Domenic Carisetti has practiced enology in New York State for 37 years. Since 2005 the winemaker has worked in Cambria at Niagara Landing Wine Cellars, where the first wine he made was Rosebud Rosé, a sweet pink from the Catawba grape.
Born in Brooklyn, Carisetti earned a degree in anthropology from City College of New York before heading for the West Coast to study winemaking at the University of California, Davis. At age 23, he started his career at Taylor Wine Co. in Hammondsport, and he also worked at the former Canandaigua Wine Co. (now Constellation Wines). Carisetti, 61, said he has made 330 million gallons of wine during his career. He lives in Orchard Park with his wife of one year.
People Talk: Did you work with [Bully Hill co-founder] Walter Taylor in Hammondsport?
Domenic Carisetti: I didn't work with Walter Taylor, but he was a good friend of mine. He was a character, and we don't have characters in the wine industry anymore like Walter. Back when I started, we had Konstantin Frank, Charles Fournier. These folks made the industry, and they were very outspoken.
>PT: What does it take to be a good winemaker?
DC: A good sense of taste and smell. You have to know what a winery needs and what its customers are looking for. You have to make wine and make the winery profitable, that's the other thing. I'm here to make these guys money.
>PT: What are people around here looking for?
DC: Value-priced wines, and they want to enjoy all levels of flavor. It's not unusual for them to try the Merlot, and then walk out with something sweet.
>PT: Are you more into science or public relations?
DC: Right now I am more of a scientist, but I've been doing this for 37 years. I know what people like to drink. It's not chemistry. It's not biology or physics. It's all of that rolled into one, plus an understanding of how wine works.
>PT: Are some wines more labor intensive to make than others?
DC: The ones that may be more labor intensive are the specialty wines. I do one called Chocolate Dream. It's a dark chocolate-infused cream sherry. Most wineries on the Niagara Wine Trail make table wines: white, red, dry, sweet. You don't find sherries, sparkling wine, ports or flavored wine.
>PT: Describe the wine industry when you entered it.
DC: It was kind of in limbo because at that time [in the mid-1970s] consumers were drinking mostly white wines, and they were starting to recognize wine as a beverage alternative to spirits. White wines were taking off and the whole industry was planting red grapes, believe it or not.
>PT: What's the latest trend in winemaking?
DC: You have to look at California and what's coming out of California, which is really interesting. They're pushing sweet wines. Sweet wines are the moneymakers.
>PT: Do you drink wine?
DC: Actually, I don't drink that much anymore. I like water. I tell people, "It's like being a chef. You cook all day and you don't want to go home and eat." Wine gets kind of tiring.
>PT: What's the most you've spent on a bottle of wine?
DC: That I personally plopped down? Probably 25 bucks. I maintain that if you're spending more than 20 bucks for a bottle, you're paying too much. At a restaurant, I go for under $25.
>PT: What do you do for fun?
DC: A lot of reading. I'm a pretty low-key guy, because I work here all day so I don't want to go home and do anything too crazy. This is a lot of physical labor. Winemakers at small wineries pretty much do everything – hauling, lifting, driving forklifts, going up and down ladders. We're on concrete floors all day.
>PT: So making wine isn't as exotic as it sounds.
DC: One way to approach winemaking is where you want to be the best winemaker and get the grape to do everything you want it to do. In the end you have the perfect wine, but people may not like to drink it. You didn't give the grape a chance to do what it does best. A good winemaker guides the grape. The grapes do all the work. It comes with everything you need, the perfect fruit – flavor, color, aroma, yeast, nutrients.
>PT: You should teach winemaking.
DC: I do, at two universities. I teach online for Missouri State University. It's one big program called VESTA [Viticulture Enology Science and Technology Alliance]. You can get a degree in winemaking and/or grape growing. I teach introduction to winemaking. I also teach the same for Kent State University, but in a traditional classroom. So I drive to Ashtabula, Ohio, every Thursday and teach two courses. I teach students all aspects of winemaking – the chemistry, technology, microbiology. There's no money in teaching, but I figured out a long time ago that all my secrets are going to die with me. If I teach somebody what I know, it will live on, and they will teach somebody else.
>PT: Do you hold any patents?
DC: No, I have a lot of techniques. In our industry, where you get the patents is primarily in developing equipment. Winemaking is 9,000 years old. If there's any patents, those guys should have gotten them 9,000 years ago.
>PT: Could the wine industry fuel a comeback for the economy?
DC: It's a recession-proof industry. When people are happy, they drink. When they are sad, they drink more. And when they're really depressed, they drink a whole lot more. Wine is one of the last things that people give up. Just look at the growth of the wine industry. The Midwest is the fastest growing area of the wine industry, bar none.
>PT: Where for you is wine nirvana?
DC: Do you want me to tell you what my dream is? I want to get in an RV and just go from winery to winery and help people with winemaking. Just hang out my shingle, and I'm on my way.
>PT: I'm still trying to figure out what makes you so good.
DC: Taste my wines. They'll tell you.