Creating Winners in the Finger Lakes
by Frances Emerson
The Finger Lakes Community College Viticulture and Wine Technology program earned a big win at the 2016 New York Wine and Food Classic, in the Best Limited Production Wine Category. It was a solid confirmation of the hard work and dedication that has gone into the program since its inception.
The goal of three particular students in the Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) program was never to win an award, but to satisfy an unquenchable thirst, they said. For the high-school student, a love for science led her to the curriculum, which she finds unique and challenging. For the computer graphics animator, it was the answer to how she could continue to create. For the successful attorney in Los Angeles, it was a passion, the drive to bring a lifelong dream to reality.
For the Finger Lakes wine industry, it means that three more people are gaining the skills and expertise to create world-class wines, without having to leave the region.
Marete Seymour started the FLCC courses when she was a senior at Penfield High School. She knew she wanted a career in science; physics, astrophysics and engineering were at the top of her list. While she was reading the book, Summer in a Glass, The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes by Evan Dawson, she discovered the FLCC program and knew it was a perfect fit.
Learning how to make good wine has been a labor of love for Seymour. Classes are pretty intense, she admits, from the basic “Introduction to Wines and Vines” to the actual growing, testing, researching and experimenting. Then there’s the blending of the wines and the fermentation process.
“It’s a lot of hard but rewarding work,” she said. “There’s so much you can do with these skills! I can see myself in a winery one day, but for right now, I’m focusing on the research side.”
She’s looking into baccalaureate courses in enology. Cornell is among her top choices.
Angela Eliasz, one of the four students who primarily worked on FLCC’s award-winning Rieslings, also started her winemaking journey with Dawson’s book. Today, she’s head cider maker for Empire Cider Company LLC in Geneva.
Eliasz relocated from California to her hometown of Rochester when her job as a Sony Pictures’ animator moved to Canada. She began teaching computer animation at Rochester Institute of Technology, but “I was missing the creation factor,” she said. She decided to go back to school – for the third time – to learn how to make wine.
Eliasz already holds degrees in international marketing, computer animation and professional cooking. A wine appreciation class first led her to the winemaking threshold; Dawson’s book gave her the courage to take the plunge. “Now I have my associate’s degree” she says proudly.
She’s happy to be making cider – the beverage is having a renaissance here in the Finger Lakes and wherever else there are apples. “I think making cider is harder than making wine,” Eliasz said, and relishes the idea of opening her own winery one day – if she can find the right partner to take on the duties of grower. She’s not so much the farmer or a connoisseur of winter weather, she admitted.
Eliasz thinks the Finger Lakes is still missing the boat on champagne and sparkling wines. “It’s perfect here for those kinds of grapes,” she laughed, “and you know, ‘Everything’s better with bubbles!’”
For Chris Missick, the decision to become a winery owner took shape when he got married. Part of the celebration was a wine tour through the Finger Lakes. He and his wife loved it. The couple returned to their home in Los Angeles, and not long after, his mother called and said, “Remember that last winery we visited? It’s for sale.”
Missick made wine as a hobby, but when he and his family bought Villa Bellangelo in the heart of Dundee, he focused on the business side as general manager. Things went fairly well until his winemaker left to make his own product. “That’s when it really started for me,” he said. He had begun the FLCC program in 2015, but that was when he took a step back and decided to become the winemaker at Bellangelo, combining his real-world experience with the knowledge he gained as an FLCC student.
Missick had so many good things to say about the program. “It’s a methodical approach to taking someone who hasn’t been in the industry and teaching them the core basics of the culture of the industry, all the way to the basic sciences of making wine. And that’s where it really gets good. The practice. You understand what you’re going to be doing and then you do what needs to happen in order to make world-class wine.”
Missick and his family have big plans for Seneca Lake Country Club in Geneva, a property they purchased not long ago. Plans begin with a state-of-the-art winery. When Chris’s father, a land developer, visited FLCC’s Viticulture and Wine Center, he fell in love with it and wants to build one for Bellangelo, said Chris.
Teaching the Art of Winemaking
Making wine and growing grapes for wine have been major industries in the Finger Lakes since the 1820s. From the Rieslings to the Rosés, and the Pinot Noirs to the Chardonnays, names such as Charles Fournier, Dr. Konstantin Frank, Taylor, Wagner, and Widmer have made winemaking a quintessential art in New York State. Today, vineyardists and winemakers here take a leading role in creating internationally known, award-winning New York State wines. The state is now home to more than 900 wineries, farm wineries, breweries, distilleries and cideries.
What’s more, it improves with every harvest season, said Paul Brock, head of the Finger Lakes Community College Viticulture and Wine Technology program.
But that wasn’t always the case, he added, and described a time when wine production here almost ended.
A blessing in disguise
Before the 1970s, there were four or five companies buying all the grapes from local farmers and making all the wine, he explained. “Then they started pulling out and disappearing; cancelling contracts and leaving growers without a market to sell their grapes.” Families facing financial ruin had a major decision to make: stop growing grapes or try making wine themselves. But legislation at the time kept the growers from making wine and, in turn, a profit from their own product.
The Farm Winery Act of 1976 set the stage for the industry to bounce back and flourish, Brock said. It allowed grape growers to produce their own wines and sell them on premises; essentially eliminating the need for a distributor.
Farmers were skilled grape growers but unskilled winemakers, he noted. It took them years to learn how to make good wine; wine that was competitive on the international market. As the vintners grew older, they faced a new dilemma: who would teach the next generation? The University of California, Davis, and European universities have teaching labs right next to the vineyards, but the Finger Lakes Region did not. When approached by the vintners to create such a program, FLCC accepted the challenge.
For six years now it’s been a three-way partnership with Cornell, the Martini family of Anthony Road Wine Company in Penn Yan, and FLCC, said Brock. Peter Martini has been an instrumental, hands-on partner, “a tremendous mentor for our students.” Peter often takes on the role of a professor, teaching students the basics on the two acres of vineyard corded off for them at Anthony Road.
Growers and winemakers all across the Finger Lakes have offered support and contributed funds. Their help supplemented a state grant to construct the FLCC Viticulture and Wine Center off Pre-Emption Road in Geneva. It features a state-of-the-art teaching lab, education center and winery. The goal is to teach students to produce an internationally recognized, quality wine. The learning is hands-on, taking students from growing the grapes to producing the wines – or as program alumna Angela Eliasz put it, “from crush through bottling.” At every stage of that process, from start to finish, students have to react appropriately to whatever is going on. Making good wine it not just about having good grapes, Brock said.
What does this all mean for the Finger Lakes wine industry itself? Continued success, and the ability to compete on an international level. Making wine that is respected by the choosiest connoisseurs all over the world, especially in Europe. And satisfying that unquenchable thirst, perhaps for just a little while, of the next enthusiast who’s been called to the adventure!