In 1974, the New York state wine industry consisted of 20 wineries and at last count, they numbered 219. In the Lake Erie Viticultural Area, the most westerly of the state’s five regions which include the Finger Lakes, Central/Lake Ontario, Hudson River and Long Island, producers emphasize the regional character of international varietals and a commitment to the indigenous and unique French-American hybrids that are so well-suited to their microclimates.
My interest in the Lake Erie Region (also known as Chautauqua) is two-fold. I spent my childhood there and one of my first jobs involved racing home after school during harvest to pick until it was too dark to see your hands. Today, Chautauqua is the largest grape growing county outside of California with some 20,000 acres (8,094 hectares) of vineyards the majority of which are vitis labrucsa varietals like Concord and Niagara but every year the number of acres being planted to vitis vinifera varietals increases.
Birth of an Industry
Fred Johnson, II, third generation vintner and owner of the Johnson Estate Winery founded in 1961 and said to be New York’s oldest estate winery, cultivates 140 acres devoted to three different types of grapes: vitis labrusca – varietals native to North America; vitis vinifera – the international varietals; and French-Hybrids which are a cross of labrusca and vinifera vines producing the varietals like Seyval and Chancellor which has an almost black color and meaty expression not unlike the Southern Italian varietal Nero d’Avola.
Once the farm’s apple cellar, Johnson Estate’s tasting room is a fixture on the Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail that runs for 50 miles along the southeastern shores of Lake Erie. It was bustling during my visit and manned by a seasoned hospitality staff who skillfully presented as many as twenty different wines. Winemaker Jeffery Murphy, 28, makes dozens of different styles and his vinifera wines – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and riesling – are fermented dry and retail from $11.99 to $13.99. Hybrid and labrusca wines range from $6.99 to $12.99 and styles include off-dry, semi-dry and semi-sweet. Specialty wines retail from $7.99 to $16.99 and include the winery’s signature late-harvest Delaware, a sought-after Vidal Blanc icewine, Red and White Ipocras – a traditional English spiced wine, Port and Sherry.
Johnson credits the future of his winery business and the local industry to agro-tourism,
“Wine industry tourism is driving the economy in this region and we fully expect it to grow.” The majority of his customers and tasting room visitors are from the surrounding Tri-State area (New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio) or are tourists with a connection to the county similar to my own. Johnson wines enjoy a wide distribution across the Tri-States
and are now being shipped to a growing list of out-of-state customers.
Supply and Demand
For most New York producers, local demand makes up for lack of national distribution. The state of Pennsylvania and some New York counties are dry; by law, alcohol is sold only in designated outlets or ‘state’ liquor stores, bars, hotels and restaurants. Very limited access to out-of-state and imported premium wines has created a strong local market and producers who focus on achieving national distribution are the exception.
Winemaker Mark Lancaster whose Vetter Vineyards Winery produces the only pinot noir made in the Lake Erie region says growth for his boutique winery established in 2003 will be regional over the next five years by design. Retail prices for Lancaster’s vinifera wines range from $10.49 for Chardonnay and Cabernet blends to $24.99 for his signature pinot noir which showed considerably more fruit albeit lower alcohol than its West Coast counterparts. Lancaster is experimenting with several different vinfera varietals and expects quality and price to climb as his vineyards mature.
Across the Pennsylvania state line and just outside the hamlet of North East sits Arrowhead Wine Cellars owned by Kathy and Winemaker Nicholas Mobilia. Arrowhead’s tasting room was the most spacious and well-merchandised of those I visited and their line up included a broad selection of labrucsa and vinifera wines as well as several outstanding fruit wines. An aromatic cabernet franc and a tasty Chardonnay/Seyval blend “Reflections of Lake Erie” were stand outs among the current vinifera releases. Tasting room prices at Arrowhead ran from $7.99 to $14.99.
Chuck Hayward, wine yoda at San Francisco’s The Jug Shop, is a fan of New York State wines but currently has only one producer, Konstantin Frank (Finger Lakes AVA) in stock. Hayward’s interest in regional wines is keen as is his commitment to educating customers about stylistic differences and little-known varietals, but few New York wines have yet to find their way into his store. “There is a growing interest in regional wines but it’s hard to find distributors who will carry them. We’d like to see more New York State wines become available.”
Lake Erie Region Varietals
The Northeastern United States is home to more grape varietals including those grown for juice, table and winemaking than any region in the world. Here’s a short list of the wine varietals that thrive in the well-drained gravel and shale soils and “lake effect” climate found on the Southeastern shores of Lake Erie.
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NYWRegionmap: [map does not illustrate all five regions, it omits the Central/Lake Ontario region]
Lake Erie Region:
Arial view of Lake Erie and surrounding region.
Lake Erie vineyards at sunrise
Mechanical harvester at work.
Johnson Estate Winemaker Jeffery Murphy and Vintner Fred Johnson, II.
Daughter Jennifer and Kathy Mobilia of North East’s Arrowhead Winery.
Barbara Lancaster of Vetter Vineyards Winery.
State run liquor store in the town of French Creek, Chautauqua County, New York.
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