The Pre-Conference Journey to Fingers Lakes Begins: The 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference Pre-Trip, Day One

I met blogger extraordinaire Thea Dwelle at the Philadelphia International Airport and we geared up for a road trip.  The night prior to our journey to Corning, The Drunken Cyclist was nice enough to open up his home and invite us to his family birthday dinner.  The food was amazing.  The wines were ones that you only open for very good friends.  Jeff, I am honored you shared those last precious birthday moments, your family and those wines with us.

The next morning we began our journey of planes, buses and automobiles while traveling on badly marked and tollways that all seemed to be under construction.  For about five hours, it felt like we were on a journey to nowhere – the signage was cloaked, the exits were few, but the laughter was continual.

We arrived at the Radisson to begin our pre-trip tour and spent some time on the Seneca Lake Trail, which is home to 30 wineries, a distillery, cider producers and several breweries.  It is geographically located in the center of the Fingers Lakes.  Seneca Lake is the largest lake, covers 43,343 acres and spans 38 miles through the center of the Finger Lakes region.

The blogger bus took us to Villa Bellangelo.  The view was gorgeous and what a display of hospitality.   The winery was founded by Christopher Missick and his family, who left the corporate world in California, to focus on terroir and making cool climate wine.  Bellangelo is a boutique wine producer, crafting only 6,000 cases of wine each vintage.  We learned a lot about the soil – originally formed by “Ice Age” glaciers. 

We then had a chance to mingle and experience four tasting and education stages with several wineries – King’s Garden 20 Year Vertical Tasting of Finger Lakes Cabernet Sauvignon; the Bellangelo Riesling experience featuring a dozen different Rieslings; Side Acre Hills and Schtayburne cheese samplings, which produce local cow and goat cheeses; and “Others,” a portfolio of experimental and alternative wines made by Villa Bellangelo.

The theme of our evening venture, which was scheduled at Ventosa Vineyards, was all about Finger Lakes Women in Wine.  There was a bit of irony that the Wine Bloggers Conference (#wbc15) was hosted in Corning, NY, the home of the Corning Glass Museum, where one of the common themes became how women are breaking through the glass ceiling in the wine industry.

The stats are sobering – according to an article by Adrienne Vogt in the Daily Beast, half of the graduates at UC-Davis’ oenology program are female, but women lead only 10 percent of California’s wineries.  I couldn’t find any definitive research outside of California.

The discussions mirrored one that I had several years ago with Merry Edwards, the winemaker of Merry Edwards Vintners.  In 1984, she left Matanzas Creek to devote herself full time to consulting and her winery.  She told me over dinner about the difficulty in getting her first winemaker job and that she had to work harder.  I loved her ingenuity.  She would go to the Farmer’s Market weekly and gather the throwaway fruits and veggies to make wine.  Hint: rutabaga wine is not tasty.

Our panel of women winemakers, farmers, scientists and chefs were awe-inspiring.  They all shared the fact that they have made significant contributions to the sustainable food and farming movement across the Finger Lakes.  Marti Macinski, the Winemaker and Owner of Standing Stone Vineyards, candidly talked about the point when she and her husband decided she must transition from the “traditional hospitality role” to serving as the operator of the winery – without any training.  And while her first reaction was to put her head on the table and cry, it turns out she was damn good at it.  While she talked about her fear, it was clear that Marti is fearless.

Another amazing woman was Jenna LaVita, the winemaker of Ventosa Vineyards.  She was originally a law student who decided over a glass of Pinot that she wanted to be a winemaker.  She hit the road in her Saab and began her journey.  It took her from cleaning tanks to teaching over harvest break to even selling (unsuccessfully) bottle cap earrings in Etsy.  At 23, she was asked to become the full-time winemaker and inherited vineyard responsibility at age 25 when her vineyard manager was deported.  Jenna took us through the vineyard and we had an opportunity to pick grapes on different blocks in order to experience how a winemaker gauges ripeness.

And then we met our showstopper – Liz Leidenfrost, the winemaker, grape grower and activist of Leidenfrost Vineyards. What a cool and well-rounded women.  She talked about how she became interested in winemaking after she failed the image of being a classical musician.  With her tattoos, piercings and dyed hair, she thought she could make a difference in the family business and her father put her to the test.  She passed with flying colors and the fact that she’s also a burlesque dancer on the side makes her even cooler.

Kas Deys, a biochemist and grape geneticist from the Cornell Cooperative Extension, talked about the research that Cornell is doing on the grapes and the region.  She had an amazing background and clearly is making a big difference in her research in mining grape genes.

Our meal was prepared by Heather  Tompkins, the chef and owner of Opus Espresso and Wine Bar.  Here was our line-up:

Candy beet melon arugula salad with Red Jacket cheribundi-curry vinaigrette with Stony Brook pumpkin oil, First Light goat cheese and Stony Brook pumpkin seeds paired with 2014 Three Brothers Pinot Noir Rose and Leidenfrost Vineyards Blanc de Blancs.

Sweet corn muranda cheese, cheddar studded risotto cake, summer tomato-fennel coulis and jalapeno orange mascarpone with 2012 Ventosa Vineyards Pinot Noir and 2013 Standing Stone Vineyards Gewurztraminer.

Grilled Petit Finger Lakes Farms Filet Mignon and Scallop with wilted baby kale, Piggery Bacon vinaigrette with Cayuga Blue and pickled red onion with Three Brothers Wineries and Estates Degree of Riesling and 2011 Ventosa Vineyards Cabernet Franc.

Red Jacket peaches – ginger galette with Seneca salted caramel and shaved Seneca salt bark dark chocolate with Leidenfrost Vineyards Cabernet Port and 2014 Standing Stone Vineyards Gewurztraminer Ice.

On the menu was the wording – bold, fearless and original.  Absolutely a great descriptor of the women we met and the experience that we had.