By any measure, the winemaking trade has been mostly a man’s domain. From early Finger Lakes pioneers such as Ruth Lucas, who often found herself the only woman at wine conferences, to today’s Staci Nugent and Nancy Irelan, women winemakers have been the exception rather than the norm. Adding to their challenge is the male-dominated circle of suppliers, distributors, wine store managers and … Well, you get the drift.

But as Bob Dylan sang — the times they are a-changing. More and more women are working at wine production. Through hard work and perseverance, this new generation of distaff winemakers are contributing in a big way to the current renaissance of Finger Lakes wines.

As part of Women’s History Month, we are profiling six young women winemakers who have made some of the best wines I tasted in the past couple of years. With numerous other women in the pipeline, we should expect to see many more in the future.

Julia HOYLE Hosmer Estate Winery

On a visit to Hosmer last year, I mentioned to Cameron Hosmer, the winery’s owner, that his wines were better than ever. He pointed to a young woman nearby and said, “It’s her!” That young woman with an electric smile was Julia Hoyle, who became Hosmer’s head winemaker in December 2016.

Julia grew up just outside Philadelphia. Wine wasn’t on her mind when she arrived at William Smith College in Geneva, majoring in French and women’s studies. While there, she began working at various wineries in the area. To no surprise, she caught the wine bug.

“After I graduated in 2011, I was working for Peter Bell at Fox Run and debating if I should make a career in wine when a teaching job offer from Senegal came,” recalled Julia, “Peter encouraged me to go, telling me Fox Run will always be there when I come back.”

She returned from teaching abroad to work with Bell in the cellar full-time.

In December 2013, Dave Breeden at Sheldrake Point was looking for someone to help make their ice wine. Julia jumped at the opportunity. “I went there, figuring it was a gig for just a few days,” she said, “But Dave kept asking me if I was coming back the next day, and it grew into a full-time position as his assistant winemaker.”

When the Hosmer position became open, Breeden recommended her for the job. Julia was thankful, “I had really good mentors, Peter and Dave. I learned a lot from them.”

What is Julia’s method? “The thing I always look for is finding the grapes’ right balance point,” she expressed, “Could I have the fruit hang longer for flavor development? The right balance of sugar, acidity and texture? Tim (Hosmer) and I would walk the vineyard on cool mornings and try to map out a week ahead on what we bring in.”

To-date, Julia has added a sparkling and late-harvest riesling to the lineup. She wants to highlight their riesling program. Two 2017 bottlings, the dry riesling and the Patrician Verona riesling, are both outstanding. I especially love the Patrician Verona, with its seductive peachy opulence. This year, Hosmer launched its first wine club along with a new website.

Going forward, Julia plans to pare down the winery’s hybrid offerings. But hybrids will continue to be part of Hosmer’s portfolio, as they are a good hedge against economic downturns and subpar vinifera vintages. She wants to formulate a well-thought out tirage (sparkling wines) program, produce a dessert wine each year and explore new varieties.

With some of oldest vinifera grapes planted in the Finger Lakes, Hosmer has the raw material to produce excellent wines, in the capable hands of Julia Hoyle.

Kim MARCONI & PAIGE VINSON Three Brothers Wineries

When I contacted Kim Marconi, Three Brothers’ head winemaker, for an interview, she insisted that Paige Vinson, her assistant winemaker, be included. Kim said, “We are really co-winemakers.”

Kim grew up in East Patchoque, Long Island. She wanted to become a doctor and attended William Smith College to study biochemistry. While in college, she had her first wine job in the tasting room at Three Brothers.

After graduation, she worked at Shinn Estates on Long Island, where she developed a keen interest in wine production. To prepare herself for a career of winemaking, Kim went to Washington State University and earned a Master of Food Chemistry degree, with a focus on wine microbiology.

Kim couldn’t resist the siren calls of the Finger Lakes. “I loved the Finger Lakes, the community. It just felt like home,” she said. She became a cellar rat at Sheldrake Point, overlapping with Julia Hoyle’s time there. Kim subsequently succeeded Julia as Sheldrake’s assistant winemaker in early 2017.

Paige Vinson grew up in Honeoye. Like Kim, a wine career was not on her mind when she studied fine arts and philosophy at Alfred. After graduating in 2010, liberal arts jobs were scarce because of the recession, so she worked at her father’s FedEx subcontractor company, handling training and HR.

“I was a young woman working with a lot of men, hiring and firing them,” Paige said, “It worked out well later when I wound up working with a lot of men in the wine business.”

But Paige discovered that a desk job wasn’t her cup of tea. She started to look at other education possibilities. She thought viticulture could be a career for her.

She enrolled in the viticulture and enology program at Finger Lakes Community College. It was an intense two and a half years. After graduating in 2014, Paige headed west and worked a vintage in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She followed that with stints in Australia and New Zealand, returning to the Finger Lakes to work at Red Newt during the 2015 vintage.

