Old N.Y. wine region shifts to different vines

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

BRANCHPORT, N.Y. -- A half-century ago, Vince Bedient spent his days chopping down trees for his father's sawmill, stealing time during harvest to haul farmers' grapes to a Welch's juice factory.

His seasonal job soon had him daydreaming about the splendors of cultivating his own vineyard, and a mishap with an ash tree in the snowy woods in 1963 made up his mind fast.

"I had one moment of carelessness, didn't move out of the way quick enough and got my left knee busted up pretty bad," he said. "I decided there was a safer way to make a living."

Now 78, Bedient can attest to the multiple charms and challenges of a vineyardist's life during a recent springtime ramble around his 220-acre farm above Keuka Lake.

Growing the right varieties to suit ever-changing tastes is a perpetual juggle. But over the past five years, Bedient and his son, Jim, have taken a sharp turn away from the native labrusca vines long favored in west-central New York's Finger Lakes, one of America's oldest wine-and-grape regions.

Mainstays such as Concord and Niagara, used in juices, jellies and inexpensive wines, fetch $200 to $350 a ton versus $500 to $800 for French-American hybrids like Vignoles and Seyval Blanc. And premium European vinifera grapes -- chardonnay, pinor noir, merlot -- pull in anywhere from $1,100 to $2,000 a ton.

Rooting out gnarly vines and planting new ones that take three years to bear fruit is not cheap: $10,000 to $20,000 an acre. And the fabled microclimate that has drawn a global reputation for rieslings grown along nearby Seneca and Cayuga Lakes isn't as near-perfect on Keuka Lake's higher-elevation hillsides.

But nature gave Finger Lakes growers a nudge. Harsh winters in 2004 and 2005 wiped out swaths of vineyards ringing the four biggest of the 11 fjordlike lakes.

When it came time to replant, vinifera's star rose ever higher.

Vinifera plantings in New York's wine country have swelled from 324 acres in 1980 to 5,200 acres in 2006. In the 9,200-acre Finger Lakes, they've climbed 40 percent in the last seven years to an estimated 1,650 acres today.

Native grapes remain by far the biggest category statewide, but their footprint in the Finger Lakes shrank 10 percent to 4,920 acres between 2001 and 2006.

Driving this march toward better quality vines is a relentless rise of wineries, many supplied by the state's 1,000-plus grape farms.

While California towers over the $162 billion-a-year wine-and-grape industry, New York is fourth in the nation with 243 wineries, nearly twice as many as a decade ago. The Finger Lakes boasts 98 wineries, compared with 61 in 2000 and a mere handful 30 years ago.

Even while expanding its proportion of high-end grapes, New York is still playing catch-up on many of America's wine regions, especially in warmer states in the South and West.

Cameron Hosmer, who runs a pioneering Cayuga Lake winery and a nursery business on the side, planted nearly 200 acres, nearly all of it vinifera, in the Finger Lakes last year. Orders have since tumbled, he said, as growers "wait to see if the market channels have developed to sell this product."

On the Bedient farm, native varieties account for just over half of its 103 acres of vineyard, down from 90 percent five years ago. In their place are hardy hybrids like Cayuga and Traminette, with a 10-acre slice along the lake reserved for viniferas such as cabernet franc.

Above 800 feet, viniferas become highly vulnerable to winter cold snaps of 15 below, and Keuka lies at 715 feet above sea level. That doesn't leave a lot of room for delicate classics such as riesling, now the most widely grown vinifera in the Finger Lakes.

Most of the Bedients' native crop is still trucked each fall to two Welch's factories along the New York-Pennsylvania line south of Buffalo. Another 100 tons of Catawba go to the Hazlitt 1852 winery to make Red Cat, one of the fruity labrusca-based wines that retain a loyal following in upstate New York.

But the upscale shift isn't cheap and now a deep breath is needed. "For maybe five years, we're fairly comfortable with the markets we've got," said Bedient's son, who hopes one of his college-age daughters will run the farm someday.

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