Brittany Gibson is building community within the Finger Lakes Wine Industry

Brittany Gibson (Photo provided)

We’ve all heard the one about the butterfly wing and the tornado. It’s an extreme, but instructive reminder of the fact that small actions can have outsize effects. Take Brittany Gibson. 

Gibson is the executive director of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, responsible for the marketing and promotion of the trail’s 27 member wineries. She’s part of a “tiny but mighty team of two,” as she puts it, dedicated to ultimately getting people into the wineries’ tasting rooms.

Gibson, with the help of her office manager ​​Glenda Stermer-Simpson, is succeeding at that, and she’s also succeeding in building community within the Finger Lakes wine industry as a whole. For her successes, the New York Wine & Grape Foundation awarded Gibson the Phyllis Feder Unity Award which honors individuals demonstrating exceptional leadership in building industry cooperation and unity. 

“I have serious imposter syndrome,” says Gibson, “so when I got the email [about the award] I just saw the preview text in the subject line and I thought they had emailed me by mistake.”

Her award is no mistake, though. Gibson, who has been with the Seneca Lake Wine Trail for three and a half years, has done much to build cooperation and unity in the Finger Lakes wine community. 

In addition to her position with Seneca Lake, she works with regional branding organization Finger Lakes Wine Country, serves on the board of the Watkins Glen Chamber of Commerce, and sits on the board of directors of Finger Lakes Tourism

“For a region that has a lot to offer but also has many organizations doing a lot of marketing, it’s really important that we have some common voices at those tables,” says Gibson

Her spirit of building community and cooperation was helpful during the COVID19 pandemic, too.

“Every month during the pandemic, I was having phone calls with my colleagues on Keuka and Cayuga Lakes,” she recalls. Within the Finger Lakes region, those colleagues work for her market competitors, but they came together to brainstorm for the good of the entire region. 

“I’m kind of a take-the-bull-by-the-horns kind of girl,” she says. 

When new rules would come out, as they frequently did, Gibson would contact Empire State Development to find out what needed to be done to be in compliance. Then, she’d share that with her colleagues. 

Before coming to the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, Gibson cut her teeth in tourism marketing and honed many of her skills at a local chamber of commerce with 300 members.

“It’s a lot of wrangling,” she says. “It’s having individual conversations but also group conversations and finding common themes. Not everything is going to work for everyone, but you can almost always find something that is important to everybody or at least a priority to everybody. That’s kind of what I use the most, that relationship building because ultimately that’s what everything we do every day as human beings is about. It’s about connections and relationships. If you can forge those, it’s impossible, in my opinion, to not be successful.”

That’s a big part of what she tries to do for the members of her wine trail as well as the Finger Lakes industry at large. 

“I have 27 different wineries. They all make wine, but to an extent, that’s the only thing they have in common. There are wineries of all scopes, sizes, and areas of focus. We have wineries that do sweet wine best. We have wineries that make fruit wine. We have wineries that are dedicated to making vinifera wines and making 90+ point wines consistently.”

Her job is to bring all those voices together by finding common threads. 

Gibson finds that commonality and pushes forward to her goal, which for her is always: “How do we keep our member wineries top of mind to the consumer. That’s our job.”

She acknowledges that when she took the reins at Seneca Lake, things were in place for her to do just that.

“Our organization is very strong,” she says. “It’s been around for 35 years. I’m not doing anything that’s all that revolutionary. I feel what I help to do is evolve the organization to the next best version of itself. And I can only do that because it was in a really strong position, to begin with.”

As executive director, Gibson implemented the first large scale digital media buy for the organization. It involved a lot of educating the member wineries about what a media buy was and what it could accomplish.

“We were really strategic about it,” Gibson says. “We rebuilt our website first. We knew if we were going to do a digital campaign that was going to draw people to our website, it needed to be in tip-top shape.”

They drew high quality traffic from the digital campaign that funneled through the website the way they wanted—people were coming to the site to plan trips. The campaign, now in its third year, hit the right people in the right markets. Her member wineries are happy with it, giving her affirmation that she’s doing the right thing when they continue to fund the campaign. 

The Phyllis Feder Unity Award is another affirmation for Gibson.

“It says to me that I’ve worked really hard, but I’ve also been strategic about surrounding myself with people who have helped me be successful,” she says. “It is all about who you surround yourself with, and I’m only successful because I’m surrounded by a bunch of rockstars. This is not just me.” 

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About the Unity Awards

The Unity Awards were created in 1990 as a way to recognize, encourage, and celebrate cooperation among grape growers, wineries (and their staff), researchers, retailers and others to advance the entire industry. The winery and grower community in New York state has a rich history of working and succeeding together despite facing a variety of challenges through the years. Recognizing the longstanding and bold spirit of our community members and their numerous achievements, the New York Wine & Grape Foundation is proud to continue honoring industry leaders & champions of New York wine for more than 30 years.

Click here to learn more about more 2022 award winners!

Picture of Kathleen Willcox and Robin Shreeves

Kathleen Willcox and Robin Shreeves

Kathleen Willcox and Robin Shreeves' work frequently appears in Wine Enthusiast, Wine Searcher, Wine Industry Advisor, and many other publications. They co-founded Thinking Outside the Bottle, which provides communications services to the drinks industry.