Thursday, September 03, 2009

THE PROBLEM WITH NEW YORK STATE WINE


Scott Osborn is a very complicated and polarizing individual. Like all people trying to make a difference, he has made both friends and enemies.

There is a lot he is rightly lauded for. He took over, with Andy Hale, and elevated Fox Run well beyond its original mission, and now maintains an excellent winery, whose wines, made by Peter Bell, are classy and delicious. He has also been a great ambassador of the Finger Lakes wine region and New York state wine. As a businessman I admire what he has built and accomplished. In person he is opinionated and affable. He can be charming and engaging.

However, Scott has a problem. There are not enough places in New York to sell all the wine Fox Run can make. For Fox Run to become a bigger and more important winery, the state needs to break open the number of wine outlets in the state. Thus, Scott has made many enemies pushing for grocery stores to carry wine. This issue is a whole other article. The long and short of it is -

He's not wrong, I just personally don't agree with the way he and others have gone about it. I don't want to see grocery stores get a free pass and see liquor owners, who have supported local wineries for years, get screwed. There needs to be more fare and equitable way to give liquor store owners a fair shot at survival once the massive grocery stores move in.

The grocery store issue is a non-issue because it only really means something to a half-dozen wineries in the whole state - Fox Run, Swedish Hill, Bully Hill, Bedell Cellars, and Brotherhood Winery. Maybe I left out one or two. These are the main wineries that have the distribution and volume to service the grocery stores in the state. The rest of the business at the grocery store level will go to cheap California, Chilean, Spanish and other massive wine producers who sell wine in cardboard boxes - not even bottles.

The real unspoken problem is simple - many of the bigger wineries are having a tough time selling New York wine outside the state. There are two reasons for this. First, local liquor stores in Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, for example, would sell wines form many of their own local wineries long before they sell New York wine. Drinking local isn't only a phenomena in New York, it's in every state. Secondly - the problem is that the regions, and the wineries, have not banded together enough to improve the image of wine beyond the state's boarders.

Jim Tresize is a one man band, and he is under-funded. To fault him is wrong. Also, few wine regions would support him since they rarely do enough to support themselves. To me, the Finger Lakes is the best of all the wine regions of trying to sell itself as a unified group to the world outside their region. They work very well with their regional tourism board, etc. Secondly, we lack a major, state wide event. The biggest wine shows in the state are not at the Finger Lakes, or Albany, they are in New York City - and New York Wineries are not invited!

New York City for three or four centuries has been the hub of wine importing for North America. That tradition has not faded. Manhattanites, though they think they have an incredible world view, are in fact provincial snobs - forsaking their own homegrown wines, instead clinging to the old world as the "true" purveyors of wine, ignoring the incredible strides made here by winemakers in the Empire State.

If New York wines are to improve their standing, they need to do the following:



1. Initiate an Empire Wine Festival that is a celebration of wineries from all over the state. The Greenmarket folks would absolutely entertain a New York State wine festival to showcase the agricultural bounty of New York State. The success of Rory and Brian Callahan's program in the Greenmarkets clearly indicates that New Yorkers themselves, when exposed, have embraced state made wines. What the wineries lack, especially in the Big Apple, is exposure. I entreat the Greenmarket folks to discuss a large scale New York State Only wine festival. I know the wineries would embrace it immediately. There would not be enough space to hold all the wineries that would want to participate.


2. New York State winemakers need to have a bigger world view - other US cities and other foreign cities. The four main regions would have to petition the state for a super fund, even at the sake of possibly forgoing some portion of their region's funds, to promote New York wines in strategic areas. This kind of marketing should be focused - not increasing current programs that aren't working. The best wine drinking regions in the country include Chicago, Dallas, Boston, Denver, and several others. Winning medals is nice, but they don't translate to wine sales in most cases. It's mostly just validation. Again, Tresize's staff (which is already stretched thin - and a good bunch of folks) might organize tasting events in some of these cities. Wineries would sign up for these tastings. They would line up in droves to forge these new markets. Virginia sponsors a massive tasting in London every year. Virginia is actually pressing it's case in Europe. In ten years time, with that kind of press, soon Virgina wines will gain a foothold that New York doesn't dream of. At least New York should be targeting Las Vegas? Tokyo? Bejing? Korea?

3. The four regions need to court the major wine media: Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, The New York Times, and other wines, beers, spirits, and food magazines and bloggers. Too many wineries fail to send tasting samples out for review, not wanting to "give away product for free," like silly provincial farmers. I have discussed with many reviewers how many New York wineries refuse to send tasting bottles for review. This is short sighted and backwards. How will these major media outlets know that the regions are making progress if they can't drink the wines. And of course, some admonishment as well to those publications. I give James Molesworth and The Wine Spectator the highest marks for their coverage of the Finger Lakes, especially of late. But the other publications have been relatively mum, especially the great Gray Lady herself. The Times actually gave Howard Goldberg more space 20 and 30 years ago to write about the local wine regions than they dedicate today - even in the face of the local food movement, and the locapour movement. This is of course absurd.

As the local food movement has risen to it's zenith, there is no better time to strike a blow for New York State wine. The time for that kind of organization is now.