A Vintage Performance

Ask Timothy Lesko, BA’02 (M), what he likes most about being a winemaker, and he’ll respond by painting you a scintillating verbal picture of a California vineyard awakening to the dawn’s early light.

“What I enjoy most is wandering among the grapes at sunrise,” says the 28-year-old Lesko, while describing his daily routine during the grape harvest along the Golden State’s famed Russian River Valley. “Making really good wine is a spiritual kind of thing, and it all starts in the vineyard.

“For me, watching the sunrise and savoring the aromas — the rich smells of the earth and the subtle odors emanating from the ripening grapes — are like enjoying art. I’ve only been making wines for a couple of years, but I’ve already come to understand why the great vintners say that 95 percent of a wine’s character comes from the soil that gives birth to the grapes!”

Listening to Lesko rhapsodize about the wonders of wine (he just released his own first-ever vintage, a “smoky and meaty” Syrah red wine called Silent Morning), it’s no surprise to learn he was an English major who grooved on the romantics at Fairleigh Dickinson.

“Making a great wine is a labor of love,” says Lesko, who has spent the past four years working as the cellar master at one of California’s most highly regarded wine-making enterprises, Siduri Wines and Novy Family Wines of Santa Rosa.

“The first step is knowing when to harvest your grapes,” he explains. “But then you also have to know how to process them … and how to control the yeast, the sugar and the acid that go into the fermentation process. Making an unforgettable wine is a wonderfully complex challenge that takes years to master.”

"... making high-quality wimes is ... like making poetry."

Born and raised in Flemington, N.J., Lesko arrived at FDU’s College at Florham in the fall of 1998 … and soon discovered that he had a knack for interpreting poetry.

“I took courses in things like English Romanticism and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales,” he recalls, “and I found myself getting excited about the power of language. I’ll never forget the Chaucer course — because we were required to recite The Canterbury Tales out loud in class, using the actual Middle English pronunciation from 700 years ago. Of course, we all butchered Chaucer’s lines horribly!”

Although Lesko dreamed about becoming a poet, his future vocation as a winemaker got its start in a thoroughly prosaic manner … after he landed a part-time job as a liquor salesman at the popular Gary’s Wine & Marketplace in downtown Madison, N.J.

Lesko stacked shelves and rang up beer sales — and gradually became interested in wines and winemaking. After a couple of years of learning about both, he decided to migrate to California and try his luck at breaking into the industry. In 2003, he nailed down a job as cellar master (coordinating the wine-making and bottling process) at Siduri and Novy.

This past spring, the enterprising Lesko took what he had learned and put it into creating Silent Morning Syrah. Over a period of about three weeks, he produced 100 cases of the red wine in the Siduri cellars, where he still works fulltime.

“Silent Morning was made with those wonderful Russian River Valley [near San Francisco] red grapes,” says the wine-maker. “It’s got a kind of meaty, smoky, leathery bouquet … but also a subtle undertone of blueberries. With the taste, you also get a kind of ‘peppery’ thing going … a blackberry-raspberry kind of pungency that provides a nice additional note.”

The Santa Rosa resident and avid rock-climber says he’s already planning a second wine. But he also notes that he’ll again limit himself to 100 cases (typical price: $350–$500 for a 12-bottle case) … and that the last thing he wants is to “mass-manufacture” wine.

“I know I’ll never get rich doing this,” he says with a quiet smile, “and that’s fine with me. As far as I’m concerned, making high-quality wines is an art form. It’s like making poetry!”

— T.N.

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