A one-of-a-kind, 20-foot-long canoe handcrafted from strips of aromatic red cedar and assorted exotic woods is a traffic stopper in Trent Preszler’s secluded home on Peconic Bay in Mattituck.
“Everyone I’ve shown it to let out an audible gasp,” Preszler, 39, said, when asked what reaction the colorful craft evokes.
Creating that boat in his living room, where it sits on a platform on the floor, was his self-taught first attempt at making a canoe from wood.
Guided by self-help books and YouTube videos, the work was painstakingly done over 14 months, starting in January 2015. He worked on it nights and weekends while carrying out his responsibilities as CEO of Bedell Cellars, an upscale 100-acre, family-owned vineyard and winery in Cutchogue.
When the canoe, weighing 150 pounds, was finished in the spring of 2016, Preszler was more than relieved.
“I was exhilarated and exhausted at the same time,” he said. “There was a huge sense of pride when I paddled it on the bay for the first time. There’s nothing more exciting to me than the moment you are floating, literally and figuratively, in something you made with your hands. It’s a wonderful experience I want to share with other people.”
Motivated by the success of his initial effort, Preszler is working on four smaller wooden canoes. His home base is Preszler Woodshop, a converted barn built in the early 1800s that was the Village of Mattituck’s blacksmith shop in the 1900s. The process begins with cutting hundreds of thin strips of walnut, mahogany, ash and other woods — sourced from Roberts Plywood in Deer Park — selected for their color, grain and texture, then steaming them so they are flexible to mold into a thing of beauty that is also functional. Meticulous sanding smooths the surface before the vessel is coated with fiberglass, ensuring that it is watertight and seaworthy. Preszler also makes the paddles and the hemp-and-leather seats for four.
Preszler is an avid canoeist and kayaker who knows and feels the difference in vessels made of varying materials. A wooden boat, he said, “cradles you to experience nature in a pure form. There are no extraneous noises, you’re just sort of gliding along. I always owned my own canoes and kayaks, but they were made of fiberglass; I always wanted a wooden boat. There’s something completely different about a wooden boat. They sound different in the water; they handle differently from a metal boat, which has a high-pitched, tinny sound when the water hits them. In a wooden boat, it’s like a muffled drum sound.”
His creations are of heirloom quality, and Preszler said he would charge a buyer $100,000. He doesn’t advertise his handicraft, so most people know about his canoes via word of mouth and his Instagram account, which has nearly 40,000 followers, and is where he documents his boatbuilding process. He said he hopes that seeing the canoes inspires someone to buy them, but if not, he would like to show them in a gallery, suspending all five of them from a ceiling.
“They’re works of art, something people will keep for a lifetime and pass on,” Preszler said. “When I built the first canoe I didn’t have that in mind, but I enjoyed it so much it became something much bigger.”
He considers canoe building an art, but it has proved therapeutic for Preszler, the youngest of three children. The process helped him “bring order out of chaos” as he worked on coming to terms with the deaths of his father, Leon, who died in December 2014 of cancer at the age of 69, and an older sister, Lucinda, who had cerebral palsy and died in October 2000, when she was 26.
“I started making canoes at a time in my life when I didn’t feel I had a sound footing,” Preszler said. “Making that canoe was something I could control with my hands, creating shape, rhythm and pattern out of things that didn’t have order. Mourning the deaths in my family, I had to realign myself so I could move forward.”
Preszler began building his canoe during a blizzard in 2015, after driving back from South Dakota with a car full of his late father’s tools. “I was stuck in my home for about a week,” he said. “When I paddled it the first day on Peconic Bay in front of my house I felt I was floating away from the pain of those memories and was able to move on. It was really a profound experience. I was so moved by the whole thing, I felt I had to build more.”
South Dakota roots
Preszler, a third-generation farmer, grew up on his parents’ 10,000-acre ranch on the Missouri River in South Dakota, “right on the Lewis and Clark Trail,” he said. He was one of eight students in a one-room schoolhouse near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
“My family had thousands of acres. We raised beef cattle,” Preszler said. His father was also a blacksmith and a professional rodeo athlete, roping bulls and riding bucking broncos. Before he was 10, Preszler had his own chores: feeding chickens, gathering their eggs and taking care of orphaned calves. As he got older, he rode horses and helped round up cattle.
Preszler graduated from Iowa State University in 1998 and did a six-month internship in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton administration. He was a Rotary Scholar in 1999 at the Royal Botanical Garden and the University of Edinburgh, both in Scotland, and he earned a master’s degree in botany. He earned a second master’s degree in agricultural economics in 2002 and a doctorate in horticulture in 2012, both at Cornell University.
