Kelby James Russell & Julia Hoyle, New York’s Winemaking Supercouple

Photos Provided.

Though neither planned on a career in winemaking, Kelby James Russell and Julia Hoyle have come to be recognized winemakers in the Finger Lakes and beyond and are well-respected for the quality of their wines. Together the two have accumulated more than a hundred 90+ scores from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, and other well-known periodicals including distinctions for Top 100, Best Buy, Editor’s Choice, and Year’s Best Riesling. Red Newt’s 2013 Tango Oaks Riesling was also awarded Best North American Riesling at the Canberra International Riesling Challenge, competing with more than 500 Rieslings from other regions from around the world.

Kelby James Russell grew up in Newark, New York, a community home to about 9,000 residents nestled along the waters of the historic Erie Canal. After graduating from the local high school there, he went on to study government, economics, and orchestra management at Harvard University – he was confident that he would never return to the rural area in upstate New York where he spent his childhood days. At Harvard, Kelby performed in and managed a classical men’s choir and as he started taking seminars with the League of American Orchestras, he realized that he would find it alienating to be a manager without the creative release of performing with the group as well. As a senior in college, he won a fellowship in Italy where he learned about the country through cuisine and wine. To stretch the funds, he found a position working at a restored medieval castle in far southern Tuscany – Castello di Potentino – where he received room and board in exchange for vineyard work.  He fell head-over-heels for the work, the lifestyle, and wine and spent the remainder of his senior year at Harvard coming to terms with abandoning a career path in orchestra management to pursue his passion for wine.

Julia is an East Coast city kid. After attending Abington Friends, a Quaker school just north of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she made her way to the Finger Lakes area to study at Hobart & William Smith Colleges with a goal of to spending four years in the “countryside” and a plan to return to city life in either Philadelphia or New York City. While in college, Julia took a job at Fox Run Vineyards in the tasting room. What she thought would be a side job for pocket change turned into a soft obsession. She was lured into a passion for wine by Fox Run’s 2005 Reserve Cabernet Franc, never to return.

Both began working at Fox Run Vineyards in 2009. Kelby was working harvest but would fill in doing tasting room work on the weekends. Julia was a student at William Smith College and was working weekends in the tasting room. The two hit it off right away but didn’t begin dating until a couple years later as Julia was studying abroad, and Kelby spent time working in New Zealand and Australia. The two finally connected in 2011 when they both returned to Fox Run to work, only to be separated again when Julia accepted a position at the International School of Dakar located in Senegal on the western tip of Africa where she had previously studied abroad. A love story in the making, the two spent the next year writing handwritten letters to one another as internet and electricity in Julia’s part of the world was spotty at best. Clearly things worked out in the end as the two eloped in Paris in 2012.

As their personal lives together began to take shape, their careers in winemaking were evolving as well. Kelby began his true career in wine in 2009 as an intern under the tutelage of Peter Bell at Fox Run Vineyards. Over the next three years, he took internship positions in Marlborough, Tasmania, and the Barossa Valley always returning to work the Northern Hemisphere harvest at Fox Run. In 2012, he landed at Red Newt as Assistant Winemaker, and became head winemaker in 2013. Julia’s career in winemaking also began under the instruction of Peter Bell where she began interning in 2012. She spent a harvest in the cellar at Atwater Estate Vineyards before taking a full-time position as assistant winemaker at Sheldrake Point Winery in December of 2013. Three years later in 2017, she accepted the head winemaker position at Hosmer Winery.

More from Kelby & Julia:

What’s each of your favorite varietal to make wine from and why?

JULIA: Only one?! It is a tie between Riesling and Cabernet Franc for me. They are both so versatile, which is alluring. If I had to choose one, I would say Riesling. I love the various ferments ticking away in the cellar each harvest.

KELBY: Unsurprisingly, Riesling.  It is such a terroir expressive grape, yet also one that responds creatively to so many different styles.  It’s beguiling and endlessly interesting to work with, from sparkling to ice wine.

What’s each of your favorite varietal/type of wine to drink and why?

JULIA: This is always a hard question for me to answer, so I will go back to a classic. Really well-made Sparkling Shiraz. When it is not a cloyingly sweet wine, the balance point is gorgeous. It is also a fun wine to share with friends.  We recently brought home a bottle from a winery in India (purchased in Mumbai). I am curious to see how that compares to some of our Australian favorites!

KELBY: Classic, uncomplicated, Sangiovese.  Often, but not exclusively, from Tuscany.  I’ve no interest in big, dense, oaked Brunello’s or Super Tuscan wines, but classic Italian expressions of Sangiovese and its attendant grapes make my heart (and the food I love to cook) sing!

How do you know when you have a good vintage?

JULIA: If fruit comes in with rich flavor development, but the brix are in check, I know that for that varietal/block of fruit it is a good vintage. Fortunately, this happens most years in the Finger Lakes. As winemakers, we can certainly make additions to ferments to get a balance point into check (acid and sugar additions), but I save those tricks for when they are necessary. The less tinkering that I have to do, the happier I am, and I think the ferments appreciate it too.

