Meet Your Winemaker: Kevin Lee and Jess Johnson, Wagner Vineyards

Get to know the next generation taking up the mantel from Finger Lakes master winemakers.
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For more than three decades, the winemaking direction of Wagner Vineyards rested in the tried and true hands of John Herbert and the first female winemaker in the Finger Lakes, Ann Raffetto. Now that task belongs to co-winemakers Kevin Lee and Jess Johnson who, in conjunction with co-Owner and General Manager John Wagner, are crafting nuanced and expressive wines from estate fruit grown on our Seneca Lake farm.

Kevin and Jess took different paths to arrive at their positions – Kevin grew up among the vines while Jess climbed the ladder from tasting room associate to winemaker. Their backgrounds and experiences – with mentorship from Wagner’s past winemaking team – culminate in a cellar devoid of ego and brimming with potential.

The duo took over winemaking duties full time in 2019, and resulting wines already are earning international recognition, signaling a bright future for Wagner Vineyards. Edible Finger Lakes had a chance to sit and talk to them both.

Edible FLX: Why did you choose to make wine here?

Kevin – Wagner is my family’s business. I grew up in the Finger Lakes working in our estate vineyards for my grandfather, Bill Wagner, and my uncle, John Wagner. I worked in the vineyards each summer till I graduated high school. I did not always know I wanted to work in winemaking, and our family never pushed any of us to. I left for college and I came back with the intention of working for a year and then going back to grad school. I took over as manager of the winery and brewery. Then after a couple of years in retail sales, I expressed interest in winemaking to my uncle (John Wagner). Our longtime co-winemaker, John Herbert, wanted to retire, so I was able to move into an assistant winemaker position under Ann and started learning winemaking under her. When Ann retired in 2019, Jess and I took over and are now co-winemakers producing over 30 Wagner wines each year.

Kevin Lee, Winemaker. Photo courtesy of Wagner Vineyards

EFL: What do you find most challenging about making wine here?

Jess – The very different growing seasons for each vintage are the most challenging, which most likely can be said for every growing region. It’s unpredictable, but it adds interest to the wines and makes each vintage unique.

EFL: What’s your background and education in winemaking?

Kevin – I gained a lot of experience just growing and working on the vineyard.  I went to the University at Albany and received a B.S. in biology. Those six years as an apprentice under Ann were invaluable. I haven’t implemented much of my own techniques yet but I’ve been enjoying implementing a lot of the techniques I learned from Ann, which has served us well over the years. She taught me the fundamentals of winemaking – how to get the most out of the grapes and produce the best wine possible every vintage and there is still so much to learn. Year to year in the Finger Lakes can be very different, so optimizing each year is key to successful winemaking. 

Jess – I received a B.S. degree in Design from RIT in 2011. I first learned winemaking during my seven years at Standing Stone Vineyards under winemaker Marti Macinski. I came to Wagner Vineyards in 2018 and worked under Ann before she retired. I am continually learning – always. As female winemakers in the industry, both Ann and Marti were great educators to work under. These two ladies are unique and inspiring; it’s challenging to write out everything I’ve absorbed and the skills I’ve learned from each of them (it would be a lengthy list). They both were passionate about winemaking and are still to this day two of the most efficient, innovative, knowledgeable, and hard-working mentors I’ve been lucky enough to work with. I feel I don’t stand up to their greatness just yet, and that’s OK because it’s something to continually strive, grow, and aspire to. All I hope to do is to continue to learn, respect, and capture the fruit, site, and vintage for each coming year.

Jess Johnson, Winemaker. Photo courtesy of Wagner Vineyards.

EFL: What is your favorite non-wine FLX beverage?

Kevin – I like to visit all the craft breweries in the area as well as enjoy the beer made here at Wagner Valley Brewing Co. 

EFL: What is your favorite activity outside of winemaking?

Jess – Outside of winemaking, I enjoy hiking and being outdoors. I also enjoy painting.

EFL: Music choice for harvest vs bottling?

Kevin – The sounds of all the equipment working are what we listen to here in wine production. Presses, pumps, filters, fillers, labelers, etc., all make unique sounds. You have to be able to hear when something doesn’t sound right and get to that machine quickly.

Jess – Listening is key! One early morning late in harvest we were loading a press with Riesling. I thought the must pump was off so I closed the valve to the press (we will blame my ears because I couldn’t hear well with other equipment running, but at that point in harvest it could have been lack of sleep and mental fatigue. Quickly found out the pump had run a little longer after I had closed the valve and built-up pressure. When I went to take the clamp and gasket off to unhook the 4” hose, the pressure blew the line backward at my face. Luckily, all was good except for some juice and grapes dispersed around. Needless to say, it was a good reminder to take your time, always double/triple-check, and well, listen to the process! It was an epic way to fully wake up.

ELF: What do you love about where you work?

Jess – I feel there is a sense of community, devotion, kindness, and humbleness here at Wagner. Everyone is willing to help each other and learn. There is also this rich history where the passion for grape growing and winemaking are continually expressed.

EFL: What advice do you have for aspiring winemakers?

Kevin – The best place to learn is onsite in a winery. I’d recommend working in vineyards, tasting rooms, and in wine production. Understanding all facets of the winery business from growing grapes, producing wine, and selling wine bottles will help you become a better winemaker. 

EFL: How has the transition been since Ann Raffetto retired after almost 40 years as head winemaker?

Kevin – Ann left some very big shoes to fill after being here for so long and creating fantastic wines. She prepared Jess and I for the transition and it has been very smooth. We hope to continue to produce great wines for years to come. We are always looking into new equipment, techniques, yeast, nutrients etc., to utilize in our wine production. All of the practices Ann taught me will never leave Wagners and will continue to be applied in our winemaking as long as I am here.     

Jess – There is no replacing Ann, and although I think the transition has been good so far, it’s always challenging to be down a key player. It’s great to have Ann and John Herbert around as resources, as they have so many years of experience here and endless knowledge. They join us for a Riesling Tank sample tasting each year post-harvest and give their input, which we have been grateful for and have been very beneficial.

Wagner Vineyards Winery 9322, NY-414, Lodi, NY 14860 Phone(866) 924-6378

The Edible Finger Lakes “Meet Your Wine Maker” column is developed in partnership with the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance whose mission is to increase the visibility and reputation of the Finger Lakes AVA, its wines, and wineries.

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