In December 2015, she became the head winemaker at Rooster Hill Vineyards on Keuka Lake, and remained there for two years until the birth of her daughter, when she decided to be a stay-home mom for a while.

Kim and Paige became friends while they were at Sheldrake and Red Newt respectively. Shortly after Kim’s hiring at Three Brothers, the assistant winemaker left. Kim had heard that Paige was ready to return to work. The two-women winemaking team was thus formed.

They were thrust into action just one week before the problematic 2018 harvest. Those wines were results of strict selection and good winemaking, with the reserve barbera a star of the vintage. It’s an outstanding wine of unexpected depth and complexity.

“We now do 14 different fermentations of our riesling grapes, at different brix, botrytis levels and with various yeast strains — the versatility allows us to be creative in the cellar, and to get to know the vineyard better,” said Kim. They also have greatly increased the use of oak barrels for fermentation and aging to enhance texture development.

Looking ahead, Kim and Paige want to continue to experiment. A barbera ice wine might be in the works. But most importantly, they want to be flexible and make at-the-moment decisions and not be bound by preconceived practices.

As to how the two of them could work so well together, Paige said, “Having someone whose opinion you trust is vital!” That pretty much sums up the selfless collaborative spirit between them.

Katie COOK Onyare Wines

Katie grew up around Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Her career goal when she attended Marquette University was to become a conservation biologist. She said, “I wanted a job that is not just sitting at a desk. I wanted to get my hands dirty and travel.”

Katie didn’t grow up with wine. But her mom was a fantastic cook, and her dad started getting into wine when she was in high school. In college, she took a wine appreciation class, but thought wine was just a hobby for her.

When she graduated in 2004, Katie began looking at grad schools. But a trip to France that included a sommelier class changed her course. Katie recollected, “In France, a wine course was not just about tasting, but also about vineyards and terroir. I was amazed how all the flavors in a wine could come from the terroir and the cellar.”

Instead of grad school, she wound up in Napa during the 2005 harvest at Quintessa Winery. “I was planning to go to U.C. Davis for an enology degree, but the winemaker at Quintessa asked why not go to France?” said Katie, “Well, school in France was free, so I applied and got into the University of Burgundy’s two-year master program.”

After completing her master’s degree in 2009, she did a six-month apprenticeship at Zind-Humbrecht, the renowned winery in Alsace, where she learned the nuances of biodynamics farming.

Katie wanted to make pinot noirs. But at the start of a major recession, she found that full-time wine jobs were hard to come by. Feeling homesick after so many years away, she went home and got a job working for the state’s extension service. She would work their from 2010-14.

While back in Minnesota, she met her future husband. Katie recalled, “Someone told me there was this French guy down the road. I thought great, I have someone to practice my French with.” Thijs Verschuuren was working in Minnesota as a vineyard manager.

In 2014, Katie and Thijs took a trip to Oregon to explore fulfilling Katie’s dream of making pinot noir. However, they were greeted by a rare winter blizzard, and all the wineries were closed. Disappointed, they returned to Minnesota. Thijs, incidentally, had done research on the Finger Lakes for a job that fell through and suggested a visit there. Like so many other people before them, they fell in love with the area.

They met with Fred Merwarth and Oskar Bynke, the co-owners of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard. Fred struck up a conversation with Katie on biodynamic and spontaneous fermentation (Katie’s master’s thesis subject). Both Katie and Thijs were hired, Thijs as the vineyard manager and Katie as the assistant winemaker.

A year later, Katie and Thijs started their own label, Onyare Wines, making small batches of artisanal rieslings. But working full-time at Wiemer and starting their own wine label proved to be too much. Katie left Wiemer after the 2015 vintage to devote her full attention to Onyare.

Katie wants to make rieslings different than the typical FLX bottlings, which tend to be high-acid, herbaceous and green, from grapes picked-early because of disease pressures. She prefers a richer style of rieslings, “I aim for ripeness at the height of the grapes’ physiological development. They are picked later. I am not afraid if there’s botrytis in the clusters.”

She also began producing a Champagne-method sparkling wine made from 100% chardonnay. Onyare’s current production is tiny, with just 200 cases of riesling and 500 bottles of the sparkler. If I had to choose one characteristic that distinguishes her rieslings from others, it’s texture, her ingredient to balance off the acidity.

Going forward, chardonnay and cabernet franc are in her plans. More importantly, Katie and Thijs hope to own a vineyard soon and eventually build their own winery.

Alexandra BOND Hector Wine Company

With an actor father and a newspaper editor mother, Alexandra wanted to become a writer. She pursued that goal at SUNY Purchase and Potsdam, majoring in literature and writing. While in college, she worked at numerous restaurants and wine bars. One of those gigs was at the Metropolitan Museum’s Petrie Court Wine Bar.

