How Hunt Country Vineyards expanded and succeeded in the Finger Lakes
When Art and Joyce Hunt moved back to the Hunt family farm west of Branchport, N.Y., in 1973, the Finger Lakes region was a very different place than it is today. While small family farms had prospered for many years, and the towns of Geneva and Canandaigua had become centers for processing locally produced foods, by the early 1970s it was much cheaper to grow and process food in California than in upstate New York. Processing plants closed and both farmers and food processors went broke. At that time, “sustainability” for a farmer meant only the farm’s survival for another year; most farmers had little concern for the impact of farming or building practices on the environment.
The Finger Lakes has changed in many ways during the past 40 years. Vineyards that used to grow grapes for jelly, jams and juice now either sell grapes to wineries or have added winemaking facilities of their own. In 1975 the state had a total of 19 wineries; today New York state has 319 wineries, with 131 of those wineries located in the Finger Lakes region. The wine industry has had a major economic impact on tourism and economic growth in the region, and along with that growth has come an increasing concern with the environmental impact of both grapegrowing and winemaking. Art Hunt and Hunt Country Vineyards have become leaders in the move towards sustainable practices, in the current sense of those practices that are environmentally responsible, employee-friendly, economically viable and practical, as well as safe for the long term.
How did the Hunts make the change from dairy farm to a 10,000-case winery with a focus on sustainability? Lots of hard work and the desire to take better care of their land—and the planet in general—than had happened in the past.
In the late 1960s, Art Hunt’s father saw an opportunity for growing grapes on the family farm and planted two acres of Niagara and 16 acres of Concord. After Art and Joyce Hunt moved to the farm, they planted Delaware, Aurore, De Chaunac and more Concord in 1974 and 1975, all with the expectation that they would be able to sell the entire crop to Taylor Wine Co. By the time their vineyard was producing four years later, Coca-Cola had acquired Taylor and moved the company to California. When the Hunts sold their grapes they got $80 per ton, not the $400 per ton they had been anticipating.
“We sold juice to home winemakers,” Hunt recalled, “but you can’t sell them hundreds of tons of grapes. One fellow said we should make a few barrels of wine, then sell a few cases. Our first vintage was 1981, and in 1982 we bottled seven white wines and one red wine (a De Chaunac), and all won awards. We turned the shed into a tasting room by adding a deck and started the winery.”
As more people visited the winery, the Hunts expanded their tasting room four more times. The last addition, in 2001, included a full basement, restrooms, and tripled the size of the tasting room. Part of that addition is now known as the Locavore Room. “We try to source products for the tasting room from nearby,” Hunt said. “Thirty years ago everything came from the West Coast or farther, and shipping was 50% of the cost of each item.” Today Tessa Olson, Hunt Country’s retail shop buyer, has access to many more craftspeople who are local or regional, and the average distance to the source of supplies has been reduced to 162 miles on average. Many of the products are made from recycled or reused items, such as empty wine bottles or old barrel staves.
Sales items in the retail area are displayed on cabinets/tables with wheels. Those wheels allow for flexible use of the space: When the tasting room is used for special events such as a chamber music concert, the display units can be rolled out of the way or into another location. “It allows for versatile use of the space,” Hunt noted. “We can have a yoga class or a dinner meeting or a concert for 120 people.”
The winery expands
The original wine-production facility for Hunt Country was in the farm’s barn, which was built in the 1880s. Hunt was fortunate that the barn was built into a slope, and it was possible to unload grapes on the upper level and move them into the crusher/destemmer or into the press without having to use a pump for that stage of the process. The location of their barn was happenstance, but as the winery grew and more space was needed, Hunt began to realize that one of the most important facets of being sustainable to the greatest degree possible requires planning ahead and taking advantage of the assets your situation presents.
“You need to lay out your buildings so they fit together,” Hunt stated. The basement floor of the Hunt Country tasting room is on the same level as the warehouse where the case goods are stored, so a forklift can move a pallet of wine from the warehouse to the tasting room without going uphill. “Plan ahead in other ways: Anytime you pour concrete, think about whether you might put a roof over it someday. You have one chance to do this, and it’s relatively cheap. Insulate under the floor and put in high-strength plastic tubes to give you the option of radiant heating.”
He suggests using insulated concrete forms that stack like Lego blocks to build structural walls. When the Styrofoam blocks are in place, held there with vertical reinforcing rods and filled with concrete, the walls are strong, insulated inside and out with an R value of between 40 and 50, and with studding in place every 8 inches. Hunt states with vehemence, “Insulate! Floors, doors, walls, ceilings, openings. Include chiller piping, hot-water heaters and pipes. Put insulating jackets (removable if possible) around tanks: It makes a huge difference in your energy savings.”
The new tasting room addition includes insulation to below the frost line and spray foam insulation in the ceiling of the basement. Note the 2x6 blocks to attach the ceiling that were nailed in place before the spray foam was applied (see photo on page 55).
Geothermal sustainability project
In 2010 Hunt Country received a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for approximately three-quarters of the cost of installing a geothermal heating and cooling system for their tasting room, the new winery production building, the old barn basement (now used to store case goods) and a smaller case-goods warehouse. Eight 375-foot-deep wells were drilled outside the main tasting room windows. The water from all eight wells is piped into a manifold in the basement of the tasting room building and then distributed to the different buildings.
