By: Paul Vigna
The future of any industry rests with who’s coming along to take the reins. That’s certainly true in winemaking, where families are turning over responsibility to their kids or hiring a college grad. Here are vignettes on four under-35 mid-Atlantic winemakers who already have made an impact.
Virginia Mitchell, Galer Estate Winery
Like most students, Virginia Smith entered college at Penn State unsure of a career destination. She knew she loved food; hence the decision to start in Food Science in the College of Agriculture. But it was a research project that got her interested in wine and learning more about what she calls “the culture, artistry and science of the craft.”
Once she participated in her first harvest in the Lake Erie region in fall 2011, any questions about her future aspirations were answered. She worked an internship at Mazza Vineyards along Lake Erie, noting that “It was a first-hand experience into the hard work and long hours that go into grape processing, winemaking, cellar work and bottling.”
Three years later she jumped in with both feet, leaving Mazza, getting married and sneaking in a honeymoon, then heading across Pennsylvania to Galer Estate Winery in Chester County. The winemaker and winery manager have fit in well at the boutique winery adjacent to the renowned Longwood Gardens, northwest of Philly. It produces around 2,500 cases annually.
“When I was hired I had very little understanding of what terroir and typicity of the wines meant. I have learned so much about my personal style of winemaking during my five years at Galer,” she says.
Mitchell, 29, looks at every year as a new experiment and winemaking as a constant learning process. While those food science classes are in her past, she still sees similarities.
“I wanted to make a product that would be special and a new experience — not just the same product on a conveyor belt, year after year,” she says. “I believe that the wine helps to create a memorable experience for so many people, which makes it unique and special every time you taste.”
Lauren Zimmerman, Port of Leonardtown Winery
It’s not just the awards that make people stand up and take notice of Lauren Zimmerman. There have been plenty of those, including seven gold medals in Maryland’s 2018 Governor’s Cup competition and two best in class. But Port of Leonardtown Winery, almost 100 miles south of Baltimore, sources its grapes from a co-op, which presents its own challenges. Still, it succeeds.
“I’ve learned there are no set rules for winemaking,” she says. “I also learned that all viticulture areas have their own set of challenges. While growing grapes in Ontario we had to fight with the deep freeze of winter. I always envied the southern vineyards but after moving to Maryland in 2012, I quickly learned it’s not all warm weather and sunny skies.”
Zimmerman, 34, grew up in Prince Edward County, a Canadian wine region that has recently exploded. Back in the early 2000s, she says new vineyards were popping up close to her home. “I was intrigued by the agriculture side of the business, but it was my mom, an avid wine drinker, who convinced me to study enology and viticulture after I graduated high school. I thank her regularly, usually with bottles of wine. I couldn’t imagine myself in any other industry.”
That much is obvious from watching interact, either with other winemakers or customers. “Some people find the wine industry intimidating, as if they have to describe each sip in specific detailed tasting notes. I assure them that the most important thing is that they like the way the wine tastes.”
When she gets a little down time, she’ll tour other wineries and chat with winemakers about the challenges they face. “And of course, taste their wine,” she says. “It’s the best way to learn.”
Mike Beneduce, Beneduce Vineyards
If anything has made Mike Beneduce grow up fast in the wine industry, it has been central Jersey’s fickle weather.
“I used to be devastated when we would work our fingers to the bone all year to grow this beautiful fruit for like 360 days and then have a massive rainstorm come through five days before harvest and just destroy a whole year’s worth of work,” says Beneduce, 30. “ Recently I’ve just started to accept that as part of the gig.”
That would describe his move into winemaking, creating a product that he recalls being made in the basement as a child. “When my siblings and I got a little older our Dad would let us play hooky from school to help with bottling, and I always volunteered to run the bottling machine because you had to start the flow by siphoning the wine into each filler head with your mouth. Of course, you’d end up getting a mouthful of wine every time.”
He graduated magna cum laude from Cornell in 2010 and hasn’t looked back since. “I’ve learned that there really is no right or wrong in winemaking,” he says. “You just try something, pay attention to the results, and adjust your game plan for the next year.”
A Certified Sommelier under the Court of Master Sommeliers and an active professional member of the international gastronomic society, he’s also past chairman of the Garden State Winegrowers Association. The winery, considered one of New Jersey’s best, is a member of The Winemakers Co-Op that’s pushing to raise quality.
It won’t happen overnight, he says. “More than anything we just need time. Progress is measured in generations in this business, so we just need to be patient and do what we can with the time we have.”
Katie DeSouza Henley, Casanel Vineyards
So what is the most satisfying aspect of 31-year-old Katie DeSouza Henley’s job? She says it’s the cultivation of legacy.
“Everything starts with you: planting, caring for the vines, harvest & crush, fermentation, aging, bottling and finally selling that ultimate product, she says. “From bud to bottle, my fingerprints are there: not only to remind me of where I started, but also to illuminate where we are going as a family and as a business.”
A Virginia native who majored in English at Virginia Tech, she found enology and viticulture much more to her liking. “Two things drew me into winemaking: my family and curiosity.”
They bought the farm in Leesburg, in Loudoun County, in 2006 and opened the winery two years later. “I saw huge potential and opportunity to grow in Virginia’s booming wine industry; I started as the dishwasher and never looked back,” she says.
Since 2014 she has been overseeing winemaking and grape growing at Casanel, a winner of state and national awards, including best in class for its 2016 Carménère at the recent San Francisco Chronicle competition.
“Raising the bar is so much more about quality-driven winegrowing and winemaking practices: it’s about building a business model that supports sustainability and pride in one’s own estate vineyards and cellar,” she says. “The East Coast, especially Virginia, will only be recognized as a legitimate grape-growing and winemaking region when we place emphasis on growing better-quality grapes here at home rather than sourcing them from other outside regions.”