A Sip Wines “Winelight”
Vinny and Kim Aliperti
Surely at some point in adulthood, we’ve all enjoyed a version of the classic game: “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Right? Please tell me y’all know what I’m talking about. It’s a fun version of the “six degrees of separation” theory that posits all human beings in the world are just six or fewer social connections away from one another. (Obviously this theory is antiquated and flawed for reasons that this blog post doesn’t need to get into.) The Kevin Bacon version is a game in which you take any random actor in Hollywood and show how they can get to Kevin Bacon in less than six connections, meaning appearing in some sort of production together.
I bring up “Bacon’s Law” because that’s kind of how I felt when I spoke with Vinny Aliperti, owner and winemaker of Sip Wines partner Billsboro Winery in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It was like… if we all mapped out the path our lives take, the number of places that my life intersected with Vinny’s journey was borderline uncanny. (And because I’m such a sucker for finding things in common, I may have interrupted Vinny each time he mentioned another one to say something really profound like “OMG ME TOO!” which in retrospect is not conducive to leading a productive interview.)
But I digress, if it’s even possible to basically begin something with a digression. This Winelight is about Billsboro Winery, and about the beautiful journey of Vinny and Kim Aliperti, not me. So without further ado, let’s begin their story.
It started with the Italians
It probably comes as no surprise if I tell you that Vinny is Italian (connection: as am I), and first generation at that. Vinny’s father was born in Italy and moved to New York as a teenager, where he later met Vinny’s mother and settled into the home in Queens where they live to this day. This is where Vinny got his first introduction to wine as a child, watching his Italian family make homemade barrels in the old school Italian way, and he attributes this childhood exposure to becoming the winemaker he is today, having experienced the process of winemaking in such a low-key and accessible way and seeing the beauty of wine as a family endeavor and tradition.
However, Vinny didn't dive right in to wine...
THE PEACE CORPS (AGAIN)
Again! Another Sip Wines winery partner (in this case partners) who served in the Peace Corps. Grr, this is bringing up memories of high school where there was always that one girl (or boy, I’m sure) who was smart, high achieving, attractive, talented, and because you’re consumed by jealousy you want to dislike her but you CAN’T because she’s SO DARN NICE AND GOOD that you love her anyway. (No, that was not me.) But like, I was already enamored with Vinny and Kim’s wines, their commitment to sustainability, their down-to-earth relatability… oh and then Vinny tells me that before he started a career in wine, he spent two years in the Peace Corps, oh and ALSO he met his wife Kim in Tunisia while she was ALSO serving in the Peace Corps! So their lives are awesome and they're super good people AND they make some baller wines.
Anyway, after they came back from Tunisia, they got married and sat down to decide the next step. That included going on a honeymoon to the West Coast—hello wine! It was actually Kim’s idea to consider going into the wine business, so when they come back, Vinny reached out to some friends in the wine business. One of those friends was a college buddy whose family owned a vineyard in Newport, Rhode Island. (Connection: My family is from RI and I got married there.) That friend put Vinny in touch with some peeps on Long Island, close to home, and Vinny got hooked up with a job at Wölffer Estate Vineyard and Winery in Sagaponack, NY (connection: where I am a frequent visitor and current wine club member).
Then came ze Germans (or rather, ein German)
But not just any German. Vinny scored an apprenticeship under Roman Roth, who is still the winemaker at Wölffer. Roman is LEGIT, and he’s old-school German in many ways, so Vinny’s apprenticeship was serious business.
Side note: Apprenticeships are far less common in the US than in Germany, or Europe in general. The reason for this difference is the structure of higher education in the US vs. Germany, and specifically the popularity of vocational schools in Europe. The vocational school experience is very different than the US tradition of pushing the vast majority of kids into a liberal arts college/university experience. Vocational school, on the other hand, is literally where you go to learn a trade. I personally think vocational school should play a much bigger role in our society. Regular college isn’t for everyone.
Training under Roman was Vinny’s vocational education, and it was formative for him. In the midst of a lot of very hard work, Vinny also absorbed many of Roman’s philosophies about winemaking. I absolutely love how Vinny described this partnership: “That’s what all good mentorships are about, regardless of what you’re learning. You’re always taking something, leaving things behind, formulating your own mantra.” Well, having sampled Vinny’s wines from Billsboro, I can tell you with certainty that Vinny formulated a darn good mantra.
Unfortunately, the realities of living on Long Island are… challenging, shall we say. And by challenging, mostly I mean expensive. While Vinny was working under Roman, Kim was teaching at a Long Island high school while also pregnant with twins. (Connection: not just any high school. Get this: She taught at Southside High School in Rockville Centre, which happens to be where my husband went to high school and he totally remembers her, AND when I was working as a lawyer in NYC we bought a house in Rockville Centre. SMALL WORLD RIGHT??) Anyway, Kim was planning to stay home with her twins, and it became very clear that staying on Long Island was not feasible for the life they envisioned. (Boy do I get that, we also bailed on Long Island when we had a kid.)
