MARK, BRENDA LEBO:
Farewell To Bear Pond
By JENNIFER HILL • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
MILFORD CENTER – When Mark and Brenda Lebo put Bear Pond Winery up for auction last month, patrons and friends were puzzled.
“Putting it up for auction caused confusion,” Mark said. “People thought we were getting divorced or were in foreclosure. But that’s not the case. The wine business is great, but it’s time for us to try something new.”
Bear Pond Winery on Route 28, Otsego County’s largest, has thrived since the Lebos bought it on a whim 15 years ago. It has averaged 36,000 bottles of wine in sales annually, 13,000 wine tastings, 15,000 visitors.
The Lebos have yet to decide their next move. They have never shied from adventure, from when they met in Galena, Alaska, in 1994 and moved to Chicago for Mark’s job with Sherwin-Williams, which transferred them here in 2002.
“And then my job left me in 2004,” Mark said.
He had always wanted to own and run a business, and in 2005 Bear Pond Winery, founded by Hank and Joan Nicols of Cooperstown in 2000, was up for sale. Although neither he nor Brenda had a background in wine, they bought the business on its one-acre lot.
“We learned the wine business after buying it,” said Mark. “We hit the ground running, reading a lot about making wine and markets while running the winery.”
To keep costs down and the business running smoothly, Lebos kept the Bear Pond name and used the winery’s original inventory and equipment.
“We bottled, corked and labeled 36,000 bottles by hand and printed out the labels,” said Mark. “I bought an automated bottle filler and had someone else print the labels after that.”
The couple also kept the contracts with the New York grape growers and pressers.
“People have this idea that the winery has a vineyard and you’re growing the grapes, then stomping them with your feet,” said Mark. “But most wineries don’t do that. We get the grapes pressed to specification, so we get the juice the way we want it. Then, we ferment it, age it, and blend it for the finished product.”
Mark embraced winemaking, developing over 30 variations, from dry and sweet for reds, whites and rosés. “I went a little nuts,” he admitted.
He has also experimented with different dining venues, menus, and the food and non-food items sold in the winery’s store, keeping what works and discarding what doesn’t. He first set up a log trailer, a “pre-food truck,” which was open from late spring to early fall. Five years ago, he sold the trailer and built an indoor restaurant, so people could dine at the winery all year round.
Tourists and locals flock to Bear Pond mostly for the wine tastings, especially the “flights,” which offer six wines of the customer’s choice to taste. Up to 20 people could taste wines at the U-bar shaped wooden counter at the front or seated in the café or outside.
The Bear Pond Winery now sits on a five-acre lot with a new 3,000-square foot warehouse and a 1,500-square foot three-bedroom house.
The Lebos have not had takers for Bear Pond yet, but Mark said, “interested parties are entertaining” purchasing it.
“We’re looking forward to our next adventure,” he said. “We like change.”