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The Two Faces of

Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards

Deer Control Mechanical Canopy Management Making Wine in a Tough Vintage

Wineries Unlimited 2011 Preview


The Two Faces of By David Falchek

One of New York’s largest wineries confronts sweet success, points to vinifera virtues 30


Hazlitt 1852Vineyards he Red Cat wine phenomenon started in the 1980s with tantalizing Hazlitt tasting room stories – some true and some probably exaggerated. Behind the tasting room bar, young brothers Doug and Phil Hazlitt told visitors how the sweet catawba-based wine, colored with a dash of baco noir, lubricated many hot tub parties and fueled the shenanigans that ensued. Visitors to Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards in Hector, N.Y., latched onto those early tales, and later to the cartoon label featuring a cat in a hot tub with canoodling felines. Making a tasty, appealing catawba takes no great winemaking skill, and the East Coast crawls with Red Cat impersonators. But Red Cat succeeds, Hazlitt co-owner Leigh Hazlitt Triner said, because it’s rooted in authenticity. “This wine is part of the heritage of the region (the FinW W W. V W M - O N L I N E . C O M


tage line. Many wineries have a sweetfinished wine, but few have been as successful as Red Cat. Hazlitt’s wildly successful Red Cat wine helps pay for the winery’s vineyard and winery upgrades.

Fred LeBrun writes a wine column for the Albany Times Union newspaper in New York state’s capital, and has watched the Hazlitt duality evolve. “They have a reputation as a blender of inexpensive, sweet wines and they do a superb job at it,” LeBrun said. “But they have always been known in the industry and by insiders as fine grapegrowers and have produced some of the finest vinifera.” Vinifera is not something Hazlitt stumbled upon. In the late 1970s, the Hazlitts planted riesling and chardonnay and grew to be one of the largest providers of vinifera to the fledgling Eastern wine industry. In 2008, Hazlitt’s 2006 Homestead Reserve Riesling earned a gold medal in the Riesling du Monde international wine competition in Strasbourg, France. Yet, the association with sweet wine dogs the winery, keeping wine writers and serious wine drinkers away. In some circles, Red Cat’s success has brought scorn from those who believe the wine hurts the state’s reputation. Photo: Neil Sjoblom

ger Lakes), of my family, and of Hazlitt,” she said. “Starting with my father, to the stories in the tasting room – people connected to it.” With production topping 126,000 cases per year, Red Cat is connecting with wine drinkers in 14 states. An annual sales growth of 20%-40% prompted Hazlitt last year to purchase the massive Widmer Wine Cellars facility from Constellation Brands. Taking control of Red Cat production, which had been handled by a third party, Hazlitt expects to improve quality and grow Red Cat to a 3-million-gallon brand, while providing state-of-theart custom crush facilities for a space-starved Eastern industry.

CAT’S SHADOW As Hazlitt rides the runaway success of Red Cat, a feline shadow is cast on the winery’s other efforts: the estate-grown vinifera wines of its HeriW W W. V W M-ONLINE.COM

Red Cat leads fans in the winery’s annual case club conga line.

The brand seems haunted by its tasting room’s reputation for outlandishness. Hazlitt Triner described the raucous days thusly: Dancing on the bar, streaking in the vineyard, a fist fight in the parking lot that was called into M A R - A P R 2 0 11 V I N E YA R D & W I N E RY M A N A G E M E N T



911 as a riot. The Red Cat chant – “Red Cat... it’s an aphrodisiac... it will get you in the sack” – was once bellowed so loud it could be heard throughout the town of Hector. It went beyond the atmosphere of simple fun and friendliness created by Leigh and Doug Hazlitt’s grandparents, whose first improvements on their lakefront property were a dance floor and an outhouse. The addition of friends, a fiddle and wine yielded a party. It went beyond, too, the oral tradition begun in 1980s. “That is not conducive to people who are serious about wine,” Hazlitt Triner said. “We have to figure out how to market Red Cat to the people of now.” Buses and groups are restricted. The chant is now a more solemn toast. Tasting room staff read a crowd’s demeanor before launching into more ribald Red Cat tales. That said, Hazlitt is still trying to massproduce Red Cat gelatin shots and has test-marketed “slushies.”

