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Constellation to Close Widmer's, Donate Land

November 2009
by Hudson Cattell
Widmer's Wine Cellars

A number of wineries worldwide have been negatively impacted by the current recession and, for one reason or another, closed their doors. Several of the large wine corporations have sold off less profitable brands and consolidated smaller wineries. So when Constellation Brands announced on the afternoon of Sept. 10 that it was closing Widmer’s Wine Cellars in Naples, N.Y., it did not come as a complete surprise.

It had been widely anticipated that the winery (more than a century old) would be closed, but the news that wine production at Widmer’s would be moved to Canandaigua in 2011 made that Thursday a sad day—both historically as the end of an era, and locally. For the town of Naples, the move means the loss of its biggest business, and one that paid a lot of taxes. The winery was the town’s largest consumer of water, accounting for about 30% of the supply. Even though the tourism business in Naples had been declining in recent years, the winery was still a big draw.

People associated with Widmer’s were saddened also. Many of its current employees will be given the opportunity to transfer to Canandaigua. For others, like John Brahm, who worked for Widmer’s for 23 years, it was a day that he had seen coming.

Brahm, the owner of Arbor Hill Grapery in nearby South Bristol, joined the winery as assistant vineyard manager in 1964 after graduating from Cornell University. He became vineyard manager in 1969, vice president in charge of vineyard operations in the early 1970s, and part owner of the winery in 1983. The vineyards—more than 200 acres of which had been in good shape when he left in 1987—were abandoned a year ago, with the exception of 15 acres in front of the winery, and it had not been easy for him to see trees starting to grow in the vineyards he had once planted.

Widmer’s history
The story of Widmer’s Wine Cellars dates back 127 years. In 1882, John Jacob Widmer, founder of the winery, and his wife Lisette came to the United States from Switzerland and settled in Naples, N.Y. Three years later, after planting their vineyard, they built their home with a cellar that became their wine production and storage area. They sold the first wines to residents of Naples in 1888.

John Jacob and Lisette Widmer had three sons: Carl, Frank and William. As their business prospered, they were able to send their youngest, Will, to the Royal Wine School of Germany in Geisenheim. In 1924, the three brothers took over the business, and Will, as president, guided the winery through its years of growth. The winery remained stable during the Prohibition years by producing grape juice and non-alcoholic products, as well as sacramental and medicinal wines. The winery was incorporated in 1933.

Varietal labeling was not common in the U.S. from the time of Prohibition repeal until World War II, and wine producers chose to use such names as chablis, sauterne and burgundy.

After the start of the war in 1939, when supplies of wine from Europe were cut off, wine importer and writer Frank Schoonmaker knew that he had to sell American wines. He became the leading advocate of varietal labeling and encouraged Louis Martini and Wente Brothers in California and Will Widmer in Naples to use not only the names of grape varieties but also the places where the grapes were grown. 

Schoonmaker’s “American Varietal Wines” catalog dated Nov. 1, 1941, listed 42 wines as Schoonmaker Selections. Ten of them were Widmer’s—all of them named after Canandaigua Lake, including Lake Catawba, Lake Diana, Lake Vergennes and Lake Isabella. A Lake Riesling was included. Will Widmer was convinced that it was a relative of Johannisberg Riesling, while in fact it was a Missouri Riesling. Vintage dates were included on the labels, something new in the Finger Lakes, because wineries there customarily blended wines from different years.

One of the wines listed in Schoonmaker’s brochure was a 1933 Lake Niagara described as follows: “Made from the Niagara grape and produced on the shores of Lake Canandaigua, this New York state wine is fruity and about as sweet as a good Barsac.” Lake Niagara became Widmer’s flagship brand. In 1983 it accounted for 75% of the winery’s sales (225,000 of 300,000 cases), and 15 years later it still represented 60% of sales.

Widmer’s was also a major producer of sherry, and the winery became well known for its “cellar on the roof,” where 12,000 barrels of sherry were left to age for at least four years and up to 12 years for specially aged sherries. The barrels were stacked four deep, and it is estimated that if they were spread out, they would cover 6 acres.

Overcoming setbacks
The winery survived a devastating fire Jan. 23, 1943, when the power plant, a large grape juice building, and all the machinery for filtering, bottling and labeling the juice were destroyed. According to The Naples Record for Jan. 27, 1943, Will Widmer “at once announced that none of his employees need seek other employment, as there is, and will be, work for all.” The main winery buildings and more than a million gallons of wine were not affected.

Also during World War II, the winery contracted for the use of prisoners of war to work during the harvest. As many as 233 Italian POWs were used for the harvest in 1943. In 1944, with Italy out of the war, the switch was made to German prisoners and, for 10 days at the end of September, 219 prisoners worked for 4,018 hours at Widmer’s and another winery.  

In 1961, Widmer’s was sold to George and Walter Todd from Rochester, N.Y., who brought in Ernest Reveal as president. One of his contributions was to start sparkling wine production at the winery. Nine years later, Widmer’s was purchased by the R.T. French Co., a producer of mustard and spices.

French decided that Widmer’s should become a nationally known company, and it established 500 acres of vineyards near Healdsburg, in Sonoma County, Calif. John Brahm was put in charge of the operation, which included 300 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 120 acres of Pinot Noir and 5 to 10 acres of Riesling. As Brahm tells it, this was a time when reds “were on the march,” and when they came into production, “whites were on the march.& rdquo; French then decided that the California operation was not what it wanted, and sold the vineyards to a California investment group.

In 1983, French sold the winery in a leveraged buyout to five of its management people and four or five investors in Rochester, N.Y. Charles Hetterich Jr. became president, Brahm became vice president in charge of vineyard operations, and others included Dan Robinson as winemaker and Dick Wagner in sales.

Three years later, in September 1986, the Canandaigua Wine Co. purchased Widmer’s. It was a good fit for Canandaigua because Widmer’s had a lot of unused capacity, and Canandaigua needed a place to produce the Manischewitz product line it acquired two months later from the Monarch Wine Co.

Making history
Widmer’s Wine Cellars on April 30, 1988, celebrated its centennial and its place as the state’s third-oldest winery. Following this observance, the winery continued to grow. Production climbed to as much as 6 million gallons of about 30 different products.

In 2008, partly due to the global economy, Constellation Brands began to downsize its operations at Widmer’s to the point where only four main brands were being produced: Widmer’s, Manischewitz, Paul Masson and Taylor. The number of employees was reduced by one-third.

While Constellation had kept the town of Naples informed about its plans for Widmer’s, it was only on Sept. 10 that a meeting was held, and Ontario County and economic development officials were notified of the 2011 date. The closing is expected to take place over a period of 18 months. During this time winemaking and employees will be transferred to Canandaigua. At the same time, the facility in Canandaigua will be expanded, and a new plant for production of Manischewitz’ kosher wines will be built.

Constellation also has announced that it is donating the 860-acre Widmer property to the Rochester Institute of Technology, which plans to use the facility to expand its programs in hospitality and services management. Having the university in Naples is seen locally as having a positive impact on the community. One financial drawback, of course, is that universities are exempt from paying property taxes.

“It’s the end of an era in Naples,” John Brahm said recently. “For more than a century, Widmer’s has been part of the history of the town and has provided it with jobs and a community identity.”

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