Vineyard celebrates 20th anniversary

PHOTOS BY SPENCER TULIS.
Australian shepherd Golly often greets visitors to Lakewood Vineyards’ tasting room that overlooks Seneca Lake.

Chris Stamp grins as he holds a bottle of Lakewood’s award-winning Gewurtraminer.

Lakewood Vineyards’ latest sensation is called “Candeo,” Latin for sparkle. Combining tradition and innovation has helped the Stamp family make great wines and sustain a shining 20-year success story in New York’s Finger Lakes region.

Second, third and fourth generations of the late Dr. Frank Stamp operate the 200-plus-acre vineyards and winery on the west side of Seneca Lake near Watkins Glen, N.Y.

In 1952, dentist Frank Stamp returned to the original Stamp dairy and fruit orchard to plant Labrusca and French-American hybrid grapes. That began a revival of a commercial farm business that sold grapes to large wine and juice makers for the next 36 years.

In 1988, Frank’s son Monty, Monty’s wife Beverly, and their children decided to make wine. Monty grew the grapes. Monty and Bev’s son Chris and daughter-in-law Liz cashed in retirements and returned home from Ohio, where Chris had worked four years as an Ohio State University Extension grape and wine educator. Chris, a Cornell University food science and chemistry degree graduate, made wine and painted houses in the start-up years. Chris’ brother Dave studied agriculture at college. Chris’ wife Liz took on organizing and marketing roles, and Beverly handled hospitality, PR and the bookwork.

Today, Chris and Dave’s sister Teresa is an integral part of the winery, working with Bev and Liz on retail, marketing and management, and the business has seven full-time employees.

Photos courtesy of Lakewood Vineyards, unless otherwise noted.
The Stamp family’s careful selection of wine competitions has resulted in more than 750 medals for their diverse array of wines.

In 1989, Lakewood Vineyards made 5,000 gallons of wine. In 2009, its grapes became more than 80,000 gallons of 23 different finished wines. The 20,000-square-foot winery and production facility includes 80,000-gallon stainless steel tanks as well as traditional oak cooperage.

Dave, now Lakewood’s vineyardist, manages production of three families of grapes: European viniferas, North American varieties and hybrids. The Stamps have grown Concord and Niagara grapes on contract with Welch’s for many years. The hybrids will likely give way to viniferas in time.

“We have diversified so some varieties ripen early and others late. We like to harvest from mid-September right into November. This diversity helps us accommodate our partner Mother Nature, who does not always have our best interests at heart,” Dave says.

Production systems have evolved since Dave’s grandfather and dad planted umbrella-tied grapes sprawl style.

“In the late 1970s we used VSP—vertical shoot positioning—for training our vines,” Dave says. “For the viniferas now we use the Scott Henry system that exposes the fruit to the sun by manipulating the canes to expand the leaf area for better ripening.”

The Stamps actively participate in grape and wine research projects. Dave partnered with Cornell University’s development of the VineBalance project, a joint effort by the wine and juice grape industry, Cornell Cooperative Extension and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ Soil and Water Conservation Committee, with funding from the New York Farm Viability Institute, to promote sustainable vineyard growing practices. The result is a grower self-assessment sustainable viticulture workbook.

“The workbook is a great guide that, for example, helps trigger attention to various activities in the vineyard. We are 100 percent behind the VineBalance program as a way to show consumers that we use environmentally friendly, socially responsible practices,” Dave says.

The National Grape Cooperative has adopted VineBalance as the sustainable production standard for its growers and as a way to meet buyer interests.

National Grape Cooperative Director of Viticulture Research Thomas Davenport says, “This effort is ultimately consumer-driven and prompted by retailers’ interest in selling products that are sustainably produced, processed, and delivered. Behind that interest are increasing numbers of consumers interested in environmentally friendly products and foods produced with worker and consumer safety in mind.”

Customer-driven

Lakewood Vineyards’ Candeo is a wine everyone can enjoy, says assistant winemaker John Damian. He describes Candeo as a wine “for those times when champagne is too much and beer is not enough … lightly fruity, on the verge of dry, scintillating and fun! Candeo is all about accessibility.”

Winemakers John Damian and Chris Stamp check one of the oak barrel wines at Lakewood Vineyards and Winery.

“We are always working to develop something new, and there is nothing quite like Candeo. It has been fun to get people to taste and watch its sales grow,” Chris says. “We engage people in conversation and tasting, and watch their reactions as guideposts. We like to talk with them about their buying habits and their dollars are the driving force behind our decision-making. The market drives what we plant and what we produce.”

Norrie Cornelius works in the tasting room that is closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Easter.

“We have a lot of return visitors—fans really—that we know on a first-name basis, and we have visitors from all over the world. Working in Lakewood Vineyards’ tasting room is like working in a mini-travelogue,” Cornelius says.

