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.