Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wine Regions to Explore: The Finger Lakes in New York

New York was one of the first winegrowing states in the country.  It now has the second largest wine-producing region in the United States, behind California, which accounts for 90% of our wine production. Washington and Oregon rank third and fourth in wine-production.

The Finger Lakes wine region is located in Upstate New York, south of Lake Ontario.  It is the largest winemaking region in the Eastern U.S. 
This area is set apart with eleven glacial lakes and moderate temperatures resulting in a longer growing season.  The perfect conditions for many grapes – but especially for Riesling grapes – the Finger Lakes signature wine.

Grapes have been growing in the region since 1829 when Reverend William Bostwick arrived near Keuka Lake with Catawba vines.  Catawba grapes would become one of the most successful varieties grown in the state during the next one hundred years.  Only seven years later, in 1836, Samuel Warren created the first commercial winery, located in the town of York, at what is now the western edge of the Finger Lakes region.

In 1860, Charles Davenport Champlin, along with 12 businessmen from Hammondsport, New York, founded the first winery in the region.  It was called the Hammondsport and Pleasant Valley Wine Company and designated as U.S. Bonded Winery No. 1.  Winemakers for the company were Frenchmen Jules and Joseph Masson. The winery was sold to Great Western Producers in 1955.  The Taylor Wine Company bought it in 1962. Then Coco Cola purchased it in 1977.  Seagram took ownership in 1983, and finally Vintners International Company in 1987.  The winery finally landed once again in control of a family, the Doyle family, in 1995.  It is now the oldest winery still in operation in the state. 

1880 saw the Taylor family begin the Taylor Wine Company.  They followed a similar path as Pleasant Valley and actually purchased it when it was known as Great Western.  In 1977, Taylor was acquired by Coco Cola, then Seagram purchased it in 1983, and Vintners International bought it in 1987.  Mercury Aircraft owned it as of 1995, and it appears to now be part of the Pleasant Valley Wine Company.

Small wine producers were growing steadily at the turn of the last century, but Prohibition cost the fledgling wine industry a lot.  In fact, many in the New York wine industry believe that Prohibition cost them the title of winemaking leader of the U.S.  So many small wineries were put out of business by Prohibition; by 1933 all that could afford to restart were the large producers.

In 1962, Konstantin Frank released his first vintage of Johannisberg Riesling, grown from European Vitis vinifera grapes planted in the Finger Lakes.  He encouraged local vineyard owners to move away from growing the native American grapes and experiment with the vines that were being used by European winemakers. Thanks to his foresight and ability, Riesling is now the most planted, and most popular grape in the Finger Lakes, amounting to around 150,000 cases produced each year.

It took another 43 years for the ‘little guy’ to get a foothold in the industry again. That occurred in 1976, with the passage of the Farm Winery Act which allowed the small and medium sized wineries (only 19 at the time) a chance to grow and develop their own wines instead of being forced to sell their grapes to the big three; Taylor, Gold Seal and Great Western/Pleasant Valley.

As small family-owned wineries began to get reestablished, they started to take over the Finger Lakes wine industry again.  By 1985, only nine years after the Farm Winery Act was passed, another 30 wineries were in business.

Today there are 103 wineries located around the region, mainly found near the Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka and Canandaigua Lakes.  The area is similar in climate and seasons to the German Rhine region.  Besides the popular Riesling, other grape varietals grown there include Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer.   Seyval Blanc, Vignoles, Cayuga, and Vidal Blanc are also American grape favorites. The region produces some of the best ice wines available.  (Ice wines are harvested after the grapes have frozen on the vine.)

There are four wine trails, each identified by the lake it surrounds. 
Cayuga Lake Wine Trail is located on the longest of the Finger Lakes.  It is made up of 15 wineries, one cidery, one meadery, and four distilleries.

Seneca Lake is the deepest.  The Seneca Lake Wine Trail has the most wineries of any trail with the number currently at 34.  It is well know for its Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc.

The Canandaigua Wine Trail has seven wineries, two wine centers, and a brewery.

The Keuka Lake Wine Trail is the oldest of the wine trails.  Keuka Lake is the area where the New York wine industry began in the nineteenth century.
It boasts eight wineries.

The Finger Lakes AVA is an American Viticulture Area made up of 11,000 acres of vineyards, growing native American grapes, French American hybrids and European viniferas.  It is the largest wine growing area in New York.
But the Finger Lakes region offers more than wineries.  There are also breweries, distilleries, ciderys and meaderies.  Almost half-a million people visit the region each year.

The Finger Lakes Wine Festival is held annually in July.  This year's dates are July 13 – 15, 2012.  This is the largest festival showcasing over 600 New York state wines, with over 80 wineries participating.  The American Bus Association has called it one of the Top 100 events in the U.S.  

The Finger Lakes Wine Region continues to grow and prosper.  It is becoming one of the most popular wine regions in the country. So why not grab a bottle of wine from the Finger Lakes tonight and see what all of the fuss is about?  


1 comment:

  1. For the Samuel Warren family story, visit I had the good fortune to uncover the story in out-of-print local history books.