One day in 1973, Ruth Lucas, a stay-at-home mom of three young children, was trying to comprehend her husband’s surprising proposal. Bill wanted to move the family from Long Island to live in a farm upstate.
Born Ruth Lewis in 1943 in the South Bronx, Ruth was the fifth of six kids. When she was 18, an older brother introduced her to Bill Lucas, a neighborhood friend, who she then married the following year. Ruth quickly gave birth to three children: Ruthie in 1963, Billy in 1965 and Stephanie in 1968. When Ruthie was one, the burgeoning family moved from New York City to Long Island.
Ruth hadn’t farmed a single day in her life. Her husband’s only farm experience was working a few summers at a dairy farm as a teenager. Since then, Bill had dreamed of living in a big farm in the countryside. A tugboat captain, he wanted a healthier life for his family. For Ruth, who spent her entire childhood and early adulthood in the South Bronx, leaving the city was unfathomable.
Life in New York City in the ‘60s and ‘70s was no picnic. Beneath the veneer of vibrancy and wealth, the city was crumbling and had begun its dramatic downward spiral. Violent crime and urban decay began to flourish, driving many families from the homes they had built there.
In 1973, Ruth and the children moved to Ithaca. Ruth took a job at a bank, as they looked to purchase a farm. Bill’s maritime work schedule alternated weeks, and the plan was for him to go to the Finger Lakes during his off weeks, then move there full-time after five years of commuting, as they needed his income for a while. In 1974, they took a mortgage from Citizens Bank and bought a 68-acre farm in the town of Interlaken on the west side of Cayuga Lake.
The transition from living in a major metropolitan area to a farming hamlet in the Finger Lakes
was not easy. With Bill being just a part-time presence, Ruth took on most of the duties at the farm, as well raising three near-teenagers.
“I was 10, living in Smithtown, Long Island, in a neighborhood where we could come and go as we pleased, with everyone looking out for one another,” said Ruthie, the oldest of their children. “It was like heaven. Next thing you know we are living in a big farm, without even a traffic light in town. To the kids here, we sounded different. It was tough.”
New to farming, Ruth and Bill needed guidance on what to grow. Help came from Bill Brown at Cornell’s Cooperative Extension in Geneva. He advised them that the 40 acres of tillable land were probably too small to grow corn or soybeans, but they would be suitable to grow a more profitable crop, wine grapes, to sell to the then high-flying Taylor Wine Company. And just like that, Ruth Lucas became a farmer. By 1974, hundreds of vineyards dotted the Finger Lakes. There were few wineries, as it was exorbitantly expensive and complicated to license one. The growers supplied large commercial wineries, especially the Taylor Wine Company in Hammondsport. Life was good for those growers back then, as Taylor paid a good price for wine grapes, providing them with a steady income. They felt they were part of the Taylor family, with a bright future of economic security.
Ruth and Bill started their vineyard with four acres of Dechaunac, a popular French hybrid grape that was the main ingredient of many of Taylor’s sweet red wines.
“It was a lot of work,” Ruth reminisced. “We didn’t realize how much work growing grapes took. The kids were very helpful in planting and taking care of the vines.”
They followed with the planting of Cayuga White, a hardy and vigorous hybrid grape created at Cornell. Chardonnay and riesling were next. By 1979, they were selling as much as 34 tons of grapes to Taylor.
“I thought it was money coming from heaven!” Ruth recalled.
The Taylor Wine Company was one of America’s most prominent wine producers during its heyday, riding on the national popularity of sweet wines. At one time, it was the fourth-largest wine company in the nation. As it grew, big national conglomerates viewed Taylor as a potential acquisition target. In 1977, it was sold to the Coca Cola Company. The change of ownership contributed to the confluence of events and trends that spelled big trouble for the Finger Lakes growers. By the end of the ‘70s, dark clouds were gathering for the Finger Lakes wine industry.
Competition from California, in the form of drier viniferas wines, began to cut into wine sales of Finger Lakes companies such as Taylor and Widmer, as well as a national health movement to reduce sugar intake. Together, they pushed the sweet red wines into disfavor in just a few years. Sales plummeted. Whilst the former family-owned Taylor Wine Company took a paternalistic approach to its growers, the Coca-Cola corporate bean counters were more focused on the diminishing bottom line.
It was a rude awakening for growers such as Ruth and Bill. In August of 1980, just a few months before harvest, Coca Cola announced that they would only purchase 50 percent of the grapes they had contracted. Overnight, and with little notice, their income was cut in half, and their vineyards suddenly saddled with grapes of decreasing demand.
