State Profile: New York Wine Country

As a proud native New Yorker (Rochester-born, Finger Lakes for the past 40+ years) and someone who created and ran the New York Wine & Grape Foundation for 30+ years, it’s hard to be brief when describing the New York wine industry’s origins and evolution, but I’ll do my best with a series of brief factoids.

  • New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) was home to the first grapes, planted by the Dutch in the 1600’s
  • Brotherhood America’s Oldest Winery, located in the Hudson Valley, is the nation’s oldest continuously operating winery, with its first recorded vintage in 1829
  • The New York State Wine Grape Growers, established in the 1960s and still active, has been a major contributor to the industry’s development and success over the years, complemented by Women for New York State Wines as their promotional arm. Without NYSWGG, there would be no NYWGF today
  • The first grapes on Long Island were planted in 1973, so this year that regional industry is celebrating its 50th anniversary
  • The Farm Winery Act of 1976 was the first major piece of legislation to boost the wine industry by making it economically feasible to operate a small winery with the new option of direct sales to consumers, retailers, and restaurants, bypassing the requirement to sell through wholesalers at a 50% discount
  • The Cayuga Wine Trail, formed in 1982, was the first in New York (which now has over 20) and in the nation (which has dozens in various states), providing a model for boosting wine country tourism
  • The green grape-cluster highway signs in wine country originated in New York State in 1989, and can now be seen in many states to guide tourists through the wine regions
  • Last year more than 5.6 million wine country tourist visits generated over $1.9 billion in expenditures in predominantly rural areas of the state. Several New York regions are regularly rated among the top wine country destinations in the world by influential travel media.  Just last month, USA Today’s 10Best rated Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery  #1 in the category of Best Winery Tour and #3 in Best Tasting Room; the Finger Lakes as #4 Must-Visit Region; Experience! The Finger Lakes as #8 Wine Tour Company; and Hillock & Hobbs as the #9 Best New Winery Experience
  • Governor Mario M. Cuomo saved New York’s economically depressed grape and wine industry through a comprehensive package of legislation in 1984 and 1985, including creation of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation to support promotion and research
  • Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mario’s son, further boosted the wine industry’s success—and used its model to benefit the craft beer, spirits, and cider sectors—through a package of business-friendly “Summits” spawning numerous regulatory and legislative changes starting in 2012
  • Both Mario and Andrew Cuomo understood the importance of a good business climate in growing an industry, and spearheaded legislation to achieve it
  • New York has 62 counties, and 59 now have wineries, including Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn (with a rooftop vineyard!). When I arrived in 1982, there were just 19 wineries in 9 counties. Wine is truly a statewide industry with strong government support. It’s unlikely that any other state has as broad a distribution of wineries
  • New York State has six major winegrowing regions and 11 AVAs: Lake Erie, Niagara Escarpment, Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake, Cayuga Lake, Champlain Valley of New York, Upper Hudson, Hudson River Region, Long Island, North Fork of Long Island, and The Hamptons
  • Cornell University has been a vital partner in the wine industry’s success through world-class research and extension, including the development of several new grape varieties for wine and fresh fruit
  • While New York traditionally grew only “Native American” (vitis labrusca) grapes, Charles Fournier from Champagne introduced French-American hybrid grapes, followed  by Dr. Konstantin Frank from Ukraine who spawned by “vinifera revolution” in the Finger Lakes and throughout the east, transforming the industry
  • New York wines have won thousands of Gold medals in wine competitions over the years, most of them in California. Keuka Spring Vineyards won Best of Show white wine twice—with a Riesling, and a Gewurztraminer—in the massive San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, with a Dr. Frank Riesling taking those honors in a different year. Both wineries, on Keuka Lake, have also won the Governor’s Cup and Winery of the Year awards at the New York Wine Classic.
  • The diversity and quality of New York wines were also evident at the 2023 Classic, where the top wines in various categories included Jason’s Vineyard 2021 Bubbly Rose, Boundary Breaks 2022 Gewurztraminer, Keuka Spring Vineyards 2021 Blaufrankisch, Wolffer Estate 2022 Estate Rose, and the Best of Show “Governor’s Cup” winner, a Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Paumanok Vineyards, which also won Winery of the Year honors based on its overall showing. Coincidentally, Paumanok is celebrating its 40th anniversary, so there’s lots to toast.
  • New York State was the birthplace of WineAmerica (born in Watkins Glen as the Association of American Vintners in 1978), and New York has by far the largest number of members today, including about 50 wineries and 5 winery trade associations
  • New York is a shining example of the principle that the business climate—based on enlightened public policy—is at least as important as the natural climate when it comes to growing a robust wine industry. Its ongoing success is also due to the collaboration of grape growers, winery owners, trade associations, Farm Bureau, Cornell University, local governments, state governments, and federal officials

Diversity is Our Strength. Unity is Our Power.

Great Grapes: Riesling

“Best White Wine on Earth:The Riesling Story” is the title of Stuart Pigott’s superb book on one the most versatile, terroir-reflective, food-friendly, and underappreciated grapes and wines on the planet. While New York has dozens of grape varieties, Riesling dominates the major region (Finger Lakes) and the state’s reputation for quality wines. The region’s climate, geography, and geology provide ideal conditions for growing Riesling, and winemakers have focused their collective experience to make it the signature wine—from bone dry to sweet ice wines, and everything in between. The three-winery 2011 Tierce Dry Riesling was the official white wine at former President Obama’s 2013 Inaugural Luncheon in the Capitol—the ultimate power lunch.