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From Stargazing to Winemaking

From Tokyo, Japan, to Upstate New York: the varied life of Fumie Thorpe

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Fumie Thorpe, 61, holds a bottle of wine she makes as the owner of Thorpe Vineyard on Lake Ontario in Wolcott.

Many people experience a mid-career or post-career shift; however, few are likely as varied as the pre-career shift of Fumie Thorpe, 61 and owner of Thorpe Vineyard on Lake Ontario in Wolcott.

She was a Japanese astronomer from Tokyo studying abroad meteorology at SUNY Oswego more than 35 years ago when her life shifted dramatically. She fell in love with and married Jock Thorpe and the couple subsequently purchased a winery.

While visiting her, Fumie’s father, a real estate businessman, had noticed the property.

“He could see some value in the property,” Fumie said.

It was known as Straubing Vineyard then. Owner Bob Straubing of Newark had established it in the late 1970s and had developed it into a farm winery in 1984.

While her husband and father felt interest in the property and its winery, Fumie did not. Over the years, however, the wine business grew on her and she learned viticulture from a variety of mentors. Though she and Jock Thorpe divorced in 2008, she has continued operating the 3.5-acre winery, which produces about 1,000 cases of wine annually from her grapes and purchased grapes.

Fumie Thorpe Tasting Room boasts a simple, neat exterior.

“I live in a strange life,” she said about her abrupt change of trajectory from astronomer to winemaker and from city dweller to farm owner.

But she did not forget about her passion for stargazing. Her enrollment at SUNY Oswego as a meteorology student was a compromise as the school did not offer astronomy.

“I always told my professors I’d finish it if they had an astronomy major,” Thorpe said. “The head of physics department is an astrophysicist himself. Astronomy is still not offered.”

She finished her degree in meteorology in 1991, with a minor in astronomy. However, Thorpe never pursued a career in either meteorology or astronomy. She has found ways to include stargazing into her winery business by offering Starry, Starry Night stargazing events, named for the Van Gogh painting of the same name. She also promotes Sights & Sounds events, which emphasize birdwatching and listening, along with wine tasting.

“If you do birdwatching, it’s hard to sight them but you can hear them,” she said. “You can figure out what’s there and look into it. I started stargazing in my teens. I grew up in a big city of Tokyo, but I learned most of the constellations while in the city. You can do it and listen to the birds. I want people to get more curious looking around as to what’s in nature.”

Her location near Chimney Bluffs State Park is ideal for access to nature. Hosting events has helped her business stay afloat during the pandemic, as people felt less nervous about going out and about in a more rural venue.

Like many business owners, the pandemic also affected her ability to find employees. While the farmworkers have been steady, helpers in the tasting room or in the manufacturing aspects of the business are tougher to find. This has led to her struggling to keep up with demand.

Thorpe stirring the grape must at her winery in Wolcott.

“I think people are willing to purchase if I have more varieties to sell,” Thorpe said. “It’s not that people don’t want to spend money; they’re not finding what they want to buy. I knew some people and thought they might be good workers, but when I talk about doing more than sitting in the tasting room, they back off.”

As both a woman and an Asian, Thorpe feels unique as a farm owner compared with many other farm owners in the area. But she’s accustomed to feeling unique, as the winery was the first commercial grape operation in Wayne County, where tree fruits reign. Occasionally, she feels that people do not accept her.

However, overall, she parlays her uniqueness into making her business stand out. She also often expresses her happiness of living where she is.

“Tokyo is a fun place, but I always wanted to live in the country,” Thorpe said. “This is a pretty place to be.”

The year 2023 marks her business’ 35th anniversary, which she hopes to mark with a special wine.

In addition to stargazing and winemaking, Thorpe also enjoys watercolor painting during the slow winter months and has painted most of the art used on her labels and in the winery’s tasting room. She also writes poetry and essays.