In 2002, Preszler started as a salesman at Bedell Cellars, a family-owned business founded in 1980. He was hired by the owner, Michael Lynne, a former film executive at New Line Cinema and producer of the Oscar-winning “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, art collector and a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art. “He’s my mentor and almost like a father figure to me,” Preszler said.
Preszler became CEO in 2010, running the property — including a winery and two tasting rooms — and overseeing a staff of 50.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” Preszler said. A framed luncheon menu for former President Barack Obama’s second inauguration attests to what Preszler said is his proudest achievement since joining the company: A Bedell merlot was the official red wine for the event; the company provided eight cases. The winery’s blog declares that “Trent’s fingerprints are on every detail of Bedell’s success.”
Some of the winery’s bottle labels are works of art, including one done by Brooklyn artist Mickalene Thomas, whose portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama is in the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution. Preszler’s love of art is also visible on the floor-to-ceiling, stainless steel fermenting tanks in the 10,000-square-foot winery. The 2,000-gallon tanks bear a fish scale design he ordered. He also renovated a 1911 potato barn where weddings and other events are held.
“I keep very busy,” Preszler said. Yet he still finds time to serve on Iowa State University’s board of directors and as board chairman of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation and chairman of WineAmerica, the national association of wineries. In September 2015, Preszler raised $250,000 for his favorite charity, Rocking the Boat, by rowing around Manhattan island in a wooden boat made by students of the youth development organization in the South Bronx.
Preszler’s friends and colleagues are awed by his accomplishments. Lynne said he was impressed by Preszler’s master’s thesis detailing how to create success at a winery.
“I want to meet this guy,” recalled Lynne, a former entertainment lawyer who now heads the film production company Unique Features with Bob Shaye, his former partner at New Line Cinema. Lynne described Preszler’s first canoe as “elegant and absolutely beautiful and functional. I think of it as a work of art.”
John Gidding, host of the former HGTV show “Curb Appeal,” said he follows Preszler’s boatbuilding on Instagram.
“He’s running a successful business,” Gidding said. “Bedell wines are expensive and highly regarded, yet he still finds time to pursue something that was clearly a passion project.”
David Cashion, executive director of Abrams Books, a publishing house in Manhattan, said he was “lucky enough” to ride in Preszler’s canoe. “He invested so much of himself in it,” Cashion said. “He just has this love of beauty. He’s very down-to-earth and laid back, but his mind is spinning rapidly; he’s so smart. I really don’t know anyone like him.”
‘New way of viewing my life’
In addition to his father’s tools, Preszler seems to have inherited his parents’ quest for knowledge. When the ranch went bankrupt in 1989 because of drought, his mother, Suzanne, and father went back to school. His father studied welding and his mother focused on computer science. She retired last year from the University of South Dakota as a computer programmer.
“That’s one of the greatest gifts Dad gave me,” Preszler said. “I discovered a new way of viewing my life. I realized I am a creative person, an artist. I’d always seen myself as a farmer and scientist. Making these canoes was the first time I entertained the idea that I was an artist, too.”
He carries a Nikon camera to record scenes from nature, such as a humpback whale rising from the ocean, which to Preszler is a representation of life. “That’s like the exhilaration I feel when I am making art,” he said.
He is refurbishing a 1954 Ford pickup truck to transport his canoe to sites other than the Peconic, noting, “There are great waterways and creeks on Long Island.”
Preszler is also a self-described romantic. His website (preszlerwoodshop.com) includes poetry by Walt Whitman and other poets, and Preszler remembers watching the series finale of the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation” in February 2015 and being moved by a scene in which one of the main characters — played by Nick Offerman — paddled off toward the horizon in a wooden canoe he built. Offerman is also a woodworker who wrote The New York Times 2013 bestseller “Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living.”
Preszler’s assortment of hats includes outdoorsman, and he enjoys living by the water and looking out at the horizon. “Everything I do is imbued with the elements of the outdoorsman: wood, water, sky and life,” he said. Those elements are reflected in the canoe’s logo, which includes raindrops and a circle representing the moon or the sun.
Preszler sees parallels between his job and his art, and said making canoes is “an exercise in delayed gratification.”
“It’s like winemaking,” he said. “Wine that comes from many grapes is parallel to making boats from many pieces of wood. It’s a slow buildup; you have to go through incremental processes to get a bottle of wine or a canoe that floats.”
He is hoping that on future canoe outings he can bring his beloved white boxer, Caper, who Preszler said usually watches him from the shoreline and barks. He has bought Caper a lifejacket and waterproof bootees in preparation for his first boat ride.
“I have my job and I have my dog, Caper,” Preszler said. “He comes to the wood shop with me and he comes to the vineyard with me.”
Wherever Preszler is, especially if it’s on a Long Island waterway, he knows what will keep him afloat.
“My heart is all here,” he said of crafting his canoes. “It’s so much fun. I love it.”