Music for Fermenting

Written by Kelby Russell, Photos by Heather Ainsworth

If you’ve ever talked with a Finger Lakes winemaker you know that during harvest they spend long days and late nights working the vines, hand-selecting the fruit, running the press, scrubbing tanks and punching down juice. Music can make the time pass and, as a result, many winemakers are aficionados when it comes to cellar playlists. We asked Kelby Russell, winemaker at Red Newt Winery and Bistro, to give us his greatest hits that get him through the season

Purple Rain,” by Prince. As performed by myself and Assistant Winemaker Meagz Goodwin, at the top of our lungs, as we loaded the last press of harvest 2015, at midnight, outside in a pounding thunderstorm. We crushed the guitar solo.

Black Me Out,” by Against Me!. The closing song of our “Harvest Pump-Up” playlist, a key motivator after any long harvest day when two hours of cleanup are about to begin. This song is a great summation for our winemaking philosophy: Know yourself, take no prisoners and always celebrate explosive guitars.

Santeria,” by Sublime. Play this song during a long bottling day whenever James, our faithful cellar master, is having a low moment. Instant pick-me-up. “Never Too Much,” by Luther Vandross. I’ll never forget the look, and uproarious laughter, from my friend Thomas Pastuszak when this came blasting out of our speakers at 2:30am during a fruit-sorting night one harvest. Sometimes you just have to groove.

Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45, by Johannes Brahms. A requirement for the first Riesling inoculation day of every harvest. Nothing could be more appropriate. Tasting room staff and patrons on the deck over the cellar have been alarmed by the chorus’s stentorian roar of “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras.”

Heat Wave,” by Ella Fitzgerald. There is no song more appropriate to play at the start of ice wine picking day. Or, at least, that is what I think. Friends and family involved in picking the ice wine did not seem to appreciate the ironic humor of this combination. The mulled wine seemed to help, though.

Missa Mater Patris,” by Josquin des Prez. When I was first getting into the wine industry by interning at Fox Run, I would often listen to Renaissance polyphony during the calm of my morning drive on beautiful, harvest sunrise mornings. I’ve carried this with me to Red Newt, particularly those mornings when we are out working patiently in the vineyard. I am always struck by the natural beauty of these masterworks, that they are built upon multiple different melody lines being performed simultaneously, each with its own personality and direction, yet all overlapping in ways that can create angelic overtones—illusory, crystalline notes that only exist if the harmony is perfect and the listener is open to them. These works also require a remarkable discipline on behalf of the performers, both to perfect every last detail in rehearsal and to subsume their individual voice to the potential of the ensemble. Yet when it happens? Magic. Soul lifting. A creation of something not-of-this-earth from those firmly rooted to it. I find this music and its underpinnings deeply meditative, and a reflection of what we are trying to do in the vineyard and winery. In some moments, when I’m particularly carried away by this feeling, I cannot help but play the music for everyone in the vineyard and excitedly explain my hope in this metaphor. James is notably not a fan of these moments.

Closer,” Nine Inch Nails. Sometimes the day just calls for it.

This story was featured in our Wine 2018 Issue 


Kelby James Russell is the winemaker for Red Newt Cellars and Empire Estate Wines, Terrassen Wines and various other projects. He is the spouse of Julia Hoyle, winemaker at Hosmer Winery. They may talk about work too much at home for their own sanity

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