Is There a Great Divide Among Wine Producers in the Finger Lakes?

As I’ve come to understand more about the present state of the Finger Lakes wine industry, a few key topics seem to bubble up to the top consistently. One that I find to be important is the question of whether or not there is a divide or segmentation of the wine producers here based on the types of grapes being planted and produced by each winery.

The Finger Lakes wine industry has a history steeped in plantings of native varieties such as Concord and Catawba and some of its best-selling wines still reflect a significant demand for these wine varietals as well as for hybrids. It seems that there is a bit of a divide amongst those producers who are catering to this sweet wine-drinking consumer, in some ways the lifeblood of the region, and those who are throwing themselves into producing vinifera varietals such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Cabernet Franc in a dry style that are attractive to a more sophisticated palate, for those wine geeks and foodies among us.

And I’ve seen wine lists at wineries that incorporate both sweet, native varietals and vinifera. Where is the future of the Finger Lakes in regards to native vs. vinifera? Do you feel a divide amongst producers with one side all for producing the sweeter style wines vs. those who are much more interested in perfecting their vinifera offerings? Will vinifera varietals continue to put the Finger Lakes “on the map” as a serious world-class wine producing region, overshadowing the image that clings to the region because of its history of producing sweet wines? I wonder if there should be a separation in marketing efforts for the two segments. Are the sweet wine-only producers dragging the vinifera producers down in terms of the perception of Finger Lakes Wine Country? Or is there some way to use the diversity of wine offerings available in the Finger Lakes to our advantage and tout the region as one that offers both ends of the spectrum, appealing to many types of wine palate?

Morgen McLaughlin, President of Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association, offered these observations on the topic, “I think the reason that many wineries still produce sweet wines is because they sell better in tasting rooms. The drier, vinifera wines do well with journalists, restaurants, retailers, and with certain consumers. The wineries in the Finger Lakes rely heavily on tasting room sales (over 80% of sales for many wineries) and at the end of the day the wineries need to stay in business. Even those producers who focus on dry-style vinifera wines have at least one “cash cow” wine. Maybe not always a native or hybrid blend, but something with residual sugar. Most people talk dry but drink sweet. Why do you think Kendall Jackson has sold so much Chardonnay. They added some residual sugar and saw their sales skyrocket.”

(Full disclosure: I work with Morgen and Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association on projects on a regular basis)

One response to this post.

  1. Melissa: This “divide” is absolutely a fact and is obvious to anyone who has toured the area even for a day, visiting wineries.

    But it’s not like the Finger Lakes region is the only one with a divide. EVERY region has divides, maybe not native vs. vinifera, but in terms of quality it’s absolutely true of most any region.

    Here on Long Island, where vinifera most definitely rules (there’s very little non-vinifera planted here), there is a divide between those really interested in making the very best wines possible and those only interested in growing grapes at high yields, harvesting when they are barely ripe and cranking out mediocre wines that sell to the less sophisticated crowd.

    In some ways, I think the divide you’re talking about here is really the same one. I’ve had some delicious wines made from natives and hybrids, but it takes time and effort both in the vineyard and in the winery to make them. If every winery were making the best wines that they could, it wouldn’t matter if they were making Vidal and Seyval or Cab Franc and riesling. Quality is quality.

    This is an interesting situation though. At the end of the day, no matter what anyone says, these wineries are BUSINESSES. They need to make money and they do that by selling wine. I’m of the belief that most wineries can make GOOD wine and sell it. Others don’t understand the evolution of every wine drinker’s palate and think they need to continue to make those sweet wines.

    It has to be frustrating for the quality-focused producers to, in some cases, have their reputations lowered by the plonk producers. But, I know that here on LI, even the best wineries are noticing that the overall quality of wine is increasing, even at the “carnival wineries” (That’s what I call them because they are more into having big events and selling trinkets).

    Promoting themselves differently (as a separate group) is an interesting ideas, but that may alienate those lesser producers…which probably isn’t a good idea. In the end, a rise in overall quality benefits EVERYONE. That should be the goal I think.


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