Back at the end of August last year, I had the opportunity to speak with Donna and Mike Wilson, the owners of Bright Leaf Vineyards on the east side of Cayuga Lake in King Ferry, NY, thirty minutes north of Ithaca.
Bright Leaf is a “newer” winery opening its tasting room in June of 2018. Sitting on 90 acres of farmland, it was originally a limestone quarry in the early 1900’s, at which time the limestone was sent to New York City via barges. “We actually have photos of old steam shovels that were used. The great grandfathers of some of the local people worked in the quarry” says Mike. “After being used as a quarry, it was used as a pear farm and then a beef farm for 25 years.”
Being used for grazing, it left nutrient rich soils on the property. Bright Leaf Vineyard is really two vineyards divided by the Tully limestone quarry. This creates two different soil types. The Hillside Vineyard (uphill from the quarry) is Aurora loam and the Lakeside Vineyard (down hill) is Cazenovia silt. White varietals are planted in the cooler uphill block on the gravel/shale soils. The red varietals are planted closer to the lake on the heavier, richer clay soil. Mike says: “This has been recognized as a potentially premier wine-growing area for a long time. Pete Saltonstall started his Treleaven Winery in King Ferry back in the 80’s and he understood that this area has the same sun exposure and same warm temperatures as the Seneca Lake ‘banana belt’.
Mike grew up in Los Angeles: “My dad had a large wine cellar and always was pouring wine at events and he got me interested in wine. So when I was old enough I would drive my VW van and go explore many California wineries. My passion was the ‘out of the way’ wineries, the little farm wineries up in the hills that were sort of hidden. When I got ready to decide what I was going to do with my life, I applied simultaneously to UC Davis for Oenology and USC for Medical School and I was accepted both places, but I went to medical school.”
Asked how they decided to enter the wine business, Mike responded: “Back in the 1970s I was talking to some of my friends who were winemakers and they said: if you enjoy both careers, go be a doctor and then think of the wine making more as a long-term passion. And so that’s pretty much how it’s worked out for me. We lived in Boston and that’s where I pursued my career as an orthopedic surgeon, but Donna and I, in our mid 50s decided that if we’re going to do the wine thing, this is when we needed to do it. We had searched California and New England but saw the Finger Lakes region as something of a special, magical area. So this is where we’ve settled. “
Since then, Donna started exploring the world of wine: “The idea of a winery was basically just a little blip on the screen ten, fifteen years ago, but I knew that it would eventually happen so I started taking wine courses when we were in Boston: I began taking courses in a WSET certification program. Once we moved to the Finger Lakes, I finished the TC3 certificate program in Wine Marketing. There’s so much to learn when it comes to the wine industry. I’m feeling like last year was the practice run and this year things are really falling into place and our dream has become a reality. It’s a lot of hard work with many new challenges every day. We don’t want to grow too quickly though because we want to try and have an enjoyable experience for our customers while doing things the right way. So this year, we started a new Wednesday night summer concert series, and that’s brought lots of people in. People like the relaxed atmosphere and beautiful views. It’s a great gathering place for new visitors and locals as well.
I asked Mike how they came to own the property: “We found the property online. I had been working with a local realtor for several years to find a place. Donna and I were driving back and forth from Boston and looking at properties and we relocated here in 2012. The realtor and I both discovered it almost simultaneously the morning it went on the market. We made an offer that day, and after many months of soil testing and research, the process was finalized in early 2013.”
“We did most of our planting in 2014 with some additional planting of vines in 15 and 16. By 2016 we were able to bring in a small harvest of reds: Pinot Noir, Cab Franc and Cab Sauv. We didn’t harvest any of the Merlot or whites that year, as they weren’t ready yet. Our first full full vintage was 2017 and that’s when we brought in a lot of whites. It was a big year. Hot, dry, nice conditions. Very favorable for the fruit.”
Donna tells me that when the tasting room was opened she wore lots of hats. “Since then, we’ve refined our staff to three part time tasting room associates and Ruby, our full time wine club and social media manager. Great customer service and educating our customers is our number one priority. We also want our winery to be a local hang out. King Ferry is a small town where the locals have embraced us and our business. We’ve been very lucky”.
When asked about their goals and vision for Bright Leaf Vineyards, Mike responded: “My primary goal is to make a great wine and have a beautiful location for people to come and enjoy the wine. As far as a vision, it was our fantasy that we make great wine and the tasting room would be filled with people who would come in and taste, buy their bottles and leave. But the winery model has shifted. Wineries and breweries have become places where people want to come and be entertained and relax and spend two or three hours with good food and music and great comfortable surroundings.”
According to both Donna and Mike, one of their biggest challenges is the location. The winery density is low on the east side of Cayuga. They didn’t want to be close to a busy road, so it’s a little bit of a drive off Route 90 to get to the tasting room. But, once you’ve made your way through the old quarry, you are rewarded with a spectacular view and great wines. New wines will be released in early 2020 as well as a new event center which is currently under construction. Keep an eye on their website and social media platforms for many new and exciting changes at Bright Leaf Vineyard.
Their wines that are currently available include:
- 2017 Reserve Chardonnay – This Reserve Chardonnay is produced from grapes grown in our Hillside Vineyard. Aged in French oak, it reveals a rich, buttery nose, with a hint of dried apricot; flavors of butterscotch and citrus highlight this smooth, robust wine. RS is 0.05%
- 2017 Chardonnay – This blend of stainless and lightly oaked Chardonnay is produced from grapes grown in our Hillside Vineyard. It reveals a nose of red apple and subtle pineapple, balanced with flavors of honeydew and lemon zest. RS is 0.15%
- Dry Riesling – This Dry Riesling is estate grown in our Hillside Vineyard. It reveals a nose of citrus fruit and honeydew melon, with flavors of crisp, green apples. RS is 0.89%.
- 2017 Semi-Dry Riesling – This Semi-Dry Riesling is estate grown in our Hillside Vineyard. It reveals a nose of fresh peach and Honey Crisp apple, with crisp, refreshing lime zest flavors. RS is 1.69%.
- 2017 Toujours White Table Wine – This crisp, vibrant Vidal Blanc blend displays a nose of honeydew melon with a pleasant, balanced flavor of citrus and peach pie. RS is 2.2
- 2017 Quarry Run – This effervescent blush wine is a blend of Chardonnay and Lemberger grapes. It provides cranberry and cherry flavors with a refreshing citrus finish .RS is 2.1%
- 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon – This estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon reveals a cracked pepper, woodland nose, ripe plum flavors and a rich vanilla finish.
- 2017 Merlot – Velvety smooth, this estate Merlot displays true varietal notes: The nose suggests black cherry and the mouth fills with a variety of dark berries. The finish is smooth and subtle.
- 2016 Toujours Red Table Wine – This pleasing red wine blend combines robust raspberry and red currant flavors balanced with smooth, round tannins and crisp acidity.
Bright Leaf Vineyard is located at: 1250 Clearview Rd. King Ferry, NY 13081, thirty minutes North of Ithaca on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake.
Winter Hours: Starting January 1, 2020-February 29, 2020:
OPEN: Friday & Sunday: Noon – 5 pm and Saturday 10 am – 5 pm.
Monday – Thursday: by appointment only. Please email them at email@example.com for appointments with a minimum of 24 hour notice.