Marketing Matters

 

Finger Lakes Makes Match With Riesling

August 2008
 
by Suzanne Gannon
 
 
Finger Lakes Wine
 
Dr. Konstantin Frank, an immigrant from Ukraine, is credited with bringing Riesling to the Finger Lakes region of New York in the 1950s. Convinced the cold-resistant vinifera would thrive when grafted to native rootstock, he planted Riesling in his vineyard (above) in Hammondsport, N.Y.
 
    HIGHLIGHTS
     

     
  • Before 2000, when wineries founded the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association, a lack of coordination among Finger Lakes wineries and the area's wine trails yielded a scattershot approach to promotion.
     
  • New York's acreage of Riesling jumped from 385 in 1996 to 683 in 2006, and Riesling grape prices per ton rose from $1,167 in 1996 to $1,461 in 2004.
     
  • Forty-five percent of the region's 105 producers now participate in the voluntary levy that funds the activities of a second association, the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance.
Stags Leap Cabernet. Oregon Pinot Noir. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Will Finger Lakes Riesling be the next wine marketed as a geo-grape?

The Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association, in conjunction with the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, is betting on it. In the years since a 1999 market research study commissioned by Corning Enterprises showed that wineries were a significant driver of tourism to the region, the FLWCTMA has spent $3.2 million on marketing materials (below) designed to raise the profile of the area as a destination for consumers. The region's essence is captured in the tag line, "See the beauty, feel the history, taste the wine."

The Finger Lakes wine district is a picturesque swath of roughly 4,000 square miles in central upstate New York. Approximately 10,000 acres of vineyards hug the hilly shores of four slender lakes (Canandaigua, Cayuga, Keuka and Seneca) carved by glaciers and arrayed like pleats in a skirt. The region was designated an official AVA in 1982. But prior to 2000, when the FLWCTMA was formed, a lack of coordination among wineries and the area's four discrete wine trails yielded a scattershot approach to promoting a varietal still associated with hard-to-read German wine labels--and a region still shrugging off a reputation for winter-hardy Concord and Labrusca grapes.

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"The world-class message was not getting funneled down," said Morgen McLaughlin, president of the association. "We knew we needed to lead with our best wine."

Preliminary figures soon to be published by the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, and those compiled from a variety of sources by Ithaca College professors Mark Candora and Scott Erickson, show the effort is paying off.

Doing the math

According to the research, which was underwritten by a grant from the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, acreage planted with Riesling in New York state jumped from 385 in 1996 to 683 in 2006. The overwhelming majority of plantings are in the Finger Lakes counties of Seneca, Schuyler, and Yates. The Riesling expansion kicked in during the late 1990s and then accelerated from 2001 to 2006, partly in reaction to harsh winters in 2003, 2004 and 2005, when Riesling and Cabernet Franc proved to be winter-hardy. Candora believes that the planting has continued through 2007 and 2008, although figures have not yet been collected.

Similarly, from 1985 to 2006, production increased from 852 tons to 2,115 tons. Nielsen retail scanner data showed that in 2007, Riesling sales grew 22.6% over the previous year to a 2.1% market share among all table wines, accounting for $32 million in sales. In addition, the price the varietal commands per ton rose from $1,167 in 1998 to $1,461 in 2004, one of two back-to-back years in which many growers suffered bud damage.

Finger Lakes Wine
This past May, the FLWCTMA, together with the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, which was founded in 2002 to advance the quality and reputation of the region's wines, sponsored the third Finger Lakes Riesling Summit at Astor Center in New York City. The food- and wine-centered event featured Rieslings from 22 wineries and drew members of the press and trade who tasted more than 65 wines paired with dishes prepared by chefs from the area.

McLaughlin said inquiries about the region, which are tracked in a variety of ways including calls to a toll-free number, e-mails requesting information or downloads of material from the website, have spiked by 88% since last year. In addition, hotel room and sales tax revenues have posted a steady incline since the initiative began, despite increases in gas prices.

Bob Madill, who is the general manager of Sheldrake Point Vineyard on Cayuga Lake in Ovid, N.Y., and serves as board chair of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, said, "We have to look at the big picture. We can't live quietly in our little region and pretend the world doesn't exist."

Finger Lakes Wine
 
Bob Madill of Sheldrake Point said, "We have to look at the big picture," in terms of marketing wines from the Finger Lakes.
So rather than letting Finger Lakes Rieslings get lost in the editorial shuffle when sent in small numbers by individual wineries to magazine tasting panels, McLaughlin and her staff organized an open submission of 76 wines to influential consumer wine publications such as the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. One notable result was a breakthrough, multi-page feature on the Finger Lakes that appeared in the May 31, 2006, issue of Wine Spectator and included some the highest scores ever recorded for Finger Lakes Rieslings.

"Initially there was a concern that if we beat only one drum, we would marginalize other wines, which were sources of additional revenue," Madill said.

"But Riesling is being picked up by the general public, through media and foodies, and we're attempting to develop a strategy to promulgate other aromatic white wines such as Pinot Gris and Grüner Veltliner off that base."

Forty-five percent of the region's 105 producers now participate in the voluntary levy that funds alliance activities. The levy is assessed on a sliding scale based on winery production and ranges between $500 and $2,500 annually. The New York Wine & Grape Foundation matches the proceeds with grants.

Madill said the excitement for Finger Lakes Rieslings is derived from the fact that the wineries are for the most part small and family-owned, and that they produce wines characteristic of a region steeped in history.

