New York's Finger Lakes: The Next Great Wine Region in America?

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Prohibition pounded the region's grapegrowers, but small and medium-sized producers are finally starting to mount a serious comeback.

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At a time when the local food movement has inspired many consumers across the nation to, for the first time, consider the wines being made in their own backyards, no up-and-coming domestic region has received as much serious attention as the Finger Lakes of upstate New York. To be specific, it is the Rieslings of the Finger Lakes that have generated the most buzz.

Wine is produced in all 50 of the United States from Kentucky to Hawaii. California dominates the market with about 90 percent of production, followed by New York, Washington, and Oregon, respectively, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau's 2009 Statistical Report.

Considering that New York produces more wine than either Washington or Oregon, many American consumers are much more likely to have tried a Pinot Noir from Oregon or a Chardonnay from Washington than a Riesling from the Finger Lakes. Indeed, even in New York City, wines from both Washington and Oregon make fairly frequent appearances on some of the city's best, or at least most enlightened, wine lists.

So why is it that wines from these two far-flung states have managed to upstage the wines from just a few hours north?

"We don't aspire to be the biggest, but we do aspire to be the best and recognized as among the best."

According to Jim Trezise, the president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation (NYWGF), while New York State does make the second largest quantity of wine in the United States after California, about 80 percent or more of the state's total wine production is through Constellation Brands, and goes into products like Arbor Mist.

The rest of the state's wineries are small-to-medium sized producers who insist that the region's delayed blossoming is a direct consequence of a legislation-fueled game of catch up. There is a palpable sense that the winemakers of the region place much of the blame on the legislation of yesterday for putting them so far behind. They are quick to tell you how prohibition pounded the region's grapegrowers and winemakers into the ground and left only a handful of mega-producers in its wake.

"In general terms, prohibition slowed everything down and we're still working our way out of it," said Bob Madill, chair of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. "For example, New York is one of the few large producing and consuming states that doesn't allow the sale of wine in grocery stores and that is a historical vestige of the idea that sales of alcohol needs to be controlled."

Between the end of Prohibition in 1933 and the important passing of the Farm Winery Act in 1976, the state's legislature made it virtually impossible for anyone but producers of cheap bulk wine like Great Western, Gold Seal, and the Taylor Company to operate in the region.

"The Farm Winery Act ... came at a time when there was a crisis in the grape industry," Trezise explained. "Traditionally, there were hundreds of grape growers in the region who were all dependent on a handful of large corporate wineries buying their grapes."

In the 1960's, however, the grape market collapsed through a perfect storm of events, including various corporate takeovers that took many of those large companies out of the region.

The Farm Winery Act was introduced to allow the region's growers to open small wineries and made it legal to sell directly to consumers, said Trezise. After the passing of the Farm Winery Act, the number of wineries in the region went from 19 in 1975 to about 50 in 1985 and has continued to grow steadily since then, according to data supplied by the NYWGF.

Trezise and winemakers of the region are extremely proud of the region's swift growth over the past two decades, and especially because they've done it without any major outside investments. However, news of a big potential investment came in March of 2011, when the world-renowned winemaker Paul Hobbs, a native of Upstate New York, announced, on a Buffalo radio show, that he was interested in making wine in the Finger Lakes.

"Paul is indeed interested in winemaking in the region," Jennifer Freebairn, director of sales and marketing for Paul Hobbs Wines, wrote in an email exchange. "[Hobbs] is currently consulting to a winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and he has considered developing a project in the Finger Lakes, though nothing is set as of yet."

The announcement in March created a healthy bump in the region's credibility and showed that the winemakers of the Finger Lakes are not the only ones who believe that they are capable of producing world-class wines. While some winemakers confidently assert that they already are making top-notch wines, others concede that the only reason they're not is because it's a relatively new game and they're still learning the rules.

"We see the opportunity to position the Finger Lakes as North America's preeminent cold climate region," Madill said. "And what I mean by that is that the wines are true to an authentic regional style and perceived as being as interesting as any other wine."

While the region is quickly gaining recognition for its Rieslings in particular, some winemakers assert that there is still much work to be done -- especially when it comes to other varieties.

"The quality of winemaking has gone up a lot in the last decade and its only getting better," said Peter Becraft, assistant winemaker at Anthony Road Winery. "So what you'll find is that the quality of the reds will start to catch up and I think that certain varieties like Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Lemberger can really shine."

Will Ouweleen, the owner and winemaker at Eagle Crest Vineyards, and a self-professed wine snob who admits that 20 years ago he would not have deigned to try a New York wine, agrees that there's still some tinkering to do. "Burgundy didn't start with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and know that [those grapes] would bring them renown as a region -- they had to grow a lot of other stuff first and kind of agree that these were the wines that showed the best terroir, work and philosophy and I think the Finger Lakes are right there," he said.

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Caroline Helper is a New York City-based freelance journalist. She writes about wine at Forget Burgundy.

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