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Wine 101: New YorkVinePair

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by E&J Gallo Winery. At Gallo, we exist to serve enjoyment in moments that matter. The hallmark of our company has always been an unwavering commitment to making quality wines and spirits. Whether it’s getting Barefoot and having a great time, making every day sparkle with La Marca Prosecco, or continuing our legacy with Louis Martini in Napa. We want to welcome new friends to wine and share in all of life’s moments. Cheers! And all the best.

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers delves into the history of winemaking in New York — particularly, the way in which New York became a locus of wine production in the United States, despite its cold and often unforgiving climate.

Beavers discusses the nine AVAs of New York, and how they owe their development to a series of acquaintances made in the 19th century. Following Prohibition, when America was trying to regain its footing in the alcohol industry, one American vineyard owner’s trip abroad was the catalyst for a meeting of European minds that made New York’s wine country what it is today. The novel idea of growing vitis vinifera vines in upstate New York, as opposed to the French-American hybrids that were ubiquitous at the time, kickstarted this success.

The rest is history, quite literally. Beavers claims that New York owes much of its tourism today to the thriving hotbed of wineries in upstate New York, producing everything from Riesling to Chardonnay. Furthermore, the introduction of vitis vinifera vines to the Northeast established America as a site of quality wine production.

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My name is Keith Beavers, and have we forgotten about Drake claiming to have invented YOLO? Are we still on that? Have we figured that out yet?

What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to episode four of VinePair’s Wine 101 podcast.

This is Season 2, by the way. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair, and I think you’re doing great. OK, I’m going home. I’m going to New York. We’ve got a lot to talk about. It’s a very exciting place. I don’t even know where to start. New York wine. Let’s get into it. It’s awesome. You’re ready.

On July 3, in the year 1962, Tom Cruise was born in upstate New York in a town called Syracuse. And then in 1975, I was born in Syracuse. So I’m just going to show this fun little correlation between myself and Tom Cruise. No, not really.

What I’m trying to say is I was born in New York, and I love New York. Obviously. What’s very exciting for me as a native New Yorker is how much fun New York is having right now as a wine-producing region, how exciting things are right now for this place.

And I got to say, in prepping for this episode, I didn’t even know where to start. There’s so much I want to tell you about New York — how it got to where it is today and all this stuff. Because the thing is, what I just said is how exciting things are happening in New York. Well, New York has been a place of vine growing for a very long time. We’re talking pre-18th century, during the colonies. When people came here from Europe, they tried immediately to plant vines and create the wine they had at home. And it failed miserably all up and down the Eastern Seaboard. But there was a major push for it to happen in New York. New York is, today, the third-largest wine producing region in the country. It also produces so many grapes. A third of the grapes produced in New York are destined for wine. The rest are destined for basically jams, jellies, and grape juice. And that’s kind of the history of New York grapes, if you will.

Back in Season 1, we talked about where Zinfandel came from, and we talked about this little cottage industry that started up in the Northeast, and about table grapes, and greenhouse grapes and all that. And in that episode, we had a main character, if you will, in the story of Zinfandel. And his name was William Robert Prince. He was the one who led all this grape-growing cottage industry to thrive. Him and his family were a big player in this, specifically in Long Island and Queens. And this guy planted grape vines all up and down the Hudson River, which will eventually become an AVA that we’ll talk about in a second. Also, the oldest winery in America is actually in New York, in the Hudson Valley, established in 1839: Brotherhood Winery. 

And after the Civil War, on the shores of Lake Erie in the northwestern part of the state, there was a huge grape-growing scheme going on there that would eventually become an AVA. We’ll talk about it. 

And even more significant, by the end of the 19th century, the Finger Lakes region, which I’m sure you’ve heard of, had 24,000 acres of land under vine. That’s significant around that time. So there has been vine work in New York for a long time. 

But the realization of the beauty of this land and what it can produce was truly, truly realized not until the 1950s, and the story to get to that point is so cool. 

So after the 19th century, after Prohibition, when the country was coming back, trying to recreate their wine-drinking culture, something happened in New York that was very special, that began the journey to where we are right now in New York. It’s one of the most exciting wine regions we have because we’re watching it form in front of our eyes. Are you excited? I’m excited. 

