Grape growing is a delicate dance at Sawmill Creek
Written by Sarah Thompson, photos by Heather Ainsworth
Eric and Tina Hazlitt of Sawmill Creek Vineyards in Hector are yin and yang, working in a seamless dance of mutuality to sustain their reputation as one of the Finger Lakes’ premium wine grape growers. Eric, the sixth generation to farm his family’s land since its establishment in 1852, took up where his father and Sawmill Creek founder Jim Hazlitt left off. Eric handles farm and vineyard maintenance, while Tina manages the business. And now, their son Jason and daughter Erin also are working with them part-time. Sawmill Creek grows 16 varieties on 70 acres, including Albariño (according to Tina, Sawmill Creek is the only Finger Lakes vineyard that grows it), Syrah and Sangiovese. They also have three acres of sweet and sour cherry trees, all U-pick.
EFLX: What’s your focus right now in the vineyard? In the office?
Eric Hazlitt: This time of year it’s all canopy management, mowing and pest management.
Tina Hazlitt: In the spring, I send out newsletters to all our winery customers, telling them what we’re seeing in the vineyard. I also get out and start counting the little grape clusters to calculate our initial crop estimates so wineries can start planning. In August, I’ll be cutting bunches of grapes and weighing them, to calculate and send out the final crop estimates.
EFLX: What’s new in the vineyard this year?
TH: We’re trying some cool new technology, both so we can stay cutting edge and to reduce our chemical use. Bird pecks are a disaster for grapes, leading to rot. Netting is expensive and labor intensive. We invested in a three robotic laser guns backed by good research, which shoot a random pattern through the vineyard that birds hate. We’re trying them first in our orchard. And the AgroThermal is like a giant hair dryer, blowing intense heat (about 350°) into the fruiting zone. The heat triggers the vines’ natural survival instinct—you get better fruit set, and it kills mold spores and fruit flies. We’re just getting started with these, so we’ll see.
EFLX: Tina, which task you do has the biggest impact on the success of your business?
TH: My ability to manage money; Eric jokes that that’s why he married me! Eric talks to machinery really well; it just works for us. Also, my relationships with wineries and other wine industry folks. People know me. I sit on various industry boards, like the New York Wine Industry Association. I’m in it to raise everybody up, not just us. We’ve got to all be in this together.
EFLX: What’s the least romantic aspect about growing wine grapes?
EH: I can’t think of one thing that is remotely romantic about working on a farm—grapes or anything else, for that matter.
TH: The insects! No, having a farmer’s tan during tank-top season.
EFLX: What’s one thing you wish consumers knew about growing grapes?
EH: I wish consumers understood the effort that goes into every bottle of wine. Starting with planting the vineyard and all of the work that it takes to produce a quality crop, and then the skill and talent that it takes to make great wine.
TH: It’s not romantic. It’s hard work. Behind every bottle are family farms, families, the land, the legacy of the land. We’re proud of it. We bust our butt to get the best to wineries.
EFLX: What’s keeping you up at night lately?
EH: During the growing season, it seems that we can never quite keep up with all tasks at hand. Trying to prioritize the next day’s work list can definitely keep sleep from coming.
TH: Labor! We’ve got all this equipment and we need a butt in the seat. We’ve had an equipment operator position—with full benefits, paid vacation—open for three years.
EFLX: What keeps you guys coming back for more, year after year?
EH: We are a family operation. Walking away isn’t an option. We are trying to keep the operation going for the next generation. Although it’s hard work, the lifestyle that we have living and working on the family farm is very rewarding.
TH: Our son Jason just had his first child, and every decision we make, it’s for him. We really are so blessed. Even during harvest, we tend not to work the weekends.
EFL: Do farmers ever really retire?
EH: My dad is 83 and I can’t keep him off the tractor! I hope to be able to back away as I get older, but I suspect that I will always be a part of the scene at Sawmill Creek.
TH: [Laughing] I don’t think so!
5587 State Rte. 414, Hector, @sawmillcreekvineyards
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of the magazine.
Heather Ainsworth is a regular contributor to myriad publications and serves as hair of the National Press Photographers Association’s NY/Int’l region.
Sarah Thompson is a writer, certified yoga teacher and small vineyard owner in Penn Yan. She is the author of Finger Lakes Wine Country (Arcadia Publishing, 2015), an archival visual history covering more than 150 years of grape growing and winemaking in the Finger Lakes region.