Not all great winemakers love jazz, sing in a choir and have a bachelor’s degree from Harvard.

Posted June 13, 2016

Stacy Brody


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But at least one does: Kelby James Russell. He grew up not far from the Finger Lakes wine region. He left for college in 2004 and spent four years studying government at Harvard. Like most college graduates these days, he came back home.


The Finger Lakes has been undergoing an amazing evolution in recent years, gaining recognition as a travel destination and a wine region in its own right.


With his shiny Harvard degree, Russell opted to pursue a career in winemaking. Please note: Kelby’s parents were not interviewed for this article. Their feelings on his decision are, at least ot me, unknown.


He showed up in his interview clothes at a well-known Finger Lakes winery, ready to answer questions about why he wanted to work in wine and why he would be a valuable team member.


He stayed 12 hours.


It was harvest season.


And he came back to work the next day (hopefully in different clothes).


And the next.


And even the next after that. He just kept showing up, no matter how hard the work was.


He proved he could do it, to himself and to an industry icon. After what must have been a record-long interview, he landed himself a job. He spent three years there, and then it was time to travel. He became what I guess you could call a reverse flying winemaker since flying winemakers are usually from the southern hemisphere and traveled down to work in New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania.


I guess he couldn’t get used to the taste of vegemite, or maybe the lure of home and the lakes was too strong to be resisted. Whatever the reason, he came back to New York.


He now works as Red Newt’s winemaker and produces wines under his eponymous label. He has been making quite some noise - and I’m not just talking about his singing. He landed a spot in Wine Enthusiast’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2014. His Kelby James Russell Dry Rose was included in their 2015 article Eight Roses Around the World and in Saveur’s 2015 article The Pair: The World of Rose. His rose has been flying off the shelf at our store and online!


We got Kelby to take a drive down from the beautiful Finger Lakes to New Jersey for a recent installment of Wine Talk Wednesday, at which we enjoyed samples of the Red Newt Dry Riesling, Kelby James Russell Riesling, Red Newt Gewurztraminer and Kelby James Russell Cabernet Franc.


It was interesting to taste the Red Newt and the Kelby James Russell Rieslings side by side. Red Newt is classic (and the wine that Kelby says he is most proud of). Though dry in style, there is an impression of sweetness and a perceptible weight to it, viscosity derived from a full eight months of aging on the lees. This practice is not typical in Finger Lakes Riesling production, but Kelby has learned lessons around the world and loves to improvise in the cellar. Imnprovisation is a valuable skill in a place like the Finger Lakes where vintage really matters.


Kelby has even more freedom to experiment under his own label. His “Aussie” style Riesling is definitely a food wine, with a gorgeous floral component, a bit of petrol and a bit of nuttiness. It’s a small production wine, just over 120 cases. In Australia, the skin of Riesling grapes get super-thick so there’s no doubt that phenolics leach into the juice. To mimic this influence, Kelby takes the second cut off the press. The result is intriguing and unique, a wine coming into its own now, with the flavors all coming together after time settling down in the bottle.


The Red Newt Gewurztraminer (“the other white grape”) was true to type and pleasantly restrained. This variety has a habit of accumulating sugars way too quickly, and the wines can be overblown. Russell has learned to ignore the numbers (acids, sugars) and pick grapes based on taste. He cold soaks the grapes to draw out aromatics from the skins.  Red Newt’s Gewurztraminer offers a floral rose element and sweet spice. It’s a popular wine for baked ham and one that sells quickly around Thanksgiving as a turkey partner.  


His Cabernet Franc is Loire in style, lighter and more delicate, more “feminine.” His only problem with this beauty? He drank through his allocation so quickly he had to buy bottles for himself once they were released. I can see (i.e. smell and taste) why.


After an amazing talk and sampling, I asked Kelby a few questions


Q: Considering your musical background and all your cellar experience, would you say you take a more romantic or technical stance to winemaking?


Kelby: I definitely see winemaking as more of an art than a skilled craft. I love the improvisational part of jazz. Finger Lakes is more old world because vintages matter here. So you have to improvise, you have to be honest to the fruit. Unlike most New World regions, you can’t go in to the cellar with the same plan, because each harvest is going to deliver unique fruit.


Q: There are a lot of music celebrities diving into winemaking now. Are you taking the reverse route, wine star to rock star?


Kelby:  I don’t know about that. I do support music in Geneva.* Jazz was my first love. I was an alto sax player, but I never found outlets for that, so I joined the choir at Harvard. Still, I love listening to jazz. There was a famous jazz bassist from Geneva. Scott LaFaro. He died young. To honor his memory, we organize a free concert in Geneva. The concert is put on every year, and it’s been growing. We’ve got some great musicians perform to pay tribute to Scott.


*Geneva is a college town at the north end of Seneca Lake, the deepest Finger Lake and the one on which Red Newt Cellars is located.


Q: So, Geneva is becoming a fun town! Have there been a lot of changes in the Finger Lakes from when you were a child to now?


Kelby: Huge changes! I came back in 2009 and even since then there’s been so much evolution. Geneva is a great place to live now, not to mention the amazing evolution of the wine industry.


One thing that hasn’t changed? Seneca Lake. Kelby taught us all about this lake, the deepest of the Finger Lakes, and its impact on the region’s climate. This lake has not frozen in over 100 years!


Q: What’s your favorite wine and food pairing for summer?


Kelby: Dry rose with Mario Batali’s recipe for Calamari Sicilian Lifeguard Style. It’s quick-cooked calamari with tomatoes, capers, and currants.


Let us know your favorite Red Newt and Kelby James Russell wine pairings this summer!

Product Label.

Red Newt Cellars Dry Riesling

92 Wine & Spirits

Item: 86298

750 mL

Retail: $19.98

$12.98 per btl

Item: 94429

750 mL

Retail: $18.99

$13.98 per btl

Item: 95533

750 mL

Retail: $25.99

$19.49 per btl

Item: 95534

750 mL

Retail: $25.99

$19.49 per btl

Item: 95535

750 mL

Retail: $16.99

$12.98 per btl