Vintage Ted Talks
Photographer: Douglas J. Yeater
Vinny Aliperti, since 2003 the head winemaker at Atwater Estate Vineyards, on the southern end of Seneca Lake’s east side, had the opportunity a decade ago to purchase his own winery up near Geneva. You might think that would have represented a bit of a conflict of interest for him and his boss, Atwater owner Ted Marks. How could the winemaker for one winery own another winery and make the wine for both? Isn’t there some pretty intense competition among those folks?
Well, maybe not so much. Ted told Vinny, who had also done a stint as assistant winemaker for the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, to go ahead and buy Billsboro Winery, but “if you get a better wine score than we do, you’re fired.” Well, Vinny did, and then he did. And then Ted did what he said he would do, but, alas, Vinny won’t leave. In fact, on a beautiful day in late summer, while Ted is sitting on the deck at Atwater chatting with a couple of visitors, Vinny is washing out wine barrels. Atwater wine barrels. And this is the guy who just the year before won the coveted New York Wine and Food Classic Governor’s Cup for his Billsboro 2013 Syrah.
It’s worth noting that the owners of Atwater’s previous incarnation, Rolling Vineyards, won the very first Governor’s Cup. Is that karma or just serendipity? Could be both. As Ted tells it, the folks from the Finger Lakes wineries help each other. They’re connected much like, if you’ll excuse the obvious analogy, grafts on rootstock. They sell grapes to one another. They share the cost of bringing in a mechanical grape picker (Ted says the only problem is everyone wants their grapes done the same day). When one of their own got cancer, the others got together and picked his grapes.
“It’s what has made us successful,” says Ted. “We all work together or we won’t survive. It’s part of the game—working and cooperating with each other and with Cornell (Cornell University has a grape-related experiment station in Geneva). That’s what I love about this job and this community.”
And there’s that belief in the product that helps. “We make the best Riesling in the world,” Ted states, and it may not even matter if he’s talking about Atwater in particular or the Finger Lakes in general.
Ted says the grapes this year at Atwater Estate Vineyards are “extremely bountiful”—this from a man who characterizes himself as a wine maker rather than a grape grower. Nor was he raised in the grape or wine business, although his brother-in-law was a founder of Glenora Wine Cellars, and his niece and her husband started the Fulkerson Winery. Anyway, “Here I am,” he says philosophically, adding that “my job really is the promotion of the company, working with the employees.”
Let’s backtrack a little to see how a guy whose grandfather was the founder of the Gannett newspaper empire, who has changed a few tires with a couple of Formula One crews, and who once owned a company that made packaging for the stores bearing the name of Elmira’s own Tommy Hilfiger has ended up on that afore-mentioned deck, watching a writhing Mr. Pinot scare birds away from his grapes.
(By the way, in case you’re wondering who or what is Mr. Pinot...he’s one of those tall, inflatable air dancers with the ailing arms and goofy face you’ve probably seen at grand openings and blowout sales. Atwater’s Mr. Pinot guards his namesake, the Pinot grapes, and he’s actually quite famous for his work. He [Ted, too] was in The Wall Street Journal, on CBS This Morning with Jane Pauley, and had a spot on ABC for National Wine Day.
“It’s amazing what it’s done—you just never know in this business,” muses Ted. “It’s what car dealers do to get rid of their damn cars.”)
But back to how Ted and Atwater became one. Ted explains that his daughter, Ann, had married into a wine-making family. You may have heard the name—Hazlitt. This was 1999, and Ted was thinking of retiring, but he had wanted to help the couple get started. One thing led to another and by the following year he found himself making wine at Atwater (possibly because the previous owners had maintained the vineyard despite having closed the winery in 1989). It wasn’t long after that Vinny signed on as the winemaker.
Ted’s family lived in Elmira when he was a kid and they had a summer home in Glenora, on Seneca Lake. Ted studied business and accounting at Babson College, in Massachusetts, graduating in 1963. What a useful background for a businessman, right? Ted agrees.
“I know why I’m losing money,” he says, almost straight-faced.
