A decade ago, Chris Missick and his father sat in a diner-style booth in the Villa Bellangelo Winery overlooking Seneca Lake in Dundee, Yates County.
It was the day after Chris married his French sweetheart, Laure, and the wedding guests were taking a Finger Lakes wine-tasting trip as part of the festivities. The Finger Lakes lie halfway between France and where the Missick family lived at the time in California.
“Can you imagine what we could do with this?” Greg Missick, a successful contractor, asked of his son as they looked out the window to the lake.
Chris returned to his bankruptcy and real estate law practice in California and to visiting wineries on the West Coast. But a couple years later, his mother, Elizabeth, who grew up in the Rochester area, called him and asked him to recall the last winery they visited during the wedding weekend. Villa Bellangelo was for sale and she proposed making it a family project.
The Missick family—Chris, his parents and brother Matthew—bought the winery in 2011 and moved the family East the next year. Though the family had a summer home in the area, the Finger Lakes winery industry felt like a new frontier.
“I love frontiers,” Missick said. “I love the feeling of being part of a group doing something new.”
The family remade the winery building, entirely redoing the tasting and sales rooms to look more like an upscale parlor with wooden tables, velvet couches and Persian rugs. In 2017 the invested another $500,000 to upgrade equipment and the crush pad. And they dropped Villa from the brand name of the wine.
Missick was general manager at first, but as he grew more knowledgeable about how wines are made he moved into the winemaking position with the 2015 vintage, and the family decided to change the style of wine Bellangelo makes. He took enology (wine making) and viticulture (grape growing) courses at Finger Lakes Community College, but hasn’t yet transferred over some credits from his previous degrees to complete the associate’s degree in viticulture.
He’s licensed to practice law in New York—he lays claim to being the only winemaker in the United States who has been admitted to practice before the Supreme Court—but mostly uses his legal skills for registering trademarks and licenses required of a winery. His passion, though, has been ignited by the romance of making wine.
Winemaking is the opposite of practicing law, Missick said, which is entirely about following rules. “Wine making allows me to create flavors and ideas that might not have existed before.” And it leaves a legacy.
“I can produce something today that my child can enjoy potentially when he’s my age,” Missick said. In fact, he set aside some cases of sparkling wine made when his son was born two years ago, with the intention of allowing Andrew to celebrate with it when he turns 21.
Missick is thinking even more long-term, though. “If you can build and grow a legacy, it’s something you can have in your family for many generations.”
And he’s thinking outside the box. He plays with some of the accepted practices of fermenting grapes to produce unique flavors of traditional varietals. He also experiments with single-vineyard fermentations, and different methods of fermenting each vineyard’s produce, creating up to 30 different Riesling fermentations in a single year. You might taste some of those individual fermentations at Bellangelo’s tasting room, but you won’t find 30 different 2019 Rieslings on the shelf at the wine store. That’s because Missick combines the varieties to create a signature texture and hedonistic experience in the Bellangelo wines that end up on store shelves.
“At its core, winemaking is a craft,” Missick said. “When I think of wine as art, I want to have a palette with as many different colors to draw from as possible.” He also talks about the products of the vineyards that supply Bellangelo as if they were parts of the body—one represents muscle, another skeleton and a third flesh—that make up finished wine.
Scott Osborn, president and co-owner of Fox Run Vineyards, also on Seneca Lake, pays Missick a major compliment by saying he drinks Bellangelo’s chardonnay and other wines.
“Chris is a very creative guy; he’s not afraid to step out the box. He wants to try new things,” Osborn said. And, he contributes his time and energy to making the region better.
Missick has written two books about tasting wines, the history of the Finger Lakes wine industry, and Bellangelo to help improve the wine-tasting experience for consumers.
“He’s really innovative and he really understands the big picture—that it’s about promoting the Finger Lakes, and it’s about making world-class wines,” Osborn said. “The more people we have in the Finger Lakes who make really good wine, the better our reputation will be.”
The two wineries, along with Seneca Lake’s Anthony Road Winery, have joined together to market their wines in European countries, including Belgium, France, Denmark and the United Kingdom.
Bellangelo has also invested heavily in the new trend of canning wine, aiming to provide it to consumers in new places—stadiums and golf courses, for instance. The Can Do brand the winery produces currently includes three wines—rosé, Muscato and Patriot, the last made from a hybrid of Cornell-developed wine grapes. They also make a Scooter line from red and white native grapes.
Missick recently participated in a panel at a state wine industry conference that explored the decision-making that goes into canning wine instead of bottling it. His presentation included perhaps two dozen decisions a winery has to consider before arranging for a mobile canning operation to visit.
He offered additional thoughts on the process recently at the winery, as family and workers channeled open aluminum cans into a processing line that was packaging rosé.
“Canning wine doesn’t make it cheaper for the producer,” he said. But it does allow the wine to be consumed in active environments where glass containers aren’t allowed. And it prevents waste and over-pouring in restaurants and bars when customers want just one or two servings of wine. In this first run, Bellangelo was filling about 2,500 cans, a start on 2,000 cases of canned wine over the season.
“We’re not canning everything in our inventory all at once,” he said. From experience, local winemakers and cidermakers have learned that canned wine and hard cider have a shorter shelf life than do the beverages that are bottled. So Bellangelo will can wine two or three more times this year as inventories draw down.
Bellangelo’s Can Do line is distributed outside the Finger Lakes region in Puerto Rico, and the winery’s distributor is working on opening outlets in Florida. Texas and California are also under consideration.
“By doing such good work, and getting his wines out to the marketplace and other influencers, he’s helping build a reputation,” Osborn said.
Missick’s idea is to spread the word on wines made from cold-variety grapes and hybrids.
“Hybrid grapes still aren’t tasted and grown outside cold regions,” he said. He’s taken the unusual step of relying on a beer distributor—Wright Beverages—instead of a distributor focusing on wine distribution. Wright already has the contacts, through its beer sales, in places that are more amenable to selling canned wine, he said, such as the Senior PGA and Lilac Festival. Beer distributors seem to always be about selling, he said.
After growing up in the Los Angeles area, Missick could have chosen to join the California wine industry. But he says his history as a fighter—he served in the Army Reserve for eight years was deployed to both South Korea and the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border—primed him to work here.
He was drawn, he said, by the “allure of the Finger Lakes, the changing of seasons, and the feeling that we need to fight a little harder.”
[email protected]/(585) 363-7275
Title: Winemaker, co-owner, Bellangelo Winery
Education: Bachelor’s degree in government and political theory, California State University at Sacramento, 2003; J.D., Whittier College, 2008; Coursework in viticulture, Finger Lakes Community College, 2014-16
Family: Wife, Laure; son, Andrew, 2
Activities: Reading, photography, and listening to music and podcasts on history.
Quote: “When I think of wine as art, I want to have a palette with as many different colors to draw from as possible.”