Finger Lakes Wine Center Closes

Similar projects around country delayed or abandoned

by Paul Franson
finger lakes wine center
Board vice president Fred Bonn told the Ithaca Journal that the Finger Lakes Wine Center is taking a "pause" for reorganization.
Ithaca, N.Y.—The Finger Lakes Wine Center in Ithaca has closed. It’s the latest wine center to face troubles starting with the spectacular crash of Copia in 2008, just as the recession hit hard.

Other proposed wine centers have been delayed or abandoned, and at least part of the cause has been the weak economy.

According to the Ithaca Journal, and confirmed by board vice president Fred Bonn, who is also director of the Ithaca-Tompkins Convention and Visitors Bureau, the closing of the Finger Lakes Wine Center is a “pause” for reorganization.

The center’s history
The center opened in November 2010. It was intended to showcase regional winemaking and received approximately $500,000 in financial support from state and local sources.

Bonn said that the center had to open before completing a capital fundraising campaign to meet a deadline for its liquor license under special legislation.

The capital campaign was expected to cover construction of the center, but without it, the construction cost was added to its rent resulting in higher costs than operating revenue could cover.

The center’s public aid included a $100,000 legislative member item from then-state Sen. George Winner, and $125,000 from the state Dormitory Authority. The center also received support from the Tompkins County tourism program and a $100,000 loan from the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency. 

The modest center offered wine tasting, a site for events and planned to offer classes for the public.

Contrast with Copia
Copia, on the other had, was a major effort, and its closing was national news. More formally the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, it was a catalyst along with a major flood control project in creating a renaissance in downtown Napa.

Its goals were to promote wine, food and the arts—the latter a late addition that seemingly confused its supporters and attendees.

Copia never was intended to promote Napa Valley’s wines, but all wine. Its opening closely followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, after donations of land and $20 million by Robert and Margrit Mondavi as well as other donations and loans totaling about $80 million.

A proposed Ritz-Carlton resort adjacent to the site never opened; in fact, its developers recently defaulted on payments for the mortgage on the property.

Copia never realized a fraction of its ambitious projected attendance and operating revenue, even after a number of redirections.

The large, modern building sits empty with its signs only recently removed. Its mortgage holder, ACA, has hired Keith Rogal to try to develop a plan to recover at least part of its approximately $75 million in loans; the building and adjacent property are reportedly worth about $25 million.

Rogal has opened the facility for rentals of its auditorium and is seeking an operator for its restaurant, but otherwise, plans remain up in the air.

It’s likely that ultimately the property will be developed with retail, a hotel, offices, a parking garage, and even residences.

At the time Copia closed, proponents of a wine and food center in Santa Rosa, the largest city in Sonoma County, seemingly abandoned those plans.

Farther afield
Meanwhile more modest centers in Fredericksburg, Texas, and Prosser, Wash., have been delayed by the recession, but both are progressing.

In Prosser, the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center plans 15,000 sq.-ft. of building and grounds that will offer indoor and outdoor venues for programs, conferences, meetings, business and social gatherings and events. A 2,000 square-foot Vineyard Pavilion was completed in spring 2011. The center claims 90% of its funding is committed and just approved construction.

The center’s goals include promoting Washington state wine and food and creating jobs.

Deep in the heart of Texas
In Texas’ wine-rich Hill Country around Fredericksburg, the proposed Texas Center for Wine and Culinary Arts Inc. has received a challenge grant of $1.2 million from the Don L. and Julie Holden Foundation to purchase property for the center. A 3-acre site in downtown Fredericksburg is under contract within walking distance of 500 hotel rooms.

The total cost is expected to be about $10 million.

“Opening date is dependent on fund raising,” said director Ernie Loeffler. “Construction will not start until all funding is secured. Fundraising is a challenge with the uncertain economy and the election.”

The 30,000-square-foot center will be dedicated to the awareness, understanding and celebration of Texas food, wine and agriculture through educational programming and hands-on experiences.

Its goals focus on helping the Texas wine industry and creating jobs. It plans hands-on and demonstration culinary classes, Texas wine tastings and food pairings, casual dining, sales of wine and culinary products, industry training for wine, food and hospitality professionals, culinary education for high school and college students and space for related events.

Success in New York
One wine center that has worked out well is the New York Wine & Culinary Center in Canandaigua, N.Y., though it has undergone some tweaking.

Also having specific goals, it not only includes attractions for visitors but also houses the offices of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, which created the center with Constellation Brands, Rochester Institute of Technology (hospitality program), and Wegmans food markets. The $7.5 million facility is supported, in part, by grants and contributions from agriculture, culinary and wine businesses as well as state and federal governments.

Jim Trezise is head of the Wine & Grape Foundation, which rents offices there. He said, “All of us remain fully committed and passionately supportive.”

The center has been open six years, since June 2006, and has made some recent changes that he said are working out well: 

“During the first few years, we realized that the tasting room was much larger than necessary, and we were forgoing revenue without a space for corporate meetings, training sessions or even small weddings. So the original tasting room because the Sands Gallery (after the family that donated funds for the transformation), and what had been a gift shop is now the tasting room.”

Trezise also was able to get a change in the law allowing sampling and sales of New York micro-beers and micro-spirits, which has enhanced the experience for visitors.

The original Taste of New York lounge and restaurant on the second floor is now the Upstairs Bistro, with a more casual ambiance and menu that has proven very popular. It features New York wines, beers and spirits along with New York foods. 

“I often entertain small groups of wine writers, wine store managers and sommeliers from New York City with a welcome luncheon or dinner there, and they always leave impressed (like yesterday),” Trezise said.

He adds that the Wine Spectator Educational Theater (capacity of about 40) is almost always in use for wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, etc., and the adjacent Viking Range Hands-On Kitchen is always buzzing, with up to 20 people at the 20 cooking stations learning cooking under the guidance of a professional chef/teacher.

The classes include individuals who sign up online, corporate team building, middle school kids learning that food comes from the earth and how to prepare it, and much more.

He summarizes, “The center has worked out very well and is a great resource for the New York wine industry, other agricultural sectors, tourism, and consumers looking for the ultimate ‘New York experience.’”

Of course, the center receives usage and support from nearby Constellation Brands and other wineries on an ongoing basis.

Peter Marks of Constellation Brands was the wine director at Copia and will be teaching WSET (Wines and Spirits Education Trust) classes at the center. “It’s doing well because it’s focused. Its mission is promoting New York wine and food. Copia started with an emphasis on art, and while it later changed its focus, it was too late.”

Meanwhile, wine educational centers as part of higher education are doing better than consumer-oriented centers. Umpqua Community College in Oregon has added an impressive winery and instructional facility (see "Oregon’s Original Wine Country Reborn”), and New York has approved $3.3 million to cover the full cost of constructing a viticulture center at the Cornell Agricultural and Food Technology Park in Geneva, N.Y. The center is expected to open in fall 2013 to provide students in the Finger Lakes Community College Viticulture and Wine Technology program with hands-on training.

The 6,800-square-foot building will include a classroom, laboratory and teaching winery, along with a crush pad and spray shed. A small vineyard will be planted adjacent to the center. Currently the program rents classroom and laboratory space at the Cornell Agricultural and Technology Park.

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