Today, New York has nine AVAs — American Viticultural Areas — five of which are large, overarching AVAs, four of which are suburbs within a larger AVA. So right now, right there, you’re already saying, OK, we’re seeing terroir because when some AVAs start showing up, there are specific areas that are special. And they’re just that — all these nine areas where wine is being grown are special areas. But there’s one thing we have to understand about New York. Even though the soil compositions are different from region to region, and even the subregions — and those are very unique places, and we’ll get into that — the thing about New York, the big challenge is the weather. This is a mountainous, rocky place, and it’s very well drained and there is high elevation. So you get really good sun hours, or you’re up near the ocean and you get really good breezes coming from the ocean. But weather is something that messes up this place a lot: deep freezes, and hurricanes, and birds (but that’s not really major). But this is the big deal in New York. New York’s ability to make quality wines in this kind of weather, in this kind of climate, is why this place is so special. There’s a reason why it thrives that way now, and it really all starts with the Finger Lakes.

If you don’t know what the Finger Lakes are, the northwestern part of New York state that borders the southern border of Ontario, that whole area at one time, millions of years ago was covered by glaciers. And when those glaciers receded, they were so massive that they left scarring in the earth. It’s almost as if the glacier was a claw. And as the glacier receded, it scraped itself. It was almost like it didn’t want to leave. And it scraped these 11 claw marks into the earth. And those claw marks became lakes. That’s the Finger Lakes. They looked like fingers. It’s a thing. 

The two main lakes are Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake, and they are each its own AVA within the Finger Lakes, as I was talking about before. But we’ll get to that, because it all began on another one of these links called Cayuga Lake, which in native Iroquois tongue means canoe, because the lake is shaped like a canoe, or a finger. On the south end of Cayuga Lake was a bustling town called Hammondsport. Four miles north of that was a quiet little town called Urbana. And in that town in 1865, the Urbana Wine Company was established. Now, this is at a time when wine was being made in New York from French hybrids. When we talk about phylloxera, we’ll talk a lot about that. I wish I had more time now, but I don’t, because this is about to get crazy. This winery has a very interesting history in its name, in that it changed all the time. 

It was The Urbana Wine Company. Then it was New Urbana Wine Company. Then it went back to The Urbana Wine Company. Then Prohibition came around. They claim to do sacramental wine to keep it going, and they called it Gold Seal Products Company (no “wine” in that name.) And then after Prohibition, they went back to Urban Wine Company Incorporated — just a little bit modernized. But today, it’s still known as the Gold Seal Wine Company

It’s a little confusing, but what’s important is its existence, because what happened here is after Prohibition, in 1934, a year after the Volstead Act had been repealed, the current president of Gold Seal Urban Winery went to France. Because at this time in New York, it was very popular to make sparkling wine from whatever grapes you could find. And he wanted to go over to the Champagne region of France to study how Champagne was made. Hopefully, he could either find somebody to help them out, or learn stuff and bring that knowledge back to New York and try to help this company thrive. So Edwin Stuart Underhill Jr., the president of Gold Seal, meets a man named Charles Fournier, and Charles was the product manager for Veuve Clicquot.  

There’s this fun story about how Charles and Edwin meet. They start talking about what’s going on in New York. Edwin’s, like, “Look, you know, I could always use some help. We’re doing sparkling wine in New York.” Charles Fournier is like, “You know what, man? I want something new. I want to put my name on something. Maybe if I go to New York and help these guys out, I can put my name on something, then come back to France and just kind of boost my resume.” So he agrees to go to New York for a year or two, help them with their sparkling wine situation, and then come back to France. 

At the time in upstate New York, a lot of the vines that are being grown were these hybrids, because these are the only grapes that would survive up in this weather. But the thing was, they didn’t have the best quality like you would get from European vines. So when Charles Fournier got to New York to this winery, he set about trying to make quality wine out of French-American hybrids. And it was a very daunting task. But Charles was determined. And he never went back to France. And in 1952, Charles Fournier became the president of Urbana Wine Company, or Gold Seal. 

Czar Alexander I of the Russian Empire came to power in the early 19th century. He was a very forward-thinking dude, and he brought a lot of people from Germany and parts of Europe to Russia to help Russia develop a Western-style culture. Five generations after that move, a man is born from one of those families — a German family — by the name of Konstantin Frank. He was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and as he grew up, he gained an interest in agriculture and eventually got his doctorate in agricultural science at the Odessa Polytechnic. In 1917, after Russia had a revolution, now Dr. Konstantin Frank (this is crazy) was appointed the head of the now nationalized Trubetzkoy Estate — which is an old royal Czar, because they had a revolution and there’s no more Czars. So there’s this huge estate with 2,000 acres of land under vine along this river. And he was appointed to maintain and take care of all 2,000 acres of this now-nationalized vineyard. So we have this man who’s a doctorate of agricultural science, maintaining a vineyard of grapes — vitis vinifera vines, by the way, this is Europe — in an extremely cold region of the world.

