CHARLESTON – Add equal parts skill, patience, passion and dedication. Let ferment about 14 years and the product is a budding winery putting Montgomery County on the state’s wine country map.
When husband and wife team Ken and Kimm Schick bought a former dairy farm in 1998, they knew they wanted to escape their hurried life in Northwestern New Jersey and settle into a simple life surrounded by rolling hills and greenery. What they didn’t know was what it would become.
“We always wanted a farm, but farms available down here are few and far between because of all the development,” Kimm Schick said.
Browsing through a classified ad publication called Treasure Hunt, the couple found a real estate company advertising upstate New York farms and an agent arranged about a dozen properties for them to visit.
Something about the former cow pastures and neglected barn at 1442 Burtonville Road, Fultonville, near the Charleston State Forest, inspired a vision in Ken.
“He saw more potential than I did. It needed some tender love and care. It wasn’t my first choice,” said Kimm Schick who quickly fell in love with the farm, too.
Ken owns a mechanical contracting business in New Jersey. He’s always been good with his hands having worked a variety of jobs – in plumbing and steel for example.
“It was a builder’s dream. We put a lot of time and effort into the winery. We just wanted to own a farm. We didn’t know what we were going to do with it, we just knew we wanted it to be out in the middle of nowhere away from the traffic and noise,” Kimm Schick said.
After buying the property in 1998, the couple began planting grape vines in 2000. Over the years they bought more nearby parcels to bring the total acreage of their property to 200 with about 26 acres host to 22,000 to 24,000 grape vines. The property also includes 600 elderberry plants and 400 apple trees in an old orchard revived by Ken for the winery’s specialty apple wines.
Ken embarked on an experimental process figuring out which grapes thrive in a climate that is different from other state winemaking areas like the Finger Lakes region. Hybrid muscats, concords, Niagara, Cayuga and Seneca are just some of the varieties of grapes grown on the property.
Ken said some varieties don’t grow well in the area, though, such as the red cabernet sauvignon or dark-skinned shiraz grape.
It’s hard to tell now, but the tasting room was once a cow barn.
Kimm said that the family who once owned the property visited the winery and the husband said, “I never thought I would sit here [in the cow barn] drinking a glass of wine.”
In the first year, they found they weren’t the only ones in love with the property. An abundance of hummingbirds made it home as well, feeding on wildflower nectar.
“We fell in love with them, watching their habits, putting feeders out,” Kimm Schick said.
When it came time to name the winery, their first few choices were taken. That was good fortune because while sitting on the porch watching the tiny birds buzz around in front of a backdrop of sloping hills the name came to Ken.
“They gave us a home, and we gave them a home,” said Kimm Schick. “It was just out of the blue. We’d been racking our brains for weeks just trying to think of something that meant something to us.”
This year the couple is reaching another milestone as they make the move to their farmhouse and become permanent residents of Montgomery County.
Among the other exciting news for the couple was their win of the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce award for Agricultural Business of the Year.
The award was a humbling surprise for the couple who were delighted to see recognition of a business they’ve been working more than a decade to build.
“Hummingbird Hills Winery is the ideal choice for this honor as they have made a positive contribution to the economic growth and well-being of our region,” the chamber said of the winery.
The Schicks said they were surprised to be nominated for the award, let alone win it.
“In our part of the state, there is really a push on agriculture. If we can sustain agriculture, it’s good for the people and good for the economy,” Ken Schick said.
The couple decided when they started the winery they would bottle wines made only from ingredients grown on the property. They don’t use chemicals on the vineyards, and preservatives are used at a minimum.
“We’re one of the few wineries where everything we bottle and sell, we grow at our winery,” Ken said. “A lot of others buy from California or Long Island. A lot of people like to have something that’s produced by someone local.”
Schick estimated the couple invested about $750,000 of their own money into the winery over the years.
“I always say if you’re getting into the winery business, you’ve got to keep your day job,” he said. “This is my true passion. I’ve always wanted to be able to do it full time.”
