Archive | July, 2013

A rare vintage

26 Jul

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For a moment in time, Trent Preszler represented the most famous wine in America.

And in that moment, all the work and all the sweat to rebuild and transform Bedell Cellars from a little-known Long Island, N.Y., winery and vineyard to a world-class winemaking and event facility was worth it.

Bedell Cellars’ 2009 Merlot was chosen to be served at President Barack Obama’s January 2013 inauguration luncheon, along with a course of South Dakota bison. And suddenly all eyes were on the winery’s CEO.

Trent was interviewed by CBS and ABC news; he attended the inauguration as a guest of New York Sen. Charles Schumer; he even saw his wine on the table during television coverage of the inaugural luncheon.

Sales spiked. Cases flew out the door. The wine sold out in a week.

“The presidential inauguration luncheon was the culmination of 30 years of producing excellent Merlot,” Trent says.

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THAT TRENT PRESZLER WOULD be involved in a high-value agricultural product was the furthest thing from his mind when he came to Iowa State – and even when he graduated.

Trent grew up on a 10,000-acre cattle ranch in South Dakota.

“I came from no town in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “My parents lost the ranch in the 1980s farm crisis. I was determined not to go to ag school.”

Trent blossomed in an interdisciplinary studies program at Iowa State. He was in the honors program and was a freshman honors leader, vice president of LAS Council, director of legislative affairs for GSB, a member of President Martin Jischke’s VEISHEA review task force, and co-chair of the Lectures Program Institute on World Affairs. He played saxophone in the marching band, delivered the student speech at LAS commencement, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He was an intern one summer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

After graduating from Iowa State in 1998, he studied botany at the University of Edinburgh on a Rotary scholarship. In 1999 he moved to New York to pursue a master’s degree at Cornell University.

“I chose New York wine production for my thesis,” he says. “Until then, I had no interest in wine and grapes.”

But he was captivated by the field. He began to truly care about local wines.

After completing his thesis at Cornell, Trent was hired by the owner of Bedell Cellars, one of the most respected wineries in New York. He started in 2002 as the sales manager and was soon promoted to vice president of operations.

The winery is located on a former potato farm on some of the oldest farmland in America – and in what is currently the No. 1 agricultural county in the Northeast. When Trent joined the staff, the facilities were dismal. The owner wanted to “ramp up” not just the winemaking but the facilities themselves in order to entice the New York City wine-drinking population to drive to Long Island for the total experience.

Trent led the renovation of the historic potato barn (built in 1919) into a sleek, sophisticated tasting room; expanded the winemaking operation; restored the guest cottage; and hired new staff.

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IT WAS A TIME of intense personal and professional change for Trent. When he turned 30, he began to ask, “What’s next?” He felt like he’d done much of what he wanted to do for Bedell. What he really wanted was to get a Ph.D.

“I felt unfulfilled, like I hadn’t finished the journey,” he said.

The winery’s owner was supportive, so Trent went back to Cornell to pursue a doctoral degree in viticulture and enology, the study of wine and grapes.

After receiving the degree, Trent was named CEO of Bedell Cellars and made a partner. The winery continued to expand, with an outdoor grand tasting pavilion overlooking the vineyard.

Bedell has, indeed, become a destination. At 80 miles east of New York City, the drive to the North Fork of Long Island takes about two hours, and the journey from urban metropolis to farm country is transformative. Trent describes it as “coming out of a rabbit hole.” (He makes the trip two to three times a week from his apartment in Brooklyn that he shares with his husband, Nick O’Flaherty.)

During the busy seasons – summer and fall – 300-400 people travel to the winery for daily tastings, for which reservations are required. Trent says that winery visitors are Bedell’s bread and butter.

“Sixty to 70 percent of our wine is sold right here,” Trent said. The rest is shipped to customers or sold in New York restaurants.

The winery is turning heads. Wine Business Monthly has named Bedell one of the Top 10 Hottest Small Brands in the world. Bedell’s flagship red blend, Musée, received 91 points from Wine Spectator, the highest score the publication had ever awarded to a red wine from northeastern North America. Bedell was named one of the Top 25 Tasting Rooms in America by Wine Enthusiast.

And now, more about that famous presidential Merlot:

“Every vintage has its own soul,” Trent said. “Each vintage is affected by the weather, the people, the land, the grapes, the yeast, and the sun. The 2009 Merlot was a beautiful wine.”

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Sheepish

18 Jul

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Susan (Kennedy) Elkin (’70 applied art) always loved animals and always loved art. Her mix of classes in animal science, pottery, and other art subjects at Iowa State prepared her for a life on Cobun Creek Farm in Morgantown, W.V., where she has 38 acres of land, a pottery studio, and a flock of Coopworth sheep. She also has a smattering of geese, chickens, peacocks, and angora goats; a house full of purebred Maine Coon cats; an alpaca; and a couple of Great Pyrenees dogs to guard the sheep.

Though she came to Iowa State to study veterinary medicine, Susan fell in love with creating pottery the first time she took the class, and she says her work at the Octagon Center for the Arts in Ames set her on a path to making pottery for a living. She’s since given up the activity due to a number of health issues, but she stays active on the farm, breeding, raising, and selling animals and their products, including wool and peacock feathers.

