Most of the winemakers I’ve met over the course of my time writing about wine have interesting backgrounds, but it’s hard to imagine one seemingly less-likely to culminate in a winemaking career than Red Newt winemaker Kelby Russell’s background.
Sure, he grew up not all that far from the Finger Lakes, but he graduated from Harvard with a degree in government with a minor in economics. As you’ll read below, he’s also a singer/musician who considered a career in orchestra management before finding his way back home and into the wine community.
I’ve written before about the potential pitfalls of single-vineyard rieslings. Too many wineries label and sell them purely because they can (and at a premium price) regardless of whether or not the vineyard sources warrant it. Russell’s single-vineyard rieslings aren’t that. Tasting them one after another as I did a couple years ago with him, it’s striking to taste the differences. They are a true exploration and expression of Finger Lakes terroir.
He also makes one of my favorite Finger Lakes rose under his eponymous Kelby James Russell label. It’s 100% cabernet franc, bone dry and deftly stradles the fruity-savory line that makes cabernet franc so exciting.
For all that Kelby has accomplished, something tells me that his best work is yet to come. I guess you could call it his magnum opus.
Get to know Kelby Russell, a true tastemaker.
Location: Geneva, New York
Current Job: Winemaker, Red Newt Cellars; Winemaker, Empire Estate
Wine/cider/beer of the moment: Pavillon de Chavannes, 2014 Cote de Brouilly ‘Cuvee des Ambassades’
My winemaking style in 1-5 words: Whites: Powerful. Reds: Joyful.
First bottle of wine I remember drinking: A California sparkling wine of some sort, as I was being ‘sung in’ to the Harvard Glee Club. After the arduous audition process, the singers accepted to the all-male choir were greeted at their door by the 40-45 returning members in white tie and tailcoats, singing a triumphant song of welcome. When all the new singers were greeted, you were brought to the restored chapel were rehearsals occurred and sung to again over a toast of sparkling wine. Like so many others who have answered this question, my subsequent early wine decisions were highly suspect, but I got the first one right.
How I got here: I got here via a trade with Fox Run Vineyards for prospects to be named later — or that has always been the joke.
I grew up just north of the Finger Lakes in the Erie Canal town of Newark, on the way to Rochester. After college I had initially thought my career path was orchestra management, but the allure of wine had caught me junior-into-senior year of college when I worked in the vineyard at Castello di Potentino in far southern Tuscany. It went from being a crazy daydream over the course of senior year to something I decided to pursue after graduation. I showed up at Fox Run for their first day of harvest in 2009, expecting an interview, and instead was handed a shovel by Winemaker Peter Bell. To his surprise, I kept coming back day after (long) day that harvest and we clicked.
I was at Fox Run for three years after that, going to the Southern Hemisphere with Peter’s encouragement each winter to work an additional harvest (New Zealand, Tasmania, Barossa Valley). At that point, Red Newt was looking for an Assistant Winemaker and, with how incredibly friendly the two wineries and winemakers are, it was an obvious move.
My winemaking style — in more words: I am probably the least qualified person to answer any style questions on my wines! Hopefully, I am constantly and rapidly learning and evolving. In our cellar, this starts with the vineyard; both the time we invest in the vineyard itself with the growers we work with as well as a commitment to harvesting and vinifying every parcel of every vineyard separately (for Riesling alone that means over 50 wines at this point of the year). I spend an inordinate amount of time tailoring the winemaking for each of these different lots of fruit and adjusting constantly on the fly during and after harvest.
In the end, I feel it is my responsibility to the vineyard and wine to treat it as the individual it is and try and draw out it’s best.
More specifically, with Rieslings I am constantly chasing more depth, more texture, more mid-palate impact with the wines (dry or otherwise). Reds, which largely means Cabernet Franc for us, I think our fruit can make beautiful red-fruit driven wines with a pleasant minerality underneath. The Cru Beaujolais above is no accident in our personal wine cellar!
Mentors: Albert “Nick” Webster for orchestra management (even if I did not go down that path). Peter Bell and Peter Gambetta (formerly of Yalumba, now retired) for wine. John Coltrane for music and spirit. Michael Caywood (former Social Studies teacher at Newark High School) and my parents for life. Julia Hoyle (my spouse) for love.
Music playing in the cellar right now: We just went from the Academy of Ancient Music’s recording of the Mozart Requiem to Kehlani’s new album SweetSexySavage. Lest Peter Bell reads this, let it be known that the former was only as reference listening/practice, as the choir I sing with is performing it this weekend.
Favorite thing about the local wine industry: The sense of discovery and camaraderie. Ever more it feels like the Finger Lakes is breaking through, both in terms of recognition and the wines being made, and it is truly a joy to be here for that. There are a lot of young wine industry folks in the region and coming into the region for that very reason, and we have a lot of fun working and hanging out together.
For the camaraderie, it isn’t to say everyone is best friends with everyone else, but this region still reflects the ‘help your neighbor out’ ethos of the farmers that started it. That is unique in this world — wine or otherwise — and something to treasure.
Least favorite thing about the local wine industry: Anytime someone wonders what the value of selling wine beyond the tasting room or local community is. Let alone the fact that greater demand would help all of us out, if we are making great and unique wines in the Finger Lakes, as a wine love I would want other wine lovers to experience them.
One surprising thing that I’m really good at: Fantasy Football. I picked it up my first harvest at Fox Run, I think as a distraction from the intensity of harvest work, and still love the distraction. Setting a line-up is far less fraught than setting a tank temperature.
What I drink: We’re big into coffee at our house, with an armada of brewing options depending on what we want and how tired we are. Alcohol wise, anything interesting. We have a significant home bar and a number of mixology books, as well as eaux de vie and Amari for sipping. Beer is a constant, I’ve been in a kolsch and elegantly made Pilsner mood for quite some time; although IPAs are always in rotation. Wine wise is a huge scattershot; German and Austrian Riesling, Chablis, Cru Beaujolais, Chianti Classico, Sherry, Australian (Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling), and tons of Finger Lakes Riesling.
My “Desert Island Meal” — wine/cider/beer included: Bucatini all’Amatriciana; a classic pasta preparation from around Rome that features guanciale (cured pork jowl), tomato, red chili, garlic, onion, and pecorino cheese. I rarely cook anything more than once, this is the one dish that reliably gets made a few times per year in our house.
Wine wise it is also fantastically versatile; my preference is for savory, higher acid reds (think old school, pre-jam, Chianti), but off-dry Rieslings play beautifully off the heat and pork. If I had to pick one wine: sparkling Shiraz from Australia.