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Mountain Home Magazine

The Family Villa

Apr 18, 2014 02:33PM

Greg and Elizabeth Missick met more than thirty-five years ago in southern California while Elizabeth was on vacation visiting her sister there.

“I fell in love right away. When I first saw her, I said ‘I’m gonna marry you,’” Greg recalls, laughing. “Nobody believed me. And it took a lot of talking—a lot—to convince her. There were a lot of opportunities not to get together. But it was meant to be.”

Elizabeth fell for the allure of California—and Greg—eventually. They built a life together. Early on, Greg started a construction business, and Elizabeth kept the books from the living room of their apartment. The business grew into a successful enterprise, creating large-scale multifamily developments in Los Angeles and beyond. The couple started a family, raising two often-mischievous boys.

But Elizabeth had grown up in Rochester, New York, and part of her heart was always back home. She missed the seasons, and the rest of her family. “I love California. It’s been good to my family,” she says. “But I always wanted to go back home.”

As her boys grew up and left for their own jobs, and as Greg neared retirement, Elizabeth lobbied for a move eastward. She wanted time to relax. But Greg, always on the go, knew he could never truly retire. What could possibly bring the family eastward?

On occasion when the couple traveled back to Rochester to visit Elizabeth’s family, they’d drive along Lake Ontario admiring the big old homes on the shore. “They’re the kind of homes that are passed down through families,” Elizabeth says. “They’re almost never for sale.”

So when one actually did come up for sale about five years ago, Elizabeth was the first to inquire about the home, the first to view it, and the first to put down an offer. Sold. Now, she could get her upstate New York fix, visit family, and feel at home.

Elizabeth never expected that in 2011, it would be there, in the piano room of the vacation home, that she would find the way to bring her whole family back east, together. Rochester’s newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle, printed an announcement that Villa Bellangelo, a winery on Seneca Lake, was for sale. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ Had I always thought that we would own a winery? No,” she says.

Greg remembers getting the phone call from his wife. “Elizabeth said, ‘Let’s buy it.’ And I thought, the wine, the countryside…I would enjoy that.”

Matt, their younger son, got the phone call while traveling in Las Vegas. Their older son, Chris, remembers getting a text message about the possibility.

Chris’s wife, Laure, says, “Everyone remembered the winery. It was a sign.”

The entire family had visited the winery back in 2009. That’s when Chris and Laure hosted their wedding reception at the Lake Ontario vacation home and the whole clan had gone wine tasting. Their last stop was Villa Bellangelo, on the recommendation of their limo driver. Someone snapped a photo of the family sitting in a booth at the window, enjoying the view. “Can you imagine having something like this?” Chris asked his dad. Something had sparked Chris’s imagination.

Like Greg and Elizabeth’s early relationship, the family winery adventure seemed like it was meant to be, despite lots of obstacles. Greg’s construction business was going strong. The family didn’t know much about the wine industry. The winery itself needed upgrades.

Matt, the younger of the two sons, was rooted in southern California. He had a steady job as a court stenographer. His best friends lived nearby. He visited his parents at their house almost daily. “I thought I’d live there forever,” he says.

Chris, Laure, Matt, Elizabeth, and Greg Missick.

Chris also was building a life for himself in California, along with his wife, Laure. He had completed his undergraduate studies at Sacramento State, and served in Kuwait as an Army reservist. He had attended Whittier Law School to study corporate bankruptcy law. In his spare time, he learned his way around the wines of Napa and Sonoma Valleys. At the house he shared with Matt, he even planted grape vines in the backyard, set up carboys in the garage, and began making his own wine (even though Matt continued to prefer beer).

It was law school that had led him to his wife. Chris recalls sitting in a contracts class when a stodgy professor declared that much of the students’ careers in law would be full of drudgery and misery. But, said the professor, they had a chance to do something amazing before going down that path. They could study law in France for the summer.

