20 Questions: Tug Hill Winery

Susan Maring, Tug Hill Vineyards Proprietor and President.

Susan Maring and her husband, Mike, have built one of the most popular wineries in the north country from the ground up. Whether it be for their Sunday brunch, a wine tasting or a wedding, Tug Hill Vineyards has become a north country staple. NNY Business sat down with Mrs. Maring to talk about the ins-and-outs of running a winery and its progress. 

NNYB: Why did you decide to open a winery?  

MARING: To give you some background, we were landscapers for 30 years right here in Lowville and we were burnt out and wanted to do something different. So when we started thinking about what we wanted to do, we went wine tasting in the Finger Lakes and thought “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to own a winery?” Then we saw they started opening wineries in Jefferson County and they were running a mentor program with Cornell Cooperative Extension, so we thought it sounded great. So for tax purposes did a whole exchange and started this one year later.  

NNYB: How long have you been open?  

MARING: We opened about 12 years ago, but the grapes are about 14-years-old.  

NNYB: Did just you and your husband start the winery? 

MARING: We are the sole owners, but my sister and brother-in-law were very active in it when we first started. I probably wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for that because she was our wine maker, which she had never done before. She just had a little bit of a chemistry background and we just jumped into it with both feet. She and I went out and did an internship at a winery for one week in Indiana and we hired a consultant. [The consultant] designed the winery building and helped us for the first few years with the wine making process. My sister and my brother-in-law, who was doing the marketing, were a huge part of it and they helped us build the building because we did that ourselves.  

NNYB: What is your day-to-day like here?  

MARING: It depends on the time of year, but this time of year is the busiest. It’s almost overwhelming the amount of work that needs to get done. It starts in the spring, as soon as the weather breaks and we can get out and start pruning. We have 20-acres of grapes, it’s a lot of grapes, and every one has to be pruned by hand. The winemaker, my husband and I, and two other employees go out and start pruning on snow shoes. Pruning takes us a couple of months to do, so we hope to get out in April. Then we try to get the flower beds in order, we have to prune the 3-acres of raspberries, 5-acres of blueberries, apples, pears, cherries before they all leaf out. There is a lot to do and then it just continues all the way through the summer. Right now, we have to go through, thin them out and tuck them up into the trellis.  

NNYB: I’m sure you’ve heard before from customers, “How do your grapes survive the north country winters?” Can you explain how they do well?  

MARING: The grapes that we’re growing here were developed at the University of Minnesota, specifically to be cold hardy. They are French-American hybrids, grown in Canada, in the Dakotas, and other places, so they are developed to be able to survive the minus 35 [degrees] we get here. The plants themselves will always survive, but not always the grape buds. This site is a perfect location — we have the slope. The cold air always flows down through and you have the air drainage that flows down into the cold spot and settles there, so we always get a crop off this vineyard. Some years they are better than others, but there is always a crop here.  

NNYB: How many different types of grapes do you grow?  

MARING: There are probably about 10, and they are all from Minnesota.  

NNYB: For making the wine, are the grapes usually by themselves or do you blend several?  

MARING: They are definitely blended. There are a few that are only one, but most of the time blending makes them better.  

NNYB: When you first started making wine, what was that process like of figuring out what worked and what didn’t?  

MARING: With my sister, we came up with the blends, and they have stayed pretty similar. Some of them that are maybe not good movers we discontinue and come up with something new, and of course we are only using the grapes we grow here. We do buy in a little bit of grapes from the Finger Lakes to blend them a little bit, especially if we have a year where we have a lower crop.  

NNYB: How do the different grapes affect the wine’s flavor?  

MARING: All the grapes are fermented off to be dry, then you’re blending them together and then adding the sugar back to the sweetness that you want. A lot of people think “Does that grape make a sweet wine?” and it really goes dry, it’s just sweet because we add sugar. But definitely different grapes have different flavors, and even if you treat them differently they can taste different. For example, our Lake Effect wine is made with Frontenac Gris, and if you press it directly off the skins the color is gold, but if you leave it on the skins a couple days it’s like a peachy-color. And when we blend it with a Brianna, it’s a totally different flavor then when we blend it with something else. It definitely depends on what you do to it, which makes it taste differently.  

