Not Far from Niagara Falls, Wineries Abound

Niagara County, N.Y., used to be a big manufacturing center in the U.S. But with the collapse of U.S. manufacturing over the past three decades, manufacturing has moved way down in the rankings. What’s No. 1? Agriculture. What’s No. 2? Tourism.

Little wonder then that Gov. Chris Cuomo and the New York Legislature have been on a tear to help craft brewers, wineries and distillers by modernizing regulations that had made it unnecessarily difficult to get started as brewers, vintners and distillers. How often do public officials get the opportunity to, with just one bill, help the two top sectors of a region’s economy.

So when we got an opportunity to take a press junket sponsored by the Niagara County Tourism & Convention Corp., we took it. We thought it would be a good opportunity to look at some of the 20+ farm wineries that have popped up in that area, and to also see a bit of the country we’ve never seen.

It turned out to be a worthwhile trip, and I’m going to share some of the highlights with you throughout the week. Later, I’ll produce an e-book (or perhaps a regular book).

We’ll deal with the wineries in one more paragraph. But I have to say, Niagara Falls up close and personal is simply awesome! The sheer power of the water cascading over the falls is amazing, and the Falls are much larger that we realized. I’ll return to the touristy stuff Thursday. But first, the wineries.

We visited three wineries, Eveningside, Freedom Run and Arrowhead Spring Winery.

A Lifestyle Winery

We started at Eveningside Vineyards, where Randy Biehl, the owner, told us they had suffered virtually no damage from last winter’s polar vortex. But just three miles away, a winery had lost 68% of its crop, he said. That’s because the Niagara Escarpment, which is most famous as the cliff over which the Niagara River plunges at Niagara Falls, provides some protection from bitter weather, and Lake Ontario never freezes, he said.

Biehl describes Eveningside as a “lifestyle winery.” He has just one acre planted to grapes out of a total of about 21 acres on his farm. One acre yields about 250 cases a year. He also buys grapes from contract growers — enough to bring total production to about 1,500 cases, priced at $13.50 to $22.95 a bottle.

In addition to a tasting room in a 150-year-old barn and an online store, Eveningside’s wines are sold in 16 area restaurants and retailers.

Biehl didn’t set out to be a vintner. Indeed, he was a federal probation officer in Buffalo, living in West Seneca. But he started “getting into wines,” he said, visiting wineries across the Niagara River in Canada. As he approached eligibility to retire at age 50 from the Feds, he began going to wine conferences, volunteering at Cave Spring Cellars in Canada and looking for property, a process that took him 18 months.

He wanted to do wine. But he didn’t want to be a slave to wine. So he chose a small farm, bought from a woman whose family had lived there about 150 years. He planted his first vines in 2001 and three years later had his first harvest.

While he’s learned a good deal about grape growing and winemaking in the 14 years since he started, he does have a cellar master, Jason Mueller, to oversee the process.

He was surprised, he said, by the large number of tourists from out of state. They come because of the Niagara Wine Trail. His only marketing is a listing for the Wine Trail. He “likes to control cash,” Biehl says.

Eveningside is a “lifestyle winery,” he says. Production is limited so it doesn’t become “A Job.” The grounds are well maintained, he likes to control cash, and he does a good business in weddings, wedding receptions and wedding photos.

He gets a good crowd from local residents who come to the property, buy a bottle of wine and enjoy some food they’ve brought with them.

Still, he conceded, if he wasn’t retired, he probably would have to   change his business plan.

We asked if he would have done anything differently. He might have planted more grapes, he said. His primary varietals are Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. We suspect there’s room in the market to plant another acre or two.

Tomorrow: A Winemaker That Educates the Next Generation

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