Too often, the term, “it’s in the blood,” is cast about by individuals who believe some innate, genetic predisposition led them to an interest, hobby, or vocation. The saying conveys the sense that a genetic muscle memory guides one’s actions, and a spirit of predestination has ruled out all but that singular path the person has embarked upon. When you look upon the Hazlitt family, the current owners of Sawmill Creek Vineyards, you may be convinced. After seven generations of farming the same parcels of land, and resurrecting beautiful grapes from the canes of old vines, vintage after vintage, it is easy to believe that grape growing and farming truly is “in the blood” at Sawmill Creek Vineyards.
The story of Sawmill Creek Vineyards begins in 1852 when David Hazlitt purchased a 154-acre fruit farm in Hector, on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake. The farm’s primary crop at the time was peaches, and it is easy to imagine cherries and apples growing abundantly on the site, as well. David Hazlitt had farmed since 1823 in Mecklenburg, about 15 miles away from the farm he acquired in Hector. A little more than a decade after purchasing the farm, the grape-growing frenzy that occurred in the 1860s enveloped the Hazlitt farm as well. David Hazlitt planted Catawba and other grape varieties, some of which are still actively producing grapes today. David’s children and grandchildren added to the family’s land holdings by purchasing adjoining acres and existing farm, and expanded business operations by planting additional vineyards and peach orchards.
The incarnation of Sawmill Creek Vineyards, as it is known today, stems from a business decision made by two of the Hazlitt brothers in the early 1980s. James (Jim) Hazlitt and Jerome (Jerry) Hazlitt decided to split the farm between themselves in 1982, with Jerry moving forward and establishing Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards winery, and Jim establishing Hazlitt Vineyards. By 1995, Jim recognized the need to avoid confusion with Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, and changed the name to Sawmill Creek Vineyards, paying homage to the natural work of art that is the gully bordering the vineyard on the south end of the property. Sawmill Creek is indicated with a historical marker that recounts the historical significance of the site.
Jim has since retired and Sawmill Creek Vineyards is managed by the dynamic husband-and-wife team of Eric and Tina Hazlitt. Eric’s decades of experience in farming premium wine grapes on land that has been in his family for generations and caring for a vineyard that has become a Finger Lakes legend is complemented by Tina’s enthusiastic business management and vision for the continued development of Finger Lakes viticulture.
No other vineyard site in the Finger Lakes has inspired as many “single vineyard”-designated wines as Sawmill Creek. Whether it be Red Newt, Damiani, Forge Cellars, or Hector Wine Company, many premium wineries have found that the fruit sourced from Sawmill Creek has superior quality and, as such, the vineyard deserves credit for its role in crafting fine wine. Aside from the rich family traditions at the vineyard, and dedication to the highest standards of wine grape growing, there is a unique feature of Sawmill Creek that leads to the site producing some of the best fruit in the Finger Lakes: its location in what is known as the “Banana Belt.”
The Banana Belt is a portion of land on the east side of Seneca Lake that receives the greatest amount of sun when compared with other parts of the lake. The greater sun exposure is coupled with a location that is nearest the deepest parts of Seneca Lake, thereby having a greater impact on temperature modification. Consequently, the Banana Belt is seen as a better location for growing red wine varietals, or varietals which require greater ripening. Grapes grown on the west side of Seneca Lake often exhibit more green apple and brighter citrus qualities, whereas eastside grapes, particularly those in the southern portion of the lake and particularly in the Banana Belt, exhibit more tropical flavors – a consequence of greater ripeness.