In Toulouse, a city in the south of France, Chris frequented an Irish pub. “An added benefit was that Toulouse was surrounded by some of the best wine regions in the world, like Bordeaux,” he says. About a week before the program ended, mutual friends introduced him to Laure. She and her friends, who were studying languages, liked to go to the pub in part to practice their English. “It was love at first sight,” says Chris. Laure says it was a classic “boy meets girl” love story. But could they make the relationship work long distance? By Christmas of that year, she had already traveled to California for a visit. The next summer, Chris took a gamble. Instead of finding a summer job that could lead to a fulltime career after graduation, he returned to study at the same program and reconnect with Laure.

Three years later, in June 2009, Chris and Laure married in an Orange County courthouse. “It was the first and only immigration case I’ve done,” says Chris.

Living in the United States was lonely at first for Laure. While waiting for the immigration issues to be settled, she couldn’t work, which meant she wasn’t meeting coworkers, clients, or friends. She watched a lot of CNN and Fox News. “In a sense, the transition was seamless at first, from one western culture to another,” she says, in her nearly perfect English. But then deeper differences surfaced, “like an aftershock.” Health insurance payments. Student loans. And, of course, the wine culture.

Months after Chris and Laure’s courthouse wedding, the family celebrated with a reception at the Missicks’ Lake Ontario vacation home. The post-wedding wine tasting—that eventually led them to Villa Bellangelo—was something entirely foreign to Laure, her mother, and her sister. Wine tasting as an activity is not part of the French wine culture.

“The idea of drinking a glass of wine by the fireplace is unheard of in France,” Laure says. “You drink wine with meals.” When she first tasted fruit-forward California wines, she thought they lacked structure and she wondered how they would stand up to food. “But they don’t have to because people aren’t drinking them with food. I’m not an expat looking for French-style wines, and I don’t look at American wine culture with my nose in the air. I think the differences are fascinating.”

On their wine tour, the family had a great time and enjoyed the landscape. Laure discovered raspberry wines. Chris, who had enjoyed California wine for years, had never experienced the Finger Lakes wine region beyond the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua.

Greg says, “I’m not a wine connoisseur like Chris. I’m not searching for the ultimate fine wine—I like good wine.” Sitting in the booths at Villa Bellangelo, no one in the Missick clan had an inkling of the future that awaited them in that very spot.

After celebrating, Chris and Laure returned to their lives in California, and Laure started working, first as a bilingual customer service representative, then later as a bookkeeper for a wine importer. The memory of the wine tour faded, and the lives of all the family members hummed along.

Until the listing appeared in the paper. Villa Bellangelo for sale. $499,000. Ten acres on Seneca Lake. Two tasting rooms. A wine cellar and production area.

Chris, a Cross-country cyclist from Philadephia, samples Villa Belangelo’s wines guided by Laure and Dan, who works in the tasting room.

Elizabeth visited the winery again, driving down the long approach from Route 14, on Poplar Road in Dundee, following the oversized wine bottle signs pointing the way past five small rows of overgrown vines. The vines, though neglected, hinted at the land’s storied history. Almost 150 years ago, Dr. Byron Spence planted the vines on the land during a boom in the region’s grape growing. Domestic grape production in the Finger Lakes had begun just thirty years earlier, and land prices were rising with the increasing fruit production. But then a glut caused grape prices to fall, and the vines on this parcel fell into disuse for generations. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Squaw Point Winery opened on the property, known for its “barrel people” marketing campaign—wine barrels made to look like stick figure people scattered along Route 14. Then, in 2002, Mike Litterio bought the winery and introduced the Italian theme to reflect his own heritage. But he discovered that he couldn’t keep his full-time job, operate the winery, and spend time with his family. He decided to sell.

When Elizabeth visited that second time, she was greeted by the ten acres of land sloping toward the lake, and that wonderful view. The winery was off the beaten path, but offered great wines, and it was especially well known for its semi-sparkling Moscato wine made from Valvin Muscat grapes. The family leaped into action. Calls were made. Plans discussed. They made an offer on the winery in July 2011.

