The New York Cork Report recently had the opportunity to sit down with Newark, NY native Kelby Russell, Winemaker at Red Newt Cellars.
After graduation from Harvard, Russell found himself as an intern at Fox Run Vineyards and under the tutelage of Peter Bell. While there he was able to make a few wine pilgrimages and work around the world in New Zealand (Whitehaven Winery, Marlborough), Tasmania (Pipers Brook Vineyard) and Australia (Yalumba Winery, Barossa Valley).
Armed with a variety of experiences Russell joined the Red Newt team as Winemaker a little over a year ago. In addition to the contributions he has been making there, he also collaborates on the Tierce project and with regional newcomer Boundary Breaks.
What was the first bottle of wine you remember drinking — and where did you have it and who were you with?
To the eternal amusement of my parents, I refused to even taste sips of wine with dinner as a young adult. Other than the entertaining parallel this sets up between my appreciation of both broccoli and wine as I grew up, it means I have the good fortune of remembering the true first time I had wine.
It was NV André Sparkling Wine, a $3 special from California if I am not mistaken. It was 9:45pm on a chilly September evening and I had just been accepted into the Harvard Glee Club. After being surprised at my dorm by 40 men in tailcoats and white bowties singing a Latin fanfare to welcome me to the choir, all the new members were toasted into the group in a beautiful chapel by the returning members. The wine was not glorious, but the circumstances were. Perhaps that is why wine and music have always been so closely linked for me ever since. It surely is where I realized that wine belongs with life.
When did you know that you wanted to be in the wine industry?
Throughout college I thought my career arc was going to take me into Arts/Orchestra Management, based on the work I did for the Glee Club as both a singer and student manager. Between my Junior and Senior years, however, I took a break and went to work on a vineyard in Tuscany for six weeks. There were maybe six people there and In exchange for my work I was given a room in the small castle on the estate as well as meals. I had no internet and almost no phone service; there was a small town of 500 people on top of a hill two miles away. It could not have been more different from the hyper-fast and hyper-connected world I had left behind, and yet it felt right. Hard work, but fun work. Agricultural work, but deeply creative. An appreciation of food, wine, friends, music, sleep, and the joy of life.
What do you wish were different about the New York wine community and industry?
I love where our community and industry are right now. We are growing, we are finding our way, we are making mistakes. I wouldn’t snap my fingers and make any of that change, because the pain of growing and evolving is more valuable and worthwhile than the endpoint itself. I may wish that we were making better in-roads with local consumers as to the quality of our wines, or that more restaurants carried local wines, or that wineries and vineyards had more capital to experiment, but I’m glad that there is a fire in me to make all those things happen.
My biggest concern for the New York wine industry, however, is that increased recognition and success not lead us away from the community that has been established. With more success it is too easy to become self-absorbed, too busy to take time to collaborate, to turn strangers into neighbors, neighbors into friends, and friends into family. All those steps take time and effort to foster, but nothing would be worse than a day where I can’t call any other winemaker in the region to ask for advice on everything from sulfur management to personal questions.
When you’re not drinking your own wines, what are you drinking?
Before wine I was a huge microbrew beer aficionado, so that is always going to be part of my DNA. During summer it is also rare for a hot day to go by without a Pimm’s Cup or Negroni appearing. So far as other wine is concerned, I am addicted to dry sherries thanks to Peter Bell. Cru Beaujolais, Australian Grenache, New Zealand Pinot Noir, dry Muscats, and Rieslings from anywhere in the world are all high on the list right now as well.
If you could only pick one grape/wine/producer to live out your days with on a deserted island, what would it be?
Dry rosé. I thought about this question for a long time, until I realized what the obvious answer was. It would be difficult to think of a wine that can pair with a wider breadth of foods, is more thirst quenching, or feels more appropriate in a tropical setting.