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The adventures of a winery owner

Douglas Hazlitt and his sister, Leigh Hazlitt-Triner, are co-owners and co-CEOs of Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards. With them, at right, is winemaker Michael Reidy. (Photo by Brad Phillips)

He is the co-CEO and co-owner of a multimillion-dollar winery operation, yet those closest to him say Douglas Hazlitt is a hands-on guy who would rather be in the seat of a tractor or restoring a boat than sitting behind a desk.

Hazlitt has built a career that began with a series of adventures in skiing, whitewater rafting and working on a windjammer, and he has a dream that one day could take him around the world.

For now, he works hard to build the business his family started with a product that has the motto “from the soil to the shelf.”

Hazlitt grew up in the quiet hamlet of Hector. Near the shores of Seneca Lake, the farmland stretches for miles with lush vineyards that many say rival those of Napa Valley. His family has owned the land since 1852 and once earned their living by running it as a fruit farm.

They sold grapes to the Taylor Wine Co. and Pleasant Valley Wine Co., Haz-litt says, from the 1950s until the late 1970s, when the vintners realized they could buy grape concentrate more cheaply from South America.

“We were in a situation,” Hazlitt recalls. “We were faced with the possibility of selling the farm. There were many families like ours in the same predicament.”

Then his father had the idea that if others could make wine, so could he.

“It’s what led to the Finger Lakes wine movement,” Hazlitt says.

Today, Seneca Lake Wine Trail officials estimate, there are nearly 70 wineries around Seneca Lake and close to 200 throughout the Finger Lakes.

Start in a barn
Hazlitt’s parents, Jerry and Elaine, opened Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards Inc. in 1985 in a small wooden pole barn on their farm. The original building housed all the wine production equipment, a manual bottling line, a small tasting and sales area, a wood workshop and a couple of horses.

Now, as the company marks its 30-year anniversary, Douglas Hazlitt and his sister, Leigh Hazlitt-Triner, welcome guests to a second location. In 2010, the Hazlitt family acquired the historic Widmer wine facility in Naples from Constellation Brands Inc. Soon after, they invested $1.5 million to update the property with a new press deck and tasting room, making it the winery’s main production facility. It came with 600 acres of land, 100 acres of that with grapes.

Much of the winery’s success can be credited to its flagship wine, Red Cat, which is now sold in 18 states. It is a sweet red, fruity wine that is wildly popular, Hazlitt says.

There is a story that many at the shop like to tell about the first batch of Red Cat. They say Jerry Hazlitt made 2,000 gallons and was terrified he would have to throw it all down the drain because no one would like it.

Now, the winery produces more than a half-million gallons a year and it is one of the top sellers for Hazlitt, and among many sweet reds. Ninety percent of stores in New York that carry red wine have Red Cat on their shelves, Hazlitt says. It retails for about $8 a bottle.

“Red Cat is enormously popular,” says Paul Thomas, executive director of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, noting that the Hazlitts have invested considerable time and money to build the brand.

He also notes that the Hazlitt winery produces award-winning estate wines. “People hear Red Cat and think that’s where the story ends, but that’s not the case,” he says.

The Hazlitt winery earned several awards at the 2015 Jerry D. Mead’s New World International Wine Competition. The 2013 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay was awarded best of class and a double gold medal, the 2013 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine earned best of class and a gold medal, and the 2013 Unoaked Chardonnay was awarded a gold medal.

These wines retail for twice as much as Red Cat, but many of its fans say price is not the reason they enjoy the wine.

“I never liked wine until I tried Red Cat,” explains Cheryl Andregic, voted No. 1 Red Cat fan in a contest by FingerLakesWineCountry.com. “It’s the sweetness I like. It was not carried in Pennsylvania where I live, but I always took it where I went and people started asking for it, so now the stores there have it. People love it.”

Andregic has been visiting the Hazlitt winery for 20 years while on camping trips to Hector. She befriended the Haz-litt family over the years and shares her love of Red Cat through a recipe.

“Doug likes my hot bologna,” Andregic says. “I use Red Cat in the hot sauce. He flipped over it!”

Early adventures
Andregic and many of Hazlitt’s team members describe him as a great guy who is always up for fun.

While he always worked on the family farm, he managed to slip away for the summers to test other waters. After graduating from Cobleskill College with an associate’s degree in liberal arts in 1983, Hazlitt headed to Maine to spend two summers sailing on a windjammer and delivering yachts from New England to the Caribbean. After that, he spent two summers in Alaska as a whitewater raft guide a winter on ski patrol in Lake Tahoe.

“I couldn’t afford to visit these places, so I had to figure out a way to get a job there,” Hazlitt recalls with a laugh.

When he decided to come home to stay in 1990, he did not want to give up adventure just yet and started Seneca Daysails Inc. out of nearby Watkins Glen.

“I started with a 40-foot restored schooner called Chantey and took passengers on three-hour sails on Seneca Lake,” Haz-litt says. “Then I bought a Malabar 10, a 70-footer. I did sails for 17 years.”

