A rare vintage

26 Jul

05-06-13 TRENT 173F1240

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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