Putting Their Stamp on the Finger Lakes
Sep 30, 2019 02:13PM
Entering Lakewood Vineyards on a weekday morning is like arriving as a happily expected guest in a family home. The bustle of busy Route 14 on the west side of Seneca Lake is left behind as plantings of flowers and shrubs lead the visitor past tall windows looking into the production cellar and the wood-paneled tasting room. Beyond is a sun-dappled deck and lush vineyards rolling downhill toward the lake. The camaraderie of everyone inside might make you feel like you’ve been included in the company of a group of long-time treasured friends. You’re partly right. The people who work here like each other—and many of them are family.
The business had its beginnings in 1951 when Frank and Lucy Stamp returned to the Finger Lakes. Frank, a dentist who worked for much of his career in the military, had developed back trouble and needed a change. They bought a run-down peach and apple orchard and began planting grapes the following spring. For many years, they supplied Labrusca and hybrid grapes to large juice companies and wineries. Their son Charles Lamont “Monty” Stamp married Bev and then “we had some kids so they could work on the farm with us,” Bev jokes. Now and then, the family talked with their friends and neighbors, the Rondinaros, about taking what had been informal winemaking to a commercial level.
“My grandfather had been making wine since the 1920s—in fact, he brought his wine press from Italy when they moved here,” says Mark Rondinaro. When his grandfather could no longer maintain his own vineyard, he and the elder Stamps, who were friends as well as neighbors, made a little wine together. Mark Rondinaro became good friends with Chris Stamp—they roomed together in college—and later became a partner in the winery.
He now works here doing computer work and re-stocking wine on busy weekends.
But it was the softening market for grapes in the 1980s that pushed the family forward, says Dave Stamp, the farm’s vineyard manager.
“We kicked around the idea for a couple of years,” he recalls. “We had family talent (by then, his brother, Chris, was an accomplished winemaker and wine consultant) and a great location on a main road. Finally Mom and I said ‘This is what we’re going to do.’” He says the choice was slowly dying as a farm or taking that risk.
Building the winery was a group effort. The Stamps and Rondinaros worked together on it; Monty Stamp said at one point, “If we can’t make a go of it, we’ll make this a house.” Dave also recalls, “Dad fully believed working together [as a family] was how you get somewhere.” And they did. Mark helped plant the vineyards and worked here part-time even when he had a full-time job elsewhere.
“I bring a useful perspective as an outsider,” he notes. For many years, the winery was easily recognizable by a row of colorful roses planted along their road frontage. Planted by Frank and Lucy in 1965, they thought of it as their answer to Lady Bird Johnson’s call to beautify the nation’s roadsides, and, in 1974, they received a letter of commendation from the former First Lady. The bushes are now gone, but a rose adorns each Lakewood Vineyards label.
Monty, who died twelve years ago, is still fondly remembered as one of the local wine industry’s patriarchs, well-liked by all who knew him. He served as secretary/treasurer of the New York Wine and Grape Growers and as president of the Winegrowers of America. He promoted New York’s wine industry in Albany and counted politicians as well as other winery owners as his friends. “We are who we are because of him,” Dave says, explaining his father was especially good at listening to people, and thus a lot of politicians wanted to hear what he had to say.
The wine industry made great changes to the Finger Lakes region. Before Lakewood Vineyards opened its doors in 1989, the area and the grape market had become economically depressed. “Some years we picked only half the farm,” Dave remembers. Watkins Glen, like many of the villages in the area, saw a seasonal surge of tourists each Memorial Day weekend. There was some overflow visitors from Corning and Ithaca, cottagers who came to enjoy the lakes when the weather was hot, and a few more who came to explore nature trails and the state parks. Almost all visitors disappeared after Labor Day. Now the area is increasingly a year-round destination. The hundred or so wineries in the Finger Lakes bring millions of tourists each year, all helping to keep hostelries, restaurants, a variety of businesses, and the wineries themselves in the black. More businesses and more visitors seem to show up each year.
See for Yourself
And it’s worth noting the visitors have also changed the way some wineries interact with those visitors.
