When Art and Joyce Hunt started their Keuka Lake winery in 1981, they had no idea it would one day reach its 30th anniversary.
"We were hoping we'd celebrate our second anniversary," Art Hunt said, laughing.
More seriously, he said, "We knew that we could grow good grapes. ... We had no idea that we and our neighbors ... could make world-class wine."
Still, their winery, now called Hunt Country Vineyards, celebrated its 30th anniversary in August 2011.
Ar and Joyce Hunt met in high school in Corning. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1971, Joyce Hunt began as a social worker. Art Hunt, who graduated with a degree in management from Virginia Tech the same year, started selling insurance, then worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development helping flood victims.
Then in 1973, they changed their lives completely, becoming the fifth generation to run the farm in Branchport, Yates County, that his family had owned since his ancestors cleared the land and built a log cabin on it.
An elderly uncle of Art Hunt's had been running the farm "and there was no one else to take it over," Joyce Hunt said. "I'd always had horses and been a rider and I thought we could live in the country and wouldn't that be grand."
By the time Art and Joyce Hunt came along, the farm was growing Concord and Niagara grapes, among other crops. But many farmers were making good livings growing wine grapes for Taylor/Great Western Wine Co., so the couple planted their own vines.
Grapes had been one of the farm's crops since the turn of the 20th century, but the land high above Keuka Lake, where the steep slopes become easier then was considered too good "to be wasted on grapes," Art Hunt said. Ironically, Joyce Hunt said, when they took over the farm, "we were told we had the best grape-growing soil in the county" because of its glacial deposit of shale.
It takes five years for grapevines to mature enough to produce a full crop, and at first the Hunts were able to sell their grapes to Taylor. But soon, Coca-Cola Co. bought Taylor and started moving operations to the West Coast. A number of grape growers went out of business, Art Hunt said.
With a grape crop on their hands but almost no experience, the Hunts figured "we have nothing to lose" by becoming winemakers themselves, Art Hunt said. He took winemaking courses, and in 1981 they filled a building with blue barrels and launched Finger Lakes Wine Cellars. In the spring of 1982 the Hunts bottled wines and sent them to state competitions, where they won awards.
Art Hunt credited the grapes and the climate. "Our unique cool climate (in the Finger Lakes) gives us ... intensely fruity wine grapes," he explained. Keuka Lake is the highest in elevation of the Finger Lakes, which means it is more vulnerable to winter's perils but also gives wine grapes even more fruitiness.
The winery's name was changed to Hunt Country Vineyards in 1987, after a major stockholder bought another winery and merged the two. "We got out and started all over again," Joyce Hunt said. "We never missed a beat, We never missed a season."
Their operation has expanded to 50 of the Hunts' approximately 170 acres. They now produce 25,000 to 30,000 gallons, or about 12,000 cases, of wine a year, "which is still small," Joyce Hunt said. Their crop includes Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Valvin Muscat, Seyval Blanc, Cayuga White, Concords, Niagara, Vidal, Vignoles and Noiret, some of which is sold to Constellation Brands.
Besides grapes, the Hunts raise hay and rye as well as vegetables for Italy Hill Produce, which their son Jonathan and his wife, Caroline Boutard-Hunt, started in 2009. It recently was certified organic.
In keeping with that philosophy, Hunt Country's tasting room and gift shop stress local products. "When we first started in the business, all the gourmet products seemed to come out of California, and now there are a lot of wonderful things produced locally," Joyce Hunt said.
The shop includes such things as mustards, jams and other items "to promote small local business, because we all live, work and pay taxes in New York state, Joyce Hunt said.
The Hunts also have two daughters who also worked at the farm when they were younger and are on the winery's advisory board. Suzanne Hunt now lives in Washington, D.C., and owns Hunt Green (huntgreenllc.com), specializing in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and transportation and environmental issues. Carolyn Hunt of Boston is a lawyer who works for the state of Massachusetts.
Suzanne also has worked at times with her father, who designed what is now the winery and has "been very interested in making everything extremely efficient," Joyce Hunt said,. She noted that his use of ECO-Blocks, which are insulated concrete, has saved money on heating and cooling costs.
With an architect's help and suggestions from employees, Art Hunt also designed the tasting room's main addition with an eye to traffic flow. "You want people to have room and you want them to have a good time," avoiding overcrowding and long lines, Joyce Hunt said.
. Hunt Country also uses green practices such as composting as much as possible, has a vertical wind spire and is considering solar panels.
As if their winery work weren't enough to keep them busy, Art and Joyce Hunt have been very active in the industry and the community.
Art Hunt has "been on every board you can shake a stick at," said Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. Hunt's activities have included the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, the New York Wine and Grape Foundation and Cornell Cooperative Extension. "He's always been there when the industry needed him," Trezise said.
Joyce Hunt helped found the Keuka Lake Wine Trail and led it for years.
They donated space in their vineyard for Cornell to experiment with new grape varieties and new growing methods. Hunt Country was one of the first to adopt Valvin Muscat, a new varietal, and "won tons of medals right out of the box," Trezise said.
For their efforts, they received the 1999 Unity Award, the highest honor given by the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. It honors people for "selflessly spending their time and their effort" for the good of the industry, said Trezise. "The Hunts are a good example."
One saying of Art Hunt's is "We don't compete against one another, we compete with one another," Joyce Hunt said.
Besides their industry activities, Art Hunt has served as a Branchport-Keuka Park volunteer firefighter for 35 years. His son and daughter-in-law have joined him now.
Joyce Hunt previously was on the Yates County Arts Center board and still serves on two committees. She also helped found the Finger Lakes Chamber Music Festival, and Hunt Country is the site of some of its concerts.
The winery also sponsors a dog walk each summer that benefits the Yates County Humane Society, which would surprise no one who's seen the couple's late Bernese mountain dog, Gus, on the label of Hunt Country's Sweet Gus wine.
"We're very dog-friendly and people can bring their dogs and walk them outside," said Joyce Hunt, whose 4-year-old Bernese mountain dog, Hedy, was at her side.
Art and Joyce Hunt are planning to gradually turn over their winery's operations to Jonathan Hunt, who now is director of winemaking and co-owner. Jonathan, Caroline and their first child, Will, who was born Jan. 1, will move into the farmhouse, while Art and Joyce have bought some land nearby and Art plans to design a house.
The older Hunts expect to stay active in the community and "probably always will stay active (in the winery) to a certain extent," Joyce Hunt said. "I like to garden, so I'll probably come and work on the flowerbeds."
Both Art and Joyce Hunt have been outspoken opponents of hydraulic fracture drilling in the Marcellus Shale, and Joyce Hunt said they also will continue that work.
In the meantime, they'll watch the sixth and seventh generations work and play on the family farm.