Leverett “Lev” Saltonstall '10 - King Ferry Winery
By Keith Davis
One day when Lev Saltonstall ’10 was eight, his father and mother, co-owners of King Ferry Winery, were busy with an event the winery was sponsoring and a group of about 20 people showed up wanting a tour.
“I volunteered to show them around, and Dad said, ‘Okay,’” Saltonstall said. “A few minutes later he came around the corner to check up on me, and there I was, saying the right things about the tanks and the filtration process. Dad was pleasantly surprised.”
The younger Saltonstall wasn’t.
“I started picking grapes when I was five. Early on, I’d done every job at a winery there was to do. I’ve always loved the family business, and I’m not shy about public speaking. When I talk to other people about the winery, I get amped.”
Saltonstall began investing in the stock market at 13. No surprise, then, that the business school’s real-time trading room drew him to IC.
“I love to get my hands dirty, but I also love sales,” he said. “In college, I started relating marketing classes to things the winery was doing well and things we might do a little differently. I realized the family business was something I really wanted to get into.”
Lev’s two older sisters didn’t. One owns a fashion design business in New York City; the other is completing a doctorate in marine biology at Cornell.
“My parents’ mindset is, do what makes you happy,” Saltonstall said. “My sisters and I are taking the paths we want, and our parents are okay with that.”
The path to King Ferry began in Boston about 80 years ago, when Lev’s grandfather (the son of former Massachusetts governor and U.S. senator Leverett Saltonstall) moved west. After teaching agronomy at Cornell, Lev’s grandfather bought 700 acres on the north end of Cayuga Lake to raise cattle and seed crops. After growing up on that homestead, Lev’s father graduated from Cornell, spent 10 years in the home construction industry, learned the wine trade in California, and, with his wife, Tacie, came back to New York. In 1984, they planted the first vines on the 27 acres the family had left of the cattle farm. Lev’s journey was more direct.
“By my senior year at IC, we were starting to do farmers’ markets in New York City. We were also exploring wholesale operations. Three days after I graduated, I was on my way downstate to establish a foothold.”
Two years later, Lev has established 10 accounts with wine stores and restaurants and works five farm markets in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“I know a lot about wine and how to grow grapes, but our operating model is to hire people to do that while I grow the business in New York City. When I’m my father’s and mother’s ages, I want to have established a strong downstate brand recognition for our wines and to have 200 wholesale accounts.”
In the meantime, Lev is taking on the challenges of a family wine business, which include dealing with unpredictable weather and legislation forbidding New York vintners from shipping their wines to other states. The biggest challenge, though, is being a 24-year-old who is both a son and an employee.
“When I was a kid, I did a lot of odd jobs, but now that I have an official position, my parents and I talk a lot more about business. Fortunately, when I tell my mom and dad I need to speak to them as parents, not employers, they respond to that.”
Also challenging is maintaining good relationships with staff members.
“Not every part of this business is fun,” Saltonstall said. “Picking grapes, for example, is tedious. But my parents run this winery because they love it, and so do I. My dad taught me carpentry and machinery repair and how to make good wine, but he also showed me how to treat people with respect. If your employees see you working because you love it, chances are, they’ll work hard, too, and come to love the business as much as you do.”