The next few months were full of uncertainty. Greg originally thought he’d shut the operation down for two years while the family had a chance to transition. He still didn’t know exactly who would work what jobs, what remodeling would be done, or how to run a winery. His sons were interested in participating on some level, but they expected the lead-up to prime time would be slow. “I never tried to force my sons to work with me in construction,” says Greg, so he wasn’t sure what roles they would want.

The big picture questions paled compared to the reality of the coming grape harvest. Aside from the handful of historic vines on the property, no grapes grew on the Villa Bellangelo property. Since 2002, Mike Litterio had developed relationships with growers—like Marty Gibson at the twenty-acre Gibson Winery and Jeff Morris, owner of the 120-acre Glenora Farms—to produce signature wines, from his Bordeaux style wine made with Merlot and Cabernet Franc to his affordable line of bagged “Scooter wines.”

But what would happen to the 2011 grapes usually bought by the winery? No money had been put down to secure the harvest for Villa Bellangelo. If the 2011 grapes at Gibson Winery and Glenora Farms were sold to different buyers, then Greg would have to shut down the winery, as he had planned. But was Greg really willing to lose those grapes and the entire 2011 season? And was he willing to risk potentially losing the ongoing relationships with growers that Litterio established?

Nope.

And so Greg bought several tons of grapes, even though he didn’t yet own a winery, or know how to process them. From Laure’s perspective, it all happened in the blink of an eye.

“I’m a glass half full kind of guy,” Greg says. “If things didn’t work out, I figured I could resell them or something. We joked that we’d have a huge fruit salad at Thanksgiving.”

The grapes did indeed transform into wine. The Missick family hired local winemaker Ian Barry, who had proven his skills at several wineries in the area. He coordinated with Glenora Wine Cellars to crush the grapes and create the first batch of wine. And, Ian took charge of the wine-in-progress from the previous winemaker.

By November, the Missicks not only owned the grapes, they also owned Villa Bellangelo.

If there was ever a moment of panic, it was after the sale. “There was just so much to do,” says Elizabeth.

“But so many things came together that made it seem like this was meant to be,” Greg explains.

At Villa Bellangelo’s shop, bottles of their finest wines are available for purchase.

In the fall, Matt and his parents traveled back to the winery to assess what needed to be done. On the return flight, Matt remembers his dad saying he wasn’t sure how this would all work out.

Matt recognized that he could help, so he immediately offered to move to the Finger Lakes and oversee the construction. “I felt like I was taking a huge weight off my dad’s shoulders,” Matt says. Just weeks later, at the start of 2012, he had called a realtor in Geneva and left his steady stenographer job, his best friend in southern California, and life as he knew it.

“It was lonely at first,” says Matt, who missed his friends and lifestyle back home in California. But on his daily commute to and from the winery in Dundee, he stopped at wineries to explore the local flavors and connect with the community. He marveled at the laid-back lifestyle here compared with L.A., where people spend so much energy on “keeping up,” having the right clothes and the right cars. “I was amazed at how friendly everyone is here. Everyone was willing to help out if I had questions or needed help.”

“For Matt to step up like that—that was amazing,” says Greg, who calls himself the “brick and mortar guy.” Greg kept himself immersed in his California engineering firm, while Villa Bellangelo transformed into something grander than it had ever been. The doors closed for several months while the place was gutted and re-imagined. Matt became “the boots on the ground.”

Under Matt’s oversight, the winery shed its rustic Italian trattoria style and emerged as a handsome tasting room and store. The beauty of the place today masks the massive changes that had to occur behind the scenes before any of the cosmetic improvements could take shape. A water well was drilled. A water filtration system installed. Public water source regulations met. A septic system set up. Power brought down from the electric lines on Route 14. Neighbors wondered what the heck was going on, says Matt, who understands that the property used to be quiet and now out-of-towners were making major changes. But although he’s a transplant, Matt is committed. To mark his one-year anniversary in the Finger Lakes, he got an FLX tattoo to celebrate.

