They essentially knew nothing about farming, let alone the particulars of growing grapes in a northeastern climate or the intricacies of making wine.
But in their quest to return to nature and raise their family organically, John and Josephine Ingle stumbled into grape farming, which in turn led to the launch of a winery.
“The first year the grass was taller than the vines,” John Ingle said. “We didn’t have experience or schooling; it was just sort of a dream.”
It’s a dream that lives on. The Ingles quickly became experts on growing grapes through sustainable farming methods. On Sunday the Ingles will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ingle Vineyard and the 45th anniversary of crafting award-winning wines at Heron Hill Winery.
The Ingles maintain a 23.5-acre grape-growing venture on Seneca Point overlooking Canandaigua Lake. It was that scenic view from the farmland in 1972 that convinced them the industry would be their vocation.
“We were living in a two-bedroom cabin on eight acres on Canandaigua Lake and decided to help a neighbor pick grapes,” Ingle said. “One day it just struck me: the sun, the lake, everything. I thought, ‘This could be something I could enjoy my whole life.’ ”
And so began their venture into a vineyard, and then a winery, well before the region became known for fine varietals and vintages.
“Back in 1972 Canandaigua Lake was barely on the wine map,” Ingle said. “But it turned out to be some of the best soil you could have for grapes. We were originally only just going to grow grapes. My passion was growing grapes, I didn’t want to be down in the cellar.”
The late Peter Johnstone, however, did. A marketer from New York City, he came to the Finger Lakes region on vacation “and was bitten by the grape bug,” Ingle said. Johnstone was their partner in Heron Hill and was the winemaker until his retirement in 1996.
When Ingle was introduced to picking grapes, they were Concord vines. Concords are OK for some wine, but far better for jam and jelly, Ingle said. So, in order to sell their grapes to winemakers, they needed to grow in-demand varieties.
Over the years, Ingle Vineyard added Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir grapes to the acreage. With a climate and soil composition similar to the Rhine River region of Germany and its neighboring countries, the area is perfect for Rieslings, Ingle said.
That’s one reason Riesling has become the flagship wine of Heron Hill, garnering awards for the winery along with their Chardonnays and Cabernet Francs.
“We’ve been recognized as a world-class source of Riesling wines,” Ingle said. “We built our reputation and found our identity.”
They have two tasting rooms, at Seneca Point on Canandaigua Lake as well as at the winery in Hammondsport along Keuka Lake. Sunday’s anniversary celebration takes place from noon to 3 p.m. at the Canandaigua property, with a 50th anniversary toast at 1 p.m.
“There are so many places for people to spend their money so you really have to have a game plan with your product,” Ingle said. “We realized we had to become a destination. Heron Hill was one of the first wineries to implement destination experiences.”
As with any crop, weather plays a pivotal role. An abundance of rain last year, coupled with a cold winter in the Bristol hills, impacted the vines, Ingle said.
“There was a time this spring that I thought I was done,” he said. “But by late May, 90 percent of the vines had come back. Those vines are resilient.
“But the crop is very low. That leads to better quality, but low quantity. We usually get 50 tons of grapes; we will probably only get 10 tons this year. We do get higher concentrations, so that means better flavors and a higher concentration of flavors.”
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