Adventures in Winemaking

Prologue, 1973

Picture this: a gawky preteen boy with a shovel standing over a 10- by 10-foot plot of ground. Sod had been turned, clods raked smooth and seeds sewn. There would be lettuce, peppers and potatoes. I was proud. I had blisters.

I watered and I weeded. Then, I celebrated the shoots and seedlings when they pushed through.

A family of rabbits emptied out the lush little plot one night – ninjas determined to destroy and then vanish silently in the darkness. Heartbroken, I brought my parents out to survey the devastation. They broke the news that a swimming pool would soon occupy the same spot in the backyard.

I bounced back immediately. But I never quite learned my lesson.

The Clearing, 1998

My wife Carol and I sat on the back deck of our home, looking out over the small terraced hill that was our backyard. I had been carrying an idea around for months, and this was the perfect time to air it out. I asked her if she would like a small vineyard in the backyard. We could grow our own grapes and make our own wine. She looked up at the jungle of brush and small saplings that defended the high ground.

“Don’t you just want to go pick up a bottle?” she said.

Clearing began in a few weeks. I did my best with an ax, a saw and a borrowed pickup truck. It was impossibly hard work, but I loved it. It took the better part of three weekends to clear half the hill. By the fourth, I was really pushing myself to finish. The truck was piled high over the cab with an afternoon of hacking and hauling. I headed down Route 14 to dump it all behind a neighbor’s barn.

In a mile or so, I heard a sudden “whoosh,” and glanced back over my shoulder. The bed of the truck was empty. Then, in the rearview, I caught the final split second of what must have been spectacular. The entire tangled mound of branches, thorns and what-not had taken flight. It crash-landed just past the Kashong Creek Bridge, blocking my south-bound lane.

Behind me brakes squealed, horns honked and I mumbled to myself, “You are completely over your head.” The next day a bulldozer cleared the other half of the hill in the time it took me to drink two beers. And yes, somebody else was operating it.

Green Acres, 2000 to 2004

We started out planting about 80 vines, and added to the total yearly until the vineyard was full at just more than 120 plants. There were four rows across a terrace at the top of the hill. I loved having the vineyard up there. Our view of Seneca Lake was terrific – a picture that made the daily work easier to manage.

There was always something to do. Wires in the trellis needed to be tightened, or the grass between the rows needed to be mowed. Naps needed to be taken in the shade. It made me wonder how much more work went into a real commercial vineyard. Probably a lot more naps.

I got an amazing education. Neighbor wineries and vineyard operations got used to me stopping by and asking a thousand questions. Everybody always made time to help me out, and never made me feel like an idiot for asking. I tried not to be a pest, but I’m sure I was. There was just so much to learn.

We planted Lemberger and Riesling. Regular spraying and weeding was part of the deal, but I never minded the routine.

I minded the deer a lot. Every spring they feasted on the vines’ new shoots. We lived within town limits, so the Remington 870 solution was out of the question. We tried every other deer repellent we could uncover: Coyote urine (smells even more awful than it sounds), soap flakes (totally useless wives’ tale) and my favorite, human hair. Note: New, dry hair has to be spread out after it rains – gross but effective.

So I spoke with Jack and John, the proprietors of my barber shop. I stopped in with an empty trash bag, and asked if I could sweep up a few piles of trimmings to-go. Barber Shop Code dictates that polite ridicule could begin immediately, but the real thing would not ensue until I left the premises. I could hear the laughter all the way to my car, lugging my sack of hair like some freaky salon Santa.

The first year was very hopeful. We had lots of leafy green vines. Then, somewhere in the middle of the second year, I started seeing the signs. A friend and veteran vineyard manager stopped by one afternoon, carrying a small paperback binder. He handed it to me and said: “This is a field reference guide for the insects and diseases that can infect vineyards here in the Finger Lakes. You should read it. You have every single one of them.”

The night before we were supposed to pick our grapes that second year, deer wiped out the entire harvest. Or was it ninjas? I can still feel the excitement of heading up the hill with harvest boxes, then walking up and down empty rows that had been filled with ripe grapes the night before. Neighboring vineyards were putting in deer fencing. I was thinking laser-guided missiles and night vision goggles.

Despite the challenges, we eventually got two fairly decent harvests, and made wine with our own grapes in years three and four. Carol and I pressed each vintage by hand in the driveway. We made a mess, laughed all the way through it, and created some of our favorite memories. It tasted like wine, in a way, but you had to use your imagination. Actually, drinking it was out of the question. Carol liked to use it to marinate steaks, and we eat steak about twice a year … so do the math.

Epilogue, 2014

This was not a lonely venture. I called on the wisdom of quite a few friends in the winery business and made new ones. They shared their ideas, and pitched in and helped a lot, too.

I was serious about all of it. I put in the time and tried hard. But whether it was a bad site or just loads of operator error, somebody else will have to decide. We invested in drain tile, but it was still pretty wet from a spring further back up the hill. In the end, it was just our backyard, and there was only so much I could do.

I’m left with a huge appreciation for what is life itself here in the wineries along the lakes: nature, effort, the art form coming to fruition each fall at harvest. Above all, the friendships remain. I am grateful that at least those still continue to grow.

I had surrendered as a grower, and nature had begun to reclaim hill and vineyard by 2006. We shared the wire and posts with a friend down the road who was starting a vineyard with his son. Their success has been amazing.

We sold the house and moved a little down the road four years ago. I drive by the old place every morning on the way to work and on the way home at night. I usually give a quick glance up the hill to where the tall grass has taken over again, where a few vines probably still hang on.

Then I remind myself to stop and buy us a bottle of wine for dinner.


by Mike Rusinko