Winemakers Strike a Pose for Charity

When winemaker Kelby Russell sent out an email to winemaker colleagues in May with the subject line "an immodest proposal", he wasn't sure what the response might be.
Meaghan Frank of Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery. Photo by Alana Ahouse

Story by Shannon Hazlitt Harts

When Red Newt Cellars winemaker Kelby Russell sent out an email to winemaker colleagues in May with the subject line “an immodest proposal”, he wasn’t sure what the response might be.

Russell was emailing about a project he had joked about for a while, but now thought he could make a reality to help benefit those in need. The project: a pin-up calendar featuring Finger Lakes winemakers to raise funds for several worthy causes.

It turns out, nearly every one of the winemakers that Russell emailed responded that they would be interested.

“We got to 12 in no time,” Russell said. “People were generally bemused by it.”

Russell also enlisted the help of Finger Lakes photographer Alana Ahouse, who additionally works as a vineyard manager. The tongue-in-cheek calendar includes winemaker photos and also tasting notes on wines from the 12 participating wineries.

The project formed in response to Russell and others in the winery industry worrying about their colleagues in the restaurant business who were hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We wanted to find a way to do something for the large swatch of the community that was having a hard time due to COVID,” Russell said.

Russell and other project organizers decided to donate proceeds to the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation which is directing funds to nonprofits that help restaurant workers dealing with crises, providing money directly to struggling restaurant workers, and is giving zero-interest loans to help restaurants get back up and running. The calendars also benefit several regional food banks, including the Foodbank of Central New York, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, Feed Albany, and Foodlink which serves Allegany, Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne, Wyoming, and Yates counties.

Russell said the initial goal was to raise $10,000, but by late September sales had already exceeded that to around $12,000. He anticipates the calendar going to print in mid-October.

Pre-orders for the calendars are still available online at

The group put together a tiered-level of support for people who want to get their hands on the calendar. The “Feeling Lucky” basic level gets you a calendar for a $25 donation. Calendars with the signatures of each winemaker are $40 and are part of the “Put A Ring On It” level while a $300 “”The Full Monty” donation includes a voucher for a mixed case of wine from participating wineries with a Sommelier’s ‘’pairing note’” for each wine and photo. The “Hey Big Spender” option of a $2,500 donation to include a special dinner for 12 at Yono’s in Albany has already sold out.

Since the wineries couldn’t ship mixed bottles of wines due to New York State regulations, Russell said Mark Grimaldi of the Cellar D’Or in Ithaca stepped up to help. Cellar D’Or is providing the shipping of the mixed cases for the $300 donation level after November 1. Other businesses supporting the effort include Silk Naturals based in Ithaca who provided the makeup for the winemaker models and ensured the photoshoots were COVID-safe, Stomping Grounds Arts in Geneva is designing the calendars, and Yono’s Restaurant in Albany donated the special dinner.

Russell says he hopes that more small businesses may take interest in selling the calendars in area stores. Business owners who are interested can email

Although there were a few bumps along the road in getting the project off the ground, such as coordinating the organizations to donate to and scheduling COVID-safe photoshoots, Russell said overall he’s thrilled the project is not only raising funds, but also inspiring smiles.

“It’s been a great feeling to know that we are doing something that is helping out the community,” he said. “But truly we got some beautiful comments from people about the calendars saying thank you for brightening their day in a time when it’s been rough the past few months.”

Shannon Hazlitt Harts is a freelance writer and editor who also helps out in the tasting room of her family’s business, Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards Winery. She grew up in Hector enjoying hiking the creeks near her house and baking countless pies with local peaches.

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