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The History of New York Winemaking

by Staff Writer - A. Heinzman | February 08, 2012

Usually when consumers are questioned about wines, the state of New York does not normally come to mind. This is easily understandable as New York State is located in the northeast United States and generally has a climate famous for its harsh winters. Regardless of this perception, the State of New York is the third largest grape producing state of the United States. This statistic is possible due to localized environmental conditions being conducive for both American and French wine-grape production. These localized conditions have led to many high-quality wines being produced by New York wineries.

With respect to winemaking in the United States, it is important to realize that New York was one of the first states that cultivated grapes. Vineyards were developed on Manhattan Island during the mid 1650s with wine production being regulated by then governor Peter Stuyvesant. Subsequent developments included the development of vineyards on Long Island by Paulus Richards and later by Robert Prince. It is interesting to note that vines were grown in the general New York City area as late as 1846.

Meanwhile, other individuals were busy introducing vineyards to additional areas of New York State. Vineyards were established the Hudson River Valley in the 1830s with the first commercial winery opening in 1839. During the early 1800s a Chautauqua County Baptist deacon named Elijah Fay cultivated vineyards from wild New-England vines. The wines produced from these varietals proved to be too harsh for the palette so in 1824 Elijah Fay planted Isabella and Catawba varieties. Wine production remained limited until the early 1860 when Elijah Fay’s son Joseph established several wine houses.

In 1829 winemaking was introduced to the Finger Lakes region by way of the Reverend William Bostwick. Reverend Bostwick introduced wines obtained at the Hudson River Valley to his church at Hammondsport. Local vineyard techniques took a huge step forward when Andrew Reisinger introduced pruning and cultivation practices in 1850. The year 1860 saw the establishment of the Pleasant Valley Winery near the Hammondsport area. It was at this time that commercial production of wine began in the Finger Lakes.

The early history of winemaking in New York State depicts an interesting phenomenon. While vineyards were planted very early in New York State’s history, commercial wineries and winemaking did not develop until much later. This can be seen in specific governmental wine literature of the late 1850s where New York was not even considered a winemaking state. More than likely, this phenomenon was caused by the temperance and Prohibition movements found in New York State’s early history.

It is interesting to note that the tragic consequences brought about by Prohibition found their beginnings within New York State. It was in Saratoga County where the temperance movement first gained momentum. Early temperance movements successfully passed legislation prohibiting the sale of alcohol in New York State. This legislation was overturned, however the temperance movement continued to gain momentum and ultimately led to National Prohibition in 1920.

Like all other wine regions of the United States, Prohibition led to the destruction of the winemaking industry of New York State. For New York State and Prohibition Repeal, history becomes even more interesting. As the temperance movement had its roots in the conservative upstate New York area, unreasonable legislation was introduced after Repeal that made it difficult for wineries to re-establish themselves. The end result of the new legislation was to set annual licensing and filing fees that most wineries could not afford. Expenses from these fees amounted to $1,000 annually ($17,000 in 2011.) Thankfully this attitude did not last forever.

In the 1960’s a renaissance began with respect to New York winemaking. New York grape growers were growing extremely frustrated by the lack of a market for their crops. Faced with the problem, New York grape growers found an answer from a growing trend in neighboring Pennsylvania. This was the notion where Pennsylvania grape growers developed their own wineries allowing them to sell wine at retail. The main issue preventing New York growers from starting their own wineries were the exorbitant fees associated with the process. By means of clever political maneuvering, the Farm Winery Act of 1976 was passed allowing grape growers to economically start their own wineries.

Even though New York’s wine renaissance began in the 1960s, the nature of the rebirth of New York Wineries continues to this day. From 1960 moving forward, governmental legislation and individual research has paved the way for an almost explosive growth of wineries in New York. Nowhere is this seen more than the Finger Lakes and Long Island areas. In 1976 there were just 19 wineries registered in New York while over 110 existed at the count in 1996. The quality of winemaking also improved thanks to the pioneering work of Charles Fournier and Dr. Konstantin Frank. The end result of Charles Fournier and Dr. Konstantin Frank’s work was the successful cultivation of Vitis vinifera in the Finger Lakes area. The success of this endeavor ushered in a whole new era of winemaking with new vineyard plantings of Vitis vinifera exceeding 400%.

Today New York State has 9 American Viticultural Areas. The areas are known as the Lake Erie AVA in the western part of New York, the Finger Lakes AVA located in the middle part of New York state, the Seneca Lake AVA and the Cayuga Lake AVA located in the Finger Lakes AVA, the Hudson River Region AVA, the Long Island AVA located in the eastern part of New York, the North Fork of Long Island AVA and The Hamptons, Long Island AVA located in the Long Island AVA, and finally the Niagara Escarpment AVA located in the Northwestern part of New York.

The future of winery growth looks bright for New York State. More and more people are discovering--and enjoying--the quality of wines News York has to offer. Also, more and more wineries are being started in the Finger Lakes and Long Island areas. Critics contend that an over saturation of wineries is likely to occur within the New York wine industry. Reviewing the recognition and awards won by various New York wineries reinforces the notion that the demand for New York wines will only continue to grow.

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