Cornelius lived next door to Chris and his wife Liz in Ohio. She followed them to New York 11 years ago.

Damian dropped in on his way to Colorado 13 years ago and never left. He now lives across the road from the winery.

“I had been judging wines in the 1980s but had not made wine until I came here. The first filter I used came with instructions written only in Italian, but we still managed to make a silver medal wine,” Damian says.

The Lakewood Vineyards family, left to right: John Damian, Kathleen DaFoe, Norrie Cornelius, Teresa Stamp Knapp, Liz Stamp, Bev Stamp, Chris Stamp, Dave Stamp, Mike Stamp, Kaye Stamp and Tracy Gumtow.

Damian and Chris participate in winemaking research trials at the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva, N.Y., and conduct their own on-farm experiments, but Damian credits their award-winning process as starting in the vineyard.

“Most of the work of creating a good wine is done in the vineyard by God,” he says. “You have to be patient with planting trials that can take 10 to 20 years to reach fruition. The experimental vines that Monty and Dave planted years ago are now producing great wines. Chris and I take the grapes and kick them up a notch in the winemaking process.”

The winemakers’ tasks range from inspecting bins of handpicked grapes to pressing, filtering, inoculating, racking, watching and tasting. The harvest-to-wine process is intense from September to Thanksgiving. Into the winter months, they watch ice wine sugars, sell wines and conduct blending and winemaking trials.

Chris says they are currently concentrating on producing Rieslings.

“The farm is ideally suited to producing Rieslings and we see a bright future for Riesling as our flagship wine,” he says.

Diversity, outreach and sharing

Lakewood’s distribution network places its wines in more than 230 outlets across New York State. The Stamps use two different labels to distinguish their native American and hybrid fruitier wines from the more elegant viniferas and ice wines. They also produce wines with fun labels like Carpe Vinum, which translates to “Seize the wine.”

“We don’t want people to paint us with all one brush,” Chris says.

Carefully selecting wine competition categories has brought Lakewood Vineyards more than 750 awards—including its first California competition entry in 1991 where Glaciovinum won Best Dessert Wine, a 2002 John Rose Memorial Cup for Riesling, a 2008 Jefferson Cup for a dessert ice wine made with Delaware grapes, and gold medal Gewurztraminers.

It is not just the wines that win awards. Led by Beverly, the Lakewood team received the New York Wine and Grape Foundation’s Winery Award for “major contributions in enhancing the awareness and reputation of New York wines.” Daughter-in-law Liz is a New York Wine and Grape Foundation Unity Award winner.

The pair actively markets Lakewood wines and the vineyard as a destination at well-chosen events and cooperatively through the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, an outreach effort they have worked closely with since 1989.

“The Seneca Lake Wine Trail has grown by leaps and bounds and now has its own director working in cooperation with Finger Lakes Wine Country to reach feeder markets and beyond,” Liz says. “Those efforts help attract customers to our retail shop, which accounts for approximately 70 percent of our sales.”

Liz says weekday traffic has increased and she believes the winter season business will grow through the wine trail’s broad marketing efforts and partnerships.

Liz and Chris often share their wine industry enthusiasm at seminars and with those who influence the industry.

“We look and listen carefully at seminars. We enjoy helping other winemakers be successful and promoting opportunities to purchase local products wherever we are. We work with our state legislators to provide them with the information they want and need to know about the wine industry. We are happy to help raise awareness all across the U.S. and enjoy meeting new people and bringing new ideas back to the vineyards,” Liz says.

In 2007, the New York Wine and Grape Foundation presented a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award to Monty, and to the Stamp family. Foundation Director Jim Trezise called Monty “the John Wayne of the vineyard” and “a major reason for our industry’s success” for his service with the New York State Wine Grape Growers association, established in 1963.

Bev laughs as she recalls her first and last blind date with Monty in 1956. “I think he wanted to be sure I could drive a tractor,” she says. “We raised our children in the vineyards. They would crawl under the vines as we cut milkweed between the rows. When Monty said, ‘These grapes would make a good bottle of wine,’ we all jumped in and everyone gave it their all.

“We have grown together, taking advantage of each other’s strengths, and working through the learning process,” Bev says. “We all love people, and one of the key things is that we get along with each other, and even after a hard day’s work, we know we have to pull out that smile to help our guests purchase a bottle of wine and send them out with a smile, too.”

In presenting the family with the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trezise said, “Monty set an example for all of us that his family has embraced for years. Lakewood Vineyards is the ultimate family farm winery, and the Stamp family is the ultimate example of commitment, involvement and achievement.”

The Stamp family tradition of award-winning viticulture and hospitality is likely to continue for another 20 years.

The author is a freelance writer who keeps horses and sheep on a 100-acre farm in Mannsville, N.Y.