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Finger Lakes' beauty reaps big benefits for wineries

Rochester Business Journal
July 29, 2011

Like his colleagues in the wine industry, Scott Osborn believes the beauty of the Finger Lakes region is a huge advantage for the local wine scene.
 
"It's just beautiful here, and when you drive along the lakes with the spectacular views, it becomes a very romantic trip," says Osborn, owner of Fox Run Vineyards on Seneca Lake in Penn Yan. "It's all about days well spent and enjoying life."
 
Others seem to agree with Osborn's sentiments.
 
When Fox Run began in the early 1990s there were perhaps 14 wineries dotting the shores of Seneca Lake. Today there are roughly 60. The Finger Lakes is one of five recognized viticultural regions in the state, with more than 9,000 acres of vineyards. It has grown from 88 licensed wine producers in 2005 to 110 at the end of 2010, data provided by the New York Wine & Grape Foundation shows.
 
The number of satellite retail sites also has increased. A satellite retail license is for a retail store owned by a winery at a secondary location. An example of a licensee would be Heron Hill Winery on Keuka Lake, which has satellite retail licenses to sell wine at two other locations, one on Seneca Lake and one on Canandaigua Lake. No wine is manufactured on those premises.
 
Fox Run itself has grown.
 
The winery has been in operation since 1990 and was purchased by Osborn in 1993. In its early years, the winery produced 1,000 cases of wine annually on 25 acres. Today Fox Run produces 18,000 cases of wine each year on nearly 50 acres.
 
Osborn says he is not surprised by the winery region's growth, which he says is due in part to the industry's commitment to producing high-quality wines. It is an effort that really took off in the early 2000s and has reaped benefits since, he says.
 
In addition to focusing on quality, winemakers started to get a better handle on what types of grapes grew best in the region and would benefit from the area's geography. Local specialties now include sparkling, riesling, pinot noir and ice wines.
 
James Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, a non-profit trade organization with offices at the New York Wine & Culinary Center in Canandaigua, says that despite the global recession, the Finger Lakes wine region is booming. People are noticing the growing number of local wineries and want to try their hand at the business, he says.
 
"It's their dream, and they want to give it a shot," Trezise says.
 
There is a lure to the business, Trezise says, from the vineyards and working outside on the land to the romance associated with wine. But there also is the reality of starting a business, and that is where other Finger Lakes wineries lend their support.
 
The winery owners usually are happy to talk about their experiences and give advice to people looking to get into the business, perhaps offering tips to help develop a solid, detailed business plan. Trezise's organization is eager to help and often receives phone inquiries. The Wine & Grape Foundation also posts information online.
 
People aiming to start a winery here are doing their homework, Trezise adds, and they know which grapes to grow in the region, how much wine to make and where to sell it.
 
The wine trails are the most obvious examples of people working together to promote the region, Trezise says. Individual wineries also have their own ways to draw people in.
 
The cooperation extends beyond marketing, Trezise says. An example is wine production.
 
"We have a number of enlightened wineries that want everyone here to make the best wine they can," he says, adding that the quality enhances the image of the region. "It gets people saying, 'The Finger Lakes makes really good wines.'"
 
Trezise believes the Finger Lakes winer-ies are leaders when it comes to promoting the area and bringing in visitors.
 
They also are allowed more flexibility than other regions of the country, he says. Napa Valley in California, for example, is roughly the same size as Seneca Lake at 35 miles long, but the majority of the wineries there are not allowed to sell food. Wineries here can sell edible items in their gift shops and offer snacks and meals at on-site restaurants and cafes.
 
"Over the past 10 years, the Finger Lakes has truly become a wine country destination," Trezise says.
 
The geography of the Finger Lakes also helps boost the number of visitors, Trezise says. The parallel lakes make it easy to travel to each area, and there are a number of wineries to choose from, so people can pick one lake and spend the day there.
 
Another advantage is the Finger Lakes region's proximity to larger populations. There is an opportunity to draw a substantial number of visitors from urban centers nearby, not just Rochester and Syracuse but Pittsburgh, Toronto and Washington, D.C., Trezise says.
 
"The huge advantage is the natural beauty here," he says.
 
In Trezise's opinion, the only other region in the world that is comparable to the Finger Lakes is in South Africa.
 
"It's just breathtaking here, and no one can take that away," he says.
 
Deborah Drago-Leaf, winery marketing manager for Belhurst Castle in Geneva, says Belhurst has a number of initiatives to bring in guests, such as packages that include winery activities with overnight lodging.
 
The efforts appear to be working, she says, noting that sales at the winery are expected to increase by as much as 30 percent this year over last.
 
Belhurst is constantly introducing new wines, often based on feedback and suggestions from visitors. The winery also has received several industry awards for its recent offerings, recognition partly due to having a good handle on what works best and produces the best wines, Drago-Leaf says.
 
Recently, Belhurst added specialty wine and food pairings at its restaurant. The package includes a wine expert who discusses each selection with the guests. Belhurst has offered special pairings in the past, including one centered on chocolate for Valentine's Day and a new pairing option that includes locally grown foods.
 
Having a stunning view also helps.
 
"People come here, fall in love with the area and come back, often bringing their friends and family," Drago-Leaf says. "It definitely has to do with an increase in sales."
 
Another advantage, she says, is the way businesses here work together to promote tourism.
 
"We are always giving guests recommendations for other things to do here," she says.
 
Fox Run uses a mix of ways to draw visitors. It holds an annual Garlic Festival in August at which visitors can sample wine along with food flavored with fresh garlic, enjoy music, browse offerings from local vendors and garlic farmers and watch garlic cooking demonstrations.
 
People are drawn to the wineries where they can sample not only the wines but local food as well, Osborn says.
 
"It's a whole experience that makes most people feel happy," he says.
 
Osborn says spending on marketing-whether the medium is print, radio, television or Internet-is crucial to promoting the business.
 
"My feeling is you need to invest almost as much in marketing as you do for production," Osborn says. "You can make the best wine in the world, but if you don't tell anyone, it doesn't matter."
 
Growth in the number of Finger Lakes wineries increases the need to market them, Osborn says. Organizations such as the Wine & Culinary Center play a part in bringing travelers to the region, but more can be done to promote the region's wines, he says. To keep the region prospering, two priorities should be increasing distribution channels and getting Finger Lakes wines in more retail locations outside the region. That would help smaller wineries here expand and bring in larger players in the industry, Osborn says.
 
Trezise agrees it may be time to take a long-term view of the region and its growth potential. There is room to grow, he says, noting there are more than 250 wineries in the Napa Valley, but it is something that needs to be done with care.
 
"The question, is how do we increase the pie so everyone gets a bigger piece?" he says.

7/29/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail service@rbj.net.


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