnay.
"Our sweetest wine is the Toujours White Table Wine — that one is 2.2-percent residual sugar — so this is pretty much a dry house," Donna said, laughing. "We have a French winemaker, Edmond Guidault, so everything here is fairly dry."
In addition to producing 4,000 to 5,000 cases of wine a year, the couple plans to partner up with Hedonist Artisan Chocolates in Rochester, which sells unique sweets like a curry coconut and a macadamia nut with Montreal steak seasoning. And the Wilsons have also begun working with local artisans to make cheese platters.
"Everybody has been really happy and embracing our arrival because it's helping them out as well," Donna said. "We are the new kids on the block ... and we do have a lot of competition. But I think the Finger Lakes is on the map now as well-respected winemakers, and we're just looking to become one of them."