Even while running the day-sailing business, Hazlitt remained involved with the family winery operation. When his father passed away in 2002, Hazlitt and his sister Leigh—who is co-owner and co-CEO—took a larger interest in helping their mother with the business.

Growth and challenges
Growth of the company has continued, Hazlitt says, with some fluctuations.

“We had as much as 40 percent (annual growth) in early years. The last couple years it slowed as sweet wine has become popular, with big players getting into the market,” Hazlitt says. “Just this year we’re seeing growth again since we started aggressively marketing.”

He estimates annual growth to be 8 to 10 percent for the last two years and the business is up to 60 full-time workers.

Hazlitt is glad for the decision to move into the wholesale market several years ago. Today, he estimates 90 percent of his business is wholesale. Selling to distributors puts his wine in many stores and restaurants.

He still faces challenges.

“On the wholesale side we are competing with the rest of the world for shelf space,” he says. “On the retail side, we used to say the more wineries, the merrier, but not anymore. I wouldn’t want to be a small winery just starting out. They’re growing faster than the tourist industry here.”

Even with the stiff competition, Haz-litt says there is a healthy atmosphere along the Seneca wine trail, with wineries doing plenty of cross-promotion.

“Every winery has a sign that points to the next one on the trail,” he says. “We work together here. The industry has grown and the quality of the wine has improved since the ’70s.”

Name recognition makes a difference, and the popularity of Red Cat has helped Hazlitt promote his brand, he says. He has capitalized on that by sponsoring major events and being featured as a top wine at high-profile festivals such as the Sterling Renaissance Faire.

This is the ninth year Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards has been a partner sponsor at Watkins Glen International. At the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen, a NASCAR Sprint Cup national event, Hazlitt hosted the Red Cat Bog hospitality area at the final turn before the finish line.

“The track is a very big regional draw that puts us on the map. It allows us to put our little Finger Lakes wine into bigger hands,” says Bradley Phillips, director of marketing for the winery. The company hosted a dinner for several of the popular NASCAR drivers. Notables such as Danica Patrick and Brad Keselowski drove in the race. 

Richard Petty, a racing legend now active as a team owner in the NASCAR Sprint Car series, has a special relationship with the Hazlitts.

“Richard Petty always signs wine bottles and T-shirts for our Seneca Santa fundraiser. It is a need-based program for families in Schuyler County,” Phillips says, explaining it is a major charity for the Hazlitt family.

Phillips, who joined the business 12 years ago, says he enjoys the relaxed, family atmosphere—and no one is more laid back than his boss.

“Doug is the CEO, but he is more comfortable out working than behind the desk,” Phillips says. “I’ve only seen him in a tie twice in my entire time here.”

At the helm
When Hazlitt is not busy at the winery, he is likely to be working on a boat—a very big boat. He restores schooners. One is a 60-foot schooner built in Maine called the When and If.

“It was commissioned originally by Gen. George Patton,” Hazlitt says. “He went off to war. He said, ‘When and if I ever come back from the war I’m going to sail around the world.’”

Hazlitt keeps the boat in Cape Cod and a friend takes people for a sail now and then, including a very special group of guests in July.

“He took the whole Kennedy family out (one) weekend. There were 16 of them,” Hazlitt says, “and 93-year-old Ethel, the mother, was behind the wheel.”

Hazlitt also is restoring the Voyager, a 70-foot ketch rig that he says once belonged to Thomas Watson, the CEO of IBM Corp., and then Geraldo Rivera, the talk show host. Rivera donated it to the Maine Maritime Academy. It was valued at $2 million; Hazlitt says the museum sold it to him for pennies on the dollar as a donation it could turn into cash.

“That’s the one I’m going to sail around the world on,” Hazlitt says, noting he plans to head out on the Voyager to the St. Lawrence River for a spin next summer as a test ride and then out to sea for the world sail in three or four years with his wife, Cheryl, and any of his four children who want to go along.

Until then, he will continue to build the family business with his sister. They renovated the popular outdoor wine tasting area, the Tiki Tent, in 2013 and transformed it into a permanent structure known as the Oasis. The three-season party pavilion will help grow the event segment of the business—private receptions, lunch and dinner parties, and corporate events such as staff training and retreats.

Last year, they entered the hard cider market with Hazlitt’s Cider Tree, which is a sparkling cider made entirely from New York apples.

The winery business continues to grow and Hazlitt is proud it remains a family operation. All of his children work in the retail shops when they can and his eldest daughter, a graduate of Syracuse University, did some marketing work.

Hazlitt is making a life and a living on the land where his family laid roots more than 160 years ago. He has his dream to sail around the world, but his heart and his family business will always bring him home to the shores of Seneca Lake.

Douglas Hazlitt
Position: Co-owner and co-CEO, Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards Inc.
Age: 52
Education: Associate’s degree in liberal arts, Cobleskill College, 1983
Family: Wife, Cheryl; children, Shannon, 22, Sarah, 19, Patrick, 16, and Megan, 15
Residence: Hector
Quote: “We used to say the more wineries, the merrier, but not anymore. … They’re growing faster than the tourist industry here.”

8/14/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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