1998 – Seems like a lifetime ago.
Time. It’s a funny thing.
Just last year, it sometimes seems, I was working as a hired gun winemaker dreaming of starting something that my wife and I could call our own. We, or really she (Debra Whiting), had been building an upscale catering company as a segue out of a research career at Cornell. That’s when we had this bright idea…
We had lived in Hector since 1989 just a couple of miles up the hill from the former Wickham Vineyards Winery. The Wickham family first came to Hector around 1811 and have been fruit growers in the area ever since. Around 1980 they decided to make their foray in to the wine business and did so with great gusto, building and equipping a winery that is today the main building at Red Newt Cellars. It was truly a different world in the wine business back then. And with the challenges of dealing with the stigma of New York State wines, not to mention double digit interest rates, they were out of business within a few year,s and the building was languishing. We had been searching for a spot and a concept for our gig, but never gave the old Wickham winery a thought. Until one day… DING… it made perfect sense. We took a trip down
to visit the owner and a vacant building.
Designed and built in 1980, it was a gem of 1970’s styling. Long mono-slope roof with a spacious deck, rough cut stained interior paneling. My favorite 70’s touch may have been the lights… round glass globes hanging at the peak of the dining room as well as under the balcony. Note how the ones above are 50% larger then the ones below. Kinda like the Disney Castle, but in reverse. That’s where the Wickham’s had their tasting room. The north end is were the wine production happened in the cellar. And upstairs was the warehouse with concrete floors and no windows. This is where our tasting room would come to live. By the time we moved in, most of the tanks had been sold off, but some of the equipment was still on the crush pad. This 60 ton refrigeration unit was part of the original setup, as was this state of the art (in 1980) Willmes bladder press. I didn’t use the grape press. It was in pretty rough shape and was sold by our landlords by harvest time. We had a lean set of cellar equipment consisting of four 500 gallon tanks bought used from the Hazlitt’s. Gerry Hazlitt had a local fabrication shop build them when he started Hazlitt 1852. There were two 620 gallon tanks that we also bought (back) used which were two of the original tanks from the Wickham start up. A half dozen barrels, one small pump (which we still use today) and some hoses. That was it! Grapes were pressed at Chateau Lafayette Reneau. (I had been winemaker at CLR a few years before.) I made some pretty nice wines that year… I drank what I believe to be the last bottle of 1998 Merlot in existence a couple of months ago at dinner with friends, and it was just plain great. It reminds me that great wines are truly a product of fruit, passion and ingenuity!