CAT ON CANANDAIGUA “Look. ‘Widmer Sweet Catawba,’” said Hazlitt vice president of

winemaking Tim Benedict, pointing to a display case of Widmer wines from the last century. “I guess we are bringing it back. The tradition lives on.” Benedict and some other Hazlitt officials took a late-fall walkthrough of the Widmer facility, purchased from Constellation last spring for $2.7 million. The beverage giant continued to rent the majority of the building until Jan. 1, 2011; before then, the new owner’s access required a company escort. The once-rattling bottling lines are silent and disassembled. The mezzanine walkway used for tours is empty and dusty. The massive network of pipes that largely automated the 2.5 million-case production of kosher Manischewitz wines is sparged. Since it was founded in 1882 by John Jacob Widmer, the winery was the heart of the tiny town of Naples, N.Y., at the southern point of Canandaigua Lake. As part of then-Canandaigua Wine Co., Widmer’s production increased to 6 million gallons in 1988. Constellation wanted to donate the facility to a non-profit such as the Rochester Institute of Technology, taking a

tax write-off. But the facility would have been tax-exempt, devastating area governments. Widmer winemaker Glenn Curtis reached out in a Facebook message to Benedict. “I hear you are looking for a place to make Red Cat. How about Widmer?” Red Cat was being produced at Pleasant Valley Wine Co. in Hammondsport. But Hazlitt wanted to control production of the line that makes up 90% of its volume. Hazlitt hammered out a deal with the world’s second-largest wine producer for the 227,000-square-foot facility, 499 acres of land, 165 planted acres and several company homes. Local economic development agencies and banks supported the move to preserve the facility as a winery. Hazlitt developed a crush pad in an outbuilding connected to the main facility. In just two months in the summer of 2010, it added two Bucher Vaslin Xpert presses equipped with Ortal systems that evaluate extracted juice and make pressing adjustments based on Benedict’s parameters. An in-line enzymatic dosing system speeds up the process further. The winery crushed 2,200 tons in five weeks.

Hazlitt bought the Widmer facility from Constellation last spring as a new production home for Red Cat.



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Next year it will add two more presses and transfer Hazlitt’s other popular lines (Bramble Berry, the niagara-based White Cat, Spyder Bite apple wine and Cabin Fever, another catawba wine, to what will be known as Red Cat Wine Cellars. “A tank is a tank, but the quality of wine is dependent on the quality of juice from the press,” Doug Hazlitt said. Now with more than enough capacity to meet its needs, Hazlitt will offer large-scale, state-ofthe-art custom crush services in Naples.

SENSING THE MARKET Wine is a relatively new venture for the 158-year-old family farm founded in 1852 by Leigh and Doug’s sixth great grandparents. Their tree fruit and grapes were loaded on Seneca Lake steamboats and taken to the Erie Canal and down the Hudson River to market. The family planted whatever it could sell; when the growing railroad network delivered inex-

pensive peaches from the South, Hazlitt planted more table and wine grapes. After Prohibition, Hazlitt became one of many grapegrowers that sold to processors such as Taylor, Canandaigua and Gold Seal. In the 1970s and ’80s, the large processors closed or were acquired. The grape market collapsed. Like many growers, the Hazlitts went through difficult times. A pre-teen at the time, Hazlitt Triner remembers the painful discussions, an empty refrigerator, and being cautious while playing outside since the sneakers on her feet were likely the only shoes she would have that year. Her father, Jerry Hazlitt, built a pole barn that he used as a horse barn and wood shop, and a place to host parties and barbecues. With carboys of his homemade wine bubbling in the background, he looked up the road at Wagner Vineyards and across the lake to Glenora Wine Cellars, and wistfully thought his shop could be a winery someday. When he resolved to do