NNYB: How many wines do you sell?  

MARING: We sell about 16.  

NNYB: Once your crop is grown, what is the process of getting the grapes harvested and then turning it into wine?  

MARING: They get harvested for about a one-month period from the middle of September to the middle of October. They usually all get ready at once. Then, if you really pushed it, you could be bottling some of those by March, like the whites. But, of course, for the reds we want those to age longer and oak, so those take longer. The longer we let those age, the better they are. It depends on our schedule, too. Now, we are trying to get everything bottled by the time we harvest so that our tanks are empty. 

NNYB: And for your liquors, how are those made?  

MARING: Our winemaker already had quite a lot of experience on the distilling end, and so he will just turn on the still and go about working on the wine while the still is running. It worked out perfectly to do that along with the wine making business.  

NNYB: How many liquors do you have? 

MARING: We have three right now, but we are going to launch three more products hopefully by Aug. 1. We like to try to stay with what grows here on the estate, we are an estate winery, so we want to stick to that concept. So right now we have apple, blueberry and maple, because we also have maple trees that get tapped by our neighbors. Now we are going to come out with a raspberry lemonade and discontinue our raspberry wine. We are also going to make a port-style made with St. Croix grape and the other is a blackberry brandy.  

NNYB: What do you think the biggest challenge of growing grapes is here?  

MARING: The challenging part for us in the beginning was learning what would be the best trellising system. Now, it’s still trying to handle to make up for the winters, like managing the crop load. Once we get done what we are doing now we will be going out and de-leafing, which is taking leaves away where the grapes are to expose them to the sun. The thing is, it would be way cheaper and more profitable to just buy the juice, but I wanted to make it from grapes actually grown here. And I think having your own grapes, you get a better product. If you just go and buy the juice, they just do it when it’s convenient, and they add sugar if they didn’t leave it on the vine long enough. It’s totally different. 

NNYB: Has the heavy rainfall affected your crop this year? 

MARING: Not at this point. A lot of moisture like that around the grapes makes them more susceptible to diseases, but we are on a regular scheduling of spraying every ten days.  

NNYB: How has the winery evolved over the years?  

MARING: We have come out with bubbly wines that have become very popular. We have Bubbly Blush and Bubbly Brianna. Bubbly Blush we just came out with a few weeks ago and it’s really selling well. We did make our own sparkling rose in the traditional method, where we re-started the fermentation in the bottle. For the other bubblies, we make the wine and then take it down to the Finger Lakes to Lake Wood Vineyards and they bottle it, carbonate it and bottle it with a screw cap.  

NNYB: When people come here for a wine or liquor tasting, what do you want them to take away from that experience?  

MARING: We want them to have fun. But, we also try to give them some knowledge of the cold-hardy grapes. We also explain why we don’t have chardonnays or merlots, because we don’t grow it here. They always walk away thinking it’s pretty good considering it’s grown here on Tug Hill.  

NNYB: What is your biggest source of revenue here?  

MARING: Definitely the wines.  

NNYB: What do you think sets your winery apart from other north country wineries and wineries across the country?  

MARING: The whole idea is we know that we are out in the middle of nowhere, there’s no wine trail here, so we had to make it a destination where people had something else to do here. So we have the U-Pick, the Sunday brunch and other events, which makes it unique.  

NNYB: What does this winery mean to you? 

MARING: It’s been a lot of hard work, that’s for sure. We thought when we got out of the landscaping business, we thought “Oh, this is going to be easier,” and it’s just as much work time wise. It’s not as hard physically, but time wise it definitely is. But there is also a lot of pride in what we’ve accomplished. 

This interview was conducted by Olivia Belanger. It was edited for length and clarity to fit this space.