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“Celebrating Women” Dinner
at Bright Leaf Vineyard

By Cayuga County Office of Tourism Ambassador Julisa J. Stone

Bright Leaf Vineyard owners, Donna and Mike, often collaborate with Chef Samantha Buyskes of Simply Red for specialty dinners throughout the year. Last year, the idea to collaborate with female chefs from Cayuga and Tompkins counties led to this amazing event. Each course was prepared by one chef to showcase their talents, creativity, and playful personalities. Being gluten free, I reached out to Donna prior to purchasing tickets to ask about the food and potential accommodations. Donna reached out to confirm with the chefs and throughout the dinner checked in to make sure I was getting the gluten free versions of the meal. 

In November of 1991, Lumiere told the world to “Try the grey stuff, it’s delicious!” My only regret is that I waited more than 30 years to listen. For the record, the grey stuff is chicken liver mousse. Served family style, our first course was prepared by Chef Jennifer Noel Erwin of Just a Taste in Ithaca. In addition to the ‘grey stuff’, this course also featured sliced smoked duck breast, oat crackers, and sourdough crostini. I am gluten free—Chef Jennifer prepared a special batch of oat crackers for me to enjoy, and they were fantastic. Recently, Chef Jennifer and her husband opened Here. in Hector. 

Our second course was a salad prepared by Chef Samantha of Simply Red. The salad consisted of greens, shaved fennel, apple slices, red onions, toasted walnuts, parsley, and sprouts with a blue cheese yogurt dressing and blue cheese crumbles. While every course was spectacular and I could eat seconds, thirds, and fourths, this was my favorite. We are already planning to return to Bright Leaf Vineyard to enjoy their wine and views—we’re watching their social media pages to make sure we come out when Samantha is in the kitchen.

The main event, the entrée was a red wine and garlic braised short rib over a parsnip and potato puree with roasted carrots. This ‘plate licking good’ course was prepared by Chef Leslie Muhulhahn of Just Desserts Ithaca. Before each course, the chefs shared a little about their meal. Leslie said, when she wants comfort food, this is what she makes at home. You could taste the love. Typically, Leslie is a dessert chef, but she wanted to prepare this savory dish for the group. In addition to owning Just Desserts Ithaca, Leslie also owns The Trees Estate in Trumansburg. 

Our first dessert course was prepared by Cayuga County’s very own Chef Cookie Wheeler of Simply Cookie’s Kitchen at Treleven Wines. Cookie was excited to prepare this playful dish that consisted of a cookie crumble base, orange laced pot de crème, and chocolate shortbread crumbs topped with a meringue mushroom and rosé gummy worm. While preparing this dish, she was smiling so much that her team reached out prior to the event to share how much joy it brought Cookie to be creative and playful with her dessert. Cookie even made a special gluten free version—more like an Adult Mud Pudding since I had extra pot de crème and no dirt. Cookie is at Treleven Wines year-round. While you’re driving around the lakes to try out the exquisite wines, like Bright Leaf Vineyard, make sure you stop and check out Simply Cookie’s Kitchen in King Ferry. 

The final course and second dessert was created by Chef Maria Cacciotti Salino of Dolce Delight. Maria made an éclair with strawberry chiffon, chocolate ganache, and strawberries. This dessert was so beautiful, I was sad to see everyone digging in—partially because I couldn’t have one. But I did sample some of my fiancé’s chiffon and it was heavenly. Maria was so kind and made me a gluten free chocolate fudge brownie with sprinkles. It was rich and gooey in all the right ways. Maria shared that even though it is gluten free, it is a popular dessert that she regularly offers at Dolce Delight. 

“Celebrating Women” was an incredible experience from the location, the company, the food, and the wine. Donna and Mike opened Bright Leaf Vineyard in 2012. Donna earned a degree in wine marketing and has a passion for varietal wines—which are wines that are made primarily of one grape variety. In the United States, a varietal wine must consist a minimum of 75% of the labeled grape. Mike grew up in California and spent a lot of time visiting small out-of-the-way wineries in the Napa and Sonoma regions. Mike was a home winemaker for many years and took some online courses from UC Davis before he and Donna, finally made their dream of owning a winery a reality by purchasing property here in Cayuga County.

While the key focus of the event was to celebrate the female chefs, Mike also recognized the female members of Bright Leaf Vineyards including the staff working the event, his wife and business partner, Donna, and their Head Winemaker, Colleen Lukas. Colleen is a 2007 graduate of Southern Cayuga Central School District. After graduating from Hobart and Smith College, Colleen worked at a neighboring winery in King Ferry until she joined the Bright Leaf Vineyard team as Assistant Winemaker. Colleen was promoted to Head Winemaker in 2018. 

Cayuga County is full of adventure, cuisine, and history. This “Celebrating Women” event brought together so many people from across Cayuga County and neighboring communities. I hope that you feel inspired to explore Cayuga County by visiting Bright Leaf Vineyard, and Simply Cookie’s Kitchen, as well as the establishments of the other chefs.

Bright Leaf hosts a variety of different dinner events and summer festivities. Make sure you are regularly checking their website and following them on Facebook and Instagram

On March 8, 1857 one of the first strikes by working women was led by textile workers in New York City who were protesting unfair working conditions and unequal rights. In 1910, March 8th was recognized as International Women’s Day. United State Congress formally recognized March as Women’s History Month in 1987. You can celebrate Women’s History Month by attending events like Bright Leaf Vineyard’s “Celebrating Women” dinner or patronizing women own businesses like Reuse Refuge in Auburn, Little Cow Confections based out of Union Springs, or Fierce… With Love in Weedsport.