“I didn’t know anything about Finger Lakes wines. Then one day, we started serving this Hermann Wiemer dry riesling by the glass. I couldn’t believe it was from New York,” said Alexandra.

She paid a visit to the Finger Lakes with her college boyfriend. “One of his friends took us to visit a few wineries. And I said, ‘Oh my God, this is where I want to be.’”

In 2011, she moved to Ithaca and found a job at a restaurant, while working part-time at Bloomer Creek Vineyard, a small boutique winery on Seneca Lake. “It was a small winery and they couldn’t keep me on full-time,” recalled Alexandra, “But working there made me want to work at a small winery.”

At Thirsty Owl on Cayuga Lake, Alexandra did social media, events and writing. “I didn’t really have any friends back then, so on my days off I would work in the cellar for free,” Alexandra said. “When I first got here, I wasn’t sure if I preferred vineyard or cellar work. But I found out quickly that I really liked working in the cellar.”

In 2012, she befriended Justin Boyette and Jason Hazlitt, the two partners of the Hector Wine Company. She made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. “I was very persistent. I told them if they hire me, I’ll also do all their social media and content writing,” said Alexandra.

They brought her on as the assistant winemaker. And as promised, Alexandra took on all their digital assets, as well as the backroom processes and tasting room operations. She also worked as the assistant winemaker at Forge Cellars, another winery where Justin is a partner.

Alexandra is now the associate winemaker at Hector. And since 2013, she has been solely responsible in the making of several of their wines. She has worked tirelessly in help growing the winery to its current size and stature. And in 2019, she was officially made a partner.

The winery benefits from having their grapes sourced from the excellent Sawmill Creek Vineyard, where Jason is a seventh-generation grower. “We want to continue to make bolder reds through hand picking and sorting, spontaneous fermentation with indigenous yeasts, extended maceration and no fining or filtering — so we can get this great expression of our vineyard,” explained Alexandra.

Going forward, she hopes to see annual production increase from 5,000 cases to 8,000-10,000 cases. She wishes to experiment with new varieties such as lemberger, use larger barrels for reds and produce more pinot blanc.

Tasting through Hector’s portfolio with Alexandra, I was impressed by the quality of every bottle I tasted. With her breadth of responsibilities, the inexorable Alexandra is one of those indispensable people in every successful operation.

Colleen LUKAS Bright Leaf Vineyard

Born in Ithaca, Colleen also attended William Smith College (see a pattern here?), majoring in chemistry, with a minor in environmental studies. Colleen’s interest in wine had its origin in Europe, when she visited wineries in France during a high school trip.

“When I was in college, my sister worked at King Ferry Winery. She mentioned that I would like it there because the vineyard manager was into a lot of studies and data collection,” said Colleen.

She would work two summers at King Ferry, doing soil studies and learning about the grapes. The winemaker there, Lindsay Stevens, took Colleen under her wings. She started trying the local wines and became interested in the various varieties and how they were made.

When Colleen graduated in 2011, she knew what she wanted to do — make wine. She went back to King Ferry to work the harvest. When that ended, she worked odd jobs, waiting for an opportunity to land a full-time position.

“I went back to King Ferry and became Lindsay’s assistant winemaker in 2012,” recalled Colleen, “Lindsay was great to work for. If I had a question, even though it might be a naïve one, she was willing to answer it patiently and not make me feel silly.”

Just a few miles away, a new vineyard was being planted on the shore of Cayuga Lake. It was Bright Leaf Vineyard, focusing on fine vinifera wines. Colleen joined Bright Leaf in 2016 as its assistant winemaker. When the head winemaker left in the summer of 2018, Colleen was named as his replacement.

“I learned as the head winemaker, how all-encompassing the job is,” said the self-effacing Colleen, “You have to know biology and chemistry, deal with a lot of different things and learn how to fix things. I keep my head on a swivel, ready to learn something every day.”

2018 was her first vintage as a head winemaker. Colleen is proud of it, especially the dry riesling and merlot. “The dry riesling is crisp, with nice minerality and great balance,” offered Colleen, “And the merlot has good color, cherry and a touch of oak.” She also made the first sparkling wine in the winery’s short history, composed of 75% pinot noir and 25% chardonnay.

“I feel I am in a good place. Sometimes I feel very confident, and some days I don’t feel as sure. There is so much to learn, it’s very rewarding,” said Colleen. With her humility and incessant desire to learn, Colleen will ensure Bright Leaf Vineyard’s future will indeed be bright.

After spending over 30 years running the day-to-day operations of media companies, Dave Sit moved to the Finger Lakes to pursue his many passions, of which wine and writing are two. He can be reached at flxwineranger@gmail.com.

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