But the growers had a lifeline. The state had recently passed the Farm Winery Act of 1976,
greatly reducing the onerous regulations and cost for growers to produce and sell wines directly to the public. With their surplus grapes, Lucas Vineyards in 1980 became the first licensed winery on Cayuga Lake to make and sell their own wine. Its first tasting room was located in the farm’s dairy barn.
Selling wine in the nascent Finger Lakes winery business was challenging. Without an established distribution system, the wines were sold mostly at the wineries and local wine stores.
“We made 400 cases the first year and sold them out in three months,” Ruth remembered. “We thought we could easily sell a lot more. So, we made 2,000 cases the next year. But most of them wound up unsold. With a big mortgage to pay for, things were pretty grim until a wine store in Ithaca rescued us with a ‘Save a Winery’ campaign.”
During Lucas Vineyards’ first couple of vintages, the wines were made with the help of Dave Bagley from Poplar Ridge, a winery that was also founded in 1980. That marked the beginning of Ruth’s on-the-job training as a winemaker. Books and online classes occupied much of her time. She was one of the first female winemakers in the region.
“When I went to wine conferences and seminars, I was the only woman there most of the time,” Ruth recalls. She was meticulous in her growth as a vintner, incessantly curious and always looking for answers to problems found in the vineyard and winery.
“Mom used to have these plastic bags with leaves or tendrils in them,” Stephanie explained. “When she found something in the vineyard she didn’t understand, she would bag it and have it tested.”
Ruth would also bring jars of her wines to the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva to have them evaluated and tasted. For a former housewife who had no formal wine training, it was remarkable that Ruth managed the vineyard and made, marketed and sold the wines, all while raising three children as the only full-time parent. She often had to mediate between Bill and the kids through their teenage years and had to periodically repair relationships with local wine stores.
“Let’s just say Bill was tough to deal with,” one local retailer confided, noting Ruth was well-liked by everyone. “Ruth had to make peace sometimes afterwards. What she did—I frankly don’t know how she did it.”
The words “great” and “nice” are universally used to describe Ruth. Bill did also instill in his children a strong sense of work ethic. They all pitched in and made a significant contribution to the business. To them, going to school was almost a relief from the hard work in the vineyard. After leaving home after college, the two daughterseventually returned to the family winery’s fold.
Years went by. The fledgling Finger Lakes wine industry’s struggles continued into the ‘90s. Although some vineyards had been replanted with vinifera grapes, the regions still suffered from a mixed reputation of a place for mostly sweet red wines. Ruth’s winery was no different.
“I remembered we had to cut our own wood so we could heat the house,” Stephanie said. “We were always worried about money.”
With such financial pressure, Bill couldn’t afford to quit his job. He never moved upstate full-time. Ruth says the turning point for Lucas Vineyards happened in the late ‘90s, when visitors started showing up in numbers, as the region’s reputation as a fine wine region and tourist destination rose. By then, Ruthie had been managing the winery’s business operations, with Stephanie running the tasting room, events and marketing—jobs well-matched to their personalities.
Ruth and Bill’s long-running commuter marriage finally ended when they divorced in 1997. Stephanie’s husband, Jeff Hauck, a restaurant manager with long work hours, joined the winery in 1995 so he could spend more time with his wife and children. Ruth took him under her wings and trained him in all facets of the winery. He is now the winemaker.
Today, Lucas Vineyards produces about 20,000 cases of wine a year. The vineyard is planted with 50 percent hybrid and 50 percent vinifera grapes. Its hybrid wines still have a strong loyal following, accounting for about 65 percent of sales, but its vinifera portfolio is growing. Their 2017 Dry Riesling is particularly impressive, as it is full of character and sports a clear Finger Lakes riesling signature.
At age 76, Ruth still works half-time on the winery’ s business, and she enjoys greeting long-time customers at the winery. When people talk about the early iconic figures responsible in jump-starting the Finger Lakes wine industry, Ruth’s name is seldom mentioned. But listen to what one of those icons, Hermann Wiemer, has to say about her: “Ruth was a true pioneer who deserves more credit than she has gotten. Quality was important to her. She made a great contribution to Finger Lakes wines.”
Wife, mother, farmer, winemaker, businesswoman, pioneer—all embodied in a small woman named Ruth Lucas. Today’s female winemakers in the Finger Lakes especially owe Ruth some measure of gratitude for opening the door for them 39 years ago.
Finger Lakes wines are finally earning their accolades. As you enjoy a glass of its wines today, remember that it was cultivated from a foundation of toil and perseverance built by a handful of early trailblazers. Ruth Lucas was one of them.