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CNY’s Newest Vineyard

Strigo Farmhouse in Baldwinsville, owned by Oswego native Joe Murabito and his wife Ana Maria, comes complete with a B&B and tasting room. It just opened for business

Story by Lou Sorendo

In Their Element

Entrepreneurial husband-wife team transforms former family horse barn in Baldwinsville into haven for wine enthusiasts, complete with a B&B and a tasting room

Ana Maria and husband Joe Murabito at their new Baldwinsville vineyard, Strigo Farmhouse, July 2. Photo by Chuck Wainwright.
Ana Maria and husband Joe Murabito at their new Baldwinsville vineyard, Strigo Farmhouse, July 2. Photo by Chuck Wainwright.

For Oswego native Joseph Murabito and his wife and business partner Ana Maria, pursuing one’s passions as opposed to being tied to bottom line pursuits is an elemental decision.

The husband-wife team owns and operates Strigo Farmhouse, a vineyard, inn and tasting room located on Plainville Road in Baldwinsville.

Ana Maria has served as accounts payable manager since 2012 for the Oswego-based Elemental Management Group, Murabito’s accounting management firm specializing in skilled nursing facilities.

Ana Maria serves as director of hospitality and will be managing the inn complete with a farm-to-table kitchen, tasting room and events. Murabito will be focused on the vineyard and wine production.

Utilized by three generations before the Murabitos purchased the property, the former family horse barn has been renovated and transformed into a destination point for travelers.

Strigo was expected to open in early August, and in late June was going through the final stages of meeting new COVID-19 regulations and obtaining its certificate of operation.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 impacted how work was performed on the project.

Instead of several trades coordinating efforts together, the pandemic meant limiting work to one trade at a time.

The project fell about three months behind, but it also allowed final site work to be done in more favorable weather conditions.

From early March until the end of May, Murabito tirelessly spent time managing his senior care facilities, staff and dealing with stringent regulatory issues.

Ana Maria said Strigo offered the opportunity to get out of the house during the pandemic and enjoy mental relief.

Caught his eye

Inside the inn at Strigo Farmhouse. “There are people who come here who are blown away by the inn,” says Joe Murabito. “Some people appreciate every detail.”
Inside the inn at Strigo Farmhouse. “There are people who come here who are blown away by the inn,” says Joe Murabito. “Some people appreciate every detail.”

Murabito was attracted to the farmhouse particularly since it was well taken care of, a testimonial to the previous long-time owners.

The former owners were gracious in sharing the history of the property, and after becoming acquainted with the Murabitos, told them, “You’re the people who are supposed to buy it.”

The previous owners — Anthony and Marie Guinta — supplied Russo Produce Co. in Syracuse.

As a health care administration professional, Murabito has been immersed in growing four senior living facilities and recently starting another in the Rochester area.

Once his fifth senior living facility goes online, Murabito is going to be overseeing more than 600 workers.

“It’s not a goal of mine to have a lot of facilities,” said Murabito, noting that all of his working relationships are all partnerships.

His most recent venture features three owners, with each having a significant stake in the operation.

Murabito has taken time to step back and switch gears from the health care industry he has been dedicated to.

“You ask yourself, ‘why do I have five facilities?’ he said. “And you talk to another guy and ask, ‘Why do you have 20?’ This project {Strigo Farmhouse] to me is the answer. We want to be in this space and have family and friends around,” said Murabito, noting it creates a sense of balance in his life.

Murabito grew up on his grandfather’s farm, where 50 heads of cattle were raised as a hobby.

“Something pulled him in that direction, and something is pulling me in this direction as well. You just want to get grounded,” he said.

While it is a business venture, it is not solely that, Murabito said.

“This comes from trying to be grounded and this is a place where people can relax and come together,” he said.

Inside the inn at Strigo Farmhouse
Inside the inn at Strigo Farmhouse

“We are not interested in appealing to everybody. There are people who come here who are blown away by the inn,” he said. “Some people appreciate every detail and there are others who take a little bit of advantage and don’t leave the place very nice.”

