New York Wine's 'Overnight' Success

New York Wine & Grape Foundation celebrates 30 years of progress

by Linda Jones McKee
The New York wine industry has grown to include a variety of growing regions, wine trails and hospitality sites.
Canandaigua, N.Y.—The wine industry in New York state is recognized today as a major player in the world of wine. While the Finger Lakes American Viticultural Area (AVA) often gets much of the attention, especially for its Riesling wines, there are four other AVAs in New York: the Hudson River region, Long Island, the Niagara Escarpment and the Lake Erie region. Also known as the Chautauqua region, the Lake Erie AVA is the largest grapegrowing region east of the Rockies with more than 18,500 acres of vineyard. There are now more than 400 wineries, and the grape and wine industry—with its value-added multiplier effect—generates some $5 billion annually in economic benefits for New York state, including 25,000 full-time equivalent jobs, $1.14 billion in wages, $553 million in winery sales, $52 million in grape sales and $71.6 million in grape juice sales.

A major factor in the growth of the New York wine industry has been the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, a private, non-profit trade association that was created by legislation signed into law by then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo in 1985. This year, consequently, is the foundation’s 30th anniversary. Funded by a combination of New York state funds and private-sector partners and contributors, the overall goal of the foundation, according to Jim Trezise, the group’s president since its inception, has been “to have the New York grape and wine industry recognized as a world leader in quality, productivity and social responsibility.” And the result of 30 years of hard work on the part of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation and many grapegrowers, winery owners, winemakers and researchers is the creation a state-wide wine industry poised to achieve even greater success in the future.

As Phyllis Feder, owner of Clinton Vineyards in Clinton Corners, N.Y., and former chair of the board of directors of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, explained, “The New York wine industry went through some dark days, but now has emerged into the bright sunlight. The impetus for the growth of the industry is due to the foundation; they’ve been an effective presence in (the state capitol of) Albany, and made us visible as an industry. The effectiveness of the foundation is reflected in the overall interest in, and excitement about, the state’s wineries. The industry has grown tremendously, in part because of the hard work of the foundation.”

In contrast with today, the future did not look at all bright for the grape and wine industry in New York in the spring of 1985, when the bill establishing the New York Wine and Grape Foundation was passed. The previous December, one of New York’s largest wineries, the Taylor Wine Co., then owned by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, announced that they were canceling all grape contracts for both Taylor and Gold Seal Vineyards (also owned by Seagram’s), and that grapes would be purchased on the open market the following year. Prices for all grape varieties in New York fell to $105 per ton.

These events came at the end of a decade of winery closings, vineyard abandonments, declining tourism and major corporate transitions among the large wineries in the state. In addition, cheap subsidized wines from abroad, a surge in imported wines, changing consumer tastes in wine and the reluctance of many New York grapegrowers and wineries to change what grapes they grew or wines they made also contributed to the negative climate.

The challenges facing the grape and wine industry, however, had not gone unnoticed in the early 1980s. In the May 26, 2015 edition of The Wine Press, the foundation’s weekly newsletter, Trezise stated, “Gov. Mario Cuomo had read a front-page article in The New York Times (in October of 1983) about our industry going down the tubes. He called then-commissioner of agriculture and markets Joe Gerace and said he wanted a solution on his desk by noon on Monday. Commissioner Gerace called me and said he needed a solution in Chautauqua by noon on Sunday.” Gov. Cuomo wanted to come up with legislative assistance for the struggling wine and grape industry, and that plan would ultimately lead to the creation of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.

At that time of Gerace’s request, Trezise was president of the New York Wine Council, a small organization of grapegrowers and winery owners with a tiny office in Penn Yan, N.Y. In less than 48 hours, he wrote a white paper for an integrated solution that included:
1) New York wine in grocery stores (as well as liquor stores) as a way to immediately expand the demand for grapes;
2) a comprehensive “winery deregulation” bill that would eliminate unnecessary and burdensome regulations while offering many new marketing opportunities like multiple satellite stores, cooperative winery wholesaling, bottle sales at not-for-profit farmers markets and the state fair, and more;
3) New York wine tastings in liquor stores, and
4) creation of a centralized organization for promotion and research supporting the New York grape and wine industry.

