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Cultivating A Wine Market In N.Y.'s Finger Lakes

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New York's Finger Lakes region is named for its 11 long, thin lakes that run north to south below Lake Ontario. As it turns out, the hills surrounding these lakes are fertile ground for grapes, and the region is starting to gain recognition for its wines.

But because of the nature of marketing and selling new wines, it's still pretty tough to buy a bottle from the Finger Lakes region.

The area does have a long history of growing grapes: There have been wild grapes there for untold centuries. The vines are hardy and able to withstand occasional subzero temperatures.

However, the small purple fruit they bear doesn't lend itself to the making of wine, so vintners have to import grapes from elsewhere.

"You're not going to make a wine out of native grapes that is meant to be consumed in the same meal with some of the great wines of the world," says Evan Dawson, author of a book called Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes.

Dawson says the great wine grapes — those-centuries old European varieties — didn't arrive there until the 1950s. After a lot of trial and error, vintners started making things happen. But for decades, the rest of the wine industry failed to take notice.

A Rise In Popularity

Nothing made in the Finger Lakes region earned a coveted 90 points or above on the wine score scale until 2008, when one wine scored a 90.

"Then, early in 2009, [there were] three more, and now it's happening with regularity," Dawson says.

Once a wine hits that mark, it gets a lot more attention. This year, Wine Spectator and two other popular wine magazines published big feature stories about the region.

"To have all [those features] in one year is an indication that there is something hot going on. There's something really, finally starting to turn when it comes to public awareness," Dawson says.

The interest and accolades are welcome, but they don't necessarily translate into sales.

Early on a Friday morning, John Martini loads cases of his wine into a big black van in the warehouse at Anthony Road Winery near Geneva, N.Y. He's taking them to the Union Square public market in lower Manhattan. It's a 10-hour round-trip drive.

"It does mess up my weekends, but as I tell people, the money is good and the show is great," Martini says.

He sells about 20 cases of wine at the market each week. He calls Brian Lewis his best customer; Lewis buys a lot of wine here and likes to serve it when he entertains.

"It disappears," Lewis says. "It's excellent."

Marketing, Through The Grapevine

But the Union Square market is the only place he can find it in New York City. Winemakers in the Finger Lakes typically expand their markets face to face, one customer, one restaurant or one retailer at a time.

There are many reasons for this. Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, says the region still only makes 0.2 percent of the world's wine, so there's a lot of competition out there. International distribution is just a dream at this point, and only a few Finger Lakes wines can be found in other states.

"Every time you cross a state line, you're dealing with a different country when it comes to wine marketing," Trezise explains. "It's a different bureaucracy, tax structure, paperwork, headaches and so forth."

Because well-known wines sell faster, even some local restaurants and liquor stores don't carry many — if any — Finger Lakes wines. You can't find them in grocery stores either, since it's against state law for them to sell wine.

But still, new wineries open in the region every year, and there are more than 100 there now. Martini says he sometimes feels like he's part of a grand experiment.

"When you get a good crop, and in our case now [you get] a great wine, you don't have to smoke anything to feel good," he says.

In addition to making wine, he says, he's making history.

Copyright 2011 WXXI Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit http://www.wxxi.org/.

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