“We want it to be a destination experience, but we know there is a certain group of people that is really going to appreciate this. Because of the way it was structured in terms of minimizing debt, we’re going to have the flexibility to focus on appealing to people who really appreciate this. It’s not about volume,” he added.

“It’s a different experience based on the things that we like,” said Ana Marie. “We cook, entertain and we’re always around people. It’s an extension of what we love to do.”

Meeting demand

The vineyards-inn-tasting room concept is expected to create a positive vibe on the area’s leisure and hospitality scene.

“Look at what happened on Long Island. It wasn’t that long ago that people wouldn’t associate Long Island with wine,” Murabito said. “Now they are producing more than nationally recognized wines.”

Long Island wineries have a history rooting back to the 1970s and have grown exponentially, creating a name for themselves and attracting tourists from around the world.

Murabito said the Greater Buffalo area is also producing a significant amount of grapes. He gets his vines from Double A Vineyards in Fredonia.

Inside the inn at Strigo Farmhouse“People have been growing grapes for thousands of years and they grow everywhere,” he said. “Some places are reputable for wines and there are a lot of really great wines in places people don’t know exist.”

The couple will be introducing its own varieties into a lineup of wines emanating from New York state and beyond.

“That’s the idea. It’s not just going to be New York state grapes or our wine. People might not like what I make,” Murabito said.

Wine preference is a highly personal thing, Murabito said.

“There’s the wine snob, which I think does not do justice to wine, and then there is the gentleman that we met in the middle of Tuscany with a tank top, toothpick, shorts and big rubber boots re-introducing an extinct native grape that was replaced by the red grape Sangiovese,” he said.

The man lived on a farm recultivating the historic grape that no one was familiar with, Murabito said.

“There are so many examples like that. Everybody is focused on wine such as Bordeaux from southern France, and there is a prestige and eliteness about it. But when you get through that, it’s farmers [making wine] everywhere in any country you go to,” he added.

Of the 70 acres at the site, 45 are plantable.

Most of the plantable acreage was leased out to local farmers to grow soybeans, corn and hay for horses.

“We want to try to create something that’s from here, and we’re not growing grapes that are not supposed to live here. That’s why we planted three cold hardy hybrids, with one being Marquette, a Pinot Noir derivative, which is thought to be the leading red wine in New York state.

Cold hardy hybrid wine varieties are genetically produced to thrive in Central New York’s climate.

Another is Fontaine Gris, a derivative of Pinot Grigio that is dry, light and citrusy.

The third is Fontaine Blanc, a version of Fontaine Gris, which is a mutation from the original cold hardy hybrid that leans more in the chardonnay direction.

“We are going to mix, match and blend,” said Murabito, noting there will be rose, white and red wine varieties to taste.

“We’re not going to be making 10 different wines. We’ll probably be making just a few,” he said.

To narrow focus on just a few varieties is not uncommon.

When one travels to Monticello in Italy, for instance, the majority of folks are going to be drinking Brunello di Montalcino, again made from the Sangiovese grape.

“That’s pretty much all you will be drinking,” he said. “About 50 different vineyards produce their own version of that grape.”

Murabito said what the United States has done with wine tasting is try to appeal to too many people.

“The focus is on too many people, tastes and interests,” he said.

“If your livelihood is dependent on it, then you should appeal to a lot of people because you need dollars to flow in order to make the business sustainable, which ours will be. But we’re not interested to appealing to everybody,” he added.

Strigo means owl in Esperanto, the most commonly spoken constructed international auxiliary language.

While in the branding process, Murabito was doodling while thinking about the barn and name of the business.

He saw a picture of a barn owl, liked it, drew it many times and digitized it.

Murabito said the handcrafted creation was selected as the business’ logo because “it sounded good and was nice and short.”

Chasing their passion

Ana Maria said the vineyards create an opportunity to bring visitors to the Central New York region. It’s at least 30 minutes from any other like facility.

“As far as what it’s going to become, there’s nothing overly pre-prescribed at this point,” Murabito said.