In May 1984, Gov. Cuomo signed into law a bill that allowed the sale of low-alcohol wine coolers (but not wine) in New York food stores as well as the winery deregulation and tasting bills. The “cooler bill,” as it was called, helped rescue many grapegrowers by creating new demand at a time of swelling winery inventories combined with record grape crops. The legislation to create the New York Wine and Grape Foundation had to wait until May 1985 before being passed.

The foundation’s budget for the first year was $2 million; state support would continue for four years, but on a declining ratio of state funds to industry funds. The money contributed to the foundation was to be spent 70% on research and 30% for promotion. The governor and state legislative leaders were to appoint a 13-member board of directors to be representative of the table grape, grape juice and wine industries across the state. Bert Silk, vice president of operations for the Canandaigua Wine Co., was elected chairman, and the board appointed Trezise as the foundation’s president (a position he has held since Nov. 1, 1985) and Juanita Spence as manager.

According to Trezise, the major purposes of the foundation were to centralize and coordinate programs of promotion and research in support of the New York table grape, grape juice and wine industries, to provide marketing support of the products both within and beyond the state and to foster cooperation and collaboration within the industry.

In order to work toward those goals, however, he first had to bring together a board of directors composed of a table grape grower, juice grape grower and a wine grape grower, as well as representatives of a farm winery, large winery, wholesaler, retailer, restaurateur, public relations professional, two researchers and representatives of the New York State Commissioners of Agriculture and Commerce. According to Trezise, Silk, the first board chairman, brought a unique blend of diplomacy, negotiating skills and firmness to the job, which in a reasonably short time got everyone headed in the same direction. Over the years of working with such diverse groups within the industry, Trezise has used the slogan, “Diversity is our strength; unity is our power” to describe the philosophy behind the success of the foundation.

The greater amount of funding from the state for the foundation was directed to research, primarily at Cornell University, one of the premier research institutions for viticulture and enology in the world. Cornell Cooperative Extension then conveyed the results to the growers and winemakers to help them improve their operations and products. Cornell has had success with grape breeding research—including the introduction of varieties such as Cayuga White, Traminette, Valvin Muscat and Noiret—and with research in other areas—water management, disease prevention, trellising, cold-hardiness and high-tech crop assessment—that typically take many years and a lot of funds to develop meaningful, reliable data. According to Trezise, the payoff has been huge for grapegrowers and processors as well as the New York wine industry's reputation.

Gene Pierce, owner of Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee and a former chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, also commented on the importance of research to the industry. He told Wines & Vines that the foundation has been beneficial in creating an awareness of the wine and grape industry, particularly with the research dollars that have produced important results, and that success in the research area has enabled the foundation to get grants from other organizations.

The main promotional goal of the foundation has always been to increase the market for New York grapes and wine. Trezise stated, “Our two-pronged promotional strategy is simple: Bring the people to the wine, and take the wine to the people. The first means tourism, the second urban markets. Both are intended to get more people to discover, try, and buy New York wines.”

Trezise contends wine trails are the core of the tourism program, and the foundation's role has been to encourage their development and provide matching funds for some of their programs. “The Cayuga Wine Trail, established in 1983, was the first in the nation and the only one in New York when the foundation was created, and (it) served as the model for others throughout the state; today there are 19,” he said, adding that wine trails helped to create jobs in the predominantly rural regions.

Taking the wine to the people in urban markets has been a challenge for the foundation. Trezise noted, “New York City is the world's most competitive wine market, and we get no break as New Yorkers; if anything, the reverse is true—the assumption that if it’s local, it can’t be good. But the Big Apple is also our ‘home’ market, like San Francisco is to California wines and Seattle to Washington wines. Happily, New York wineries are now making great progress, thanks in part to our “NY Drinks NY” program. Now in its fifth year, it’s essentially an ‘exchange program’ under which we bring New York City sommeliers, writers and wine store managers to the wine regions, and then take winery representatives into New York City for market orientation. The culminating highlight is always a Grand Tasting in March.”

From a winery owner’s point of view, Pierce thinks the NY Drinks NY program has been a major success. “Influential people from New York City come to New York wine regions; it creates an awareness of the New York wine industry we didn’t have before. It’s certainly different than 1985!”

Posted on 07.14.2015 - 08:33:53 PST
A well deserved recognition of Jim's efforts over many years