By Kathleen Willcox
Peter Bell is like the weather.
Often quiet and unobtrusive, he’s always there. He’s a force who has shaped — and, through his tireless mentoring of people who have become top winemakers, will continue to shape — the arc of winemaking in the United States for generations to come.
On the face of it, the 66-year-old Bell is pretty unassuming. Born in Boston and raised by Canadian parents, he studied psychology and anthropology as an undergrad, and didn’t begin his wine career in earnest until he graduated, was married and came down with a bad case of the wine bug. As an experiment — or confirmation of his diagnosis — he went to pick grapes at Bordeaux’s Chateau d’Angludet in 1983 with his wife, Joanna Purdy.
That was it: Bell was a goner.
He enrolled in the wine program at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, Australia, then cut his teeth as an assistant winemaker in Marlborough, New Zealand. At that point, he had two children and wanted to put down roots closer to family in Toronto. Luckily, opportunity knocked.
“In 1990, they needed a winemaker at Dr. Konstantin Frank, and I decided to go for it,” Bell recalls. It was a big change, but Bell immediately felt a kinship with the community of growers and producers in the Finger Lakes.
“It’s far from corporate here, and I love that,” Bells says. “And there’s a genuine push to elevate the region. The difference in viticulture, winemaking and wine quality from the time I came here in 1990 to now is amazing.”
The Elevation of the Finger Lakes
Bell has played a major role in that steady increase in quality across the region. In many ways, his growth as a winemaker dovetails with the increase in the acclaim of the Finger Lakes.
He left Dr. Frank after five years — and after earning a slew of awards and accolades. His next stop was right around the corner.
“When Scott Osborn approached me to come make wine at Fox Run, I resisted,” Bell says. “But I woke up one day, and asked myself, ‘Why am I resisting?’ Scott and I saw eye-to-eye from the beginning, and he gave me the freedom to do what I needed to do.”
When Bell took over the cellar Fox Run Vineyards, it produced around 3,000 cases of mostly Chardonnay and Riesling. Now, production includes 22,000 cases of Riesling, Chardonnay, Traminette, Lemberger, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Merlot, along with a few others. What’s more, it’s increased estate plantings from 15 to 30 acres. And, as was the case during Bell’s time at Dr. Frank, Fox Run has become a magnet for critical laurels, including 90+ scores from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits and multiple gold medals and Best of Show recognition in international wine competitions.
Maestro of Mentoring
While much of Fox Run’s success can be attributed to the inherent quality of the estate vineyard’s terroir — which overlooks Seneca Lake, with east-facing vineyards on glacial soils — much can also be attributed to Bell’s work with the vineyard team on canopy management and growing practices, and his focus in the cellar on fermentation techniques.
But there’s something less tangible, too.
“Peter is a gentle titan of the Finger Lakes Wine Industry, a keystone in the bridge from the rough and tumble that characterized the start of the industry to the professionalism and brilliant wines of today,” says Kelby Russell, a former mentee, and now head winemaker at Red Newt Cellars and founder of Kelby James Russell Wines in the Finger Lakes.
“Peter not only accomplished this evolution through his wines, but through his fostering of a winemaking community here and the countless interns he mentored over the years. I was fortunate to be one of those interns, and will forever look to his mentoring as an example of what the best mentors are: eager to teach and to learn, and excited for the growth of all those around them.”
Bell, indeed, has earned a reputation for being a mentor extraordinaire.
“I didn’t set out to be that person,” Bell says. “People just came to me. Fox Run became known as a place where ideas could be explored and the microbiology of wine could be explained and demonstrated. I can only take credit for welcoming smart and interested people, no matter what their background was, and letting them work alongside me. I couldn’t afford to pay them, so I’d tell them everything I know in exchange for their labor.”
It worked out well for all, he says, and imbued graduates of his rarefied boot camp with the knowledge, tools and skills to balance the science and art of winemaking.
“Peter taught me the importance of balancing empirical data with what your nose and palate are telling you,” says Julia Hoyle, also a former mentee and head winemaker at Hosmer Winery in the Finger Lakes. “Numbers tell you one story, but flavors tell you another. Using both of these tools and paying attention to detail allows for great wines to be made — as Peter has proven time and again.”
Bell retired from Fox Run in September 2022, sending shockwaves through the industry he enhanced, in large and small ways.
“People were surprised,” he admits. “And in some ways, I was too. But I didn’t want to get to the point where I felt like I was circling the drain. Winemaking is a very physical job.”
He’s still working though, at Fox Run and as a consultant at wineries across the Finger Lakes.
“I work as much as I want now, which is nice,” Bell says. “The future for the Finger Lakes is bright. Climate change is here, but it just isn’t affecting us the way it is in Europe and the Western United States with extreme heat, drought and wildfires. We are 90% there in terms of quality. We can still grow, but I love the vibe now. I don’t want things to change too much.”
Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox
About Wine’s Most Inspiring People: Each year, Wine Industry Advisor chooses 10 individuals from within the wine industry who showcase leadership, innovation and inspiration. For the first time in 2021, WIA opened submissions to the industry at large, and the success of this new nomination process was quickly recognized, as honorees came from more diverse wine regions and had more distinct stories to tell. With more than 100 nominees in 2022, the editorial team selected the top 10 individuals who, they felt, had truly positively impacted the U.S. wine culture over the past year.