Women of the Finger Lakes Wine Region Lead the Way

Peach Tart by Chef Heather Tompkins, photo by Christine Campbell
Peach Tart by Chef Heather Tompkins, photo by Christine Campbell

This past August, I attended the Wine Bloggers Conference in the Finger Lakes district of New York State. I was eager to go to this cool climate region and taste their great expressions of cabernet franc and riesling wines. I was also keen to discover the hybrid varieties like baco noir, traminette and vignoles that thrive in the region – away I went!

I learned last year to book on the pre-conference excursion that gives bloggers an extra day, more opportunity to get out into the vineyards, and drink even more terrific wine. The pre-excursion highlight for me was, without a doubt, the women who presented their stories along with their wines over an evening at Ventosa Vineyards located in Geneva, New York. Our bus pulled up to a stunning, Tuscan-inspired building and were given a charcoal grey t-shirt with ‘bold. fearless. ORIGINAL’ printed across the front. They had me at hello (well, the t-shirt) but you know what I mean.

This was a collaborative evening - after we received our t-shirts, we were welcome to sample Finger Lakes cider from Eve’s Cidery and Redbyrd Orchards along with cheese from Muranda Farms, First Light Farms, Side Hill Acres and Kenton Farms. And this was just the welcome? Talk about hospitality…

#FLXWomen was the theme of the night. We were invited to eat, drink, taste and listen to the stories of women who are changing the face and business of wine and farming in America. In 2015, women are responsible for running 14% of America’s farms, which is up 9% from 20 years ago and the number of female farmers is up 30% from the early 2000s. Looking good!

Marti Macinski kicking things off, photo by Christine Campbell
Marti Macinski kicking things off, photo by Christine Campbell

Marti Macinski, from Standing Stone Vineyards, was our fist speaker and shared political relevance of the Seneca Lake region…Seneca Falls was the site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848. Macinski admits, “When I was asked to participate in this evening, I felt disappointed that we still have to talk about women in anything as being special or different. I like to be more inclusional…but, the more I thought about it, I decided to jump in.”

I am glad she did. There were 50 wine bloggers who came to learn – not just about the wine - but about the people behind the wine…the inspiration, the path, the choices, the passion, the sacrifices – all of it. And truly, it comes down to a mindset of fearlessness. Macinski continued, “After the women’s rights convention, as with many big societal changes, there were years with no progress, lots of talk, then movement forward to win the right to vote. Many women had to be fearless to push this effort forward, and as we examine women in FLX wine, we will talk about women being fearless as we changed our roles in the FLX wine business.”

Even Macinski’s path in wine started out with her holding down the ‘female’ role of hospitality manager – interacting and engaging with tasting room guests. It was necessity that tapped her on the shoulder and gave her an entirely new adventure to face:

Jenna LaVita - Winemaker Ventosa Vineyards, photo by Christine Campbell
Jenna LaVita - Winemaker Ventosa Vineyards, photo by Christine Campbell

"While my piano performance major, philosophy minor, law degree and trial lawyer background, would not seem like the obvious path to vineyard manager and winemaker, that’s what the business needed to make it all work. I was terrified but I understood that sometimes you have to take risks - do something you are afraid of, and go for it – because something is pointing  you in that direction. I went from abject fear to almost fearlessness and here I am – a woman winemaker."

The women who came up to talk after Macinski’s speech seemed to have an agenda to NOT take on a ‘traditional’ role – they wanted to get dirty, drive the tractor and try new things. These young women were reinventing the rules on their own terms.

Liz Leidenfrost, self proclaimed ‘get ‘er done diva’ of Leidenfrost Vineyards literally bounded onto the stage and held us spellbound with her infectious personality and love of life. As the assistant winemaker, tasting room manager and a burlesque/sideshow performer, it was her father who didn’t see gender as a limiting restraint and inspired her to do anything she wanted:

Liz Leidenfrost and her father/mentor - John, courtesy Leidenfrost Vineyards
Liz Leidenfrost and her father/mentor - John, courtesy Leidenfrost Vineyards

"Traditionally a winery would be passed on father to son. Instead my dad and I have formed a bond that surpasses gender stereotypes. He has taught me self-reliance and has always given me the respect and room to be me.

I can’t thank him enough for giving me the opportunity to prove to myself, and to the whole wine making community, that a small town farm girl with big aspirations can work just as hard, take just as much crap and still come    out on top with grace, poise and integrity. Mostly I thank him for throwing me in the mix and allowing me to make mistakes. To take on a job that might have been too strenuous for me, or a load that was simply too large because all I wanted to do was TRY. And he saw that and nourished it. I went from being the underdog to top dog and I am so proud and so lucky to be a part of it."

Ventosa Vineyards, photo by Christine Campbell
Ventosa Vineyards, photo by Christine Campbell

Every time another phenomenal woman took the stage, we were told stories of passion, taking risks, not taking ‘no’ for an answer and being bold in the face of change. What I enjoyed most of all, was the supportive and welcoming support these accomplished women gave to each other – you could feel it in the room.

The stories continued over dinner prepared by Chef Heather Tompkins outside on the deck overlooking the Ventosa vineyards. Each of the presenters went from table to table and gave the bloggers an opportunity to ask questions and keep the conversation going. The idea was executed perfectly – the dinner was excellent, the wine pairing was spot on and the women remained engaged in sharing their stories and championing the Finger Lakes region.

I walked away with a tremendous amount of respect for all of the women who shared their stories with us. They reminded me to take risks, do what needs to be done, ask questions and don’t be afraid to get my hands dirty because even if mistakes are made, lessons are learned throughout the journey.

The speakers of the evening were:

Kas Deys, Biochemist & Grape Geneticist, Cornell Cooperative Extension

Jenna LaVita, Winemaker Ventosa Vineyards

Marti Macinski, Winemaker/Owner, Standing Stone Vineyards

Liz Leidenfrost, Winemaker/Grape Grower/Activist, Leidenfrost Vineyards

Erica Paolicelli, Partner, General Manager, Three Brothers Winery & Estates

Heather Tompkins, Chef/Owner, Opus Espresso and Wine Bar, Graduate of the Culinary Institute of America