Sunday, May 01, 2011

Tug Hill Vineyards, Lewis County, NY

Today, Tug Hill Vineyards in the North Country unveiled the wines from its first vintage, continuing the trend of new wineries opening in unlikely places. I had the honor of uncorking the first bottle.

First, some basic geography: "Tug Hill" is a very large geographic region well north of Syracuse and southeast of Watertown. It lies on the eastern end of Lake Ontario, the easternmost of the Great Lakes, explaining why the region is famous for copious amounts of "lake effect" snow each winter (up to 16 feet) combined with temperatures that this year reached -32F. Forget "cool climate" viticulture; this is cold.

Lewis County is somewhat inland, to the east, a region of gently rolling hills, dairy farms, lots of maple syrup producers, and a steady wind which feeds 195 gargantuan wind turbines along a path 12 miles long and 4 miles wide, providing local power independent of Middle East oil. It's also home to Mercer's Dairy, the business that decided to save a failing dairy cooperative by making the world's best ice cream and then branched out to make Mercer's Wine Ice Cream which is now marketed around the world. In other words, it's a place inhabited by tough, determined, entrepreneurial people who simply won't give up.

I first met Mike and Sue Maring a couple years ago on a cold, bone-chilling spring morning at the request of my indomitable friend Michele Ledoux (Cornell Cooperative Extention, Lewis County) to help guide the Marings through the labyrinthan laws, regulations and licensing procedures involved with opening a winery in New York State. We met in the framed shell of an open building--no walls or windows deflecting the cold winds--surrounded by the mud and materials typical of construction projects.

The long-time owners of a successful nursery and landscape business, they shared their creative vision of a multi-faceted business that would attract all kinds of people for all kinds to reasons. I was impressed with their vision, but especially how well they did their homework.

They had already planted 10 acres of vines--not with Riesling or Cabernet Sauvignon, but with Tundra-surviving "Minnesota" varieties like Frontenac and Marquette which withstand 40 below temperatures and make some very nice wines. They located their main facility overlooking State Route 12, the major thoroughfare in the region, and built it into the sloping hillside for energy efficiency.

They had industry veterans Dr. Richard Vine and Ellie Butz consult about the layout of the separate production facility (and spillover tasting area); got grants to help finance equipment acquisitions and marketing; decided to offer a nice selection of other New York wines as a convenience for consumers and to support the industry; and created a great venue for banquets and weddings (33 already booked for this year).

Their 30 years of landscaping are evident as you approach the vineyard, winery, and surrounding grounds, which are eye-catching and meticulous. They also planted their vineyards in front of the winery, sloping to the higway and overlooking a broad valley, so tasters and diners can enjoy a wine country vista.

The striking wood-frame building fits right in with the landscaping. Inside the top entrance is a tasting bar and huge dining area with a spacious stone fireplace, supplemented by an upstairs level and a screened-in porch. Below is the "Wine Cellar" with lots of New York wines, including their own, and a nice array of gifts, leading out to a beautiful brick patio with bistro tables and chairs. Their "Wine Down After Hours" event each Thursday afternoon encourages people to come and chill from 4 to 8pm while enjoying a glass of wine with local foods. And they offer a Sunday Brunch on the screened-in porch or in front of the fireplace. In other words, instead of having a restaurant for unpredictable walk-ins, they wisely scheduled their meal offerings for specific times, providing much more control over food costs and staffing.

Grapes are not the sole fruit at Tug Hill. There are also three acres of U-Pick golden and red raspberries, and five acres of high bush blueberries, which are also used to make wines. In fact, the family involvement includes Sue's sister Dale as winemaker, her husband Nick as marketer, and Mike and Sue's daughter Crystal who designed the eye-catching labels for the different wines.

Today, Tug Hill Vineyards is the only winery in Lewis County, but I'm convinced that Mike and Sue Maring's vision and vitality will lure others into the business, making this area an unlikely but vibrant "wine country". In the meantime, they work cooperatively with the closest wineries in the Thousand Islands region, a good example of how one winery's vision has now spawned a region.

- Jim Trezise, New York Wine Press, April 30, 2011