The richness of the life, and indeed the love of life, that John and Sandy Tuller share is inspiring. They can recount grand experiences and rich history with details that most minds could only remember if they had been recorded on film and played back over and over. The Tuller family’s foray into fine wine grape growing is a tale of dogged determination and perseverance so rarely evidenced in modern life that it forces us to stop and reflect on the spirit of Tuller Vinifera Vineyards: To be great at what you do.
Despite an immense amount of hard work cultivating one of the best vineyard sites in the Finger Lakes, with practices that assure superior quality, one of the first things John Tuller with tell you is how many people came to his aid along the way, helping him and Sandy grow their vineyards. The people, aptly named by John and Sandy as their Guardian Angels, are a list of “who’s who” in premium wine and grape production in the Finger Lakes. It is a list that John continues to add to even today, and a list that includes Bellangelo’s previous winemaker, Ian Barry. But before the story ventures too far into recounting the great names in the Finger Lakes wine industry, it starts with one man, John’s father, William “Bill” H. Tuller.
John grew up with his father in Columbia, South Carolina, in a house that not only appreciated great wine, but made wine as well. Though a burgeoning wine industry is being fostered in the Carolinas today, the great majority of wine made in the region, then as now, is made from Vitis rotundifolia, or Muscadine. Muscadine is not considered suitable for fine quality winemaking, but is often made into sweeter wines that are favored by regionally local palates. When it came to winemaking in the Tuller house, Muscadine simply would not suffice. Rather, Bill, along with a good-natured cohort of friends that referred to themselves as the WCTU (the Wine Cellar Tasters Union – not to be confused with prohibition advocates of the same initials, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union), would order up a boxcar of Zinfandel from California. The men would divide the fruit and get to work on their own batches of homemade wine. When not enjoying the well-crafted California wines made at their home in South Carolina, Bill would enjoy Widmer’s own Moore’s Diamond. The Widmer wine enjoyed in the Tuller household at the time would act as a siren song that would eventually lead the Tullers to the Finger Lakes, culminating in a fateful meeting with the legendary Dr. Frank in the courtyard at Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars.
Despite growing up around wine, John’s life as he graduated high school and set off for college was not wine-centric. His thirst for experience and learning led him to study French in Aix-en-Provence for one year. Travel in one’s youth can act as a rite of passage, and John made much of that passage in the seat of a white Vespa scooter as he jetted more than 16,000 miles through Europe with his friend Billy Weyman. Weyman, who arrived in France with John in 1961 and stayed for more than 15 years, is a world renown expert on Paul Cézanne, the Post-Impressionist artist whose works inspired Picasso and countless other artists. (Weyman’s work is on permanent display at the Daedalus Gallery, in Savannah, Georgia.)
Upon his return to the United States, John embarked on studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Taking the train from Columbia, passing through the grandeur of Penn Station in New York City, and reaching the old train station terminal in Rochester, John disembarked, and as he says it, he “got off the train, walked into a bar, and married the first girl he met.” That “first girl,” Sandy, was to be his wife in the coming years, though there would be a period of time before the two would begin their relationship.
It was not very long after John’s arrival in upstate New York that that the WCTU, Bill Tuller and all his wine-loving friends, made their way up to the Finger Lakes region and stumbled upon Charles Fournier in 1966. Upon learning of the WCTU’s fondness for fine wines, Fournier pointed them in the direction of the recently founded Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, where they met with Dr. Frank himself. The meeting, a seminal event for all involved, would provide Dr. Frank with even more interested home winemakers to contact in 1967, when he founded the American Wine Society. Bill Tuller would be a charter member of the organization.
In 1969, one year after John had married Sandy, he received a phone call from his father, who told him that there was a Wine Society meeting in Painted Post, about an hour’s drive from Dr. Frank’s Winery, and that he thought attending the conference would be a family reunion of sorts. Every luminary in the Finger Lakes winemaking scene of the time attended, but even more importantly, John would get to spend some time with his father and his father’s friends. The conference ended up migrating to the very courtyard where Bill and the WCTU first met Dr. Frank. As John recounts it, that was the first time he got the urge to grow grapes. Looking over the expanse of the hillside at the Keuka Lake winery, John recalls looking at Sandy and recounting, “that’s a good way to live.”
