Living the Dream: The Winemaker

Lee Hartman, young winemaker at Bluestone Vineyard in Virginia
Lee Hartman, winemaker at Bluestone Vineyard in Virginia, with some of his award-winning wines

Lee Hartman is the young winemaker at Bluestone Vineyard in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley. He oversees production of the winery’s fifteen wines, including planting and growing the vines, harvesting and crushing the fruit, and making decisions at every key point of the wine’s evolution and maturation. He took some time out from bottling on a rainy day to tell me how much he loves his job, from growing the vines to doing inventory.

Q: How did you get into winemaking? What first interested you?
A: First my family planted about 130 vines back in 2002, and from that we gained enough knowledge to get ourselves into a lot of trouble. We thought, “We can totally do this, let’s plant 9000 vines!” Then we started buying a ton of grapes from this person and that person, and that went well. Meanwhile, I wanted to move to Europe. I have a degree in history and I’ve always loved travel, so I thought I might go be a tour guide for a few years. My dad said “Well, while you’re figuring that out, how about you help me plant some vines?” Fortunately, I fell into farming and winemaking. And when you make wine, you realize that this clear bottle of Sauvignon Blanc or this inky bottle of Petit Verdot is nothing but dirt and water and sunlight and it’s amazing. I know I’m not the only one to have ever had that thought, but it was an “aha moment” that grabbed me.

The view of the vineyard from Bluestone's tasting room
The view of the vineyard from Bluestone’s tasting room

Q: What has been your proudest moment as a winemaker?
A: That’s tough. Anytime somebody is just complimentary and just really enjoys our wine, that makes me proud. The obvious answer is being in the Governor’s Case. Winning gold medals our first two years in the Governor’s Cup competition, that certainly stands out. But I have to be honest, I’m a total weirdo: I like doing inventory. Restocking the shelves, bottling the new vintage, bringing more wine to restaurants and shops, all these things register in my head as people drinking my wine, and it means a lot to me. Also being part of the Harrisonburg Farmers Market and showing people that we are the local farmers and that local wine is local food, that is really important to me. I can’t for the life of me figure out why a restaurant would brag about local food items and then pair them with wines from Argentina. So making that connection with people is another source of pride for us.

Q: Any advice for people who are in a family business or considering going into business with their family?
A: [Laughing] No. It is not easy. If you are thinking about doing it, it is not easy. It can be very rewarding, but it is not easy. Although I will say I do love working with my family. I’ve worked with my family since I was a kid, and while I didn’t have any thought I’d work with them as an adult, my parents are now some of my best friends. But it also means work always bleeds into family time. It’s not for everyone but it works for me. My parents may tell you differently though!

Bottling everybody's favorite Bluestone red, a blend called Crooked and Weedy
Bottling everybody’s favorite Bluestone red, a blend called Crooked and Weedy

Q: How have you evolved as a winemaker since you first started?
A: I have a lot more humility now, a whole lot more. The 2010 harvest was our first harvest in this building, and across the state everybody just got this amazing fruit, very rich in flavors and colors. I would have had to work very hard to mess it up. It turned into this amazing wine that ended up on the cover of Saveur magazine, 37 Great American Wines [November 14, 2012 issue]. It’s at the Governor’s Mansion. But at the same time I got really cocky, I was just this 25-year-old winemaker, I barely knew what pH was for, and I was thinking, “Why would anyone make bad wine? That’s just stupid!” And the next year just bit my ass. I think if you’re making wine without humility, you’re doing it all wrong.

It’s a funny balance, too. Everything about wine is balance. You have to make sure your vines are healthy, but not too healthy, not too vigorous, you want them to stress out a bit. You want the fruit to be sugary, but not too high in sugar. You have to put your own style into the winemaking, but you have to let the grapes do their own thing: respect the fruit. You have to balance winemaking and grape growing with having a social life. You want everyone to love wine and enjoy it and not be snooty, but at the same time there should be a bit of reverence to it because whatever you’re drinking, someone stayed up until 4 a.m. working on it and worrying about it. There just has to be some balance.

Wine grapes just outside the tasting room at Bluestone Vineyard
Wine grapes just outside the tasting room at Bluestone Vineyard

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