Laid-off builder enjoys second career as winemaker

Contributed Rustic Ridge Winery at 2805 state Highway 80 in Burlington Flats is shown in this undated photo.

When life handed Burlington Flats resident Rick Bennett lemons, he made wine.

Together with his wife, Laura, Bennett launched Rustic Ridge Winery at his family’s 2805 state Highway 80, Burlington Flats, farm in November 2010 after losing his job in the housing industry.

“This was a hobby out of control,” Bennett, 60, said. “I loved it. I was touring the Finger Lakes all the time and I just loved the whole winery and wine business. Then, in 2008, I was working at a desk job I’d had for more than 15 years and … I went in one of first waves of layoffs.

“There was no work for anybody in the housing market and I was a 50-year-old housebuilder — nobody was going to hire me,” he said. “I got laid off the day before Thanksgiving, then took online business classes through that spring and started building and applying for my license. That took about 11 months, so I ended up opening two years to the day that I got laid off.”

Though Bennett intended to grow grapes for making his own wine, he said, fate and Finger Lakes connections stepped in.

“The farm has operated for over 50 years; I’ve been a part of it since I was six months old,” he said. “It’s still worked as a farm, but there are no animals. It’s a farm winery, but with my license, I can sell anything that’s New York state-produced. Because I have a vineyard, my plan was to make wine myself … but I called one of my favorite wineries in the Finger Lakes — Seneca Shore Wine Cellars — and the owner said, ‘I have an underutilized facility and a full-time professional winemaker. I can make it right here under your own label’ and that’s what we have done ever since. We’re just starting our 10th year.”

Today, Bennett said, Rustic Ridge carries popular varieties alongside featured blends.

“We try to have at least five or six dry whites, dry reds and sweet wines at all times,” he said. “Our best-seller is our Wildcat!, a sweet rose, and our second best is our Sweet Little Blonde; that is a diamond Niagara and Cayuga white blend.

“And sometimes we bring in some seasonal wines,” he said, “like on Valentine’s Day, I have a chocolate-infused wine.”

Bennett said Rustic Ridge’s location, atmosphere and variety have yielded a diverse clientele.

“That’s the funny thing about wine — we go all over the demographics, from younger people just starting in to older people who really enjoy wine,” he said. “Families are a big thing here; we’re very family-oriented. My son just opened up a new brewery next door and in summertime, we have music every other week on Friday nights, so people will bring lawn chairs, grab a bottle and sit and listen, and there’ll be 12 or so kids playing soccer. It’s nice to see.

“We’ve been really well received … and this time of year, it’s local people more than anything else,” he said. “But Memorial Day through Labor Day, it’s tourist business. We draw tourists from everywhere, thanks to the (Cooperstown) Dreams Park and the (Baseball) Hall of Fame. And we are (one of nine) members of the Cooperstown Beverage Trail, so that brings in business and it’s super-fun to be associated with bigger places like Ommegang.”

Rustic Ridge’s open pavilion area, Bennett said, can be rented for bridal and baby showers, engagement and birthday parties, receptions, business events and reunions. Most days through summer, he said, a food truck is parked on the premises selling wood-fired pizzas.

Bennett said he’s looking forward to deepening his connections to fellow wine lovers.

“I never plan on retiring,” he said. “I love it. I’m 60 years old and I’m going to be right here until I drop. It is so much fun and I meet so many people.”

Rustic Ridge is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week.

For more information, call 607-965-0626, find “Rustic Ridge Winery” on Facebook or visit rusticridgewinery.com

Recommended for you