Best (Family) Feet Forward

At Lakewood Vineyards, the Stamps celebrate 30 years of unpretentious perfection

 By Sarah Scheur Thompson

It’s a wet weekday in late June and the bottling line is running full tilt at Lakewood Vineyards. Assistant Winemaker Abby Stamp loads pallets of wine onto a waiting tractor trailer. Her brother and co-assistant Ben works gauges on the Brite tank. Their grandmother Bev is running from tasting room to office, answering questions. College-age cousins are out front and on the line. This is essential Lakewood: collegial, unpretentious—but seriously busy, and serious about wine. And after three decades of continuous improvement, the Stamp family isn’t slowing down.

A fateful family meeting

In 1951, Frank Stamp—a former Naval dentist during World War II—moved his family from Maryland to a farm on the west side of Seneca Lake. It was dotted with old fruit trees, which Frank tore out to plant the native American grape varieties fueling the Finger Lakes’ grape and wine industry then. Monty, Chris and Dave’s father was just a teenager.

Today, Lakewood Vineyards farms 80 acres of grapes, produces nearly 80,000 gallons of wine, and garners winery and wine honors nearly every year. But in 1987, when the Stamps had been selling bulk grapes for more than 30 years, the future wasn’t so bright. At that time, the grape market was tanking; as the big wineries like Great Western, Taylor and Canandaigua Wine Company canceled contracts, prices dropped so that, as Chris said, “the vineyards were a liability.”

So a family meeting was called and a decision was made: Stamp relatives near and far combined their savings to start a winery. On June 10, 1989—backed by $50,000 and Stamp family resolve—Lakewood Vineyards held its grand opening.

“We lived through all those times. We wanted to save the farm,” said Chris. “Our mission statement is to be a place where any family member who wants a job could work here.”

Growing the future

The Stamps continue to keep the family together through grape growing and winemaking. Chris is head winemaker, alongside two of his children, Abby and Ben. Dave Stamp, Chris’s brother, has managed the vineyard from the start, and his wife, Erin, is Lakewood’s brand manager. Nieces and nephews work the bottling line and in the tasting room. Chris and Dave’s mother, Bev, handles billing and helps in the tasting room, while Chris’s wife, Liz, does mostly general management.

Chris is adamant that his children have a future with Lakewood, like he did, so growth is always on his mind.

“We try a lot of things, stick our toe in the water,” he said. “We’re cautiously expanding.”

Since Monty Stamp’s death in 2007, the winery has undergone three major additions. The most recent included a vaulted tank room to house 11 new 2,500-gallon stainless steel tanks and an outdoor tasting bar covered with a louvered roof, surrounded by upgraded landscaping. And a few years ago, the Stamps bought 113 acres to expand their vineyards. Regardless of scale, most improvements have been made quietly and in service to making the best possible product. For example, when Chris wanted to make a sparkling wine, he wasn’t happy with the quality of outsourcing options at the time. So he invested in two Brite tanks and a special counter-pressure bottling line for carbonated wines. The method is perfect for light, fruity, affordable wines similar in style to Italian prosecco. And now he can also offer the service to other local wineries.

“My dad [winery founder Monty Stamp] is talking through me: Why have someone else do it if you can do it yourself?” said Chris. “It’s kind of a curse.”

“Doing our absolute best”

Maybe the Stamp family “curse”—that DIY, no-nonsense approach to making excellent wine using what you’ve got—is the key to Lakewood’s success. As farmers first, the Stamps don’t play favorites; there are no “red-headed stepchildren” at Lakewood Vineyards. Whether Cayuga White, DeChaunac, Riesling or Pinot Noir, they take great care to make exceptional wines with each variety.

“It’s hard to imagine bringing in grapes and not doing our absolute best with them. It’s all an investment, we have to put our best foot forward,” Chris said.

In the cellar, Abby and Ben—both graduates of Cornell’s enology degree program, like their dad—are doing that by bringing their perspectives and palates to the table. Chris, Abby and Ben make every decision as a team, which Chris firmly believes always leads to a better wine. Abby agrees.

“My dad challenges my brother and me, but I think we challenge him some too. At the same time, we manage to have a lot of fun at work,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for better people to make wine with.”

Sarah Thompson is a writer, certified yoga teacher and small vineyard owner in Penn Yan. She is the  author of Finger Lakes Wine Country (2015, Arcadia Publishing), an archival visual history covering more than 150 years of grape-growing and winemaking in the Finger Lakes region. 

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