But the subject matter itself was maybe not the direction his heart of hearts was telling him to take.
“My first formal job was in accounting,” Ted says. “I decided I didn’t like it and they didn’t like me.” What he was starting to realize was what he did like was being his own boss, having his own business, and, perhaps best of all, helping his employees, particularly “all those kids coming up,” find their paths, find themselves. Throughout those years of discovery, Ted had, among other jobs and business ventures, Horwitz Paper and Packaging, Image Packaging (that’s the company that provided the packaging for Tommy Hilfiger), a company lost to Hurricane Agnes in 1972, a stint with the Corning Chamber of Commerce, and Bookmarks, a bookstore on Corning’s Market Street.
“What I liked about Bookmarks was the kids I hired,” Ted recalls. There was one, a “jock” that nobody in town would hire, but Ted did and says he was “probably one of the best employees I ever had.” The young man played high school sports but he never missed a day’s work; he’s a lawyer today, Ted says. There were more like that, kids who were maybe a little attitudinal, maybe a little cocky, but Ted gave them a chance anyway. He would get letters from them after they’d moved on, saying things like “Thank you, Ted, you helped me through my parents.”
“Ron, Get the Truck.”
When Ron Abbott was just thirteen or fourteen, he had a great idea for a lawn mowing business. There were lawns aplenty, but what he needed was a lawn mower. Remember that the Marks family had a summer home on the lake? Ron knew this, and reasoned that their other home, the one left empty for most of the grass-growing season, had a lawn that needed attention. He offered Ted a deal: If you give me your lawn mower to use, I’ll mow your lawn for free and maintain the mower. Okay, said Ted. Then, when he was old enough, Ted hired him to work at Bookmarks.
Ron remembers his Bookmarks days fondly, especially those times when Ted would come back from a downtown Corning Coffee Club meeting with a new idea about what the business should have or do. It typically involved having to get something loaded or unloaded, so the catchphrase became “Ron, get the truck.”
“Ted is the type of guy you just gotta love,” says Ron, who these days is manager of the Corning Community College Bookstore. “He’s always working, always thinking. Even as a kid, he made me think. I was lucky to have the opportunity to get started with him. He made the business, made it happen because of his attitude. He was a great mentor to me and many others. To this day I still look up to him. I feel like I’m part of his family. He’s been an inspiration for me to be a better person.”
Ted was in Ron’s wedding. “That was pretty special for my wife and me,” Ron says.
Tales from the Wine Trail
Paul Thomas, executive director of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail and first vice-chair of the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce of the 2017 board of directors, says Ted Marks has been “an amazing influence on my life.” The two have known each other for over thirty years. Ted, who was instrumental in the hiring of Paul as executive director of the SLWT a dozen or so years ago, remembers when Paul used to come into Bookmarks; Paul, who describes his younger self as a word nerd, remembers that Bookmarks was his first job and that Ted was and continues to be a father figure to him.
“He is an intuitive mentor. He can’t help himself. I think it’s a beautiful thing. The world would be a better place if there were more people like Ted.”
Paul remembers being a high school student who was “stupid, distracted” but one who also thought he might be accepted into an Ivy League school if he could just ace the application. “I prided myself on my English language skills,” he says, and so filled out the application and thought he might be in the running as “I really had put some time into it.” The application somehow ended up in Ted’s hands.
“Ted is not a man of letters,” laughs Paul, but he is a man of extraordinary common sense, “and he pulled out several dramatic, lame-ass errors on that application.” Paul fixed them, and says that even though he wasn’t accepted at that particular school “it all worked out in the end.”
“The impact of people like Ted who are mentors, that silent and hidden positive impact ... there are dozens, if not hundreds, like me who would have the same story.”
And even though he thinks it might sound just a little cheesy, he says he knows that what Ted does, whether it’s for family, friends, or community, “comes from a place of love.”