The winery dream seeds were planted with Ken’s memories of making wine and spirits with his German grandfather and father.
One of the winery’s popular specialty wines, Lion’s Tooth Blend, a dandelion wine, is a Schick family recipe made from hearty dandelions Ken harvests from the property’s pastures.
Kimm said because the land is so fertile, the dandelions her husband picks are about three times the size of what many consider a nuisance in their suburban lawns.
Ken uses only the yellow part of the flower for his wine, which is made with golden raisins, orange zest and lemon as well.
“Escape from the Normal” is the winery’s tagline, and that’s easy to do with wines that taste unlike anything available in stores, the couple said.
Many people say they’re impressed with Ken’s blending. The Hummingbird Concord is one of the favorites with Seyval Blanc coming in second with its sweeter light crisp flavor and smooth clean finish.
“Elderberry is definitely one of our specialty unique wines. Some people love it, some people don’t. Every year we sell out and we’re developing more,” Kimm Schick said.
Once a wine is blended it sits in storage for a while. If the couple sells out of a year, the next year will be introduced. The different years can taste and look slightly different depending on the crop.
At the chamber’s annual awards dinner Jan. 18 a prerecorded presentation said the couple originally planted 1,200 grape vines by hand that first year and thought they would sell grapes to other wineries.
Kimm said the vines produced well, but it wasn’t until 2008, about eight years later, that they produced enough to make wine.
In 2010 the Schicks opened their doors.
Obtaining the license necessary to sell the wine required the most patience.
There are several steps required, including licensing with the federal and state governments, state-required bonding, an investigation and fingerprinting. The fees can be pricey, too.
“If you have a criminal background, you’re not getting a winery license,” Ken Schick said.
Many requirements came about after the Patriot Act for security reasons, he said, since they’re producing a consumable product.
“The paperwork was unending between losing the paperwork and having packets filled out and then having to do them again. It was two years of waiting and paperwork – just jumping through hoops. It’s a lot easier now because we’re learning as we go,” Kimm Schick said.
They said then state Assemblyman George Amedore helped speed up the process with the state.
“His aid was very helpful and instrumental in moving our process along. It was helpful in getting us through our frustrations,” Kimm Schick said. She also thanked U.S. Rep Paul Tonko, the community and the local newspapers.
“It’s just amazing how much support they’re all giving us. It’s wonderful,” she said.
Ken said Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Liquor Authority are working to streamline the renewal process and make it easier to do business.
“It’s a regulated business,” Ken Schick said.
It’s also taxed heavily. Thirty cents per gallon of wine goes to state – and that’s just one of the taxes.
Also, whenever they come up with a new formula for wine, it requires approval by the government.
The couple said there may be some new things in store for the next year pending approval. One is a tomato wine. However, the late frost last year damaged much of the 2012 grape crop.
“Sometimes the weather can be your worst enemy,” Ken Schick said.
The Schicks have fallen in love with their new community and are looking forward to becoming embedded in their adoptive hometown. Since they opened they’ve held numerous events to support causes and non-profit organizations like the Montgomery County Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In the roughly two years they’ve been open they’ve hosted car shows and craft fairs and musical acts as well as invited other local businesses like Palatine Cheese in to showcase their products.
The gift shop in the tasting area has many local products such as goat’s milk soap and decorations for sale.
Kimm said the winery hopes to open in mid March and be open every weekend.
“We will do our usual community fundraisers again,” she said.
The couple said they are proud to become full-time members of a community they’ve found to be warm and friendly.
“We fell in love with it here, and we’re always going to love it. We may not have lived there all along, but we will live there for the rest of our lives. We want to give back to the community and do what we can where we can. We want to make it known that we’re here and we’re not going anywhere,” Kimm Schick said.
For information about the winery and upcoming events, visit its Facebook page or website at www.hummingbirdhillswinery.com.