OTSEGO COUNTY CHAMBER
SMALL BUSINESS AWARD
PROSPERITY POURED FOURTH
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
BURLINGTON – In 2008, Rick Bennett took a chance.
Following the realty-fueled stock market crash, he lost his job at Titan Mobile Homes in Sangerfield – the day before Thanksgiving. “I had always made wine as a hobby, but my wife Laura said, ‘This might be your last chance.’”
Two years later to the day he was laid off, Rustic Ridge opened its doors, and now, as the Bennetts start on their 10th season, the winery has won the Otsego County Chamber of Commerce’s 20th annual Key Bank Small Business of the Year Award, to be presented at a Thursday, Nov. 21, gala at The Otesaga.
Bennett had a message to call chamber President Barbara Ann Heegan. “But I had things to do around the farm, so I didn’t get back to her right away,” he said. “Then I had friends messaging me, telling me I had to call her back! I was completely taken by surprise when she told me.”
Bennett learned about wine visiting family near Seneca Lake. “I’d go visit, and the first thing I’d want to do is tour the wineries,” he said. “There used to only be about 15, but now there are over 100.”
He began making his own wine as an adult. “It was a hobby that got out of control,” he said. “Everyone starts with a sweet wine, so I’m partial to a nice Catawba grape. My wife and I shared a bottle of that on our first date!”
Though his family has owned farmland on a hilltop on Route 80 west of Burlington for 60 years, the dairy herd was sold off in 1993.
The Bennetts had kept the land, and that’s where Rick built the Rustic Ridge store.
“I had the shop, I had the license, but I had nothing to sell,” he said. He called Seneca Shores Wine Cellars in Penn Yan, “one of my favorites, and they invited me out to their facilities. I went that day.”
He spoke with the winemaker and tasted some of his recipes, and they crafted a production agreement.
“I have some recipes, but he is way better than me,” Bennett said. “I let him go with his recipes, and if I want something different, he’ll make it for me.”
During his first pick-up, Rick bought 10 cases of 12 different wines. “I thought, ‘How am I ever going to sell 120 bottles?’”
These days, he does pickups at Seneca Shores three times a month, bringing home as many as 300 cases each time.
Among the fan favorites are the Wildcat Rose, a sweet, native grape blend, and the Black Dog, a semi-dry red named for his dog, Virgil. “He was here when I started the place, and he greets everyone,” Bennett said.
Rustic Ridge was the fourth member to join the Cooperstown Beverage Trail. “So much of our business is through that,” he said. “In the summer, we average 100 people a day.”
In addition to wine, Rustic Ridge sells local honey, Amish-made jams and maple syrup. “My neighbor makes the syrup,” he said. “It’s about as local as you can get.”
And though the winery is where he wants it to be, his son, Ryan, is opening a brewery next door. Laura, as well as his parents, Ron and Jill, all help at the winery from time to time.
“I’m not planning on retiring,” Rick said. “But I do want to cut back a little. I’ve been doing this full time since we started.”
And though things slow down a little after the popular Harvest Fest, you can still pick up a bottle for special occasions. “We have a cranberry wine that’s popular at Thanksgiving,” he said. “And at Valentine’s Day, we do a ‘Strawberry Kiss’ wine that tastes just like a chocolate covered strawberry!”
He grows grapes on the farm, but none of them are used in his wine. “Right now, I just trade them with friends, who give me grape pies in return.”