Why the Finger Lakes is a great place to learn winemaking

Elizabeth Keyser raising a glass of wine
Liz Keyser became the new winemaker at a West Coast winery in February.

At FLCC, Liz Keyser discovered her intellectual curiosity and the kind of community a wine region could be.

Liz Keyser has harvested grapes on the southern coast of Australia and the Willamette Valley region of Oregon and worked as an assistant winemaker in Napa Valley.

Now, as the new winemaker at Rocky Pond Winery in Washington, she feels she has returned, in a sense, to her roots in the Finger Lakes some 2,500 miles away.

Amid the vineyards rising from the Columbia River, Liz, 34, has found the same mix of wine-making potential and community she enjoyed while enrolled in FLCC’s viticulture and wine technology program.

“That was always one of the things that really resonated with me about the Finger Lakes. There is that sense of community and a free-flow of knowledge from winery to winery,” she said, explaining that she found Napa Valley to be as competitive, but more secretive. “In the Finger Lakes, you’re pushing each other to get to the better spot, and it’s done with an open source mentality.”

Students, in particular, benefit from the region’s healthy mix of collaboration and competition, she added. Liz felt free to strike up conversations with adjunct instructors who had day jobs at local wineries and fellow students interning across the region.

Gina Lee, coordinator of the viticulture and wine technology degree program, agreed with Liz’s assessment of the Finger Lakes wine community.

Magazine cover featuring bakery owner Sabrina MIller
Liz’s story is featured in the spring edition of the Laker magazine. Click here to read the online version.

“It amazed me after starting this program how much knowledge, equipment, and help that industry members give each other throughout the year,” she said. “The industry is so supportive of us here on the academic side also. It truly makes me proud to be a part of it.” 

Liz’s interest in wine began after she graduated in 2010 with a marketing and communications degree from Miami University. She went back to Westchester County, where she grew up, and found work with a wine retailer. The job led to an invitation to join a California wine harvest in 2013.

“I just had a phenomenal time,” Liz said. “I was fully intending on returning to New York and continuing on with my cush wine-buying job, but I fell in love with wine production and knew that I had to stay on this side of the wine industry.”

She did some research and made a big decision.

“I think I shocked everybody in my family by saying, ‘Hey, I’m gonna go to this random community college in upstate New York,’” she laughed.

Liz felt some apprehension returning to school in her late 20s without a strong math and science background. She was relieved to find, as with many applied programs, the math and science skills are woven into their application.

“It was done in a way where everything was so supportive. Teachers really expect you to be honest about your background and what your base understanding is. But they really bring you through it to where your coursework is digestible,” Liz said.

“For the first time, everything was: ‘I want to learn more, I want to dig deeper.’ It was the first time I felt any real intellectual curiosity, and I knew that was the right choice for me,” she added. “Rob Wink’s plant physiology course, that is some of the most intense studying of my life and some of the most rewarding as well. It was the first time I had to sit down and throw myself at studying.”

While a student, she worked at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard & Winery in Dundee and developed a curiosity about other wine regions from Paul Brock and other faculty. After completing core classes, she went “harvest hopping” with classmates Greg Taylor ’16 and Bruce Stebbins ’17 to Hardys Tintara in McLaren Vale, Australia, and A to Z Wineworks in Newberg, Ore. These experiences only made her more committed to vineyard management and wine production.

“No harvest is ever the same, you always can do something a little bit different, a little bit better. It’s such a beautiful process, working with a natural product. It’s going to humble you year over year, and it’s going to make you want to come back,” she said.

Her first permanent, full-time winemaking job was as assistant winemaker at HALL Family Wines in St. Helena, Calif. She spent five years there before her friend and mentor Steve Leveque, an established winemaker on the West Coast, told her about Rocky Pond.

Liz was ready to take ownership of the winemaking process and drawn to this particular region in Washington state.

“The land itself is absolutely inspiring,” she said. “The vines themselves look so perfect and there’s so much potential wrapped up in these vineyards. Rocky Pond has a vision for the Columbia Valley becoming a wine region. In a way, it kind of reminded me of the Finger Lakes.”

Liz particularly likes the idea that she can be part of creating an identity for an up-and-coming wine region and re-create some of the experiences she had at FLCC. 

“It was a really special time in my life,” she said. “I am thankful for it every day.”

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Author: Lenore Friend

Lenore Friend is the director of public relations and communications at FLCC and the college's liaison with Finger Lakes TV. Contact her at (585) 785-1623 or Lenore.Friend@flcc.edu.

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