Meet your (Wine) Maker: Peter Bell, Fox Run Vineyards

Get to know Peter Bell, a 31-year veteran of the Finger Lakes winemaking scene.
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Peter Bell, head winemaker at Fox Run Vineyards on Seneca Lake.

Peter Bell remembers when Chardonnay was referred to as “Pinot Chardonnay”. He has coached Master of Wine candidates in China, mentored a generation of younger winemakers, and consulted all over the world. He lives with his wife Joanna Purdy in Penn Yan, NY.

What’s your background and education in winemaking?

I’m a city boy, so when I developed a deep interest in wine I couldn’t jumpstart my career by picking up a job at a local winery. I got a couple of WSET qualifications – they were called Certificate and Higher Certificate back then – and soon after that my wife and I went to France on the first stop of a round-the-world trip, to pick grapes at Chateau D’Angludet in Bordeaux. A year later, I was accepted into a Bachelor of Wine Science program at an Australian university. I won a scholarship while there, which gave me an income and some hands-on experience. I also taught wine appreciation at the local technical college and wrote a wine column for the Daily Advertiser, all while raising two young children.  After four years, we moved to New Zealand, where I had secured my first real job in the industry.

The lure of raising a family closer to home (Toronto) led me to look into job opportunities in the Finger Lakes. I was hired as head winemaker at Dr. Frank’s in 1990, and then headed to Fox Run five years later, where I’ve been ever since. 

What wine do you love to drink… and your favorite to make?

There’s almost always a bottle of FLX Riesling in the fridge. It’s the grape I came here for, and it’s so gratifying to see where we’ve gone with it over the last few decades. Pinot noir is among my favorite red wines, but it has to be really, really good to press all the pleasure buttons. I stay away from jammy, alcoholic wines, for obvious reasons, and have a pretty strong revulsion for red wine with a Brettanomyces infection. The wine I actually daydream about is Fino Sherry – as I’ve said many times, I can’t have it around too often because it turns me into a crackhead. 

I put a lot of effort into making every one of our wines, even ones I don’t often drink myself. We’ve found out that the fans of our entry-level labels are among the most discerning and loyal: if some small thing changes in them we’ll hear about it right away. One category of wine that I derive great pleasure from making is sweet fortified wines –  Ruby and  Tawny Port-style wines. The latter involves playing the long game, much like raising a kid through to adulthood. And you can’t send them off to boarding school – they do need ongoing involvement from me. The barrels of Tawny that I put together last year won’t be ready for release until I’m in my 70s, which is kind of a weird feeling. 

Music choice for harvest vs bottling?

Back before I had an assistant winemaker and had the place mostly to myself, I would listen to a lot of classical, jazz and acoustic string music. My first assistant, Tricia, was curious about, and agreeable to, anything I put on. When Kelby Russell was interning here, he and I got into all kinds of eclectic stuff, including a yearly harvest ritual of blasting John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme at the end of the evening. 

That kind of behavior in later years tended to put people on edge, so I’ve come around to letting the staff choose what music they want to listen to. There have been a couple of rules over the years: no Mozart, no Hootie and the Blowfish, and limited amounts of that aberration known as Classic Rock. Although I used to listen to a lot of reggae in the 1970s during Bob Marley’s heyday, it’s a genre that no one likes around here.  

On the bottling line, everybody’s pretty much in their own world with earbuds, turned to a volume that still allows them to hear when some piece of machinery acts up. 

What do you love about where you work?

1. There’s something innately appealing about making a product that exists pretty much solely to bring pleasure to people.

2. I don’t have to sit at a desk for more than a few hours a day.

3. No two days are alike.

4. I get to be part of a very intelligent, affectionate, and close-knit tribe of winemakers and scientists.

5. These Finger Lakes of ours.

6. It’s Fox Run – what more need I say?

Fox Run Vineyards at sunset

Fox Run Vineyards; 670 NY-14, Penn Yan, NY 14527

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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