He said there have been certain times along the road professionally when he needed to reset and refocus due to a heavy workload.

Food and wine lovers, the couple had driven by the farm for about 10 years while traveling between their home in Baldwinsville and Oswego.

“There were a lot of very personal reasons to do this based on things we like,” he said. “We know that it can become a good business venture.”

“It’s being put together in such a way where it’s not burdened with a lot of debt because we put a lot of ourselves into it. It’s meant to be a family and friends’ gathering place,” Murabito added.

It certainly will be a place for visitors, but not designed to handle exceptionally large crowds, he said.

“It’s homey and beautiful,” Ana Maria said of the country setting. “It’s a fun place where people can come to gather and have a different experience outside of what the area has to offer.”

She said the couple’s own unique travels and experiences that are reflected at the business give it uniqueness.

“We have been making wine for more than 15 years. Winemaking has become a big tradition for our family and friends,” Ana Maria said.

She said every September, family and friends gather at their home to crush grapes and celebrate the harvest season by making wine.

She said the combination of her husband’s operations experience along with her knack for hospitality and creating relationships bodes well for the future of the business.

Murabito has largely been linked professionally to developing and sustaining health care facilities in the region. This valuable managerial and administrative experience translates well into the vineyard business.

From regulatory compliance to insurance matters, “all of the things we need to have set up in any other business is set up here but on a smaller scale. There’s a lot of cross-over when talking about the nuts and bolts of just setting up an entity,” he said.

Meanwhile, Elemental Management Group provides the foundational support for all of the businesses that the entrepreneur is involved in.

He considers working with and coordinating many people as his favorite thing about business.

“It’s not about me; it’s the thing that we are trying to grow. I don’t put myself out front. I need to be in the background, supporting these positions and developing these businesses,” he said.

Murabito invites multi-tasking.

“I mean my head doesn’t shut off. This [the vineyard] helps it shut off a little bit,” Murabito said,

Ana Maria has absorbed significant knowledge through the process of creating the new business.

“This project has been like a baby to me as I have learned a lot of things that I’ve never known such as setting up a kitchen for commercial purposes with legalities in mind,” she said.

Confidence aplenty

Normally, owners of prospective new businesses will conduct due diligence to determine whether a venture is worthwhile.

However, the Murabitos also followed their hearts when deciding to launch the business.

“The question was, ‘Can we buy this and do something we want to do in an atmosphere we want to do it in?” said Murabito, noting the focus was not on market study results.

“People like wine, food and gathering, and there is not one around here,” he said. “And the farm field is great.”

Murabito said there was much intuitiveness involved when it came to deciding to take the plunge.

“Everyone feels this place has a good vibe,” he said. “Every place on the property feels good.”

In terms of the tasting room, Murabito said neither he nor his wife enjoy the conventional wine-tasting experience.

“You come up to the bar and check off five boxes of whites and five boxes of reds, and taste 10 wines in 20 minutes and move along,” he said. “We didn’t want a bar, a bartender and really didn’t want to have cash.”

As a result, the Murabitos opted to use self-serve, self-dispensing wine machines. “Frankly, that now lends itself well to social distancing,” he said.

Guests will enjoy a lounge that has a café feel, taste what they want and when, and won’t be intimidated about proper pronunciation or asking staff for wine.

“We’ll find a comfortable way to coach, promote and guide patrons” when it comes to the tasting process, Murabito noted.

“To think there was a pro forma as if I was doing a health care facility, no there was not. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do it. I didn’t want a pro forma. This is a feel thing,” he said.

Ana Maria said the value inherent in the business speaks for itself and will result in returns.

“The purpose is not to be pressured by the return,” Murabito said. “The return will happen over time. Is it going to happen in year 1 or 2? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. We will be fine with that. We are really looking for people who want to be here and appreciate it.“

The Murabitos are also mindful of the environment, as evidenced by their use of a lithium battery to power the entire operation and property.

The 100% solar-fed 50-kilowatt lithium ion battery is from WestGen in California, where Murabito’s cousin Greg Bilson is the CEO.