Finger Lakes winery hangs on amid pandemic

Tracy Schuhmacher
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

HAMMONDSPORT -- Being stranded in the gorgeous French countryside wasn’t exactly the worst situation to befall the French owners of Domaine LeSeurre Winery in New York’s Finger Lakes wine region. But it would eventually take their winery to the brink of catastrophe.

Céline and Sébastien LeSeurre, along with their daughters, Laurette, 5, and Manon, 3, traveled to France in late February to renew Céline and Sébastien's visas. They also planned to visit family and to show their daughters the sights of Paris.

When they left the Finger Lakes in February, they were prepared in case their visas hit a snag. They took paperwork and computers they would need to stay in touch with the winery. A new building and press pad were under construction.  

Céline and Sébastien LeSeurre, owners of Domaine LeSeurre Winery, pose in the barrel room in their Hammondsport winery.

Because the LeSeurres use a longer winemaking process than many other wineries, their tanks and barrels were full. Their wines spend months on the lees, which are yeast cells left over from the fermentation process. They believe this develops flavors and adds body. The wines on the lees need to be stirred, so they trained their staff on how to stir, when to stir and when not to stir.

They would bottle in August, long after they were scheduled to return.

“We had time,” said Sébastien, a native of Champagne, France, and the sixth generation of grape growers and winemakers in his family. 

But their time in France would be much longer than they could have imagined.

Pandemic pins them in France

The LeSeurre family spent two months in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic in Bagneres-de-Luchon, in the south of France. Here, Laurette LeSeurre, 5, and Manon LeSeurre, 3, play together.

The visa process went smoothly and they spent time with Sébastien's family in Champagne. They headed to Paris and showed their daughters the Eiffel Tower and other sights. 

The first sign of trouble was when they planned to attend the Salon International de l'Agriculture, a famed agricultural show that brings together brings together livestock farming, cheese makers, winemakers, and much more. It was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, spreading rapidly through the country.

On March 11, they were in the South of France when President Donald Trump announced a travel ban that included France. “With our visa, we could not come back at all,” Sébastien said. 

When they heard rumbles about a possible lockdown in France, they headed to Bagnères-de-Luchon, in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, where Céline's family owned property. The French lockdown started March 17. People were confined to their homes, and could go out for just an hour each day to exercise, and only within a kilometer of their homes. 

“We were fine,” Sébastien said. “We were safe with the girls. Nothing bad, you know.” They gardened and sourced fresh food from people in the village.

After two months they grew bored, and headed to Champagne to work in Sébastien's family's winery. The virus was on the decline and restaurants started to reopen. They went out for French food. The children were spoiled by their grandparents.

It was an idyllic time for the family, but the situation would grow serious.

Holly, the lone employee

While Céline and Sébastien LeSeurre were stranded in France, Holly Fusco was the sole employee at Domaine LeSeurre Winery for more than two months.

Based on what they were seeing in France, the LeSeurres closed their tasting room a few days before New York State required them to do so. This left them in a precarious financial situation, as the winery usually sells 95 percent of its wine in its tasting room. In addition to salaries, they would need to pay their contractors for the completion of the new building.

They focused on online sales and shipping. The winery’s customers responded, providing a cash flow. They remained open for curbside pickup, but it took awhile for people to take advantage of that service.

In April, they laid off one of the two remaining employees. Holly Fusco, their tasting room manager of a year, was the lone employee from April until mid-June. And in May, she found out she was pregnant with her first child. 

Fusco, who used to be professional ballet dancer, was up to the task. She had the ingrained work ethic of a dancer, and enjoyed physical work. "I felt very responsible," she said. "If my job was important before, it was even more important now." 

For weeks, she was alone in the winery, packing shipping packages, stirring the wines in barrels, posting on social media and staying in close contact with the LeSeurres.

Sébastien recalls being on the phone when Fusco exclaimed, “There is a car coming! There is a car coming to do curbside! I’m almost crying!” 

"It was emotional," Fusco said. "It was nice to have the human contact again."

As word spread about the LeSeurres' predicament, people in the Finger Lakes wine industry reached out with offers of help. Peter Weis, the German owner and winemaker of Weis Vineyards and their next-door neighbor, stopped by a couple of times to make sure the wines were evolving correctly. Everything was fine, and it reassured Fusco that she had been doing things properly.

The other next-door neighbors started mowing the lawn weekly. “We didn’t ask. They did it,” Céline said.

As the reopening drew near, The LeSeurres and Fusco attended a Zoom meeting with some other Keuka Lake wineries to share ideas.

Domaine LeSeurre Winery, at 13920 Route 54 in Hammondsport, is set up for social distancing, hand sanitizing and contact tracing at its entrance in 2020.

Fusco studied New York's regulations and rearranged the tasting room. She transformed the new press pad, a slab of cement designed for pressing grapes and storing farm equipment, into an outdoor tasting area.

"The tape measure was my best friend," she said. She set up the tasting areas so that she would feel comfortable working while pregnant. "If I felt comfortable, I felt anyone else coming in the door would as well."

The winery reopened on June 12, and visitors arrived in droves. The LeSeurres and Fusco worked together to hire additional staff. When New York required the winery to serve food with tastings, Fusco tracked down and purchased all the oyster crackers she could find.

In the end, holding down the fort pushed Fusco and her career. She learned new marketing, communication and winemaking skills. But she's proudest of earning a higher level of trust from the LeSeurres, and her responsibilities at the winery have grown.

"This kid is going to be able to go through anything now," Sebastian quipped.

Time running out

Céline LeSeurre and daughters Laurette, 5, and Manon, 3, ready for the start of a tense journey from France to the Finger Lakes.

As the summer progressed, the LeSeurres grew increasingly anxious at the potential for a disastrous domino effect. They had to bottle the wines in tanks and barrels to make room for the 2020 harvest. They had contracts to purchase grapes to make the 2020 vintage. If they couldn't get the 2020 harvest into tanks, they wouldn’t have wines to sell.

"There's no way we could have bottled without them being here," Fusco said. During bottling, the winemaker tastes and blends the wines from the tanks and barrels. The decisions come down to the palate and style of the winemaker. 

The couple had heard that a way around the travel ban was to travel as guardians to their daughters, who are American citizens. At least that was the theory.  

They booked expensive flights, not knowing whether they'd be allowed in the country. But after a stressful journey, they returned home. They had to quarantine for 15 days. From their house, they could see their winery, slammed with visitors.

“That was the worst part. It was really, really bad,” Celine said.

Four rieslings are lined up for a tasting at Domaine LeSeurre Winery in the Finger Lakes.

To make matters worse, Sébastien ran into a snag finding wine bottles. They finally arrived and the winery bottled in September, over a month late, and just barely in time to bring in the 2020 harvest.

The ray of good hope was that the weather had cooperated during the growing season, and the grapes were beautiful. “It’s one of the best vintages we have ever seen," Sébastien said. “Everything worked, but it was tight, you know?” 

The LeSeurres will take some of what they learned into 2021. They added a pergola on their terrace to continue outdoor tastings with a view. They will focus on offering more options and experiences for visitors. And they have even more appreciation for help shown to them by their staff and others in the Finger Lakes. 

"We are very lucky," Sébastien said. "It’s the dream place, you know.”

Reporter Tracy Schuhmacher focuses on food from many facets. Send story tips to TracyS@Gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram as @RahChaChow. Thanks to our subscribers for supporting local journalism.