And he had this appointment well into his 40s. And then in 1943, the Germans invaded Ukraine, and Dr. Frank and his family fled to Vienna, then to Bavaria. At this point, he’s destitute. He has a wife, two daughters, and a son. He doesn’t know what to do. So he decides in 1951 to emigrate to the United States and ends up in Brooklyn, New York. Here, we have a 52-year-old man with a family, who has a doctorate in agricultural science, who maintained a 2,000-acre vineyard in a cold region in Russia, in Brooklyn with no money. But you see, Dr. Konstantin Frank had a goal. He needed to get to Geneva, N.Y., which is a town on the northern tip of one of the larger Finger Lakes called Seneca Lake. 

That’s where Cornell University is, and that’s where the New York Agricultural Experiment Station lived. He needed to get to that place. So the story goes that he gets a job at an automat in New York City as a janitor and saves up enough money for bus fare to bring him and his family from Brooklyn to Geneva, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region, where he finally gets to the New York State Agricultural Experiment Center. And this 50-something-year-old man with a doctorate in agricultural science who speaks six languages, applies for a job. But unfortunately, English isn’t one of those languages. So the only job he gets is hoeing blueberries. I’m not sure how you hoe blueberries. I don’t know, blueberries had to be hoed. 

This is where things come together, and it’s beautiful. Dr. Konstantin Frank, while employed by this place, hoeing blueberries, would not stop talking about the possibility of growing vitis vinifera vines in the cold region of New York State, especially in the Finger Lakes. He talked about it all the time, to the point where he would actually annoy people. And then Charles Fournier, a former production manager of Veuve Clicquot, now the president of Gold Seal Winery, gets wind of this guy who just keeps on talking about vitis vinifera vines. He eventually meets Dr. Konstantin Frank, and they have a conversation because one of the languages he does know is French. So he and Charles have a full conversation of what Charles wants to accomplish. Charles listens to what Konstantin wants to accomplish, and the two of them have an understanding. And so Charles hires Konstantin Frank to work at the Gold Seal winery, and together they work on his theory of growing successful vitis vinifera vines in upstate New York. Not hybrids. 

Together, they work at this winery to make this happen, and what they start doing is grafting vitis vinifera vines onto hybrid rootstock. And in 1957 they unveiled their work in the form of two bottles of wine: a bottle of Chardonnay, and a bottle of Riesling. They sold it commercially, and it was a success. And that, wine lovers, is where I believe the beginning of New York State really started to pop off.

Eventually, Dr. Konstantin Frank would leave Gold Seal to start his own winery north of Cayuga Lake, and he started Vinifera Wine Cellars. His goal was not only to grow vitis vinifera wine and make successful wine from white wine grapes; he was ready to start experimenting with Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. What this did was establish New York as a place to grow fine wine: wine made from vitis vinifera varieties, wine that Europeans coming here have always wanted to do, wine that Thomas Jefferson was trying to accomplish in Virginia. Dr. Konstantin Frank accomplished that in *New York. His family carried on the tradition, and Dr. Konstantin Frank wine is still there. It’s just now called “Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery.” 

He would go on to influence so many people in New York, and they would become pioneers in their own right. They were students of his skills — well, he didn’t call them students, he liked to call them “cooperators” — and that really helped to form the Finger Lakes. Now, I know I’m talking about one region, but that is where the spark, I believe, was lit. From that point into the 1970s, a lot of work was done. But this is the thing. In 1976, we had the Judgment of Paris, where California wines won over French wines in a blind tasting, being a watershed moment for us as a winemaking country. That same year, New York passed what’s called the Farm Winery Act. This was a law that allowed grape growers to make wine on their property and be able to sell that wine to consumers. This was huge for New York. In 1973, Alex and Louisa Hargrave had bought an old, abandoned potato field on Long Island and started a vineyard there. So when the 1976 law went into action, they kind of were the pioneers of that region, which became popular because of its proximity to New York City. 

And in the 1980s, all these established places that I’ve been talking about in the beginning of this episode in New York became AVAs. Because you remember from the appellations episode, this is that feverish time between 1983 and 1991 where 100 AVAs were awarded to the United States because of the feverish push of the popularity of Napa Valley becoming an AVA, so a lot of AVAs are being awarded, and New York was part of it. 