A northern hand beckoned
Wow, that sounds almost spiritual. But the northern hand I’m referring to is a job offer from Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard in the Finger Lakes region of upstate NY, that takes its name from 11 freshwater lakes placed like a handprint between Lake Ontario and the Pennsylvania border.
The Finger Lakes region is a gem for East Coast wines, historically known for producing delicious Rieslings and other cool-climate wines. Are you surprised that upstate New York, known for pretty brutal winters, could produce incredible wine? Well, as I am wont to say, A DAY WITHOUT LEARNING IS A DAY WASTED, so let’s briefly explore this seeming anomaly! (We’ll get back to the Aliperti family in a moment.)
Educational interlude: It all comes down to a delightful phenomenon known as a “micro-climate,” meaning a local set of atmospheric conditions that differ from those in the surrounding areas. Turns out, all those long, skinny lakes create the perfect cool-climate wine region; narrow and deep bodies of water change temperature much more slowly than areas around them, creating a moderating effect in their vicinity that prevents abrupt temperature changes experienced elsewhere in upstate NY. As a result, the region maintains a pretty stable temperature year-round, which is exactly what all the little wine grapes need to thrive.
And so, the Aliperti family headed north to Hermann J. Wiemer, only to discover that when it rains wine, it pours—meaning that Vinny only worked there for a year before a new vineyard opened, just across Seneca Lake from Hermann J. Wiemer, and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Vinny became the winemaker for Atwater Vineyards, a startup vineyard located on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake, and suddenly grapes weren’t the only fruit on the table.
The a-peel of the banana belt
See what I did there? Actually you’re probably like, why is she suddenly talking about bananas? I thought this was about wine. Actually, bananas themselves have nothing to do with this story. I’m referring to the part of the Finger Lakes region known as the “banana belt,” which is located on the southeastern shore of Seneca Lake… exactly where Atwater Vineyards opened and the Aliperti family ended up! That’s actually quite significant, but in order to tell you why, we’ll have to learn a little bit more by asking the question: What is a banana belt, anyway?
Educational interlude: A “banana belt “is any segment of a larger geographic region that enjoys warmer weather conditions than the region as a whole, especially in the wintertime. I guess it’s called that because bananas only grow in really warm climates. To be clear, this doesn’t mean all banana belts are WARM warm, but rather warmer relative to the rest of a region’s climate. Still, when we’re talking about a wine region, a banana belt is very significant because it increases the variety of grapes that can be grown successfully. As a whole, the Finger Lakes region has historically been known for Riesling because it’s produced from cool-climate grapes; even those grapes are only able to grow because of the area’s microclimate. In the banana belt, however, the relative warmth means that vineyards can expand their portfolios into other varieties such as cabernet franc, pinot noir, etc.
After landing at Atwater, things kept moving quickly. Within two years, Vinny was promoted to head winemaker, and three years after that, the chance to start their own wine label landed in Vinny and Kim’s collective lap.
Vinny and Kim were approached with the option to buy Billsboro Winery, a boutique small-scale operation right down the road from Atwater. Well, this was exactly what Kim had envisioned so many years before, so Vinny approached Atwater and floated the idea. In a very unusual move, Atwater’s owner gave them his full support; typically in the wine world, winemakers are very independent of each other, so this support was a true testament to the collaborative culture of the Finger Lakes region.
Now, their operations run very much in tandem: for 15 years, Billsboro and Atwater have shared production space on the Atwater property, and the Billsboro location is used only for retail events. While Atwater is also a vineyard that grows their own grapes, Billsboro purchases grapes from three local growers and keeps them separate during production at Atwater. It’s a smooth system, and a beautiful relationship.
Not only that, it’s a deeply sustainable operation, from an environmental perspective. Billsboro is 100% solar powered thanks to a solar farm in the nearby town of Geneva, which operates a community solar grid from which Billsboro purchases their power. They also keep their operations as local as possible, purchasing grapes from nearby growers to minimize transportation costs and carbon footprint and using domestically manufactured glass bottles. Unfortunately, due to the high levels of humidity in the Finger Lakes and resulting disease pressure for the grapes, running a completely organic operation is quite difficult. Still, Billsboro partners with growers who strive to make their processes as sustainable and close to organic as possible.
A Finger Lakes Tribute
As you can tell from how long this post is, the conversation with Vinny was fascinating and fun. He has so much insight into the wine world and winemaking processes, and I wanted to absorb it like a sponge. Still, in the interest of not writing a novel, I’ll wrap this up with just one more thing Vinny told me. He emphasized that in the Finger Lakes, there is a broad recognition in the wine community that they are better off if they work together. Being somewhat remote from a major metropolitan area, the Finger Lakes wine community has determined that uniting behind a common goal, message, and brand will be more effective in drawing attention to their region. So far, it’s working beautifully.
As feel-good stories go, Billsboro sure seems to have it all. Family tradition, continuity, Peace Corps, love, children, advancement, entrepreneurship, community, sustainability—and some truly incredible wine coming out of it all. At the risk of sounding cheesy, when you take a sip of Billsboro wine, you can almost taste the story that brought it together. Won’t you try some?