The easy part was the business plan. The hard part was the wine.
For a family of three boys and their wine-loving father, the business side would work itself out. The boys had known since childhood that they'd figure out a way to work alongside their energetic, labor-loving father. It didn't hurt that he was a long-time cardiologist who made a good living -- good enough to support a new winery.
But Dr. Fred Zugibe was more than just the money. He surprised his three sons -- Fred III, 34; Brendan, 32; and Sean, 27 -- with his desire to do the hard work in growing grapes and building a winery and making wine. Fred III had studied winemaking and would craft the wines. Brendan was trained in business. Sean could handle the vineyard.
Dad would do whatever the boys needed him to do. He was only 54, after all. He felt great.
Long before their tasting room opened, the Zugibe boys purchased grapes and were on their way to their first Finger Lakes vintage. They hardly had a wine home, but they would at least have their own wines. The rest could come later. That wet harvest of 2006 was a challenge, but they instantly loved the work, dripping wet and laughing as they brought in their first grapes as a family.
How strange, then -- how sick and unfair -- that dad the cardiologist never knew he had a heart condition of his own. It was a rare kind, the kind he had spent years detecting and treating in other people. It was snowing hard that November night in Newark when a section of Fred's heart burst like a dam. The winds were so severe that there was no way to get an emergency transport aircraft to him.
By the time his wife was able to pull into the hospital, Fred was essentially dead.
He never held a bottle of Zugibe wine. Had he lived just one more week, he would have had a chance to at least taste one.
A wine label's significance
Three years after their father died, the Zugibe brothers finally opened their own tasting room on the northeast side of Seneca Lake, just south of Geneva. It is a large, beautiful, and meticulous structure -- but I wondered if it felt a bit empty when I spent the afternoon there with Brendan Zugibe.
"Dad was everything," Brendan told me. "He still is. We still haven't recovered."
But I was happy to see that, for all of the shock that their family tragedy delivered, Brendan radiates with ebullient energy and a sense of purpose. The Zugibe Vineyards tasting room is a joyful place. Brendan smiles constantly -- especially when recalling his father's personality and impact -- and he presents the Zugibe wines with the nervous enthusiasm of an artist at his first studio unveiling.
It was Brendan who created the label design, which can be seen on the bottle and on the sign that marks the entrance to the facility. He chose a phoenix, the mythical creature that rises from the ashes.
"We didn't know what the label should be for a while," he explained, "but when we lost dad, I knew what it had to be. We miss him, but we're rising out of that adversity to accomplish this dream."
Like so many Finger Lakes wine producers, the Zugibe brothers have taken on debt while cash flow remains tight. "It's really humbled us. It's taught us so much, but we're doing it. We're going to be okay. It was a huge step to open the tasting room."
A carefully chosen site for vineyards
The Zugibes planted 40 acres of grapes, 15 of which are riesling. Brendan explained that they looked for warm sites with untapped potential. With several sites under consideration, they logged temperatures over the winter to look for susceptibility to cold snaps. The analysis revealed "no red flags, but this site was slightly warmer. It was just what we needed," Brendan told me.
As Finger Lakes sites go, it is relatively flat. But like many vineyards on the east side of Seneca Lake, the top parcel is the flattest, with slope increasing as the vineyard moves toward the water. Zugibe has some of his riesling planted in the top 17 acres and some in the bottom 23, and already the brothers are searching for differences in what the sites do to the wine.
The remaining acres are planted to a variety of grapes, including a bit of Gruner Veltliner, which excites Brendan. But next to riesling, this is a family that loves cabernet franc.
A portfolio of clean, careful wines
To my surprise, not a single wine on the Zugibe list was a clunker. I'm not surprised because I doubt their abilities; rather, young wineries tend to need time to work out the trouble spots. I found the Zugibe wines to be extremely clean and solid.
The wines were not inspiring, either, but that's to be expected at this stage. The utter lack of flaws mattered most. And the 2008 vintage shows some serious promise in the Zugibe Dry Riesling, which is the first Finger Lakes dry riesling I've found to show a kiss of white chocolate.
Zugibe produces a range of cabernet franc and cabernet franc blends, and the standout for now is the 4 Freds Red, which consists primarily of cabernet franc and Blaufrankisch but is accented by merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
At a blind industry dinner last week, the Zugibe 4 Freds Red was the group's choice over a high-wattage red blend from the Napa Valley (which, to be fair, suffered from an assault of new oak).
Brendan spoke highly of his brother's winemaking skills while simultaneously heaping praise on their Seneca Lake winemaking neighbors. "We've had offers of help from the moment we arrived. We're learning every day by experience, but when we have a question that needs an answer right away, there is always someone there to answer it. Always."
This producer continues its gradual rise from the ashes. They'll aim for 5,000 cases in 2010 with a long-term goal of roughly 10,000 cases annually. The land outside the tasting room is ripe for private parties and weddings. If Zugibe Vineyards carries a theme in this nascent stage, it is that wine is a celebration of life - and life offers no guarantees, so we might as well not delay the celebration.