Northforker TV: The future is female at Bedell

The sun hasn’t quite come up as Marin Brennan gets to work at Bedell Cellars on a brisk October morning. “It wakes you right up,” she says, unfazed by the autumn winds gusting through the vineyard and potent fermentation aromas swirling as grapes are pressed.

The harvest is nearly done, although a few stragglers — merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot — remain.

As grape clusters come off their vines, much work remains in the cellar. That work will be completed this year by a team of women. 

Long days during harvest are worth it, said Ms. Brennan, a former tasting room employee who moved to the cellar in 2011. “It wasn’t the best vintage on books,” she said, since rain at harvest threatened the fruit. Bedell winemaker Richard Olsen-Harbich told her to keep at it.

“He said if I could stick it out through that vintage, I could make a name for myself in this industry,” she recalled. Five years later, she was named assistant winemaker.

Once a male-dominated profession, women are now working more than ever in wine, and not just in cozy tasting rooms. At Bedell, the cellar crew is all female. That team — Ms. Brennan, Lila Miller, Liz Lasota and Rosario Huertas — along with vineyard managers Donna Rudolph and Deb Stroup, have found their niche amid the damp air and whirring machines. With rough hands, hunched backs and water-logged boots, the women wear their juice stains as a badge of honor: proof of a hard day’s work.

“You have to do laundry every day,” Ms. Lasota says. It’s mid-morning and already her blue jeans are tinted red from merlot juice “bled” out of the tank. Eventually, it will become rosé.

“Stained jeans, stained hands. You get juice all over your shoes,” adds Ms. Miller. “It’s physical. It’s definitely different than the tasting room.”

A love of red wine drew her to pour wine and educate visitors in a tasting room last year. A curiosity about the process — and a background in environmental studies and earth science — led her to the cold, damp cellar.

It’s grueling work to pick 80 acres of grapes, yielding close to 200 tons that must then be lifted, sorted, pressed and racked.

“We’re carrying a lot of pounds of grapes each day, putting them into the press,” Ms. Lasota explains.

Ms. Huertas, a native of Guatemala, said she feels “empowered” to be part of the all-girl team.

“The job is really hard, but there’s nothing we can’t do,” she said.

The Bedell cellar crew of Roasario Huertas, Liz Lasota, Marin Brennan and Lila Miller. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Ms. Huertas said she’s inspired by how Ms. Brennan climbed the ranks.

“She motivates us,” she said. “It’s my dream one day to be a winemaker.”

On the North Fork, with a climate that can be challenging, the work can be mentally taxing.

“I have sleepless nights,” says Ms. Rudolph, the vineyard manager.

This month, she celebrates 23 years working in the vineyard.

Over those two decades, she’s seen horrible years marked by hurricanes and rain, as well as textbook perfect years with no rain at all during harvest.

Ms. Rudolph started in the vineyard as a harvest picker. A newspaper ad attracted her to the work, sure to be steady until she found something else.

She never left. Office work wasn’t for her. She loved the outdoors and working with her hands. She could bring her dog to work. She’s also seen a seismic shift since 1996.

“The industry is changing, and that’s a good thing,” she says.

Her assistant, Ms. Stroup, would agree. After getting a start at Lenz Winery in the 1980s, she ventured west to work in rolling vineyards in California. When she returned to the North Fork, she was pleasantly surprised to see many more women involved.

“There’s been a fissure and women are coming into it,” she said.

The relatively young North Fork appellation has always been friendly to women; it was pioneered by Louisa Hargrave and her then-husband Alex, who planted the first Vitis vinifera grapes in 1973.

The cellar crew processes the grapes from harvest. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Ms. Rudolph says she’s always felt welcome.

“The people I’ve worked for have always encouraged me,” she said. “I never felt slighted at all. Older vineyard managers — Steve Mudd, Sam McCullough — they said, ‘We’ve got your back.’ ”

Rich Olsen-Harbich, who has been making wine on Long Island for nearly 40 years, welcomes the change. “It’s a reflection on how the workforce is changing,” he said, across all fields.

While hiring the all-women team wasn’t intentional, they were the best for the job. “It brings new perspectives, it brings new attitudes and passion,” Mr. Olsen-Harbich said.

In the larger wine community, some are still shocked when they discover Ms. Brennan is a winemaker. “They usually assume I’m in sales,” she said.

It hasn’t slowed her down.

“I’ve had to make a stamp for myself, and show that I can do this work,” she says, sporting pink dyed hair, a pink flannel and pink boots in what’s become a harvest tradition.

It will be months until they can bask in the fruits of their labor, when they begin tasting the 2018 vintage they had a hand in creating.

Until then, there’s a brief sigh of relief.

“We’re all getting manicures at the end of harvest,” Ms. Lasota joked.

Outdoors, Ms. Rudolph and her team will press on into the winter, tying and pruning back vines, preparing for 2019. Looking to the future, she sees potential for women, especially in the vineyard. “It’s a great job. I started at the bottom, I started just picking grapes. And worked my way up,” she said.

Regardless of gender, it takes a bit of gusto to do the work.

“You just have to work hard and love what you’re doing,” she said, with a passion for the vines.

And a degree of toughness.

tsmith@timesreview.com