Historic roots

That history traces back to the mid-19th century, when the country's first bonded winery was established in Hammondsport, N.Y., and continued through the turn of the century, at which point 40 commercial wineries were flourishing in the production and sale of wines made from the native Labrusca. But when the region emerged from Prohibition in 1933, only six wineries had survived, and the industry was faced with a new American taste for European wines produced from vinifera vines known to be susceptible to Phylloxera.

Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ph.D. and plant scientist from the Ukraine, who is credited with having brought cold-resistant vinifera such as Riesling to the Finger Lakes in the early 1950s, was convinced the varieties could thrive if grafted onto native rootstock known to be Phylloxera-resistant.

In 1962, Dr. Frank founded Vinifera Wine Cellars and developed a favorable reputation for producing Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, among other varietals. The winery, now known as Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, is run by his grandson Fred Frank, who quoted his father Willy as saying that 20 years ago he couldn't give a bottle of Riesling away, and now it's on allocation in New York City.

Fred Frank said that 60 years after his grandfather--along with the French sparkling winemaker and Finger Lakes transplant Charles Fournier--precipitated the vinifera revolution, the focus on a lead varietal from a specific terroir constitutes a trend that is burgeoning across the country.

"We now have wineries in all 50 states. The next step is that regions will start to specialize in what they do best," Frank said. "In the Finger Lakes, we have 50 years of experience in growing Riesling, and we feel it is our best fit for quality, consistency and winter hardiness."

One-third of Frank's 100 acres is planted with Riesling, and he's planning to plant another 50. He produces about 50,000 cases in total annually.

"As global warming becomes more of a factor, and alcohol levels reach alarming heights, we on the northern fringe have a cushion. Even if we gain a few degrees, it doesn't affect us that much," said Frank, who last year recorded his best performance ever in competition, racking up 46 medals including a gold at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition. His Rieslings retail for between $15.99 and $17.99 per bottle.

Another indisputable ingredient in the success of Finger Lakes Riesling in the last few years--particularly in the New York market--is the dollar's weakness against the euro. This has brought thousands of Europeans to New York City, where they can enjoy local cuisines and local wines with a taste profile that is familiar to them.

Demand is growing

Gene Pierce, president of Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee, N.Y., has witnessed a dramatic increase in demand for his Rieslings, which he began planting in 1976. The acreage dedicated to the grape has grown roughly 25%, and in the years since the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance has been active, his sales have increased by 45%--growing from 12,534 cases in 2004 to 18,062 in 2007.

"By pooling the resources of the wineries around the three wine trails, we have brought a lot more people into the area and gotten a bigger bang for the dollar."

In addition to the winery, Pierce operates a 30-room inn, which is situated in the midst of the vineyards, and the 125-seat Veraisons restaurant, where his chef specializes in regional dishes prepared with local ingredients.

Pierce said he felt no apprehension whatsoever about joining the alliance and thus investing in the collective branding effort for the area rather than devoting his marketing dollars to his own promotions. He pays about $2,500 annually to the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. His second winery, Knapp Vineyards on Cayuga Lake, which has lower production, pays only $1,250 per year.

The 50- to 100-mile radius around the Finger Lakes--w hich produces 90% of New York wine and ranks as the third-largest wine-producing region in the United States outside of California--still constitutes the bulk of the Riesling market. But the varietal's appeal is spreading beyond the state line, and in some cases as far as the West Coast, where several Finger Lakes vintners say they have begun to field inquiries from sommeliers and retailers.

Liz Stamp of Lakewood Vineyards has noticed a measurable uptick in visitors to her Watkins, Glen, N.Y., winery from Scranton and Pittsburgh, Pa., several cities in Ohio, and New York City.

She said that what began as a month-long Riesling program along the Seneca Wine Trail every May, with fuchsia flags flying on winery gates and special Riesling-friendly dishes featured at restaurants on the kick-off weekend, has morphed into "A Riesling to Visit" passport program. Now in its third season, it consists of promotional collateral such as neck-tags on bottles in stores, bag stuffers and menus starring the varietal. Last year, approximately 19,000 passports were sold to visitors between May 1 and August 31.

Overall, Lakewood's production has increased 30% since 2001, despite the lean years of 2004 and 2005, when a fall frost caused considerable bud damage and resulted in significant production declines. The winery is doubling its acreage devoted to Riesling, which currently accounts for about 12% of total production.

Down to earth

Churned up by the glaciers that formed the lakes, which are deep enough to act as a heat sink that protects vines in colder months, the soils of the Finger Lakes range in character from loamy to rocky shale to slate and mineral-rich. This soil diversity is conducive to the production of a spectrum of Rieslings including semi-dry, dry and reserve, which in turn lend themselves to a variety of food pairings.

Stamp said area restaurants report an increased demand for Riesling from visiting tourists. "The restaurants have become smarter about pairing wine with good food, and they've realized they can make money on wine," she said.

Linguistics, too, have played a role in the initiative. Seneca, Keuka (pronounced "KYOO-kuh"), and Cayuga (pronounced "kye-OO-guh) don't exactly roll off the tongues of those unfamiliar with the Native American tribes for which the lakes are named. Finger Lakes, in contrast, is a name visitors can pronounce--and remember.

Now that they've tackled Riesling, could Gewürztraminer be far off?

Based in New York, Suzanne Gannon writes about travel, culture, food and wine. For the past two years, she has reported on a variety of topics for Wines & Vines. Reach her through edit@winesandvines.com.
 
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