It’s In the Stars

When I arrived in the Finger Lakes region 25 years ago, there were just over a dozen wineries in operation and about five of them were giants.

Today, there are over 100 Finger Lakes wineries. The only giant remaining is lately acting like it might be stumbling off its beanstalk.

Billed ad infinitum as “the world’s largest wine company,” the starry-named Constellation Brands has for more than a year been issuing press releases concerning its shrinkage in the galaxy. The latest shrinkage is the company’s intent to sell off or donate the Widmer Wine Cellars’ (circa 1888) vineyards and facility and to move the three or four New York State brands produced there into the company’s Canandaigua Wine Company facilities.

When the Constellation news broke in the blogging world, one fellow wondered what the New York-based giant company has done for the New York wine industry lately.

One answer might be that Constellation supports the NY Wine and Grape Foundation, the industry’s state-sponsored promotion arm.

Still, it is mystifying to this writer that “the world’s largest wine company” is located in the Finger Lakes region but seems unable to help advance the cause of the local or state wine industry. Instead, it has systematically over the past year cut its interests in maintaining vineyards in the Finger Lakes. As for wine: I remember attending a Bob Dylan concert at the performing arts center that is located in Canandaigua (and connected to Constellation) but could not find a bottle of either Finger Lakes or New York wine among the wine concessions.

Despite the vanishing giants and Constellation, the New York wine industry, which comprises about a half-dozen appellations, is now home to more than 275 wineries—I believe the Finger Lakes region accounts for nearly half that number; the region has been on a growth path for the past 25 years, with much of the frenetic pace taking place within the last decade.

Yet, something is strangely amiss. Constellation’s actions notwithstanding, no fewer than a dozen people within the local wine industry have intimated that at least a dozen Finger Lakes wineries might be on the precipice.

An astute journalist doesn’t take such off the cuff remarks as truth, especially when people with competing interests make the remarks. But the fact remains that, with all its resources, the giant Constellation doesn’t seem to see the future in its home turf, and maybe that’s a window into some sort of truth. In addition, a few years ago the region couldn’t produce enough of its signature grape—riesling—but this year, the region has excess Riesling wine inventory plus, tonnage prices for the 2009 harvest have either remained flat or dropped.

What’s going on?

I wish I knew, as the promotion message is as bright and positive as promotion messages are intended to be. Yet, a dozen separate industry insiders have alluded to a problem, and I am forced to take that seriously.

Back in the 1980s, not yet at the top of his fame, but famous enough to be interviewed in magazines and newspapers, the critic Robert Parker once told an interviewer that the New York wine industry’s future success is limited to being local. I don’t know what he based that opinion on, but it sure seems like he was prescient. No matter how much we hear about the Finger Lakes region and its stellar Riesling wines—which they are—there’s still a tremendous gap between the wine consumer and the wine region.

Part of the problem is that the region is graced mostly with small wineries that were not started with wads of Silicon Valley or vanity money, which leads to another part of the problem. By not being backed with money, the region falls behind both in ambition and in direction, not to mention production volume, which is manifested in a lack of national distribution.

The region is stuck in a chicken-egg conundrum: no national distribution maintains low visibility; low visibility does not attract national distributors because distributors do not generally promote and sell wine—they warehouse and distribute it. The wine industry and individual wineries are responsible for promotion and sales, and without enough money to do that, the Finger Lakes industry cannot attract national attention and therefore cannot attract national distribution. (That scenario is general. A few wineries enjoy  distribution wider than just their home state or region.)

Some national magazines have lately taken notice of the Finger Lakes and Long Island wine regions and, who knows, maybe one day the recognition will pay off. Until then, the New York wine news focus is on that lumbering giant with eyes on the galaxy but can’t seem to see what’s in front of it—about a half-dozen appellations, most of which produce top-notch wine. Instead of investing in that top level of the state’s wine possibilities, the giant seems to be divesting itself of most ties with the local industry by first abandoning its vineyards and who knows what will be next to go.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
September 2009. All rights reserved.

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