Matt, one of Greg and Elizabeth’s sons, shows off his tattoo to commemorate moving to the Finger Lakes.

Today, the winery has a new aesthetic, thanks to Elizabeth. Rich red walls, dark wood floors, and white columns now welcome visitors, who inevitably make their way straight to the windows overlooking Seneca Lake. Two scooters—the namesake of the casual Scooter brand wine—decorate the porch and tasting room.

A history wall includes memorabilia from the past, including a very serious portrait of Dr. Spence, and an antique grape press. An American flag from Chris’s service in Iraq hangs proudly. A flat screen TV provides information about different wines.

Wine is offered for sale, of course, plus wine charms, stoppers, decorations, and A Sense of Place: A Discovery of Finger Lakes Wine History & Villa Bellangelo, a book that Chris wrote to honor the heritage of his family’s new undertaking.

Matt, who will be in charge of events, is also creating a banquet room for weddings, wine seminars, or corporate events, where flat screen TVs might display slideshows or educational videos. Just outside, a gravel pad will soon become a patio with a fire pit. And the hillside in front of the winery is now terraced with three levels: for a vineyard, a large party tent, and a stage area.

Chris was excited and nervous about the transition from law practice to winery General Manager. He had a successful career at a small firm, and he felt close to his colleagues, almost like family.

“How could I leave them?” Chris wondered. “In the back of my mind, it was something I wanted to do,” says Chris. He’d always enjoyed gardening, growing everything from tobacco to tomatoes, and making wine. “And everything picked up its own momentum.”

Laure was conflicted about moving at first—she was just finding her footing in California, and she’d been offered an interesting job opportunity in international trade, the field she had trained for. But the Finger Lakes reminded her of home, unlike the California desert. “In the end, quality of life made it an easy decision,” she says.

By the fall of 2012, the Missicks already had one season under their belts. The family had pulled together. Even Elizabeth’s nieces were called in to help occasionally. For the Seneca Lake Wine Trail “Deck the Halls” event, Elizabeth, her sister-in-law, and her nieces spent hours in the kitchen making 4,000 decorated chocolate candies and another 4,000 angel ornaments.

Today, beneath the busy tasting room, twenty-two huge jacketed metal tanks—from Vance metal fabricators in Geneva—each hold between 500 and 1,100 gallons of wine in progress. Cold Germanic wines, warmer French styles, and cold-stabilized finished products tower in the chilly cellar. Attached to each tank is a handwritten index card, labeling it with type of wine, year, and other details.

A bottling machine, crusher destemmer, and neutral oak barrels are also tucked away in the cellar. Hiding in the back is a huge mounted sailfish, caught in Costa Rica by Greg—but he jokes that it’s from Seneca Lake.

When all is said and done, 5,600 cases are produced yearly, totaling 20,000 gallons, not counting the “custom crush” for those wanting to make their own personal wines.

“Those two boys—I’m just so proud of them,” says Greg. Each family member found a role: Laure runs the office and procures supplies, Chris handles general management, Matt operates the facilities, Elizabeth offers input on the store, and Greg is rooted in construction.

In December 2012, the family bought an additional twenty acres, bringing their property up to Route 14. They’ll transform the property at the road into a casual tasting room to showcase their Scooter wines, sold in both bags and bottles, while maintaining the property near the lake as a more refined tasting experience. “It’s like this land wants to get back together,” says Greg, referring to the original parcel from the 1800s.

For now, though, Greg and Elizabeth are still in California, waiting for their house to sell and making plans to transition from Greg’s business. “In construction, it’s a constant pressure pot. It’s tough to just quit one day,” says Greg

Greg was the one who originally talked Elizabeth into marrying and staying out west. But after more than thirty years of marriage, Elizabeth has finally found a way to bring her family back to her home turf. And as for the family working so closely together? Elizabeth says, “I think we’re so blessed that we all get along and love each other.”