Emerging

When does an emerging wine region fully emerge?

In the mid 1970s, I worked for a production company in New York that put together a multi-media program (16 mm film and three 35 mm slide projectors) for the Beaulieu Vineyards visitor center in Napa. By 1979, the program needed some updating and so I traveled to Napa to meet with Leigh Knowles, who was then the President of Beaulieu, to talk about the changes necessary.

It was three years after the famous Paris tasting that catapulted California’s Napa wine world onto the stage, but in 1979, Napa was not yet a dynamic traffic jam. In fact, V. Sattui was selling wine out of what I believe was a VW bus, and not for effect.

Although it was a well-established wine region more than 100 years old, to me, in 1979 Napa was a sleepy place that seemed emerging.

Now—with hindsight—it’s easy to see how wrong I was. Napa had already emerged; I just didn’t know it yet. Even though I was drinking and enjoying many wines of Napa, my mindset was steeped in European wine regions.

In the nineteenth century, Keuka Lake’s Village of Hammondsport was a Finger Lakes community where the first scheduled airplane flight really took place, and where a naval aviation industry spawned; it also hosted a dynamic wine industry as old as (or older than) the one at Napa. This was no sleepy community.

In 1976, as Napa came out of its deep sleep, a 96 year-old Hammondsport winery was the sixth largest wine company in the U.S. It might still be around today, had corporate mania not gobbled it and spit it out after cashing in on its assets.

While Napa began to enjoy the press coverage of the Paris event, New York wine enjoyed a small revolution of its own—the state legislature finally opened up winery licensing to accommodate smaller wineries, and the Finger Lakes was ending a full decade of successful Vitis vinifera vine and wine production in a region once thought to be inhospitable to that grapevine species.

At the time, only a handful of wineries existed in the Finger Lakes region—34 years later, more than 100 make the region their home.

So why did a wine blogger recently refer to the Finger Lakes as an emerging wine region?

He did so because that is what the region’s image has remained ever since it began to emerge anew in 1976.

Like any other wine region, there’s good, bad, great, and not-so-great wine produced in the Finger Lakes—wine is always producer-specific. Therefore, this wine writer doesn’t buy the notion that lack of quality keeps the region in an emerging holding pattern, as many have opined.

Many producers of Finger Lakes Riesling wines have proven themselves over and over, and consumers willing to try the region’s sparkling wines would be pleasantly surprised by many of them. But as I learned with my attitude toward Napa 30-plus years ago, mindset makes for powerful denial.

So, what keeps the Finger Lakes region from having fully emerged? Here are some thoughts that might explain it.

Generally, Finger Lakes wineries are not focused—the region offers too many wine styles that it probably shouldn’t. Plus, its message is confused. Does it want to be a national industry or a local tourist draw?

If the Finger Lakes wine industry seeks national attention and distribution, it will likely have to increase production of its best wines.

Not enough critics have told enough wine geeks to drink Finger Lakes wine, and that places the wine industry in a Catch-22: although it emerged many years ago as a quality wine-producing region, until someone else proclaims that it has emerged it will continue to be viewed as emerging. (I recall Robert Parker being quoted in the 1980s that the future of the New York wine industry will remain provincial.)

I welcome other opinions as to why, after 152 years of commercial wine production, and after 34 years of a vinifera revolution the Finger Lakes remains an emerging wine region to many.

In my view, it’s up to the Finger Lakes region to agree on a focus and stick to it–and then get out and build the Finger Lakes brand.

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
January 2010. All rights reserved.

9 Responses to “Emerging”

  1. vinogirl says:

    I like your first thought: perhaps they have just diversified too much when it comes to wine varietals and styles.
    Also, hasn’t Napa benefitted from better PR and marketing with a sexier image and the promise of a rich and famous lifestyle for all with just one sip of a cult Cabernet sauvignon?

  2. Thomas says:

    Vinogirl,

    Initially, a lot of the Napa buzz came from writers rather than the wine industry. And let’s face it, until recently, wine geeks and many wine writers hardly considered white wine worthy to talk about.

    When I operated my Finger Lakes winery, I remember numerous times people complaining that all I offered were white wines. It got so annoying that I kept two black glasses behind the tasting bar. I used to pour my Gewurztraminer alongside a Syrah-based wine and ask the complainer to tell me what he (usually a he) thought of the two wines. That’s how I sold a lot of Gewurztraminer to red wine drinkers!

