Degrees of daring

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Degrees of daring

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McGregor Vineyard

"I grew up with the grapes."

Degrees of daring
Brett C. Vermilyea
Stacey and John McGregor's vineyard was started by John's parents.

The 1980 “Christmas Massacre.” John McGregor, MA ’98, remembers it well. He was only 9 years old, but he could feel the tension, the anxiety in his father.

The family had recently opened a winery at the vineyard they planted by hand on the eastern shore of Keuka Lake the year John McGregor was born, and the temperature was falling so quickly it threatened to wipe out every bud, every vine and their new business in one night.

“That was scary,” McGregor says.

After the cold snap, the worrying continued for months, through the spring bloom and into the fall harvest.

“That spring, I can remember walking down the street and looking up the hillside and wondering, ‘When is it going to get green?’” he says. From four acres of Chardonnay vines, they harvested 400 pounds of grapes. Previously, the average had been 12 tons.

But the stubborn family dug in their heels and nursed their McGregor Vineyard back to health. They had staked too much of their lives proving to a skeptical wine industry dependent on native grapes and a few hybrids that vinifera wine grapes such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewürztraminer could be grown in the Finger Lakes, and they weren’t about to let a little bad weather drive them under.

“In the wine industry, there weren’t a lot of people who thought that was a smart thing to be doing,” McGregor says. “Even Cornell Cooperative Extension was not behind growing viniferas in this region. You were kind of kooky to do it.”

Today the Finger Lakes wine industry has followed McGregor’s lead, growing dozens of vinifera varieties to produce some of the finest wines in the world.

“That was the real marker for my father in terms of where he fits into the history of this region,” he says. “He deserves some pretty clear recognition for being one of the earliest believers and successful growers and producers of vinifera red wine in the Northeast, not just the Finger Lakes, but the Northeast.”

About 10 years ago, McGregor took over the day-to-day operations of the 8,000-cases-per-year winery and vineyard from his parents. He changed the winery’s marketing by pulling back from wholesale to concentrate on getting to know his customers through direct sales, which now make up 99 percent of profits. When he took over, there were a couple hundred members buying directly through the McGregor Clan Club. Now there are around 1,000.

“I’ve gotten to know these people,” he says. “I know about their family. I know about their dog. You get a lot of hugs. That’s one of those moments where you’re like, ‘aha, this makes it worth it.’”

Before taking over, McGregor was working as a project director for Binghamton University’s Public Archaeology Facility, two years after earning a master’s degree in anthropology. The experience built an ideal skill set to run a winery because it exposed him “to the vast differences we all hold and, at the same time, the realization there’s a fundamental underlying commonality to us all,” he says. “I’m interacting with so many strangers day to day; it could not have been a better program of study for something like this.”

His anthropological worldview also helped him realize why he loves producing great wine.

“To get to hear people say they’re saving (our wine) for their 10th anniversary, their 50th anniversary, their wedding, you name it; that blows me away,” he says. “There’s a lot of wine out there in the world. To have our wine singled out by someone for incorporating into some of the deepest rituals we have, that’s pretty special.”