it, he financed the winery on credit cards, the only credit available. The Hazlitt winery opened in 1985. Today, its tasting room has the same rough-hewn feel. Jerry’s antique lathes provide back bars, a reminder that the Hazlitts have done what they had to do to satisfy a market and to keep the family and business going. Jerry died in 2002, his wife Elaine in 2010. Doug and Leigh relied on their mother as a sounding board and even a financier when necessary. With her passing, they lost a mooring to the past. The enormity of operating one of the oldest family farms in America sank in. Doug, 47, has always been involved with the company. Leigh, 35, earned a degree in hospitality management from Cornell University and worked away for a time. When she joined the company as co-owner, the siblings had to learn to work cooperatively. The first several years were marked by clashes rooted in different management styles: Doug is a risk-taker, confirmed this fall when he blew the

Hazlitt co-owners and siblings Leigh Hazlitt Triner and Doug Hazlitt bring different but complementary styles to the business. Photo: Neil Sjoblom W W W. V W M-ONLINE.COM

M A R - A P R 2 0 11 V I N E YA R D & W I N E RY M A N A G E M E N T



motor of his new Porsche race car. He’s eager to pounce on business opportunities. “Doug tends to jump into things,” said friend and neighboring vintner David Whiting of Red Newt Winery. “But he’s proved to have very good instincts.” Leigh, mother of two, is a cautious nurturer, somewhat embarrassed when talking about Red Cat’s lascivious marketing. An advocate for managed, controlled growth, she makes business decisions on flow charts in her head, anticipating downsides and planning for them. “Doug and I spent the first few years fighting,” she said. “But we came to acknowledge that we are different and we bring different assets to the table.” Employees talk about the bosses’ yin and yang, seeing each as embodying a product line: Doug as bawdy, adventurous Red Cat, Leigh as the refined, estate vinifera.

easy to see why selling Red Cat wholesale is lucrative and selling riesling retail barely pays the electric bills.

explored. The winery recently invested in smaller, floating-top tanks that allow fermentation of individual vineyard lots. Clonal vari-

THE PAW THAT FEEDS Drop in on Hazlitt’s production team and you’ll hear about sur lie aging, phenolic extraction and or canopy management – not catawba and Red Cat. But you won’t hear anyone criticize it. Red Cat finances the vineyard upgrades and the new production equipment. “We are lucky,” said winemaker Michael Reidy, who handles Hazlitt vinifera. “Thanks to Red Cat, we get everything we need.” Hazlitt pays $345 per ton for catawba, about $100 more than most processors. Compare that to $1,400 per ton for riesling and it’s

Winemaker Michael Reidy (left) and vineyard manager John Santos inspect vidal blanc grapes for Hazlitt’s award-winning ice wine. Photo: Neil Sjoblom

John Santos has headed vineyard operations for five years, although his association with the winery goes back further. Managing prime vineyards on Seneca Lake, he removed the few non-vinifera vines that remained. He converted the umbrella-trained vines to a mix of Scott Henry and vertical shoot positioning. Hazlitt’s terroir is just now being

HAZLITT 1852 VINEYARDS  Founded: 1985 by Jerry and Elaine Hazlitt  Location: Hector, N.Y., Naples, N.Y.  Principals: Doug Hazlitt and Leigh Hazlitt Triner, co-owners; John Keeler, president; John Santos, vineyard manager; Michael Reidy, vinifera winemaker; Tim Benedict, VP of winemaking, Red Cat Cellars  Vineyard Acreage: 55 acres estate, 165 acres from Widmer acquisition  Main Varieties: Riesling, gewürztraminer, cabernet franc, pinot gris, niagara, Elvira  Production: Heritage and Schooner lines: 50,000 gallons; Red Cat line: 450,000 gallons.