Ted likes fast and sporty cars. Way back when Rob Abbott worked for him at Bookmarks, Ted had an MG that he’d let Rob drive. Actually, the way Rob remembers it, is that he’d o er to take the car for the weekend and “clean it up for you.” There would then be some driving involved. Sometimes, he says, Ted would complain that the car was too clean, too much Armor-All made the seat and steering wheel way too slippery. Ted offered the car to Ron at one point, but Ron declined as, after it had languished for some years in a barn, one of Ted’s daughters wanted it. She spiffed it up, drove it for some years, then had it refurbished and returned to her dad as a gift. Ron, in the meantime, bought two MGs of his own.
Throughout the years, Ted has satisfied some of his vehicular-related cravings by volunteering at Watkins Glen International. “The Formula 1 team used to stay at our house,” he says oh-so-casually (and, yes, he did meet Paul Newman). Imagine hanging out with Jimmy Clark, a 2010 inductee into “Legends of the Glen,” or Mario Andretti, who just last month received the 2017 Cameron R. Argetsinger Award for Outstanding Contributions to Motorsports at a ceremony in Corning which Ted attended. Changing tires for Lotus and Brabham or the Resi Ferrari guys is just another thing Ted liked to do.
It’s All About the People and the Place
About noon on this sunny Tuesday, the winery itself seems to be just waking up. As he walks through on his way to the deck, Ted razzes the guy who is sanding the door, greets all the other staff he sees, then settles himself and his guests into comfortable chairs to talk and enjoy wine, crackers, and garlic cheese curds.
“I love our whites,” he says, when he’s asked what his personal wine favorite is. “I’m beginning to love our reds.” He’s definitely not a wine snob, and even pokes a little fun at the fancy wine descriptions some aficionados love to spout. “Where the hell do they come up with that crap?” he asks.
Ted acknowledges he came into the business a little differently than other growers and wine-makers.
“I was a business man. I was the one who started charging for tastings. We were giving away $45,000 a year in free tastings.” Many of the other wineries have since followed suit.
He says he hopes it’s important that he’s bringing people and outside events to the area—events such as Fork to Fondo, the bike trek that incorporates stops at great local farms and eateries, and Grapehounds, the fundraiser for greyhound rescue. He hopes his “telling people about the beauty of the Finger Lakes” is helpful. His community involvement obviously is not a new venture for the man who once held the “Mayor of Market Street” (Corning) title, and he clearly has no intention of letting up any time soon. He cites his involvement with the Industrial Development Agency of Steuben County, and his work with the communities of Watkins Glen and Montour Falls on replacing their sewer plants.
“It’s very important that you give back—you get back what you put into it,” Ted says. “My grandparents and parents were the same. You’ve no right to suck it out. You’ve got to put it back in or your kids won’t have any place to live.”
When asked about the Estate’s sustainable growing practices, he says he is very conscious about living on Seneca Lake.
“We’re careful with the chemicals we use, we’ve cut down on the amount, we use better sprayers with the correct settings, we’re careful about runoff, we’ve cut down on water use. This is where we get our water, this is where we live. We work very closely with Seneca Pure Waters.”
“I am extremely blessed by what I have in my life,” he says and, as he tends to do, he passes on taking credit. “I feel I owe my success to the 400 people who have worked for me over my lifetime. They kept our businesses running.” They keep their own businesses as well. Some of the fledgling winemakers who have passed through Atwater’s doors include Aaron Roisen, now with Hosmer Winery; Justin Boyette, now at Hector Wine Company; Tom Higgins, now with Heart & Hands; and Kris Matthewson, now at Bellwether’s.
One of Ted’s daughters, Katie, who was at one time in charge of Atwater Estate Vineyards tasting room, now runs a restaurant, Graft, in Watkins Glen. “Graft has a lot of young kids,” Ted muses. “I get more satisfaction out of that—working with kids today—than I do drinking a glass of wine.” That’s something for a winemaker to admit to.
The winery, by the way, is for sale to the right buyer, Ted mentions. He’s not necessarily anxious to sell, but if someone came along and promised to take care of the employees—he is “completely interested in the employees’ welfare”—a transaction might be possible.
Ted laughs. “I want to leave the kids something so they can say ‘God, he was a good guy!’”