In the aftermath of that seminal day in 1969, John and Sandy began the long search for the perfect land, the development of the proper plan for planting, and the transformative process of becoming family farmers.
Since this era was dominated by the big wineries mass-producing wines for a national market, it made sense to John to go to the growers relations specialists at the big wineries to get their opinions on parcels he was scouting for potential vineyard land. Inevitably, he would call out someone from Taylor Wine Company, or Great Western, or Pleasant Valley, who would all pontificate on the parcels John was presenting to them that these parcels were beautiful properties, with nice views, but ultimately terrible for grape cultivation. For two years, between 1969 and 1971, search for the perfect land proved futile. Finally, in an act of desperation, John threw up his hands and sat down for a meeting with Gil Smith and others, including John Einset, one of the developers of the varietal Cayuga White, then referred to as GW3.
As John presented his question of where he should find land to grow grapes, Gil’s answer was simple: Seneca Lake.
The focus was narrowed and any farm with a “for sale” sign in front of it was given its due investigation. One of those farms that was up for sale in 1971 was located at the intersection of Route 14, on the west side of Seneca Lake, and Anthony Road, which became Larzelere Road as it crossed Route 14. John and Sandy had pulled into what later became the driveway for the Anthony Road Wine Co. The bad news was that at the moment they pulled into the driveway, they were listening to John’s cherished Cincinnati Reds lose their baseball game on the radio; the good news was that Gil gave his highest approval for the site on Anthony Road when it came to growing premium grapes.
The site was perfect, but the price was not. John was surprised they were seeking $400 per acre; there had to be another option. At John’s protestations, Gil recommended they take a look at the farm just to the south, which was also for sale. Visiting the site, John and Sandy met with Henry Lauerson, then-owner of the property, hopped into Henry’s pickup truck, and took a tour of the 100-acre farm on the western slope of Seneca Lake. The site was examined, John proposed a survey and some contractual terms, and a price of $300 per acre was agreed upon. John and Sandy immediately drove up to Rochester, obtained a contract for the purchase from their attorney, and drove back to the site just in time to celebrate the deal with Henry. Henry had been fishing out on Seneca and had garnered a lucky catch, a lake trout, his second great catch of the day. That day, the Lauersons and the Tullers celebrated the momentous day over the freshly-caught trout.
Nearly five years passed from the moments the Tullers purchased the farm until they began their first plantings. Those intervening years would see ever more guardian angels intervening and leading them in the right direction.
Throughout these years, and in fact until a retirement package was offered in 1991, John worked for Kodak in Rochester, New York. Although tens of thousands of Rochesterians owed their livelihood to Kodak, John’s work was unique, and part of a program code-named Gambit that was highly classified until September 2011. John had worked in a division of Kodak that rose out of the Cold War, particular the Krushchev era. In light of the downing of Gary Powers’s U2 spy aircraft, the military set out on a two-part mission at the behest of President Eisenhower: To develop a brand new spy aircraft, the product of which would become the SR71, and to develop satellite photography capabilities. This latter program was John’s wheelhouse, and though the division he worked in was quite small, only about 300 engineers, they handled the extremely important work of developing an ever-higher level of high-definition films that could ultimately perceive ground features as small as two to four inches.
Considering the deep and intimate relationship between John and Sandy, it is impressive that Sandy never knew of John’s work until the declassification date.
Aside from the remarkable life John was leading as an engineer in a top-secret program at the height of the Cold War at one of America’s most important corporations, he was also concerned with which varietals he would plant on his newly acquired farm. One of the men he turned to was none other than fellow Kodak employee, member of the Wine Society, and budding viticulturist Bob McGregor.