“I try to be as creative as I can with the sheep,” she says, pulling out container after container filled with naturally dyed wool and yarn in a rainbow of beautiful colors. She sells her products directly to customers, but also to local shops and at the annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.

A sign in Susan’s kitchen proclaims “I’m creative, not neat,” and, indeed, Susan’s home, barn, log cabin, and studio are filled with such an assortment of stuff that you could spend a month just discovering all that’s there.

She says she couldn’t manage the place without her friends. And although she says she “misses Iowa terribly,” she’s content for now to live among her flowers and gardens and her real-life petting zoo.

The last of the east

9 Jul

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Our VISIONS Across America trip to Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia (the last of the eastern states!) will be remembered for its unique sounds and smells: A jet engine, fresh-baked brownies, a professional football team’s locker room, hot asphalt, wet sheep, and an impromptu living-room banjo concert.

Alumni in these three states are an eclectic bunch. We met folks in big cities, suburbs, and small towns. All had great stories to share.

INDIANA

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We started with a daylong drive to Indianapolis to meet with two alumni in that capital city. The first was Dr. Douglas McKeag (’68 zoology), professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine. He’s also the founding director of the IU Center for Sports Medicine and has been on the sidelines as the team physician for a number of university and professional sports teams. We met Doug at the impressive Lucas Oil Stadium on the south side of downtown Indianapolis; after some wrangling with the facilities folks, Jim was allowed to photograph Doug on the concourse and even in the Indianapolis Colts’ locker room. Pretty cool!

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Later that day – after lunch in a downtown Indianapolis eatery and a quick peek at the excellent Indianapolis Museum of Art – we were treated to a toe-tapping banjo/fiddle concert at the home of Donald Somers (’58 ag journalism), accompanied by his friend, Bill Banker.

06-27-13-IMG_4719In an email to me, Don described himself as a “rabid banjo enthusiast,” and that was pretty obvious once I saw his music room filled with banjos (above) and learned that he had more banjos in the closet and under the bed…a real banjo explosion. Don played in a bluegrass band in Milwaukee, Wis., but he now plays “old-time clawhammer style” every week with friends near Indianapolis. He even treated Jim and me to a banjo rendition of the Iowa State fight song!

OHIO

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Continuing east the next day, we dropped in on Nate Carr (’85 sociology), one of Iowa State’s most outstanding wrestlers of all time. Nate was busy working with a group of young wrestlers at Troy Christian School just north of Dayton at a Carr Wrestling Club summer camp, but he took time out to visit with us. Nate’s a husband (he met his wife, Linda, at Iowa State), father of seven children (oldest son Nate Jr. wrestled for Iowa State and graduated in 2012), coach, minister, Olympic medalist – and just a super nice guy. We got to meet Linda as well as their youngest son, 14-year-old David.

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Our next stop was hands-down the sweetest experience we’ve had on our VISIONS Across America travels. I think I may have gained a few pounds, and I certainly got my sweet tooth satisfied – all thanks to Mark Ballard (’84 family services; MS ’86 professional studies in education). Mark is co-founder and co-CEO of Sugardaddy’s Sumptuous Sweeties, a brownie and blondie boutique bakery in Columbus. These are not your ordinary treats…they are decadent and amazing. Believe me, I tried a lot of different flavors (caramel, peanut butter, and toasted coconut with cashews, to name a few) and I could very easily work my way through the rest of the menu (cherry almond, nutty blonde, campfire s’mores, chai spiced, cinnamon, rich mint, and more) – all hand crafted in small batches and sold fresh the day they’re made. Mark is a master marketer and businessman, and he’s taken Sugardaddy’s way beyond a typical local bakery: His company has received national attention from the Food Network, Ellen DeGeneres, InStyle magazine, and many others. You can visit Sugardaddy’s three locations in Columbus or order on the Web.

WEST VIRGINIA

Morgantown, W.V., is home to the newest member of the Big 12: West Virginia University. We met two alumni in Morgantown and also took a tour of WVU’s Erickson Alumni Center, one of the nicest alumni facilities I’ve seen. (Join us there this fall for a football tailgate!)

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Our first alumni visit was with Michael Clow (’78 naval science). We met him at the Morgantown Municipal Airport, where he is director. It was a hot day – way too hot to be photographing someone on the tarmac, if you ask me. But Michael spent the last decade-plus in Florida, so he was used to the heat, and Jim will do anything to get a great shot. (I preferred sitting in the air-conditioned pilots’ lounge.)

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We woke the next morning to stormy skies and steady rain. This was not a good thing, because our travels took us to Susan Elkin (’70 applied art), owner of Cobun Creek Farm. Susan has 38 lovely acres, a flock of Coopworth sheep, geese, chickens, peacocks, angora goats, a house full of purebred Maine Coon cats, and a couple of Great Pyrenees (the polar bear of dog breeds) to guard the sheep. By the time we left, we were both wet from the rain, muddy from the sheep, and I was covered with cat hair (my own fault, I’ll admit). Susan’s place is like a real-life petting zoo.

UP NEXT

I’ll be writing more about each of these alumni and posting some of their stories in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the big countdown is really on: 39 states completed and just 11 more to go! Next up is Nebraska, the Cornhusker State (and a super quick drive from Ames!)