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The 2023 harvest brings big changes for FLX winemaker Kelby Russell

Finger Lakes winemaker Kelby Russell rides a tractor in his newly purchase vineyard Lahoma.
Kelly Walker
Kelly Walker
Kelby Russell drives the tractor in his newly purchased Lahoma Vineyards.

Harvest is underway for the Finger Lakes wine industry. That means long hours spent bringing in the fruit from what was an unusual growing season. I spoke with winemaker Kelby Russell about his experiences with the 2023 season, because he gained a new perspective this year on the craft of making wine.

I met up with Russell in a vineyard on the west side of Seneca Lake. In his years as winemaker, he’s been called upon to drive a forklift before, but never a tractor. But, that’s how he met me among the vines.

Kelly Walker: “So I guess you truly have become a gentleman farmer.”

Kelby Russell: “Well, I don't know about the gentleman part, but I'm certainly a farmer now.”

You see, earlier this year, Russell and his spouse and fellow winemaker Julia Hoyle of Hosmer Winery took a big step and purchased a vineyard.

Russell: “Lahoma Farms is what it's known as, both farms together. It is the brother and the nephew of Sarah Fulkerson of Fulkerson Winery, for those who know that location. But I'd worked with the fruit and really made my name off of some of the Riesling at this farm where there's a real synergy between myself and the way this fruit liked to be expressed. And really out of nowhere, Ken Fulkerson reached out to me last year and asked if I'd like to buy it, which is not something that was in my bingo card, as it were, and wasn't really in the plans. But you don't say no to an opportunity like that, especially a site you already know inside and out, at least as a winemaker.”

And that point is important. Russell knows Lahoma as a winemaker, but farming is a completely different business.

Russell: “By no means have I taken over running this farm. Very fortunately, Ken Fulkerson is still here acting as the de facto vineyard manager. He goes and points and tells me what to do when I attempt to do it without making a fool of myself. And his father, Harlan, is still floating around and will sometimes show up with beer for me when I've had a rough day.”

And there have been rough days. Russell knew that owning a vineyard would be a new challenge. What he could not have known was just how challenging the 2023 growing season would be.

Russell: “The cocktail of things that have shown up this year has been really kind of one for the record books. We closed on the vineyard in April and just about exactly a month later, we had that freak frost event, which I think everyone in the wine industry will forever have a stick in their craw about because Rochester was really concerned about the one hour delay on the PGA championship that morning and was not aware that there was an agricultural calamity happening on their doorstep with this wild, incredibly late frost. I mean, you ask people when they can think of another one of this magnitude because people think, oh, we're cold climate, we must get frosts. People are going back to the 1950s.”

Crop losses were extreme with some estimates of as much as a 50% loss. Russell describes frost as fickle, so the losses were much greater for some growers, and far less for others.

But that wasn’t all.

Russell: “The skies were orange for two weeks. Like, that's right, that happened. We couldn't breathe the air. And then the summer was, I've described it as not hot, because I think to say it was cold would be unfair. It wasn't a cold summer, but there wasn't much heat and the grapes are behind because of that. And then Labor Day, of course, the traditional start of the summer season when we had this heat wave and all this sun that managed to sunburn the grapes, which is a thing that can happen, but it usually happens in July. And usually by September, the grapes are hardened off. The skins are thick enough. That isn't a concern anymore. But in this summer that wasn't really a summer, the first sun they got was in September and we had a bunch of berries start to shrivel up.”

So, what does it mean for the wines that will be produced from these grapes?

Russell: “The truism is that September and October are all that actually matter. You can have anything happen to some extent prior to that. And September and October can either ruin a good growing season or make up for a litany of sins. And fortunately, we're in the midst of a September that's looking pretty darn good.”

Soon, Russell will have to deal with the results of summer as he turns back to his familiar role as winemaker. But, for the first time in many years, he will be producing under a new label. In addition to buying a vineyard, Russell founded a new winery.

Russell: “Apollo's Praise, which is a lyric from a glee club song I sang when I was in university that everyone in my glee club had sung over its 150 plus odd year history. So it was a way to bring music back into my other passion in life, which is wine. And I'm really excited to start working with this fruit in a whole new way. It's a big change. I have a totally different understanding of the fruit, having been out working with it all spring and summer now. I always respected the site and thought it was amazing, but to be here and working it gives a different perspective for what I want to do in the cellar this fall and winter.”

Russell’s first wines under the Apollo’s Praise label will arrive next spring and through the summer and fall the full line. He describes it as a classic Finger Lakes mix with a few twists that are unique to Lahoma Vineyards.

Kelly Walker started his public radio career at WBAA in West Lafayette, Indiana in 1985 and has spent some time in just about every role public broadcasting has to offer. He has spent substantive time in programming and development at KWMU in St. Louis, WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, and Troy Public Radio in Alabama before his arrival in Geneva, New York. In addition, his work has been heard on many other public radio stations as well as NPR. Kelly also produces The Sundilla Radio Hour, which airs Sundays at 1 p.m. on Finger Lakes Public Radio and is distributed to public radio stations all over the country through PRX.