THE WINE RANGER: Breaking Boundaries – Dotcom CEO Turns into Riesling Guru in the Finger Lakes | Business

If you live long enough, there comes a time when you come to a crossroads in life where the choices are either to play it safe or to leap into the unknown.

For Bruce Murray, it happened in 2007. He had just sold his small tech startup.

Murray’s family moved from Vancouver to Syracuse in 1961 when his surgeon father accepted a job at Upstate Medical Center. He attended Nottingham High School and dated a classmate named Diana Lyttle.

After high school, Murray and Lyttle went their separate ways. He attended Yale, majoring in English literature; she went to the University of New Hampshire, studying botany and plant science. Their romance ended, only to be rekindled decades later.

“When I graduated it was right after Watergate and I wanted to be a journalist,” Murray said. “I landed in Silicon Valley, covering the tech world in those heady times of the 1980s.”

One of these tech companies offered him a job. He worked there for five years, immersing himself in Californian wine culture and gastronomy.

“I loved it,” Murray said, “but realized I wasn’t a product engineer.”

He returned to the East Coast in 1986 to work for Newsday for 10 years, first in the broadcast business and then in the advertising side.

“I was one of those up and coming young businessmen,” Murray said.

In the mid-90s, the Internet was booming. A friend from Silicon Valley called and told Murray his company had just invested in a guy who wanted to put the Yellow Pages online and monetize them by selling local ads.

“He said the guy didn’t know much about local advertising and that I could talk to him,” Murray recalls. “I did and became the # 8 employee at this company. “

The company was Zip2 Corp. Its founder was none other than Elon Musk. It was Musk’s first venture.

Musk sold Zip2 in 1999 and Murray was rewarded with a little nest egg.

“I was thinking of using it to start my own business to explore the Internet and collect job posting data. “

Murray sold this company, Corzen Inc., in 2007.

“I was like, ‘I’m 51, what am I going to do next?’ “, did he declare. “I was divorced. My twins had gone to college. I used to be the boss. I was told that I had become too old for the tech world. It was time for a change. “

The answer came to him at a party in Brooklyn, when he met a couple from Trumansburg.

“I started talking to them, and they said they were growing grapes over there in the Finger Lakes,” Murray said. “I loved Rieslings and knew the Finger Lakes were a great place to grow them. And I could solve two problems at the same time, because my father was getting older and still living in Syracuse.

Diana Lyttle also had elderly parents who still lived in Syracuse. They had kept in touch and their paths crossed frequently. Lyttle was married and a teacher living in Connecticut.

“I taught high school biology, earth sciences, chemistry and plant sciences for 32 years,” she said.

Murray has kept a day job, for now, as the company that bought Corzen convinced him to remain the CEO of the merged creation. However, he also began to search for property in the Finger Lakes.

“I got a call in December 2007 from a friend,” Murray said. “He told me about this farm for sale and that I should just buy it and not haggle the price.”

Murray bought the 120-acre property and named it Boundary Breaks, referring to the gorges at the boundaries of the property.

“In 2008, we cleared the land and started sowing a cover crop. In 2009 we started planting and I started spending more time here, ”Murray said. “I wanted to focus on Riesling and planted six acres of it in 2009. I didn’t know which clones made sense, so I planted three different clones: 110, 128, and 239.”

It usually takes three vintages for a new vineyard before the grapes become viable.

“In 2010, I hired a vineyard manager and bought equipment. The money started to bleed, ”lamented Murray. “I started to realize that this was an expensive business. No wine has yet been made. No cash!

The first harvest of Boundary Breaks was in 2011. But Murray did not have a production facility.

“My plan has always been to have my own label and not just to sell the grapes,” he said. “When it came time to decide what to do with the grapes, I thought it would be great if some of the best winemakers here made the wines for me. “

Contract winemaking was and still is a regular practice in the Finger Lakes. Peter Bell of Fox Run Vineyards made Murray’s first vintage. However, this vintage marked the start of a decade-long struggle for him.

“I figured I would sell the whole thing to a distributor, so I wouldn’t need a tasting room,” he admitted.

A distributor took 400 cases and valued the wines in a range of $ 25 to $ 30. They didn’t sell.

Fortunately, he had kept his day job. He read a blog post by Jason Haas of Tablas Creek, a renowned California winery. Haas wrote that he was barely breaking even until he started selling direct to consumers.

“I thought if a winery like Tablas Creek couldn’t be successful by selling all of their wines to a distributor, we were unlikely to be successful,” said Murray. “In 2014, I called on an architect to design a production unit and a tasting room.

During this time, Murray began to pursue Lyttle. “She’s the one who ran away!” he apologized.

In 2012, Murray and Lyttle moved together in the Hudson Valley, halfway between the Finger Lakes and Connecticut. With his training in plant botany, Lyttle would prove to be an invaluable asset in the vineyard.

The architect returned with a cost estimate of $ 4 million.

“I could only afford $ 2 million by putting together some of my money and the money from the bank,” he said.

Construction of the tasting room began in 2015; it opened the following year. Then Murray took another big risk.

“I was now heavily in debt. I had little financial cushion left, ”he said. “I realized it had a better job. I stepped down as CEO and devoted myself full time to Boundary Breaks.

Murray moved into the cottage on the property in 2016. Diana joined him in 2017. They were married that year at Boundary Breaks.

Without cellar, Boundary Breaks is at the convenience of the excess capacity of other cellars. Besides Peter Bell, his wines have been crafted over the years by renowned winemakers including Dave Breeden, Chris Stamp, Derek Wilber, Ian Barry, Kelby Russell, Julia Hoyle and Kim White. However, the effort continued to bleed money.

“In 2018, we still weren’t making a profit,” Murray said. “Each year I invest more of my own money. I tapped into my generous and confident siblings for the capital needed to continue the business.

Others may have given up, but Murray and Lyttle persevered.

Then came winter 2019 and the Covid-19. Things looked grim at first, but federal relief funds helped lessen the economic impact. When the wineries reopened, something unexpected happened. No more tourist buses that disembarked 50 visitors who rarely bought wine. Instead, the clientele turned out to be more sophisticated since wineries were one of the few places people could still visit during the pandemic.

“Covid has helped! We have had fewer but better visitors. Our wine club has really taken off, ”said Murray. “2021 will be the first year we make a profit. It took 13 years. We are going to build a cellar and a warehouse in stages over a few years.

Throughout his fights, one thing was never in doubt: the quality of Boundary Breaks. While their Rieslings have been exceptional from day one, don’t overlook their reds. These varieties ripen well in the excellent location of the vineyard. Their flagship red, The Harmonic, is a double of a good Bordeaux in warmer vintages. Total wine production today is around 13,000 cases per year.

Success wouldn’t have been possible without Murray’s persistence and willingness to take risks.

“When I started working for Elon Musk, I was a singles hitter and he was a home run hitter, to put it in baseball terminology,” Murray recalls. “Working with Elon has taught me that there is nothing wrong with taking risks. “

He feels very lucky to have found Lyttle.

“Not everyone is lucky enough to have someone you reconnect with who is so willing to dive in and work with you,” Murray said.

Looking back, Murray has few regrets.

“I would definitely do it again, but I would also plant Cabernet Franc and Merlot from the start,” he said. “Riesling makes wonderful wines, but not the most popular. “

After spending over 30 years managing the day-to-day operations of media companies, Dave Sit moved to the Finger Lakes to pursue his many passions, including wine and writing. Its “Wine Ranger” column appears the first weekend of each month. Contact him at [email protected]

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