Bruce Murray’s Boundary Breaks makes Riesling its focus
One evening in 2003 on a business trip to Las Vegas, Bruce Murray and a colleague of his were looking for a place to dine out. They decided to take a look at the website Chowhound, as they always did, and discovered a Thai restaurant with unanimous raves. “My friend said, ‘Look, everybody raves about this place. This is where we have to go,” recalls Murray. “It had a big wine list, and almost every wine was a Riesling.” At random, he picked a wine from Germany’s Nahe Valley, and his life would never be the same. “I thought if everybody had the same experience that I had at that Thai Restaurant, they would fall in love with Riesling. It just has to happen.”
Fast forward seventeed years later, and Murray owns Boundary Breaks, a winery located on the east side of Seneca Lake in Lodi. Currently, they offer six different variants on Riesling, including sparkling and ice wine offerings. Originally intended to be Riesling only, they now grow and sell Gewürztraminer and Cabernet Franc; they also offer Dry Rosé and a red blend, Harmonic Red (a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon). Over the years, Boundary Breaks’ wines have been made by a who’s who of Finger Lakes wine: Fox Run Vineyards’ Peter Bell, Barry Family Cellars’ Ian Barry, Red Newt Cellars’ Kelby Russell, Sheldrake Point’s Dave Breeden, and Swedish Hill’s Derek Wilber. Breeden and Wilber are among the winemakers currently making wines for Boundary Breaks, as are Lakewood Vineyards’ Chris Stamp and his children, Ben and Abby.
Bruce Murray grew up in Syracuse, and high school years coincided with the Vietnam War and Watergate, which gave way to the Pentagon Papers and Bernstein and Woodward, both of which inspired Murray’s first career, journalism. Enrolling at Yale, he studied under John Hersey, a Pulitzer Prize winner and pioneer of New Journalism most famous for writing Hiroshima, a book about the World War II bombing and its aftermath. He graduated with a degree in English literature (Yale did not offer a journalism program at that point) and subsequently interned at the Long Island newspaper Newsday before moving to San Francisco in 1979.
In San Francisco Murray discovered the power of good food and wine. This was only a few years after the infamous Judgement of Paris favored California wines over their French counterparts, and it ran parallel to the nascency of Silicon Valley. Murray made many connections with people in the technology world, giving way to his second career. By this time, though, Murray realized he was an East Coast guy at heart. “After being out there long enough, I felt like the East Coast was where I fit in better,” he remembers, and in the mid 1980s he returned to New York City. A decade later, he found himself working for a recent Stanford PhD dropout named Elon Musk and his brother Kimbal at Zip2, a company that licensed City Guide software to newspapers and companies. “Elon was a big thinker, no limits,” Murray says of Musk. “If you want to do it, do it big. That’s how he approached things.”
Murray had moved on from Zip2 by the time of his Las Vegas Riesling epiphany, and he was ready for another career change. “I knew there was one more career change left,” says Murray. This time, he had some stipulations. “It should be one that allowed me to A.) Own my own business, B.) Make a product I was proud of and C.) Make a product that I could sell around the world, which is not easy to do.” He also knew that he wanted to return to Upstate, and in 2007, he found a property near Lodi Point State Park. “There was nothing here. It was a farmer’s field in a really good spot.” He bought the property the following year, and six acres of Riesling vines were planted in 2009. He sought the help of established winery owners in the Finger Lakes, including Cameron Hosmer of the eponymous Hosmer Winery, cousins Mark and John Wagner of Lamoreaux Landing and Wagner Vineyards, as well as Hans Walter-Peterson of the Finger Lakes Grape Program. The first year of production was 2011.
For the first several years as the vineyard was established, Murray continued to work his other job and commuted from New York City on the weekends. On Saturdays, he made sure to meet and touch base with his first employee, vineyard manager Kees Stapel. Boundary Breaks was Stapel’s first vineyard management position. He was 25 years old. Prior to this, he worked for eight years at Sheldrake Point under the tutelage of vineyard manager Dave Wiemann. Due to the miniscule size of the vineyard, Stapel split his time between both vineyards for a few years. Because he was new to Vineyard Management, Stapel was still inexperienced with Pesticide Management, but got certified quickly; Stapel recalls having to adjust to a leadership role. “I had been accustomed to being assigned a task and doing it. As the manager, I’m the one who needs to constantly think about what everyone’s priorities are.” Today, Stapel supervises full-time vineyard workers plus a twelve-man, temporary crew they share with three other vineyards. In 2015, Murray settled in the Finger Lakes full time, and in 2017, his high school sweetheart Diana Lyttle joined him. They married the same year.
The original vision for Boundary Breaks was Riesling only. “The plan was that we would make Riesling. People would taste it and immediately fall in love with it, and want to keep buying it without any problem—and in great quantities.” However, the realities of the marketplace intruded, and in 2013, Murray planted Gewürztraminer and subsequently Cabernet Franc. “Once we saw how well our Riesling and Gewürztraminer did, we said, ‘We think red grapes will grow well on this site.’ We started planting a few red varieties and have concluded, like many others, that Cabernet Franc is the red varietal that makes the most sense for this region.” Riesling remains the locus of Boundary Breaks’ operation, however, and their Rieslings branded by clone, with offerings of clones 90, 198, and 239; there is also a wine that is a blend of the clones, Ovid Line North, named for the original vineyard’s location, which is north of Ovid’s town line.
At the moment, Murray is experimenting with a new varietal, Gamay Noir, scarcely planted in the Finger Lakes but becoming increasingly popular, thanks to successful and acclaimed offerings by Sheldrake Point, Bet The Farm, and Thomas Pastuszak’s Terrassen label. Murray describes Gamay as “the new, new thing,” but due to the scarcity, Murray is currently purchasing grapes from the Ontario province in Canada. If a Gamay offering proves successful, Murray will plant Gamay in his own vineyard in the future. He also foresees the hiring of a full-time Winemaker as inevitable. “We’re getting to a point now where we need to build our own production facility and make our wines there, because we’re getting to a point where it makes more sense to do it for ourselves.”
They’ve taken the first steps toward autonomy with the planned construction of a wine production facility. In December, Boundary Breaks was awarded $100,000 from New York State’s Regional Economic Development Council to assist with construction of the wastewater management practices for the facility and facilities to manage stormwater and erosion and prevent precipitation-related damage. “To ensure none of the byproducts of wine production reach any portion of the watershed, including Seneca Lake, I want to design and construct effective wastewater treatment facilities,” he states. He believes that when all is said and done, the cost of the construction of the facility will exceed $2 million. In the meantime, Murray reflects on his journey with gratitude: “We’ve gotten really, really great winemakers to make our wines for us. We’ve focused on the vineyard, and we’ve had the good fortune to work with the best winemakers around here.”
Erin Scherer wrote about the Lake Tunnel Solar Village in the May/June 2019 issue. She lives in Geneva and is currently working on a book about the Finger Lakes Wine industry.