Spend an hour in conversation with Margo Sue Bittner and three words stand out: risk, family and fun.
About 18 months ago, Bittner took the potentially risky leap to open The Winery at Marjim Manor in Appleton, even buying a historic, "haunted" mansion in which to house it. She whimsically references the house, its previous occupants and legendary ghosts in the names of her wines and weaves their stories through her wine tastings. Even Squeaky, the "Manor Cat," one of a large three-generation feline family at the winery, has its own wine.
Bittner is the owner of The Winery at Marjim Manor -- one of the newest of five wineries that make up the Niagara Wine Trail USA, and the only one owned by a woman.
The winery's name is a blend of her first name with that of husband, Jim. The winery is "truly a family affair," according to her Web site, www.marjimmanor.com.
Margo is president. The winemaker is son Kevin, a Cornell graduate in pomology, the study of fruit. Daughter Janet, who is studying applied economics and management at Cornell, assists with sales and marketing. And the fruit comes from Singer Farms, located about a quarter mile down the road, where Jim Bittner is a partner. Only son David, a student in agricultural engineering at Purdue University, is not involved at the moment.
The winery's first signature offering is a "Pear Made in Heaven," a sweet pear wine honoring the Bittners' 25th wedding anniversary. And new this week is "A Gift from the Vine," named after Jim's grandfather, John (which means "God's Gracious Gift"), who died on Jan. 31, 1982, at the age of 78 and who would have been 100 this year.
Make no mistake, Marjim Manor is Margo Bittner's baby. Though the fruits for her wines come from Singer Farms, she has to buy them, she stresses, and her husband wouldn't even sell her apricots last year when she wanted to try an apricot wine.
"Apricots are . . . not that easy to grow, so he sold them all fresh. I can have all the peaches I want but not the apricots," laughed Bittner, who instead decided to make "Peach For The Stars."
Today, "times have never been better for women in the traditionally male-dominated world of California wine," according to the Nov. 15 issue of Wine Spectator, one of two major wine consumer publications.
Still, according to Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, a statewide trade association, they are pretty rare in New York. Many wineries are jointly owned by couples, but the only other woman winery owner in the state that came to his mind was Lillian Taylor of Bully Hill in the Finger Lakes.
"It's too bad. There should be more representation for sure," said Trezise, who called Bittner a "dynamo." If she's involved in an enterprise, he said, chances for success are good.
The Winery at Marjim Manor opened Aug. 7. By last week, more than 2,000 visitors had stopped by, and not just from down the road a piece. Bittner proudly displays two maps in the hallway to her office already studded with colorful pins marking the locations around the country and across the world from which her visitors have hailed.
As of early last week, the visitor who came the farthest was from Singapore.
"Business has been absolutely wonderful," Margo Bittner said.
So how did a Latham, N.Y., native with a degree in industrial labor relations from Cornell University, a former member of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency and a 12-year veteran of the Barker Board of Education become a budding vintner, and one of the few women winemakers?
The Bittners started out in dairy farming after their graduation from Cornell. Later, they moved into fruit farming. Jim now farms 500 acres from Barker to Wilson, his wife said. The couple started selling fruit to wineries about five years ago, and that got them thinking about having their own winery.
"It was something Jim and I kept talking about and talking about, and then the house came up for sale and I said 'Let's go,' " Margo Bittner said. That was 18 months ago, when she got going, put her previous home on the market and sold it in six days. She hasn't looked back since.
"The house" is Appleton Hall, a 9,500-square-foot, 25-room mansion with 10 acres of lakefront property. It's a familiar landmark to even casual travelers on Lake Road. Built in 1834, the mansion passed through several owners until it was purchased in 1933 by the Sisters of St. Joseph as a summer retreat. The sisters added a two-story porch, doubling the number of windows in the house from 50 to 100, and providing the name for two of the winery's offerings -- One Hundred Windows and One Hundred Windows Late Harvest.
The building's facade serves as the logo for Marjim Manor's products and advertising.
Bittner concluded that she could succeed if "I were on a major route and could present myself well."
"Being on the Seaway Trail and having a historic house that people are curious about are all advantages," she said. "It's just a matter of taking the very next step."
Also important, she said, is "location, location, location."
"The history of the house, I think, has a lot to do with it. (It's a) unique building. It's a building people want to see. It's on a major route. And a lot of it is just hope. . . . You have to take a risk. It's been fun."
After surviving a serious illness, Bittner is clearly enjoying herself.
"Three years ago, I had breast cancer. It taught me to slow down and to say 'no.' My last chemo treatment was on Halloween Day (2003). I had a built-in costume. I didn't have any hair."
The first reception at Marjim Manor was a fund-raiser to fight breast cancer.
"When I first started, I knew nothing. As soon as I started talking about this, I started reading," she said.
Bittner keeps daily spreadsheets on just about everything, from the number of visitors to bottles sold or used for tasting. Bittner knows it takes any new business three to five years to break even. She said she may do a little better because of help from a government grant for finding uses for damaged fruit that can't be sold fresh. She hopes to go from three part-time employees to at least that many full-time.
Future plans for Marjim Manor include a new building for making wine and giving people an opportunity to glimpse the process. The wine is currently made in tanks at Niagara Landing Wine Cellars in Lockport. Every year, she plans to offer a featured wine and hopes, in the spring, to add tasting sessions that pair wines and food.
Bittner and son Kevin also want to plant about eight acres in various berries to figure out what varieties make the best wines. She'd also like to experiment with other kinds of fruit. Marjim's fruit wines are made of the whole fruit. They're not just fruit-flavored grape wines, she said. Right now, their grapes come from another grower.
"We're talking about growing our own," she said. "We have one piece of land that would be perfect for Reislings. We're in the research stage."
The Winery at Marjim Manor
7171 East Lake Road, Appleton