ation is the rule for riesling, where six clones go into the mix. Cabernet franc shows up with four clones in the vineyard, with Santos much preferring No. 327 over 312. His work in cover-cropping, erosion control and pomace composting earned Hazlitt 1852 the Conservation Farmer of the Year award from the local soil and water conservation district. Len Wiltberger, owner of Keuka Spring Vineyards near Penn Yan, N.Y., has used Hazlitt’s vinifera grapes for years. While he stops short of disclosing what grapes he purchases, he considers Hazlitt’s red vinifera key components to wines such as 2007 Reserve Merlot and 2008 Miller’s Cove Red, which both earned 90-point scores from Wine & Spirits magazine. “The vineyards are meticulous,” Wiltberger said. “Their standards are the same as what we would do for our own grapes.” Hazlitt’s pricW W W. V W M - O N L I N E . C O M


es are competitive, Wiltberger said, and if the grape market hadn’t been so soft in recent years, Hazlitt could probably charge a premium for its fruit. For its own wines, Hazlitt uses France’s Alsace region as a model. Gewürztraminer and pinot gris are cold-soaked, creating a more extracted, unctuous and often more phenolic style that improves markedly with age. “We’ve tasted

somewhat neglected. To remedy that, in late 2010 Hazlitt brought on seasoned marketing executive Fred Wickham, who drew the original Red Cat label almost 20 years ago. “If they promoted the estate vinifera at all, they haven’t done a very good job at it,” Wickham said. “We are starting with a media relations campaign and we are working on a full strategy.” Reidy said Santos delivers some

Hazlitt has become big business. Sacrificing production space, the Hazlitts built a conference room, feeling uneasy about meeting important visitors over a tasting bar. But everyone still wears jeans and company executives cram into shared offices. Now with the new Red Cat Cellars facility, Hazlitt has massive amounts of office and production space.

Hazlitt’s vineyards include riesling and chardonnay, among other vinifera varieties. The winery’s fruit has a top-notch reputation in the Finger Lakes region.

gewürtz young and think, ‘What have we done?’” Santos said. “Then it keeps getting better.” Hazlitt is also known for making one of the few convincing sauvignon blancs in the East. In good years, as 2010 promises to be, Hazlitt’s cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon are standouts. In poor years, the winery doesn’t bottle any red varietal wines. When bottled wine isn’t ready, no one forces it onto the shelves. With Benedict spending more time at Widmer, he turned over the Heritage wines program to Reidy, a graduate of Cornell’s enology and viticulture program. “I rely on instinct, palate and experience,” Benedict said. “But Michael can do things I just can’t do.” So much front-office energy has been focused on marketing Red Cat that the estate wines have been W W W. V W M-ONLINE.COM

of the best fruit in the Finger Lakes. “My job is to not screw it up,” he said, then offers a more brash goal: establishing Hazlitt unequivocally as one of the top producers of fine wine in New York. In the tasting room, the hybrids are gone from the tasting sheet. The fruit and cat wines occupy one end, the heritage wines the other. Schooner White and Red, accessible, all-vinifera blends, occupy the middle ground as stepping stones to get Red Cat drinkers into Hazlitt’s other offerings. Rounding out the team is company president John Keeler. Steve Cruty is director of sales, promoting Red Cat from Hong Kong to California. (Phil Hazlitt, who helped build the Red Cat legend in the `80s, now works for Woodbury Vineyards in western New York.) Under the seventh generation,

On Jan. 3, 2011, Doug Hazlitt got to walk the historic halls and cellars with his team members. He addressed them and the eight employees Hazlitt inherited from Constellation. “We have no phones, no computers, and we don’t know how everything works yet,” he said. “But think of where we are going to be five years from now, and let’s write the next chapter in the history of this facility and Hazlitt.”  David Falchek is a regular contributor to trade publications such as Vineyard & Winery Management and Beverage Media. He also writes a regular consumer wine column for The Scranton Times-Tribune, in Scranton, Pa. Comments? Please e-mail us at M A R - A P R 2 0 11 V I N E YA R D & W I N E RY M A N A G E M E N T


The Two Faces of Hazlitt 1852  

March-April 2001 Vineyard & Winery Management David Falchek article.

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