  3. Henrik says:

    Well Thomas, Considering your doubt about putting new relevant issues on your blog in 2010 you have startet very well.

    I have spent some hours in the last weeks visiting websites and searching for further informations about the Finger Lakes wine industry. I think you are right when you say that Generally, Finger Lakes wineries are not focused.

    The region offers way too many wine styles and even that you have been a very good guide can I still not today see what is really a true Finger Lakes wine.

    I was quite surprised seeing a winery from Keuka Lake offering 39 diffrent wine??? I have only seen a few wineries in your area and I am quite sure that if the standard for the future are set by wineries such as Dr. Frank, Heron Hill and my personel favorit Morten Hallgren from Ravines Wine Cellar the future is save for Finger Lakes wines.

    Even that Finger Lakes has traditions way back in time – the new generations should have time to develop their own style. Just like you see it in Napa Valley where some of the best wines are made by people who likes to “play” and move borders.

  4. Thomas says:

    Henrik,

    Always remember that this is a white wine region first, with Riesling at the head of the pack, a region with sparkling wine credibility, and a region where certain reds can surprise you, but not as consistently as Riesling and sparkling wine.

    The region can also offer wonderful Gewurztraminer, but that, too, can’t be consistent like Riesling, because the two varieties handle the volatile climate differently.

  5. Mitch says:

    Thomas,
    Does the Finger Lakes have anything close to a community of winemakers genuinely working somewhat collectively to get out the word? One person shared their impression that the FL PR \’campaign\’ has been rather wanting, to use a ephemism 🙁 Organizational reform typically necessitates a vast cultural (paradigm) shift in intentions and attitudes. If and until that happens … you get the point.

  6. Henrik says:

    Thomas,
    I am very of that – I have a good teacher! No doubt thar Riesling from FL can compete with the best Rieslings around the world.

    The American Appellations give to much freedom. One step forward could be a more European approach and it might aæso be a problem that winemakers still one to eksperiment.

  7. Thomas says:

    Mitch,

    There is an organization called the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance FLWA (and I’m sure there are other groups).

    While the message of the alliance is unified, that message can be weakened at individual wineries, whether or not they are members of the alliance, and some aren’t.

    When you get to most wineries, you are presented with an array of wines from red to white to austere to Late Harvest, and everything in between. Unless the taster is a focused wine geek, there to taste only what he or she wants to taste, after two winery visits, the message is muddled or lost, because too many wineries produce stellar Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and maybe another wine or two only to mess the whole thing up with a selection of weaker wines, often under the same label.

    To be fair, the wineries make most of their sales to tourists, so they are between the rock of a tourist trade that pays the bills and the hard place of national distribution that doesn’t exist enough to pay for a sandwich.

    Having said all that, in the past few years, FLakes wineries have racked up prestigious (to some) awards and ratings (the latest is Wine and Spirits Mags awarding Sheldrake Point top 12 value Riesling and in the top 100 wineries for 2009). In the past, Dr. Frank, Wiemer, Heron Hill, Sheldrake, Fox Run, and a number of wineries have received attention in major magazines. Still, something keeps the region in a stall mode.

    The only conclusion that I can come to is either the follow through is unfocused or wine critics are uninterested–or both. In the case of the latter, I believe that when Parker predicted NY wine to remain provincial what he really was saying is that without national distribution, it wasn’t his job to give it national exposure.

  8. Mitch says:

    “Still, something keeps the region in a stall mode.

    The only conclusion that I can come to is either the follow through is unfocused or wine critics are uninterested–or both.”

    Thomas, as an ignoramus relatively unacquainted with FL wines, I suspect they lack an effective ambassador of FL wines. Until they pull together and show they are serious and proud of their genuine product(s), I predict the status quo. Last time I visited, a pourer at Dr. Frank’s asserted they winery had received a gold medal for their Riesling in Strasbourg recently. I might be stupid but I’m not an idiot. They should cease and desist with such gibberish even though their wines are fine. INFERIORITY COMPLEX? …

  9. Thomas says:

    Mitch,

    I’ve always counseled that references to other regions is a bad sales tool–it isn’t so much an inferiority complex at work as it seems a striver’s mentality. The striver’s mentality is what causes wineries to try to produce every damned wine under the sun at the expense of offering solely what their region and their talent does best.

    I know from personal experience, having learned the hard way, that you either build your own identity through branding or you run the risk either of perishing or chasing your tail. I chased my tail until my winery perished!