A Family Practice Scores Big
By David Falchek
When Len and Judy Wiltberger bought 30 acres of land on Keuka’s east side in the early 80’s to plant grapes and make wine, some considered their upstart Keuka Spring Vineyards as a hobby for the Kodak employee and school teacher, something to keep them busy in retirement.
To be sure, the red barn and friendly couple projected a sense of quaintness. But from the beginning the indefatigable Wiltbergers proved themselves as serious producers. Although Len had done little more than make wine in carboys, his first vintage, which was in 1985 and included chardonnay, Riesling, seyval and vignoles, earned gold medals.
This year, Keuka Spring Vineyard’s 2012 Riesling earned the Governor’s Cup in the New York Wine & Food Classic, awarded to the best wine in the competition, winning out over the 875 entrants from around the state. Len and Judy now have a set: their 1998 Cabernet Franc also won a Governor’s Cup.
Originally Rochesterians, Len and Judy always loved wine and they had a summer home on the east side of Keuka Lake. Through the 1970s, they watched as growers began to plant more Vinifera vines. In 1976, the New York Farm Winery Act passed, making it possible for growers or individuals to open wineries. They wistfully thought their passion for wine could become a business. That dream became a possibility when a landowner they knew offered to sell them 30 acres of prime land on the lake on the condition it remain in agriculture. While the property was an open field for as long as anyone could remember, like nearly all land in Yates County, it was once used to grow grapes. When the Wiltbergers first turned the soil, they found old drainage tiles. It turned out to be a remarkable site, temperatures regulated by both branches of the lake, giving the vineyards a longer growing season. The vines are some of the last in the region to drop their leaves.
While an accidental enterprise, Keuka Spring made the difficult transition from homey mom-and-pop winery, hand-labeling bottles in a gambrel barn warned by a kerosene heater, to one of the top wineries in the state, keeping pace with ambitious newcomers and helping elevate quality across the board, particularly in the thriving Keuka Lake region.
Reveling in the third consecutive year that a Keuka Lake winery earned the Governor’s Cup, Mike Linehan, executive director of the Yates County Chamber of Commerce, said the Wiltbergers set the bar for the region in wine quality and hospitality.
“They have a customer base that adores them,” he said. “They remember people and the wines they like – it’s something they haven’t lost.”
The most recent Governor’s Cup points to an ongoing rebirth and re-creation of wine tourism on Keuka Lake. For the better part of a century, giant wine producers on the southern part of the lake such as Great Western, Gold Seal, Urbana and Taylor defined the region as tourism anchors. As they faded, farm wineries began dotting lakesides. Seneca Lake eclipsed the forked lake and Keuka began to market itself as a less crowded, slower-paced alternative.
In the late 1990s, emboldened by surging visitation and that first Governor’s Cup, the Wiltbergers left their other jobs and made wine their full-time occupation. In 2003, they moved out of the barn and into a modern tasting room and production facility.
For decades, Len made the wine before turning the reigns over to his son Mark. When Mark wanted to get experience elsewhere, they hired outside the family. Now Len heads operations, Judy manages the tasting room while daughter Jeanne handles marketing and Mark remains involved as a consultant.
Their second Governor’s Cup cements their place as a leading winery, but the award was also a huge score for August Deimel, who joined Keuka Springs as head winemaker in May of 2012. That vintage was the first he oversaw from bud break to bottle.
Deimel, 31, a native of Pittsburgh, came to the Keuka Spring from Adams County Winery in Pennsylvania. Since he had graduated from Cornell University with a Masters Degree he wanted to return to the Finger Lakes. He’s the first non-family member in a key role at the winery.
The summer of 2012 was warm, the type of steady heat that gets winemakers talking about a “red wine year.” That sounds great, but there’s a downside. That heat can cook off the mouth-watering acids that are a hallmark of Finger Lakes whites – particularly Rieslings. As the red grapes basked through August, Deimel and the team began to worry about flat, characterless whites. Then a cool spell delivered a jolt of acids well-ripened grapes bursting with character.
Despite the cooperation of the weather, the wine hardly “made itself” as is often said. The 2012 Riesling is the result of a blend. Keuka Spring sources Riesling from five different growers, and each lot has a different fermentation regimen based on the experience with the vineyards. Len, August, and assistant winemaker Meg Tipton agonized over how to blend those lots – or not – into the winery’s Riesling line-up. The result, so much greater than the sum of the parts, is the reflection of their palates.
“Individually, those Rieslings by themselves couldn’t have done it,” Deimel said. “Together, we hit on it.”
Bottled in March, the wine went into bottle shock for a few months. By June, it started to show nicely. Soon, it was a favorite of the staff, but while it was special, no one imagined it would bring home the Governor’s Cup. When the bench trial team was working on reds, Judy came in with the news that they had won the Governor’s Cup. When she asked Deimel what wine he thought won, the Riesling was his third guess.
“Meticulous,” is how Len describes his management philosophy and how it affects the final product. “Take care of your business, your product, keep a good relationship with growers,” he said. “Know what you want to end up with and recognize when you got something exceptional.”
243 Route 54, Penn Yan, 315.536.3147, keukaspringwinery.com
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of the magazine.