The New York wine industry is booming. According to the New York Wind and Grape Foundation, five million people visit New York wineries every year. The industry generates almost $4 billion.
The New York Farm Bureau is pushing for an official designation for a new Adirondack Wine Coast Trail to bring enthusiasts to 7 vineyards in Clinton County.
A lot of the credit for New York wines can go to a team of researchers that's doing what you might call "extreme winemaking" - breeding grapes that survive the North Country's frigid winters and still make delicious wine.
They hope names like Frontenac and Marquette will one day be as popular as Cabernet and Merlot. David Sommerstein reports from a vineyard in the Thousand Islands.
Let’s step into Coyote Moon’s wood-paneled tasting room. Kristina Randazzo-Ives knows how to pitch her 20 wines, like this Frontenac.
I mean, it’s right in your face. The second you smell it, the fruit flavors just hit ya…
But there’s one. It’s in this deep blue bottle. And it contains what’s believed to be the first commercial Frontenac Blanc ever. And she’s at a loss for words.
It’s hard! I mean, all I can tell you is nobody else has this! [laughs]
The Frontenac Blanc is a cousin of the Frontenac, the very first cold hardy wine grape in the country. To understand why the Frontenac was a leap in viticulture – the science of winemaking - let’s head outside.
Six years ago, the Randazzo family began turning scrubby, abandoned farmland, a bit inland from the St. Lawrence River in Clayton, into a vineyard. And there was an obvious problem – the North Country’s 30 below zero winters.
We get pounded with very cold, icy cold tundra-ish [sic] temperatures.
Traditional wine grapes don’t survive winters like ours.
Y’know I had people call me from up here and say, y’know, we’ve been thinking about grapes and I said ‘are you nuts?”
That’s Tim Martinson, a viticulturalist with Cornell University. He and a couple dozen other researchers took it as a challenge. They started the Northern Grape Project in 12 states to help cold climate wines thrive.
Martinson uses Coyote Moon as a test site. He manages a handful of tidy rows of grape vines, just starting to bud, and he experiments with them. Today he and Randazzo-Ives are tinkering with new ways to tie up vine branches to promote healthy grapes..
Basically what we do is…bring this over the top…”mmm, hmm”…wind it over…
Martinson explains you have to work around cold hardy grapes’ disadvantages. They tend toward acidity. They can lack body, mostly because of the short growing season.
And that’s why the wine establishment has been skeptical. Wine Spectator magazine doesn’t even review cold climate wines.
But the mad scientists behind all the cold-hardy grapes say they’re making breakthroughs.
Alright, my name is Peter Hemstad. I’m the grape breeder at the University of Minnesota.
Well, maybe not mad. But determined. It took Hemstad’s team almost 20 years to develop Frontenac in 1996. A decade later, they released Marquette. And they were psyched, or as psyched as Minnesotan grape breeders get.
The flavor was excellent. The crop was good. It had some tannin, which is part of the structure that you’re going to get from the European grapes.
Marquettes are starting to generate buzz as an up and coming stand-in for Pinot Noirs.
Hemstad concedes these new vineyards of the North are a long way from matching France or California’s best. But he says they’re reinvigorating rural economies and they mesh perfectly with “buy local” culture.
Y’know, they’re not going to compete with Napa Valley, but if you think of Vermont, you’ve got the small scale sugar producers, the cheese operators, and now you’ll have the small scale wineries right down the street.
Today there are hundreds of cold-hardy winemakers across the northern U.S. Nationally recognized wine columnist Dan Berger says their wines are providing an alternative in a market dominated by the big traditional, like Chardonnay and Cabernet.
Look, the millennial drinker of today is adventuresome. These are people who want distinctive differences in their wines. I think we’re looking at cold climate wines making in-roads, where previously nobody paid any attention at all. I think the Wine Spectator will eventually have to sit up and take notice.
There are more than two dozen wineries in the North Country, from the Thousand Islands winery, one of the first in the region, to Vesco Ridge in West Chazy in Clinton County.
Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota continues to develop new cold climate grapes.
Which brings us back to that Frontenac Blanc at Coyote Moon in Clayton.
With a pop of the cork, Kristina Randazzo-Ives pours me a glass.
It’s aromatic with peach and nectarine, but also caramel smooth. I didn’t know what to expect – it is a totally new grape. Randazzo-Ives says that’s exactly what the next generation of wine drinkers who visit her tasting room are seeking – something new and different.
They’re searching out brands and things that they like, which makes the small winery experience and going to different places that have a variety of wines so popular and successful.
Coyote Moon’s won almost 500 awards in just three and a half years. That includes best of class among non-traditional reds for its Marquette from the San Francisco Chronicle, one of America’s most prestigious wine competitions. Randazzo-Ives believes Frontenac Blanc may just be next.