Kelby Russell on Earning the New York Wine & Grape Foundation Phyllis Feder Unity Award

kelby james russell standing in a vineyard. he is wearing a black graphic tshirt and jeans, and holding a glass of white wine.
Kelby James Russell / Photo by Rima Brindamour.

A few hours before Red Newt Cellars’ winemaker Kelby Russell left to board a flight to represent New York State wines at the 2023 Wine Paris/VinExpo event, he hopped on the phone to discuss why he loves his wine community. That’s not surprising for the very busy Kelby—he also has his own wine label, Kelby James Russell Wines—who received the 2023 Phyllis Feder Unity Award from the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. The award recognizes individuals who have volunteered their time, shown exceptional leadership and achieved recognized results in building industry cooperation and unity. 

Kelby didn’t set out to be a winemaker. After graduating from Harvard in 2009 with a Bachelor’s degree in Government and a minor in Economics, he planned to have a career in orchestra management after graduation. But he fell in love with wine during a two-week stint in a Tuscan vineyard—for the sole purpose of getting free room and board to stay in Italy longer—between his junior and senior years of college.

That tiny choice had an outsize impact on the rest of his life. Wine, not music, became his calling. After college graduation, he started as an intern at Fox Run Vineyards.

“I loved it, even if I was just shoveling up grape skins and cleaning up equipment,” says Kelby, “which is what I was doing that first harvest. I was fascinated by it and loved the marriage of physical work with the more creative aspects of winemaking—the really fun union.” 

During that first harvest, Fox Run’s then winemaker Peter Bell—whom Kelby says was a “fantastic mentor and teacher”—encouraged Kelby to do traveling harvests. For the next three years, he worked the Finger Lakes harvest then went to New Zealand and Australia to work harvests in those countries. 

In 2012, Red Newt hired him as assistant winemaker, and he became head winemaker the following year. In the decade since, Kelby has worked to raise the reputation of the Finger Lakes and New York wine at large on both a national and international stage while also fostering a sense of community with his Finger Lakes colleagues. 

FLXcursion: Bringing a Riesling Conference to Riesling Country

FLXcursion is one of his most impactful projects. Kelby is one of the driving forces behind Geneva, NY’s biennial international conference of Riesling producers from around the world.

“It started as an idea in 2010 when Fox Run sent me to Seattle for the Riesling Rendezvous Conference, this big conference that Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen hosted in Seattle,” says Kelby.

“As great a conference as Riesling Rendezvous was, it felt like the North American Riesling conference really should be in the Finger Lakes,” he says. “Not because we make as much Riesling as they do—they have much more land that they’re planting—but in terms of the reputation of the wines. The Finger Lakes is really Riesling Country. It always kind of stuck in my mind that Finger Lakes should host a similar conference.”

He decided that in 2019, Finger Lakes should host a conference immediately following the Seattle one since many of their German colleagues were already in the country. He mentioned the idea to Oskar Bynke of Herman J. Weimer who thought Kelby was “absolutely nuts” at first. But, it wasn’t long before Oskar was on board as co-chair. When they reached out to Riesling Rendezvous to coordinate dates, they found the Seattle conference would no longer be happening. 

FLXcursion became the only Riesling conference in the U.S. This year, luminaries from all over the world will host seminars in Geneva.

“The whole point of the conference is to show that the Finger Lakes belongs on the exact same stage [as world-renowned Riesling regions],” says Kelby. “We don’t really hit people over the head with that, but just because of the fact that we’re hosting it and have the gravitas to pull all these people in—and our wines can sit on the same seminars, same panels, and be in the same discussions—that makes the argument for us where the Finger Lakes is quality wise.”

The conference has turbo-charged Riesling’s reputation in the Finger Lakes from being an up-and-comer to a contender on the domestic and international stage. 

Supporting the Finger Lakes Wine Community and Beyond

The regional wineries support FLXcursion—some by shutting down for a few days to host events for the conference. Kelby finds ways to support his colleagues, too, including organizing a Secret Cellar during harvest season. 

In 2013 as he was driving around Seneca Lake one night during harvest, he saw the lights on at Anthony Road Wine Company. He grabbed some beer and dropped it off for those working late into the night. 

“It spurred on this idea, like a Secret Santa. Cellars sign up for it and get randomly assigned another cellar. Over the course of harvest, they drop off two to four packages of things that people want during harvest like food, granola bars, beer, and Band-Aids,” he says. At the end of harvest, the participating wineries leave their own wines as a reveal.

The FLXposure Winemakers’ Pin-Up Calendar was another unifying project the winemaker spearheaded. During the height of the 2020 pandemic shutdown, 12 wineries banded together to make a tongue-in-cheek, charitable pin-up calendar.

“We ended up raising $35,000 for local food banks across New York state,” he says.

The Unity Award means a tremendous amount to Kelby because he loves the wine industry, particularly his home industry in the Finger Lakes. 

“I don’t know how you could feel as lucky as I do to be in this region, making wines here in this time, and not want to do everything to build community and to celebrate it,” he says.

nywgf unity awards logo

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 2023 award winners!

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.