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NY State Wines Finally Get Some Respect - 2003-01-31

Wines from small, U.S. New York State wineries are beating out wines from France, Italy, and California in international wine competitions. As recently as 10 years ago, this would have been unimaginable.

Big New York State wineries have been churning out American Chablis and American burgundy jug wines, as they are called for a century. But New York wine has never garnered much respect.

Now, New York wines are muscling onto the wine lists at Manhattan's most exclusive restaurants. People are paying $50 to $100 for wines made not in Bordeaux or Champagne, but in rural New York and on Long Island.

New York vineyard-owner Robert Ransom says that New York wineries are focusing on the niche market of premium wines, and it's paying off. "The people producing wines in New York are out to prove that high quality, world class, world competitive wines can be made here," he said. "And they are proving it. They're winning medals left and right. You don't find wines like that are priced for two bottles for 10 [dollars]."

The big, commodity-style wineries still exist in New York State. In fact, the largest wine and alcohol conglomerate in the world, Canandaigua Wine Company, is headquartered in upstate New York. But it's the small, boutique wineries that are winning worldwide acclaim.

The groundwork for this phenomenon, Mr. Ransom explains, was laid 40 years ago by Ukranian immigrant, Konstantin Frank. Mr. Frank proved that New York State was suitable for growing Vitis vinifera, the classic European wine grape. "Before his experiments, it was commonly thought that you couldn't do it," said Mr. Ransom. "It was too cold. But he proved that you could do it. It wasn't the cold, it was disease resistance. His experiments started to turn into commercial production of vines in the early 1960s. Probably '63 or '64. I know - I tasted a 1966 early wine of his. It was pretty good!"

One of the largest wineries in New York bears Dr. Frank's name, and is run by his son.

In 1976, the budding premium wine industry received another boost: the state passed The Farm Winery Act, which allowed grape growers to make wine and sell it directly to their visitors. Before the act, there were less than 20 wineries in New York State - today, there are more than 175. Approximately 80 percent of the wine sold by the small, premium wineries is at the wineries themselves, which have become tourist attractions.

More than a million people visited New York wineries last year, according to Trent Preszler, a business consultant who analyzes the New York wine industry. He says the current success of the premium wine industry in New York has grown naturally out of shifts in New York State farming industry over the years. "The New York wine industry has capitalized on the downfall of the New York dairy and apple industries," explained Mr. Preszler. "They've been able to use existing infrastructures from the dairy industry, and transform wonderful old barns into wine tasting rooms. A lot of people who started out as farmers, as grape growers, have used their operations and poured their profits from that back into their winery operations. There has been some external investment but, for the most part, it's good, old fashioned American entrepreneurial vision. People working hard, and farmers doing great things on the land."

Vineyard owner Robert Ransom says most of these boutique wineries produce between 10,000 and 15,000 cases of wine a year nothing compared to the massive output of companies like Canandaigua, Gallo, or Mondavi. But, he says, the output suits them, and represents a dramatic improvement over life in the New York wine business as recently as 13 years ago, when selling his wine even to local restaurants was impossible. "In 1990, I'm knocking on their door trying to sell my wines to them, and they won't even buy them because they're not expensive enough," he said. "They're not good enough. Nobody's ever heard of them. It was impossible to sell these wines in the early days. Everybody would look at you and say. What do you mean, 'New York wines'? Where do you grow your grapes - Central Park?"

Mr. Ransom says that today, many New York wineries have more orders than they can fill. He also says they are many years away from having the capacity to export their products. For now, New York wines are consumed almost exclusively in state.

Business consultant Trent Preszler, who also manages a restaurant upstate, says the task of domestic marketing in the United States is monumental. U.S. citizens, he says, still favor beverages other than wine. "From the very early parts of your life, you're drinking things like milk and Coca Cola," he said. "In Europe, at a much earlier age, it's infused into your family life. It's part of the wine and food culture in Europe. In America, we're slowly picking up on that. But fewer than 10 percent of our population is drinking more than 90 percent of our wine."

Among experienced wine drinkers, however, New York wines are well-appreciated. At the prestigious 2002 San Francisco International Wine Competition, two New York wines won double gold medals. At the 2002 Los Angeles County Fair, another international competition, Standing Stone Reisling took the prize for best white wine.