By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Region Editor
I’ve been able to experience firsthand the rapid expansion and improvement in quality in the last four years in the Niagara region. There is plenty to be optimistic about. Just four short years ago, the region was home to seven wineries of varying styles and quality -- and they had just formed what we know today as the Niagara Wine Trail.
By the end of this summer, the trail will have more than doubled in size to 15 thanks to wineries like Long Cliff and Gust of Sun, which are slated to open their doors before the end of the growing season.
The relative affordability of buying land here, combined with the fact that there’s plenty of great vineyard land still available, has no doubt contributed to this rapid growth.
After last month’s TasteCamp, the obvious lack of big investment couldn’t have been more apparent during Sunday’s time in the U.S. side of Niagara wine country. While this is something the region can’t change overnight, it is certainly not an issue unique to Niagara – and not the only thing holding itback.
So after four years of seeing some things change and many things stay the same, I thought it would be interesting to list what I believe to be the not-so-obvious obstacles this young region faces.
There have been quite a few memorable wines made here and it’s amazing in a positive way to think that only a small portion of them were made by a winemaker with formal training in winemaking. While I’m of the belief that great grapes make great wine, consumers expect quality in every bottle of every vintage – something that is undoubtedly easier with experience and a familiarity with the local conditions terroir.
Now this obviously goes back to the “money thing” but I think it also has to do with the priorities the winery.
Eveningside Vineyards is a great example of a winery with micro-production and a modest budget that finds the resources to pay consulting winemaker Angelo Pavan of Cave Spring Cellars in Ontario. His experienced hand shows in the quality and consistency I’ve tasted in their wines from day one.
I want to make myself clear though, I don't believe formal training or a degree is a must to make great wine. On the job experience and apprenticing goes a long way in this industry.
Let’s pretend for a second there isn’t a native grape called “Niagara” that everyone associates with grape-y, foxy and often off-putting aromas. The word would then be open for sexier associations, like ice wine, chardonnay, pinot noir or cabernet franc. I know it’s not that easy, but the preconceived notion that all of our wine is foxy, grape-y or sweet is a hurdle that the region needs to overcome.
I am well aware that the native grape stigma is not exclusive to the Niagara region. The Finger Lakes has always had these native wines but that region is now a shining example of how to cultivate the grapes that do best, in their case riesling, and market themselves as the premier destination for that grape in the country.
Buses and Limos
It wouldn’t benefit any business owner to complain about the sheer number of visitors that come through their doors, especially in such a young region. But when a certain contingent of customers, and I use that term liberally, simply see your business as a stop on a day-long winery crawl, I think there needs to be careful consideration as to who your real “customers” are.
I’ve come to believe that it’s not the wine you’re wasting when you are pouring for people who don’t care enough to know what’s in their glass. It’s the winery employee’s time that may be the real waste. The personal interaction between pourer and taster cannot be underestimated, especially when the wines benefit from the background of vintage variation, winemaking techniques or any information that lends itself to a customer’s appreciation of the experience.
Too often I’ve seen tasting rooms get instantly inundated with groups of 20, 30 and even 40 – the majority who have been drinking in their buses, are indifferent to what wines they’re trying and are all around disruptive to smaller groups and couples looking to taste in a relaxing atmosphere. I’ve seen wineries increase their tasting fees just to ensure they aren’t losing money on these groups, but that in my opinion negatively affects sales, especially to those who generally buy at least one wine at each winery because they feel obligated.
Like in Field of Dreams, the idea of “If you build it, they will come” is one you can apply to wineries. In Niagara USA, the wineries have been built and the vineyards have been planted, but where do they stay and where do they eat?
Of course, there are plenty of awesome accommodations in Western New York, but not so much in the middle of the wine growing region. At the same time, the trail is now big enough to consider taking two days to explore. While the towns of Lewiston, Youngstown and the cities of Niagara Falls and Buffalo are all close enough to be made home base, there just aren’t enough B&Bs and restaurants in the heart of the trail.
Sure, there are a handful of restaurants and cottages on the lakeshore, but they haven’t made much of an effort to stock local wines or do things to position themselves to benefit from the influx of tourists.
I also feel it’s up to the wineries to make their farm a destination in and of itself, with special tasting events and promotions, live music, art exhibitions and picnics. But it seems like they’re just struggling to keep up with aforementioned buses and limos. That’s preventing them from dedicating staff to anything other than mass tastings.
None of these obstacles are insurmountable, especially in the long term. But producers here need to look to their neighbors to the north and south to come up with some solutions. Niagara is by no means isolated. It sits between two of the largest growing regions on the east coast. Hopefully the knowledge accumulated by those around us will help us evolve, and not just in growing and winemaking, but in marketing, operating and in our ability to take care of our visitors.