As John tells it, meeting Bob McGregor, founder of the widely respected McGregor Winery on Keuka Lake, was a rather happenstance event. It was 1973 and, as John and Sandy attended an American Wine Society event in Deerborn, Michigan, they began to notice a dozen other couples from Rochester at the event. In talking with them, the beginnings of lifelong friendships were forged, and that night in Michigan saw the birth of the Rochester chapter of the wine society. That night Bob invited John down to his recently purchased farm.
The first visit to the McGregor property was in the winter of 1973, and John remembers taking a picture of Bob standing in the snow in the midst of a recently cleared field. He sent that picture to Bob, and titled it, “A Man, Out Standing in his Field,” John’s wry sense of humor ever present. By 1974, Bob had planted, and by late fall 1975, before any real harvest was brought in from his first Riesling vines, Bob invited John to pick what ever fruit remained. The fruit was botrytized, afflicted by the Noble Rot, a disease known for dehydrating wine grapes, and in Riesling, producing outstanding ripe flavors with high sugar concentration.
In 1975 the Finger Lakes Grape Festival was held in Penn Yan, a change in venue from its ordinary assembly in Naples. One component of the festival was a wine competition. John had made the decision to enter the wine he had made from Bob’s grapes in the competition. Local members of the wine industry participated as judges, including John Williams, winemaker at Glenora, the fledgling farm winery launched by Gene Pierce and Eastman Beers.
At first John’s wine was controversial. John Williams was under the assumption that some amateur must have taken a fine bottle of Auslese Riesling from Germany and replaced the label, submitting the fine European version of the wine as his own. Despite the controversy, John’s late harvest Riesling took first place and won a silver goblet. The grapes had produced a wine recognized by a man who would become one of the world’s great winemakers as a premium example of the varietal. John knew at that point he must plant Riesling, for the Finger Lakes could produce some of the finest Riesling in the world.
By 1976, John and Sandy had isolated Riesling and Chardonnay as varietals that they would plant on their farm. Working with David McElwee, miles and miles of drain tile were laid to prepare the land for the proper dispersion of water. Grape vines detest wet feet; there is always a delicate balance with water and vines. After the tile was laid, the fine vinifera varietals were planted.
Anyone who has ever so much as planted a flower, vegetable or fruit tree knows that putting the plant in the ground is only the beginning of a long process. When it comes to grape vines, it marks the earliest step in what becomes a very time-consuming process. Continuing his work at Kodak, John was forced to rely on several local individuals in those early years to assist in spraying the vines, as well as harvesting the fruit.
John and Ann Martini, after purchasing the farm next door, off Anthony Road, would prove to be a godsend for the Tullers; John Martini would assist in the required spray regimen for the vines, and Ann would organize pruning and tying of the vines, and harvesting of the grapes.
As time wore on, retirement greeted John, and John and Sandy’s full embrace of the vineyard began in earnest. By the early 1990s, John had begun planting the red varietals Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. When it came to Pinot Noir, John planted a diverse number of specific Pinot Noir clones - from the Burgundian Dijon clone (Clone 113), to Mariafeld (Clone 23), a Louis Martini clone (Clone 13), a Dr. Frank clone (Clone 7), a Jackson clone (Clone 29), a Champagne clone (Clone 2a) and a Gamay Beaujolais clone (aka Upright Clone). Each Pinot Noir clone is planted in its own row nearly a thousand feet long and labeled separately.
Today the Tuller Riesling and Chardonnay rank among some of the oldest on the west side of Seneca Lake. John carefully manages his vines, and each varietal is hand-harvested. Upon reflection of their feelings about winegrowing in the Finger Lakes, John and Sandy find the spirit of cooperation among winegrowers, winemakers and winery owners most rewarding. “We feel privileged to be a part of such a group always willing to help neighbors and do what is best for all concerned; all aimed at gaining recognition for the quality and diversity of the wines that can be produced in this beautiful area of the world called the Finger Lakes.”