By Wayne Schutz, Photo Credits Alice Schutz
Winemaker Mark Wiltberger has come full circle: growing up and leaving the Finger Lakes, traveling, and then returning to make wine at his own winery, Mark T. Wiltberger Cellars on Keuka Lake.
The son of nearby Keuka Springs Vineyards owners, Len and Judy Wiltberger, Mark started his own brand in 2014. In October of 2015, he bought a farm on Keuka lake, which serves as his production facility, future vineyard, and current home.
With a family tree that stretches back to generations of Germanic farmers in the Buffalo area, Mark has deep roots in the region. One of his favorite early memories is when his parents started the family winery in the early eighties, and the whole family fertilized several acres of the newly planted vines by hand, using empty margarine containers to scatter fertilizer around each small vine.
Mark received science degrees in Chemistry from Notre Dame and Geography from Penn State. After earning his Master of Science degree in Geography, he went to the Washington, DC, area to take a software engineering job in the information technology industry. Since the time he was a graduate student, he had a dream of traveling abroad. After a friend gave him a book about traveling on a budget, he decided to travel to India and Southeast Asia, spending over a year absorbing the culture and observing a lifestyle which was quite different from his Finger Lakes home.
In 2007, Mark returned to the Finger Lakes and worked at Keuka Springs Vineyards for a number of years. He started out running the bottling line, and then took on the task of head winemaker. By the end of 2012, he decided that he wanted to gain a broader worldly experience making wine, so, at the suggestion of a German winemaker friend, he went to Germany.
“Germany was a transformative experience for me, witnessing firsthand the influence of the vineyard on the wine: the Germans point out that the winemaker is first a viticulturist. I was working by the Rhine river alongside the winery owner’s family, harvesting grapes on steep slopes into small buckets wedged between the trellis posts and the ground to keep them from rolling away.” Mark believes that because he was already an experienced Finger Lakes winemaker, he was able to pick up on things in Germany that someone right out of school might have missed.
After working for several months at Weingut Keller, (a prominent name in the Rheinhessen region), Mark traveled to New Zealand to help with the harvest there.
Upon his return to the Finger Lakes, Mark realized that he needed his own production space, so he started looking for property. When he visited the land he would eventually buy, he looked at the barn first, not the house, because it was the barn which would become his production building. He purchased the twelve-acre property in October 2015. At the present time, three acres of the vineyard are planted with the Fredonia grape, a red American native labrusca grape similar to Concord, which the previous owner, Alan Rector, sold as table grapes. The vineyard is planted on an excellent site, with well-draining loam soils on the eastern slope of Keuka Lake. Mark is now making wine in the white and blue pole barn. For a wine press, Mark bought a German screw press, a sturdy and effective 1971 Howard 1200S, from a local winery.
Mark says his winemaking style is influenced by his upbringing and life experiences. His father Len gave him a common sense vision of what the finished wine should be. His mother Judy continues to give him practical business sense of how to introduce his wines to the public. He believes that he needs to be flexible when making wine and use what he’s learned. “I take what I learned traveling and use that with the grapes I’m working with. I believe that by making this wine at a small scale the wine reflects both the place where it comes from and the past experiences of the winemaker.”
His philosophy of tasting wine is: “Get the analytical and the intellectual out of your head. Respond to wine by the emotions: How do I feel when I drink this wine, what memories does it evoke? Do I feel good when I drink this with friends and family? When evaluating wine think: I like this particular wine – I don’t want to just taste and analyze it, I want to drink the bottle with friends.”
“The 2014 vintage just released fermented slowly and aged on the lees over the winter. I blended the two Rieslings, Wanderlust and Trillium, so that they complemented each other: one is more citrus and the other more floral. The grapes are from three different vineyards and were fermented separately. My general theme for all four wines is: when you first smell and drink each one, you’ll notice a certain fruit or maybe floral component. Because the wines were aged on the lees (the yeast that settles after fermentation), the finish has a round mouthfeel, smooth and long with a yeasty or perhaps citrus feel.”
Mark is sourcing grapes from several Seneca Lake and Keuka Lake producers and is considering planting Riesling, other German whites, and cool climate reds on the site.
The main way to purchase the wine is at the website online. At the moment Mark doesn’t have a tasting room. He plans to have one: it will be small and by appointment only to keep the experience intimate. Two of the wines are currently being poured at the Water Street Wine Bar in Penn Yan on Keuka Lake, a few miles from the winery. Contact Mark through the website to schedule a private tasting of the wines.
The winery’s current wines are all from the 2014 vintage, with a production of about 70 cases of each. Mark named each wine to suggest the spirit of discovery or the feeling of returning home to friends and family.
- “This medium dry Riesling has aromas of honeydew melon and a taste of citrus, with a pleasant balance of crisp acidity and smooth finish.”
- Open Door
- “This unoaked Chardonnay is dry with intense fruit aromas and a taste of lemon and honey, with a balance of crispness and smoothness.“
- “This Grüner Veltliner is medium dry with aromas of lime, lemon, and tropical fruit, with a lingering smooth finish of creamy vanilla.”
- Trillium (a local white flower found by his barn)
- “This dry Riesling has intense floral aromas and a smooth finish.”
You can buy his wine online at: https://marktwiltbergercellars.com. You can get details about becoming a member of his Winery Founder program at https://marktwiltbergercellars.com/pages/become-a-founder.
He will be pouring and selling his wines at the Rochester Public Market “Holidays at the Market” on the three Sundays following Thanksgiving and at the Elmira “Wine on Ice” Festival in January.