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Her winery is afloat in spirits

Margo Bittner, 51, makes 35 kinds of wine at The Winery at Marjim Manor in Appleton in Niagara County. Down the road from the winery, her husband, Jim Bittner, runs Singer Farms, a 500-acre farm that supplies the fruit for her wine. A former member of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency and a 12-year member of the Barker Board of Education, Bittner takes her life down many roads. As you will see, she is spiritual -- in more ways than one.

>People Talk: Do you believe in spirits?

Margo Bittner: Well, according to Jason [Hawes] and Grant [Wilson] from "Ghost Hunters," we have a number of spirits here. Our episode [in October 2008] was called "Bottled Spirits." Things move on occasion. The cats look like they're playing with somebody who isn't there. I have spirits who love this house and who just want to see what we are doing.

>PT: What was the springboard to winemaking?

MB: We dairy farmed for nine years. Then my husband's partner retired and he got involved with Singer Farms. Having fruit means you must find markets for each fruit, and every single fruit is different. We talked about opening our own winery off and on for a couple of years, and this house came up for sale. Now, the winery is downstairs. We live upstairs. I've hired a winemaker who knows how to make the wines the way I want them made.

>PT: Have you seen the effects of the recession?

MB: The last thing people stop purchasing is wine, so while they may not buy cases, I still had 26,000 visitors come through my doors last year. Ninety-seven percent buy at least one bottle, so my growth in five years has more than doubled.

>PT: What did you want to be growing up?

MB: A rabbi. I'm from outside of Albany, and I vacillated between being a rabbi and a librarian. And then I went to Cornell University, met my husband, and 30 years later here I am.

>PT: When did you throw "rabbi" out the window?

MB: I don't know if I did, because actually, I'm a Para-Rabbinic Fellow certified by the UAHC [Union of American Hebrew Congregations] to do various life and educational events -- funerals, naming ceremonies. I have trained B'nai Mitzot students. I've taught religious school.

>PT: What was your major?

MB: Industrial and labor relations. I was thinking possibly law or personnel management.

>PT: You can still be a lawyer.

MB: No interest.

PT: You practice economy of words.

MB: I have my DTM [Distinguished Toastmaster] in Toastmasters. The only sin is speaking too long. Everything is timed. You have to give people time to take in what you've said, and you have to make sure you're not going to look for words in such a way that you're ahhing, umming and doing all those fillers that are so distracting. The pregnant pause is sometimes a nice little device.

>PT: Describe your personality.

MB: I tend to be very enthusiastic, forward and bubbly. I don't let things stand in my way. I'm like a freight train sometimes when I get an idea and go forward with it.

>PT: Have you had a midlife crisis?

MB: I've been through breast cancer. If anything teaches you about living life, it's that.

>PT: Was it difficult getting used to the rural nature of your lifestyle?

MB: When we first moved out here, we lived in a mobile home park. We bought our first house, and we had some land around us, and I quickly got used to not having neighbors, not hearing everyone else's TVs.

PT: I like the stages in your life, how you progress in totally different directions.

MB: By the time I was 21, I graduated from college and was married. By the time I was 30, all of my children were weaned, out of diapers and getting to be very independent people. By the time I was 40, they were moving into the high school years. Now here I am in my 50s with this business.

>PT: You've bonded with the house?

MB: From the first time I looked at it, I don't think I ever wanted to leave. I love this house. The Sisters of St. Joseph, who owned this place for 60 years, added the front porch. You never know when they're going to show up or what stories they will tell about their times here.

>PT: What do you do for fun?

MB: My husband, I and all three of our children are in the Barker Lions together. I still do Toastmasters. Right now, most of my fun time is spent here doing ghost stories. I do needlework on occasion. I knit. I like those handcrafts, and I do a lot of family genealogy. I've just inherited a whole pile of pictures. I wrote one book, "The Legend of Appleton Hall," and I'm working on a second volume.

>PT: Do you keep a journal?

MB: No. For me, everything is a speech, whether positive or negative. I turned breast cancer into "Five Lessons I Learned by Having Breast Cancer." Some are serious and some are amusing. I have a relative who is an author you might be familiar with, Studs Terkel. He was my great-uncle. We knew him as Uncle Louis.


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