The Finger Lakes became an AVA in 1982, then Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake became their own AVAs in 1988. Hudson River also became an AVA in 1982. Lake Erie became an AVA in 1983, and then Long Island became an AVA in 1985 and split into two because Long Island is a fork. You have the North Fork of Long Island, and you have the South Fork of Long Island. The North Fork of Long Island is called the North Fork AVA, and the South Fork of Long Island is the home of the Hamptons, so that’s called the Hamptons AVA. And then in 2005 — yeah, that’s recent — a new AVA popped up called the Niagara Escarpment, all the way up to the southern border of Ontario. And guys, let me tell you, the wine coming out of there is great. 

And to cap this story off to where we are today, in 2011, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York State, signed the Fine Winery Act. This alleviates the pressure of having tasting rooms. He allowed five tasting rooms per winery. He made it easier for wineries to ship wines to consumers. He allowed people to rent other people’s equipment to make wine, which apparently wasn’t legal before that. This act started the whole tourism part. 

Tourism was already part of New York. It just wasn’t as robust. But this changed everything. And now we have this amazing, thriving wine region in my home state, New York. Long Island is known for being the closest vineyard in the United States to Bordeaux because of the Atlantic Ocean. I think that’s awesome and fun. They have extreme maritime influences. They have to worry about hurricanes and frosts, but their growing seasons are long, and they can produce wines like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay, and they have these nice slow, steady ripening periods. There’s a lot of organic work going on right now in Long Island. It’s a lot of fun. 

On the North Fork is where you have most of the wineries; on the South Fork there’s only three wineries in the Hamptons, but they’re fun to visit. And of course, you have the Finger Lakes, which is kind of a big deal in the national scene right now. It’s like our big deal in New York because of the Riesling that’s coming out of there. The Riesling is so good coming out of the Finger Lakes of New York. This is where Dr. Konstantin Frank started. This is where Cornell University is. This is where the spark of the New York wine thing started really happening. Most of the vines are near these lakes, and the lakes have something called a “lake effect.” In the winter as it gets colder, the lake is still warm from the summer and it moderates the temperature around the lake. Then the same thing happens when the season changes. When it starts to get warmer out, the lake is cold and it moderates the temperature that way. 

These are just some of the things that Dr. Konstantin Frank helped everybody with back in the day. And today this defines that region. The Chardonnays, the Rieslings, the Cab Francs, the Merlot. The wines coming out of this area in the Finger Lakes have become just beautiful, elegant, medium- to full-bodied, just zippy acidity, awesome wines. The cool thing about Finger Lakes is they produce enough wine that you’re going to see these wines on the market. You’re also going to see Long Island wines on the market. They can produce enough — not all of them — but some of them can produce enough to be on the national market and distribution. Dr. Konstantin Frank, you can find around the country. 

Now that new AVA, the Niagara Escarpment, all the way to the north, that place is incredible. It’s brand new, but they’re producing amazing Pinot Noir, amazing Chardonnay, and amazing Cab Franc. It’s a fairly new region, so you’re not going to see a big production. You’re not going to see a lot of these wines on the market. But if you go to New York, and you want to go to wine country, the Niagara Escarpment is definitely a place to visit. It’s not only beautiful naturally, but the wines coming out of there are awesome. The Hudson Valley is one of the most beautiful places in the country. This AVA is mostly known for making wines from French hybrids, and we’ll talk about that this season. They do make Chardonnay and some Sauvignon Blanc, but the production is so low, you’re not really going to see it outside of New York. The same goes for the Lake Erie AVA. There’s only about 17 wineries there. The wine is good, but the majority of the grapes grown there are for table grapes. 

So that’s New York. That’s the New York story. There’s more to tell, but that’s a good overview to give you a sense of what’s going on here in New York. Of course, I love New York. I mean, I was camping and hiking in the Allegheny Mountains before I was even born. I love this place, but it’s a good American wine story. American wine is evolving in front of our eyes. It’s pretty amazing — places like Virginia, New York, Texas, Michigan. These are exciting places, and there are great winemakers doing great things in these places: listening to the land, not the dollar, doing what the land wants, putting vines in the land that can survive, and make great stuff. And New York is one of them. So I hope you enjoy my story about Dr. Konstantin Frank and Charles Fournier, and how it all began here in New York. Thank you very much. 

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. And now, for some totally awesome credits. 

“Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City.  I want to give a big ol’ shout out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, big shout out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week. 

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by E&J Gallo Winery. At Gallo, we exist to serve enjoyment in moments that matter. The hallmark of our company has always been an unwavering commitment to making quality wines and spirits. Whether it’s getting Barefoot and having a great time, making every day sparkle with La Marca Prosecco, or continuing our legacy with Louis Martini in Napa. We want to welcome new friends to wine and share in all of life’s moments. Cheers! And all the best.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

The article Wine 101: New York appeared first on VinePair.

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