KELBY: My ideal vintage is one where we can hang the fruit for an extended period into the fall, developing richness and flavors that only vine-time can provide, but where the temperatures are cool enough that we don’t put on too much sugar or worry about dropping acidity.  Most vintages in the Finger Lakes give us a great shot at that, although in my time 2014 has been the benchmark.

Do you ever collaborate with one another on projects?

JULIA: Thus far, no. We do swap cellars and taste with each other, which especially this year has been a great tool. We have not been self-isolating from each other, so no harm in tasting each other’s wines.

KELBY:  And we love swapping cellars for taste-throughs, it’s a fun tradition every year!  Otherwise, it is all about bouncing ideas off one another while we’re cooking or gardening at night.

What is the biggest challenge you each face as a winemaker?

JULIA: I like to overthink things. For example, when I am sick, I google my symptoms and then read off every possible illness (from WedMD) that I could have. Usually by the time I get down to anthrax I am laughing at myself, but I am still thinking “Could I have anthrax?” Thank goodness for Kelby keeping me in check. It is important to turn off that part of your brain sometimes and just trust your gut instinct.

KELBY:  People management is something I always work to be better with.  In general, my team is fantastic and truly buy into what we are working for.  But, as Julia has even seen at home, sometimes I forget the basics like, “people get hungry and need to eat lunch even if I want to keep going.”  You can go so deep down in the work that you forget to come up for air.

What’s the best part about being a winemaker?

JULIA: The little surprises that both ferments and finished wines give you. Nothing makes me happier than discovering a ferment is doing something gorgeous and I have no explanation as to why. Sure, I can deduce what is going on, but sometimes you just have to be in awe.

KELBY: The exhilarating feeling that I’m breaking new vinous ground that no one has cracked before.  It’s partially because we are a young region, and partially because we like to blade-run in some of our winemaking and vineyard management.  But that sense that I am seeing a new horizon?  Unforgettable.

What accomplishment are you most proud of in the last 10 years?

JULIA: As both individuals and a couple, finding a career that we each love and then having the independence to travel and pursue separate career/personal goals while supporting one another. It is a balancing act that requires constant work, but it is wildly satisfying to feel so loved by someone who also supports your passion and personal growth. Whenever we lived apart, we never broke our pact to write a letter once per week.

KELBY: I have nothing to add to that!  Being able to support each other in independent, intense, successful careers – while still prioritizing our connection – has been the joy of my life.

How has the quarantine most affected you at Hosmer & Red Newt?

JULIA: In the cellar, life is relatively normal- me, myself, and I. We have had to cut back on staff as we only have curbside pick up. Our two office staff members that are still coming in are constantly packing up 6 and 12-bottle cases for shipping, so that is a good thing. Off Premise sales have also been relatively strong, so that has helped keep us afloat.

KELBY:  Red Newt’s staffing situation is similar to Hosmer’s: the cellar is more or less puttering along, but the tasting room staff has downsized during quarantine.  The biggest question for us going forward is how much wine do we need to make, and of which wine styles?  Some of our wines were targeted to restaurants – will that be viable in the coming months?  Fortunately, consumers continue to purchase wine and support us through direct shipping and wine stores, so the overall volume seems steady.

How do you spend your days off while in quarantine?

JULIA: Kelby and I are avid gardeners and chefs. We have been in our home since 2013 and this spring has allowed us to really tackle the big gardening projects we have been chipping away at. Recently, I have been having fun transplanting native woodland species from the Hosmer property to our ¼-acre wood. I love having a wild space on our small property, but a lot of invasive species have wreaked havoc. At this point I know where the poison ivy is hiding and, just as importantly, I know where the red ants like to nest. Only once have I had to run in the house screaming “ants in my pants” while peeling off my pants to avoid hundreds of ant bites-eek!

KELBY: Where Julia is the lead gardener, I am the head chef in the house.  To the surprise of many, Julia and I don’t have a TV or any streaming services for our computers.  Instead, we cook.  We are lucky to both be Italian in our eating habits; cooking all evening most days of the week was normal prior to quarantine, and dinner anytime before 9:00pm would be unusually early.  It is a key way I relax after a day of work.  Also, golf.  God help me, I love to golf.

What piece of advice do you have for folks during this difficult time?

JULIA: Be kind to yourself. Take the extra time for a cup of tea or coffee. Breathe deep. After the sudden passing of my brother last year, I spent the better part of 2019 trying to understand grief (and I am still working on it!). I am at the stage that I take one day at time, let myself be upset when I need to be, and I allow space for the acceptance of the beauty that surrounds us. Sometimes we hide ourselves from it, but it is always there.

KELBY:   When this is over, don’t forget the small lessons you have learned!  Taking walks in the evening, valuing in-person socializing, kindness with yourself and with others: these seem like small changes, but have profound effects.  On our street in Geneva we’ve seen more interest in gardens and gardening than ever before.  It may seem quotidian, but what is life if you don’t work to put beauty into the everyday?

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Jennifer Cooper

Jennifer Cooper

Jenn manages Membership and Events at the New York Wine & Grape Foundation.