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Living Roots Wine & Co. is turning obstacles into opportunities

How Rochester’s only urban winery is confronting pandemic challenges head on

Sebastian Hardy’s favorite book is titled The Obstacle is The Way. He often listens to audiobooks or podcasts for a mindful way to unwind after his busy days making wine. Colleen, his business partner and wife, smiles as he talks about it being good motivation. It’s clear she also buys into the concept of making the obstacle the path forward. And of course they do–in a pandemic their business depends on it.

The couple owns Living Roots Wine & Co., Rochester, New York’s first and only urban winery. Founded in 2016, Sebastian says he and Colleen “were always keen on bringing something a little different” to the table and their wine program is a perfect example. Guests can travel from the Finger Lakes, to Australia in a single flight of wine served in Rochester, while enjoying charcuterie or dessert from regional makers. To bring the concept to life, the Hardys split their time between Adelaide and Upstate New York as they have vineyards and tasting rooms in both locations.

Photo provided by Living Roots Wine & Co.

In Rochester, you can find them on University Avenue in a building dating back to 1909. They chose to expose and restore original beams during renovations, and even uncovered an old vault that occasionally hosts intimate weddings. Across the hall, they make wine. In warmer months, a nice breeze and the faint sounds of city life flow in through the oversized windows. Sunshine streams across the warm wood tones throughout the tasting room, and velvety leather highboys and lush greenery complement the always-smiling faces behind the bar. It’s no wonder why the neighborhood gravitates towards Living Roots–Sebastian and Colleen have created a place that just feels good.

PUSHING FORWARD, REGARDLESS

Being located in the city meant Living Roots suffered multiple closures as the county entered the orange zone twice. Colleen says she and Sebastian did “pretty much anything we could think of to keep the team busy and to make our wines more easily available.” Sebastian agrees, noting that engaging with the community directly was a quintessential part of their brand that they needed to maintain. In March they introduced free local delivery in the city of Rochester and a Laneway Window for to-go bottle orders. Soon after, Living Roots began offering 187mL at-home tasting kits on Fridays, giving the local audience something to look forward to every week. Virtual tastings could be scheduled alongside the kits, hosted by Sebastian, Colleen, and the extended team as a way to connect more closely with their audience while closed.

Photo provided by Living Roots Wine & Co.

Living Roots re-opened with a socially distanced tasting model in mid-June. They were finally starting to regain momentum with the holiday season approaching when Rochester went into the orange zone again. This shutdown came at a particularly difficult time. “We closed on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving–normally one of our biggest revenue days of the entire year,” Colleen remembers. The team jumped into action again, this time transforming the tasting room into a holiday shop for to-go bottles of wine and gifting ideas like thoughtful cards, books about wine, cozy homewares and snacks from local makers.

A popup was never in the plans for 2020, but with the uncertainty of consistent business in the city they decided to explore all their options. “We were looking at building [on Keuka] in the next couple of years but we had to quickly adapt,” said Sebastian. In August, Colleen’s family vineyard was turned into the Living Roots FLX Pop-Up. She says their only goal was to “keep our guests safe while providing a sense of escape or ‘normalcy’ in a time that’s anything but.” However, what they actually created was an oasis.

Perhaps it was the view, as their land boasts a one-of-a-kind look at Keuka Lake and the bluff where it splits. It could have been the comfortably distanced seating and an open invitation to dogs. Or maybe it was the atmosphere created by a beautiful sperry tent decorated in the signature Living Roots style, tucked into the vinifera just off Route 87. But most likely, it’s the familiar feeling of community the Hardy’s foster, alongside the love Sebastian clearly has for his craft, which you can taste in his beautiful wines. Their newest offering, the 2019 Bone-Dry Riesling, was made with grapes from this land and recently received 94 points as the editor’s choice in a Wine Enthusiast article–their highest rating yet.

Photo provided by Living Roots Wine & Co.

THE NEXT OBSTACLE

The Hardys are already sprinting towards what’s next. “As soon as we feel a little more on top of things there’s always the next project, which keeps it exciting.” Colleen smiles at Sebastian as she says this. They’re currently in Adelaide in the middle of harvest, while currently starting the hiring process for a full season at their Finger Lakes Pop Up this summer. They’re planning to add lounge seating and fire pits around the perimeter of the tent, where the couple hopes guests will sit with a glass of wine and enjoy.

Additionally, Living Roots will be releasing a new line of low-alcohol wines, as inspired by a rising pandemic trend. Colleen explains, “we’re working with our friends Tristan Kerr, an Adelaide-based graphic designer, and Andrea Durfee, a Rochester-based artist, on new labels for our emerging varieties (Nero d’Avola and Pét-Nat) inspired by the different soil profiles in Adelaide versus the Finger Lakes.” In the background, they continue designing their future tasting and production facility on Keuka, with hopes of opening in 2022. 

Colleen and Sebastian are hopeful for the future, “throughout the past year, the challenges have been met with immense support from our team, family, club members, wholesale customers and the Rochester community in general. The push to support local seems as strong as ever, and, speaking on behalf of a local business, it makes all the difference.” 

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Maiah Johnson Dunn

Maiah Johnson Dunn

Maiah Johnson Dunn is a wine & lifestyle writer, recovering marketing professional, accidental activist and big-time optimist based in Rochester, New York. The former Boston native shares her favorite wines and more on her Instagram, @thisismaiah, and her website maiah.com.