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My Cornell story: Pete Saltonstall ’75

periodiCALS, Vol. 7, Issue 2, 2017

Pete and Tacie Saltonstall at Treleaven Wines. Photo by Dede Hatch.

My wife Tacie and I started our vineyard and Treleaven Wines with some friends in 1984. As I sit down to write, so many memories come rushing forward. I remember driving a tractor in 1988 while Tacie sat behind on a tree planter setting bare-rooted grapevines in the ground. She had to bend over to plant the vines and, being eight months pregnant with our son Lev, this was no easy task. She finally called it quits when she felt like passing out.

In particular, I remember back in the early 1980s seeking information from other growers on how to grow Chardonnay in the Finger Lakes. We received plenty of feedback that included a lot of conflicting advice. Many times we were told not to listen to so-and-so because they didn’t know what they were talking about. We learned to rely on Mary Plane, a strong vineyardist from across Cayuga Lake, and soon we were off and running. 

In those early days, we also looked to Cornell for help with our questions on growing European vinifera grapevines in the Finger Lakes. During that time, a crash in prices of native varieties of grapevines such as Concord and Catawba led more and more vineyards to become interested in growing vinifera. Fortunately, CALS invested a great deal of time and money in helping us grow it in the Finger Lakes.

At the same time, we were scrambling to learn as much as we could about winemaking. I had a background in farming but no experience in winemaking other than a failed attempt at making hard cider. While I relied on my mentor Eric Fry, who now makes wine at Lenz Winery on Long Island, I had much to learn.

We attended many seminars on winemaking held by Cornell Cooperative Extension, which were often conducted at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. It was there that we met Thomas Henick-Kling, who at the time was conducting research in winemaking under the Department of Food Science.  

Again, we realized just how much we had to learn. Grow the grapes, make the wine, then sell the wine. Whoa! Sell the wine? We were clueless. Marketing? What’s that? We always planned to have a tasting room where we could showcase our wines in the best possible light. After almost 30 years, the tasting room is still an important place where we cultivate relationships with our customers. Selling to restaurants and liquor stores was foreign territory to us, but we learned to put on comfortable shoes and hit the pavement with our wines in coolers to taste with store and restaurant managers.

About ten years ago, in a move that illustrated both how far CALS had come in terms of grape expertise and how much they had come to value the industry, the college established a world-class undergraduate program for viticulture and enology. Former dean Susan Henry was instrumental in making this happen, and I make sure to give her a big hug and say thank you whenever I see her. CALS also conducts important research in both grape growing and winemaking, as exemplified by the work of former associate dean Tom Burr. Tom works on identifying certain bacteria that may play a role in making grape vines more susceptible to cold injury, a topic near and dear to many of us growers that have had to tear out expensive vines from marginal growing sites.

Looking back at those early days when Tacie and I were planting our first vines, I can see it was clearly trial by fire and we’ve come a long way. This wild ride would never have been possible without help, and we’re grateful to the researchers at CALS and our friends in the industry for their part in making Treleaven Wines a success.

Pete Saltonstall ’75 is co-owner of Treleaven Wines, a winery in the Finger Lakes located on the east side of Cayuga Lake. In 1984, Peter and his wife Tacie planted the winery’s first three grape varieties on 7.5 acres of land. Today, the winery produces about a dozen wine varieties each year harvested from fruit grown on 32 acres. Treleaven has tasting rooms at the winery in King Ferry and in Victor, New York. Peter and Tacie reside in King Ferry. They have three children: Courtney, Ph.D. ’14; Hattie; and Leverett.