In the winter, water comes in at 55°F; the heat pump takes the energy out of the water and sends the water back to the wells at a lower temperature. By the time the water runs through the pipes to the wells, it is back to the original temperature of 55°F. In the summer, the process is reversed: The heat is taken out of the buildings and comes back in at a cooler temperature. The earth’s natural 55° temperature cools or warms the liquid, and a system of two heat pumps keeps the temperature of the buildings at a comfortable level.
The geothermal process is approximately 400% more efficient than using fuel oil and propane to heat or cool the winery’s buildings. According to Hunt, geothermal energy is cost effective in 11 years without any subsidies; with the government grant, it will be cost effective in three years. “It cost about $2,000 in electricity for heating in the winter,” Hunt stated. “We’ve spent $10,000-$12,000 just on propane for heating in the past.”
Sustainability in the vineyard
From their first harvest, the Hunts began to give back to the land: They spread the grape pomace in the vineyard and on other crops in order to improve soil health. In 2005, the family added another step to the process: After harvest is finished, between 50 and 70 tons of pomace is spread in a long row and mixed with an equal amount of animal manure. The compost row is turned every week (when it’s not under too much snow), its temperature is monitored, and after a year the vineyard manager will have about 100 tons of high-quality compost to spread in the vineyard and help boost the productivity of the vines.
Because winter temperatures in the Finger Lakes are often cold, many growers hill up soil to cover the base of their most cold-sensitive vines. Because the soils in the Hunt Country vineyard are very rocky, using “soil” resulted in damage both to the equipment and to the vines. Hunt’s solution was to roll out bales of hay between the rows of Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, then use a narrow hay rake to put the hay over the base of the vines. After protecting the vines in the winter, the hay becomes mulch when it is mowed in the spring.
In 2005 the USDA awarded Hunt Country Vineyards a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant to investigate options to reduce or eliminate herbicide use in the vineyard. Twenty years ago the sign of a good vineyardist in the Finger Lakes was to have bare earth beneath the vines. “There was a lot of rutting and erosion, with groundwater running down the hillsides,” Hunt recalled. Jamie Hawk, Hunt Country’s vineyard manager at the time, planted two types
of ground cover in a plot of 17 rows of
Concord vines. English ground ivy (a shallow-rooted plant that grows no more than 4 inches high) was planted under some rows of vines, and Aurora Gold fescue grass (short grass with a shallow root system) was planted both under and between the rows.
According to Hunt, “Encouraging the cover crop under the vines definitely reduced vigor, while using the cover crop between the rows only was not detrimental to the vigor. Wall to wall cover crop was a big devigorator. Since Concords in general and this block in particular were sensitive to the competition, I would not recommend it for native varieties in general. However, it could have a beneficial application to vineyards with excessive vigor, which is often a very difficult problem with hybrids and vinifera varieties.”
Another early sustainability project was to use bio-diesel fuel to power farm machinery. Art and Joyce Hunt’s son Jonathan, who graduated from Cornell Univ ersity in 2004 and returned to the Finger Lakes after working at wineries in California and New Zealand, launched the project in 2007. He soon found that while bio-diesel fuel works well, it was too time-consuming to collect the waste oil from restaurants, filter it and make the fuel for it to be cost-effective.
The Hunts also explored wind power as another source of renewable energy. They installed a vertical-axis wind turbine known as a Windspire and dedicated it in 2009. At 30 feet tall and 4 feet wide, the turbine generated 1.2 kW of power. According to Hunt, it turned out not to be very practical for their location. “We’re only one-third of the way up the hill from the lake,” Hunt reported. “We get less than half the amount of wind as at the top of the hill.” Currently the turbine is not working, and the company that produced it is out of business.
Results of sustainability projects
The projects undertaken by Hunt Country Vineyards in the past eight years have reduced the vineyard and winery’s carbon footprint substantially. Total energy costs have been reduced by 30%, and the carbon footprint is down by more than 40%.
Major contributions to those reductions came from moving the winery from the 1880s barn to an expanded building with a high R-factor, building a new insulated warehouse for wine storage, installing the geothermal heating and cooling system, and replacing lighting with low-consumption lighting technology.
Sustainability in the future
Art Hunt is the fifth generation of his family to farm the land on Italy Hill Road. He and Joyce have a deep commitment to leaving the land in better condition than when they moved there—especially now that the seventh generation of Hunts is on the scene. Three-year-old William Boutard Hunt is already demonstrating an interest in tractors and farming, while his parents, Jonathan and Caroline Boutard-Hunt, have established an organic farm on a 25-acre parcel.
Improving the soil has been a major focus; they now use 3-4 acres in rotation for produce, have planted an acre of fruit trees, installed a small greenhouse for seedlings and a 30-foot x 76-foot high tunnel to extend their growing season. (Read more about high tunnels in the March, April and June 2013 issues of Wines & Vines.)
Even with the geothermal project in place, Hunt is still thinking of other ways he can make the vineyard and winery more sustainable. One possibility is to install solar thermal panels so the winery’s hot water can be heated on the roof. Another is to consider photovoltaics—solar electric panels—to add onsite power generation and take the winery at least partly off the power grid.
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