Written by Sarah Barden, photos by Rachel Philipson
While pursuing a degree at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Hilary Niver-Johnson was studying grape-seed oil as a possible biofuel. She was excited about taking a byproduct of the winemaking process and using it in a sustainable way. However, she learned that when grapes are pressed for wine, the grape seeds aren’t separated out. Instead, they become part of a product called “pomace,” which consists of all the skins, stems and seeds mixed together after the pressing. Grape seeds make up only 25% of pomace, meaning her biofuel creation process used only a small amount of the byproduct—not very sustainable. Ultimately, her desire to minimize this waste led Niver-Johnson to the creation of Wine Flour.
“It’s kind of intuitive,” she explained. “As soon as you dry it, you can grind anything.”
Since 2015 her company, Sustainable Viticulture Systems (SVS), has been sun drying and stone milling the pomace of Finger Lakes wine grapes into a beautiful line of Wine Flours. From golden Chardonnay to deep plum Merlot, the flours imbue the recipes they’re used in with the colors and flavors of their grape of origin.
But there’s more here than meets the eye. Niver-Johnson described her product as “a superfood powder meant to add flavor, color and nutrition!” A tablespoon of Wine Flour adds three grams of protein and three grams of fiber, plus a host of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. “It’s a supplement, not a substitute,” and should be used with other flours when baking.
Niver-Johnson spent many of her formative years working for Finger Lakes food icons. She credits the late Deb Whiting at Red Newt Cellars for instilling her work ethic. “[Deb] definitely was a huge mentor to me because I was a terrible worker and she sat me down and said ‘You only have this choice or that choice. Make a decision. Step it up.’ … I’ll never forget that moment and it made me completely change how I operated in the food business.”
Suzanne Stack of Suzanne Fine Regional Cuisine continues to inspire her. “She would never put something on the menu she wasn’t completely satisfied with and stood behind. Also, the way she treated her customers and her employees. She’s one of the best people I’ve ever worked for because she treated us so well and always gave credit where it was due.”
Both of her mentors have long had an interest in local sourcing, an influence that was not lost on Niver-Johnson. SVS’s Hector-based mill currently sources pomace from Red Newt, Atwater Estate Vineyards, Forge Cellars, Hector Wine Company, Ryan William Vineyard and Leidenfrost Vineyards. “We work with smaller wineries that we can make a larger impact with.”
Niver-Johnson began her business striving to make a positive environmental impact, but over the years stories of people receiving Wine Flour as a holiday gift were pivotal for her. “Food is what brings people together and where memories are created,” she said. Niver-Johnson did not intend to start a culinary business, and though her heart is still in renewable energy and sustainability, she has embraced this world.
Sarah Barden takes every opportunity to try new food, and now leads tours with her husband through their business Ithaca is Foodies Culinary Tours (ithacaisfoodies.com). When she’s not working, she’s still eating—documented on Instagram @ithacaisfoodies.
Rachel Philipson began her career as a freelance photographer in the Boston area after graduating from Montserrat College of Art with a BFA in photography. She has continued to expand her portfolio as an artistic photographer. A native of Ithaca, she and her husband share their home with two beagles and three cats.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 Women’s Issue of Edible Finger Lakes.