Wineries sprout in Jefferson County thanks to cold-hardy grapes
Published: Sunday, July 12, 2009, 12:32 PM Updated: Monday, October 12, 2009, 9:25 PM
By Don Cazentre / The Post-Standard
Like all farmers, the grape growers in the Thousands Islands-Seaway area of New York keep a constant watch on the weather. But in this, the state's newest and northernmost wine region, there's a special concern.
Deals on the vines
Here's an estimate of the relative value of prime vineyard land in various regions, according to Jim Trezise of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation:
Value per acre:
• Thousand Islands: $300
• Finger Lakes: $3,000 to $5,000
• Long Island: $50,000
• Napa Valley, Calif.: $250,000 and up.
The vineyard owners and winemakers need to know that the grapes they plant can withstand temperatures of 40 below zero in winter and still produce wine the following season. That's quite a benchmark. In the Finger Lakes, a New York wine region that has exploded in popularity and production in recent decades, the minimum temperature standard is closer to 10 below. "It's not a grape you want to grow here unless it produces after 40 below," says Nick Surdo, owner of Yellow Barn Winery near Sackets Harbor, one of four wineries on the three-year-old Thousand Island-Seaway Wine Trail. "We do cold-weather varieties. That's what gives us our signature."
These fledgling wineries in Jefferson County are building their hopes for a tourist-friendly wine industry on the strength of cold-hardy grape varieties developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota. Some of these grapes, such as Frontenac, Brianna and La Crescent, have already produced wines in such unlikely places as South Dakota and Quebec.
Starting this venture in the state's freezer chest required some imagination and a lot of hard work. "I'm very impressed with how smart these wineries and vineyard owners have been as they start up," said Jim Trezise, who has helped guide the growth in the state's various wine regions as director of the New York State Wine & Grape Foundation. "They've all done their homework." Trezise is cheerleading the effort, since he sees nothing but good things coming from more wineries and more wine regions in New York. The state is closing in on 300 wineries, about one-third of which debuted in the past decade, and has wine regions along Lake Erie and the Finger Lakes, in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island.
In the Thousand Islands, it's all still fairly new: Vineyards have been planted in Jefferson County only within the past decade, and now there are about 50 different growers.
The first winery -- Thousands Islands Winery -- opened within sight of the Thousands Islands Bridge in Alexandria Bay in 2004. It was followed by Yellow Barn in 2006, Otter Creek Winery in Philadelphia in 2007, and the newest, Coyote Moon Vineyards in Clayton, this summer. Trezise predicts the area will grow as a wine region. "I said last fall that we could see 10 to 15 wineries in that area within 10 years," Trezise said. "Even with the economy as it is now, I think we can see that kind of growth." And so, the experiments with cold-hearted grapes will continue. Cold-hardy grapes These are some of the cold-hardy grape varieties developed by the University of Minnesota that are now grown in the Thousand Islands-Seaway region: Frontenac: Produces a red wine with aromas of cherries, currants and plum. Frontenac Gris: A cousin of Frontenac, it produces white wines with hints of peach and apricot and some acidity. La Crescent: Produces white wines with intense citrus aromas and high acidity that can be semi-dry or sweet. Marquette: A relative of pinot noir, it produces ruby red wines with berry and spice aromas. Brianna: Produces semi-sweet white wines with hints of apricot, peach, pineapple and honey. "I've planted things that work, and I'm sure I'll be planting some that don't work," said Steve Conaway, the retired Army captain who owns Thousand Islands Winery. "This business is all about trial and error."
Despite the brutal winters, many parts of Jefferson County are subject to the moderating influence of Lake Ontario or the St. Lawrence River. Large bodies of water that don't freeze over can produce what are known as "microclimates" that can keep vines slightly warmer for longer periods than in surrounding areas. "People said you couldn't grow grapes in the North, but that's been disproven," said wine journalist Hudson Cattell. "Given the proper microclimates, it's possible." Cattell, who has followed East Coast wine-making for 30 years, said relying on Minnesota varieties is a smart move for North Country wineries: "They have proven their worth and good wine can be made from them." Making wine from local grapes
As they've started up, the Jefferson County wineries have been importing much of the juice they use for wine from other parts of the state, such as Long Island and the Finger Lakes. That means they can make wines from grapes they are unable to grow in the North, such as pinot noir or chardonnay, or from blends using native grapes, like Delaware or Niagara.
At Thousand Islands Winery, for example, just 3,000 of the 30,000 gallons produced each year are currently coming from local vines. But that will change over time as the winemakers move to more locally sourced grapes. It will take time, because typically vines don't produce wine until four years after they are first planted, and many Jefferson County vines are newer than that. "Our goal eventually is to have only estate-bottled wine," said Phil Randazzo, owner of Coyote Moon in Clayton. Estate-bottled is a term that means the wine is made only from grapes grown by the winemaker and bottled on site. In Randazzo's case, that makes sense, because his business started as a vineyard. He's planting La Crescent, Frontenac, Frontenac Gris and, new this year, Marquette grapes. "We were a vineyard that became a winery, not a winery that planted a vineyard," he said. "For us, it's all about growing grapes."
Surdo, at Yellow Barn, also wants to move to locally sourced wines. "We could make Riesling or something else, by buying up some juice," he said. "But that's not what we're going to build on. We'll use the cold-hardy varieties now, even if we buy them, because eventually that's what we're going to be known for." Again, that's smart thinking, according to Trezise. "One of the things they can do to distinguish themselves is regional branding," he said. "They're getting together and deciding what is uniquely Thousand Islands and what (they) can do better than anyone else."