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Lieb Behind the Scenes – September 2022

It’s raining out, quiet in the office, I just drank a strong cup of coffee and my dog, Birdie, is asleep at my feet. I’d say now is an ideal time to write a blog post.

So what’s happening behind the scenes at Lieb right now?

Harvest! My 10th harvest at Lieb Cellars, in fact. A DECADE.

In honor of this milestone, I’d like to take the opportunity to look back on the past 10 years and remember the decisions and events that have shaped my career here the most. The pivotal moments, good or bad, that have influenced and defined my experience working at Lieb Cellars, leading Team Lieb and attempting to make a difference in our industry.

Good thing I’ve had coffee. This memory lane is long and a bit blurry. But here’s what I got:

1)      A meeting with Russell Hearn in 2013
I worked in marketing in NYC and Chicago for 8 years before returning home to the North Fork after a chance conversation with the owner of Sherwood House Vineyards. She was looking for a Tasting Room Manager and wanted to hire me. I had zero interest or experience but shocked myself and said “yes”. Two years into the job, I got a call from Russell Hearn, the winemaker at Lieb Cellars and Director of Premium Wine Group. He wanted to meet. Despite completing a certified somm program and learning as much as I could on the job in my two years at Sherwood House, I still felt like an imposter in the industry, and Russell was “the guy”. I’ll never forget where we met (in his office), where I sat (in the chair closest to the wall) and how I felt (nervous). In not so many words Russell told me that Lieb’s business was underdeveloped and that they needed someone to come in and help take it to the next level. He also asked me if I knew the difference between purchasing glass bottles case-packed or bulk-packed, and I answered “no”. He hired me anyway, as Lieb’s first Director of Production. 

2)      A promotion (while pregnant!) in 2014
A year into my production role, I was in the car with Lieb’s then consulting CEO, Richard Bailey. He praised my work and leadership and offered me the General Manager job. My response: “But I’m pregnant!” At that point I was about 3 months pregnant and only my immediate family knew…and Richard Bailey. He said that my being pregnant didn’t change his belief that I was the right person for the job. So again, I said “yes” … and then threw up in the warehouse.

3)      Lieb Cellars and Bridge Lane rebrand in 2015
I’ve blogged about this process before. We took two existing, established brands, threw them out, and started over. It was a lot of work and we did it all in-house on almost zero budget. Our “graphic designer” at the time taught himself the skill by making fake IDs in college! It was exciting … and scary. Ultimately the new branding proved to be successful and marked a turning point in Lieb’s now 30 year history. Russell wanted me to bring Lieb to the next level. I had accomplished that in a very tangible way.

4)      UC Davis’ Wine Executive Program in 2016
UC Davis is the preeminent university for the study of enology (winemaking) and viticulture (grape growing) in the US. Their graduate school offers a week-long certificate program every year on all things related to the business of wine: distribution, marketing, hospitality, e-commerce, clubs, operations, finance and technology. It was an expensive program and long trip but Lieb agreed to cover it for me, and I’m still grateful. I learned so much and think back to it often.

5)      Working harvest in 2017
All illusions I had of one day perhaps making my own wine vanished during harvest of 2017. After begging Russell and emphatically promising him that I’d take it seriously, he let me “work harvest” one day per week during the 2017 season. Every Thursday for 3 months I stepped out of the GM role, put on rubber boots and spent 9:00am-5:00pm at our winery, Premium Wine Group, punching down grapes, lugging hoses, shoveling out tanks and CLEANING SO MANY THINGS. At the end of each and every day I cried in my car from exhaustion. My two key take-aways? 1) I was better suited for office work and 2) Winemakers are bad ass.

6)      Bringing canned wine to NY in 2018
When we rebranded Bridge Lane in 2015 with a focus on alternative packaging, there was discussion about introducing canned wine, but we weren’t ready. No one on the east coast had done it yet and a ton of research needed to be done on mobile canning, packaging suppliers and the chemistry of canned wine. We researched the hell out of it and filled a test batch of canned rosé in 2017. In 2018 we rolled out Bridge Lane canned wine in 5 varieties (later adding Bubbles) in all of our markets. We were the first winery in NY to can wine, and cans continue to be the biggest driver of our growth.

7)      Speaking at Unified in 2019
In 2019 I traveled back to California wine country – this time not to sit in a class but to give a presentation. I was asked to be one of three presenters at a seminar on alternative packaging in wine and to share Bridge Lane’s experience with boxing, canning and kegging in an industry where glass bottles still dominated. Unified Wine Symposium is the largest wine industry trade show in the US and is widely considered the best. It was an honor to present to my peers (many with more tenure than me) and very gratifying to be able to share my expertise on the topic. Six years after that first meeting with Russell I finally didn’t feel like an imposter.

8)      Joining the board of the NY Wine & Grape Foundation in 2020
Before all the craziness hit, Sam Filler, the Executive Director of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, called me up to ask if I would accept a nomination to the board of the organization. Years back I had served on the board of the Long Island Wine Council. This was similar – a trade organization for wineries and grape growers – but on the state level. I had been nominated because of my marketing background (a discipline they were trying to strengthen) and because they were looking for more representation from Long Island wineries. This board and this organization are no joke. They’re professional, productive and innovative. They (we) have the power, resources and capabilities to move our industry forward and continue to cement New York’s reputation as a serious, world class wine region. I’m proud to be a part of it.

9)      COVID
The past 10 years haven’t been all positive, and COVID is the biggest, fattest example of that. I’ve blogged about this before as well. Professionally, COVID challenged me in a way that I’ve never been challenged before and tested our company in a way that it has never been tested. We’re still getting our feet back under us. We’re still adapting to the “new normal” and trying to figure out how best to operate moving forward. But, we’re all healthy, our business survived and the low point is far behind us. There’s so much more to do and look forward to.

10)   Our new owner, Jeff Hass
I rarely speak about him because he prefers to be more of a “silent” owner, but you should know the name Jeff Hass. He is currently Lieb’s majority owner, and my relationship with him largely defines my relationship with Lieb Cellars right bow. He’s collaborative, eternally optimistic and incredibly supportive. He has a vision for where he sees Lieb Cellars and Premium Wine Group in 10 years, and I’m content to spend the next 10 years doing everything I can to help him realize that vision.

Ildo and our vineyard crew picked Pinot Blanc so far and will start on Chardonnay later this week. I don’t want to jinx it but my 10th harvest at Lieb Cellars is looking like it could be one of the best.

Ami Opisso
General Manager & Certified Sommelier

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