In recent years, with a rise in breweries and wineries whose ingredients are not grown on the same land where they’re sold, the Stamps found themselves repeatedly telling visitors that, yes, theirs is a farm winery. A few years ago, needing to expand their production area, they lighted it with floor-to-ceiling glass windows allowing a clear view of their large tank room, where thousands of gallons of their own grape juice are transformed with science, hard work, and a little magic into award-winning wines. Visitors can look in and see for themselves how, like the motto of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, Lakewood’s wines are “Grown here. Made here.”
Grown Here, Still Here
The amount of wine made now, and the current varietals and styles, also reflect a change brought on by the passing years. Raised in the winery, Chris’s kids, Ben and Abby, both decided to become wine makers. Unlike their father, who taught himself winemaking with an agricultural/science education, books, and apprenticeship, Ben and Abby were able to study winemaking directly. And each had the benefit of international as well as domestic winemaking internships. “We’ve learned to apply winemaking techniques from the rest of the world to our grapes,” Chris says.
The rest of the world has also been paying attention to Lakewood. The winery and the wine have earned numerous awards, as have the individuals associated with it. Last year Lakewood Vineyards won New York State’s 2018 Agricultural Environmental Management award for its work with soil conservation and improving soil quality. It helps, no doubt, that the family lives where they work and works where they live.
Starting from a childhood spent in the vineyard—“We learned early on not to say ‘I’m bored’ unless we wanted to spend an afternoon under the vines pulling weeds,” Ben says—they learned to love grapes and what they could do.
“Stone-picking was character-building,” Abby insists, not completely convincingly.
“True story,” Ben adds. “Our younger sister thought the winery was home, and our house was just someplace we visited! But we were lucky to get the experience growing up here.”
Their father is equally appreciative of their skills and dedication. “We wouldn’t have gotten to this level if these guys hadn’t wanted to come back,” Chris says. “Emotionally, I know where this is going to go—they’ll be here long after I’m gone. It’s the most gratifying thing a father could ask for.”
Over the years, Ben has become particularly adept at handling the carbonated wines; Abby prefers the still wines. Chris does more of the lab work. But they all have basically the same skill set, they say. The three also collaborate on what Chris calls “invisible cellar work,” experimenting with flavor tweaks on classics and trying new combinations to keep up with their customers’ evolving tastes. “Maybe there are twenty times as many experiments as products that get launched,” Chris says.
With Abby and Ben on board, the family purchased more land and is slowly tiling it and planting more vineyards. The winery currently produces about 35,000 cases a year, making it one of the larger wineries in the area. They also produce and bottle wines for other wineries. Chris, with his wife, Liz, also own a related business, Lakewood Corks, supplying corks to other wineries.
The business of running a winery is a complex one, and other family members are also integrally involved. Bev and Monty’s third child and only girl, Teresa Stamp Knapp—“Make sure you say I’m the favorite daughter!”—does the accounting and HR work. Dave’s wife, Erin, works on branding and marketing. Liz Stamp is characterized as the “go-to” person. She describes a typical day as one that might start off in the office, move on to helping on the bottling line, and ending, as one recent day did, with plumbing repair. “I went and got the parts,” Teresa points out.
Even the youngest and furriest family members are represented here, as evidenced by toys and a generous bin of crayons tucked under office desks, and the doggy pawprints left in the cellar’s concrete floor.
At the end of the day, the family unwinds together and reviews the day’s challenges, often over a glass of wine. “We all get along,” Bev says. “That’s not to say we all have the same point of view.”
“We get along well,” Liz says. “And we have tremendous respect for each other. We’re not shy about telling people what we think, but we’re concerned about each others’ feelings.” It’s evident in the way each person listens intently when another person talks, considering what’s been said before adding to the conversation. Even on holidays when they don’t have to work together, the family happily comes together for celebrations. Then they happily return to work together.
“It is a little like welcoming people into our home,” Bev says about the business. “I’ve had wonderful conversations with people. Customers like that we’re a family operation and every day there are three generations working together.”
She adds reflectively that, “sometimes customers come and ask for a hug.”
And they get one.
You will find Lakewood Vineyards at 4024 New York State Route 414, and, of course, at lakewoodvineyards.com and on Facebook. You can also call (607) 535-9252 for the most up-to-date information about events, special tastings, or arranging a guided tour or a cellar room tasting. Hours are daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.