I actively support the Texas wine industry as a consumer, in my marketing communications business and as a wine writer. We have fantastic wineries making delicious wine in Texas. However after visiting the Finger Lakes wine region in upstate New York for the 8th Annual Wine Bloggers Conference, I’m embarrassed to be a Texan.
I said it. I’m embarrassed to be a Texan.
Why? The Texas wine industry can’t hold a candle to New York.
Sure, Texas has excellent wines that win national and international awards. I’m confident Texas wines could go toe-to-toe with those from the Finger Lakes. It’s not about the quality of the wine.
Its all about the cohesion
It is about the cohesiveness of the industry. The Finger Lakes wine region has its stuff together. It’s more than a geographic region marked by 11 long, deep lakes gouged out of the earth by glaciers 10,000 years ago. It’s more than just an American Viticultural Area (AVA). It’s more than wine trails connecting the 129 wineries that grow cool climate vinifera grapes like Riesling and Cabernet Franc in Finger Lakes AVA (there are 428 wineries statewide). It is a tight knit community of wineries, farms, restaurants, tourism boards, chambers of commerce and businesses all with a shared mission of promoting the beautiful region as a top-notch wine and tourism destination. The biggest driver of this unity is the largest tourism board east of the Mississippi, the Finger Lakes Wine Country.
It’s working. The Finger Lakes wine region has been recognized as a “Top 10 Worldwide Wine Destination,” by Wine Enthusiast and a “Top Wine Destination in the U.S.,” by TripAdvisor.com. It also landed the challenge to host the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference, a coveted marketing opportunity for any wine region looking to wine and dine around 270 wine writers. The folks of the Finger Lakes certainly made the most of that opportunity. They rolled out the red carpet for the bloggers.
A wine tourism board that works
The Finger Lakes Wine Country, founded in 2000, has a lot to do with that success. The group began conversations to bring the Wine Bloggers Conference to the Finger Lakes in 2011. That lobbying and the great press the region has enjoyed helped it win the RFP process to host the conference.
“It is a pretty big undertaking,” says Laury Ellen Poland, president of the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association. “There aren’t a whole lot of wine regions that have the infrastructure to support this kind of undertaking. It took all of our energy for more than a year.”
This whole concept of having a wine tourism board came about when Corning Enterprise, the economic development arm of Corning, commissioned a research study to determine the best ways to attract quality engineers and scientists to rural Upstate New York. The research firm determined the big draw is wine. Duh! I could have told them that.
Since then, four counties have signed on to support the Finger Lakes Wine Country by providing a portion of hotel room tax revenue. Private companies chip in too and Corning matches the public dollars. The group collaborates with organizations like Finger Lakes Wine Alliance and the New York wine and Grape Association for broader reach.
The Finger Lakes wine region screams community
Beyond the tourism board, everything about the Finger Lakes wine region screams community. Our first taste of this community during the conference was a tasty welcome dinner with dozens of restaurants and wineries hosted in a park in the middle of picturesque Corning, NY. That incredible level of hospitality was on also display with lovely receptions at the Rockwell Museum of Art and the Corning Museum of Glass.
Community was front and center in an excellent educational session put on by fruit crop physiologist Alan Lakso, a professor emeritus from Cornell University, who has researched grapes for 45 years, along with Fred Merwarth, owner, winemaker and vineyard manager of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard and Master Sommelier, chef and winemaker Christopher Bates. These guys shared deep insight into the history, geology, climate, grapes and winemaking techniques. It was clear that academia, viticulture, winemaking, wine sales and culinary arts are inextricably linked in the Finger Lakes. How else could the region produce quality wines from an area with extreme weather, crazy variations in soil and short growing seasons?
Merwarth of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard described the growing conditions saying, “Cold winters are a defining character. It can vary from minus 6 to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit at the same time in the same winery. That kind of deep cold impacts vine health for up to 2 years. We don’t think of it as just a growing season. It’s a 12 month cycle.”
Master Sommelier, Bates, noted that the big challenge for the region is that it sells all of its wine to the millions of tourists that visit the areas each summer and the masses in New York City, a stone’s throw across the state. “If we’re not thinking about the future and real growth, people can be happy selling all the wine here. But we want our wine on a national stage. We need to get people excited about wine outside of New York. We have no interest in comparing our Riesling to the Riesling from Rheingau, Germany or our Cabernet Franc to what’s made in Loire, France. We make good Finger Lakes wine.”
Where the cohesiveness of the Finger Lakes wine community really shined was in the wineries visits that they arranged for the bloggers. These were incredibly well orchestrated to show off the interrelationships between the wineries, the interconnectivity between farmers, chefs, winemakers and the land itself. Each excursion along wine trails featured multiple wineries gathered in one location. We tasted fantastic wines from places like Glenora Wine Cellars, Zugibe Vineyards, Knapp Winery, Dr. Frank’s Wine Cellars, Fox Run Vineyards, Goose Watch Cellars, Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery and more. Can you imagine a Napa winery hosting other wineries on its property for group tastings? Would that happen in Bordeaux, Rioja, Mendoza, Barossa Valley or the Mosel? Well it happens in the Finger Lakes.
I’m not saying these people are nicer than Texans, but they sure can give us a run for our money.
What a treat to have a vegetable farmer, grain farmer, beef farmer, cheese maker, chef and winemaker describe what they grew, made and why they are great together. I was blown away by the camaraderie they shared not only with each other, but with those of us who were there eager to learn about it. Hospitality.
Texas isn’t ready
Texas, I don’t think you could pull off hosting the Wine Bloggers Conference. Yet. I don’t think you are ready. Texas has some great cities. It has some great wineries. It has some great wine trails. It has hospitality in spades. But, the Texas wine industry lacks the cohesion to really make it on the world stage. Maybe the state is just too dang big. After all, it is bigger than France. But, it is lacking a serious organizing body to unify the wine industry.
It can be done. It requires that a significant number of winery owners get on board. That’s tough. Established wineries may not feel the time and monetary investment is needed to advance their own business. That’s true in New York too, but they’ve gotten enough wineries on board to make it happen. It takes funding and that is definitely a challenge. The New York model of funding a concerted marketing campaign to promote economic development and regional tourism with a blend of private and public sector money may not work in exactly the same way in Texas. We may need state dollars to pull together our huge region.
It is worth the investment. The full economic impact of New York grapes, grape juice, and wine in 2012 was $4.8 billion in state and local taxes for New York State, according to a study conducted by Stonebridge Research Group for the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. This compares with a full economic impact of wine and wine grapes of $1.83 billion on the Texas economy in 2011 according to a study by Frank, Rimerman + Co. LLP commissioned by the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association.
The words of Christopher Bates are ringing in my ears, “If we’re not thinking about the future and real growth, people can be happy selling all the wine here.” Does that sound familiar Texas? The 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference already has a home in Lodi, CA. What do you think Texas? Can we be ready to host in 2017? I know we can.
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Disclosure: I was provided with the Rodney Strong Scholarship which covered the costs of my participation in the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference where this interview took place.