Dare not call them wine bars. They are not saloons, but places to sample the local grape and perhaps purchase a few bottles to take home.
They are called tasting rooms, and Niagara County is dotted with them, small showrooms for its budding wine industry. Each of the 12 wineries on the Niagara Wine Trail has one.
Can a grown man, hale of heart and strong of opinion, visit all 12 for a compare-and-contrast of what Niagara County’s vintners offer the world? Of course he can, and they sent the right guy for the job.
The Niagara Wine Trail is a curious blend of tourism and agriculture, with a mission to strengthen the local wine industry while welcoming customers to learn about the delights of its products.
This is a competitive business; beyond Bordeaux and Chile and Italy, every state in America has at least one winery (imagine drinking Kansas or Arizona wine), and New York itself has several winemaking hotbeds besides the prominent Finger Lakes region (Long Island wine, anyone?). Into this aggressive and cutthroat atmosphere, the Niagara Wine Trail joins the fray.
The tasting rooms tend to be little art galleries and upscale souvenir shops in addition to their core business of wine sampling. The trail offers weekend events and promotions, but except for some roadside signage directing drivers on the trail, government has little involvement in this venture.
Enough of that. Let’s try some wine from the remarkable grapes grown in the rich farmland and localized climatic conditions (also known as microclimates) of the Niagara Escarpment.
At the Honeymoon Trail Winery, outside of Lockport, a limousine is parked in the driveway and a bachelorette party is in progress. This rolling bridal shower is testing the wines, too, in a friendly housefront of a tasting room.
Samples of six wines are available for $2, each about an ounce (typical of the tasting rooms on the trail, although an all-access “passport” is available for $20). The wine named “Honeymoon’s Over” is a dry red made from Concord grapes, the regional staple until wine-specific grapes took over.
Those of us who were raised on Welch’s jelly don’t expect much from Concords, but this wine offered a remarkably sophisticated taste. Their cabernet sauvignon had a watery quality, and the sweet dandelion wine suggested a medicinal hint of citrus. The chardonnay, on the other hand, was a masterpiece, with subtleties of vanilla and an attractive aftertaste. This is a complex, beautiful wine.
Clearly, this tour of Niagara County’s wines will have its highs and lows, and while preferences are in the palate of the beholder, I already know I’m in for some surprises.
Around the corner, I located the Warm Lake Estate, which is approached by taking an uphill dirt trail off Lower Mountain Road for a quarter-mile. At the top of the hill is a vineyard and a big white building. This place actually looks like a winery, with a spacious, uncluttered and modernist tasting room. Picture a BMW dealership in Bordeaux, with 15 acres of grapes visible from the big windows, and you’re there.
Warm Lake specialties include pinot noirs of various vintages (from the very wet year of 2004, the dry year of 2006 and a blend of different areas of their vineyards), and the differences in taste were noticeable — alternately very smooth, very rich and the blend with noticeable flavors of pepper and fruit.
The proprietors offered a lucid explanation of the Niagara Escarpment’s virtues for grape-growing, and a sherry-like dessert wine that would make an excellent Asian-style marinade. I walked away pleased and enlightened.
The Schultze Vineyards and Winery required all the maps and notes of a road rally to find, off the main roads in Burt, but its opulent tasting room and quality samples made it an early favorite. This farm has a long-standing presence in Niagara County, and its experience shows in its densely flavored cabernet sauvignon and in a sweet, lightly carbonated white wine called “Crackling Niagara.”
After trying a sweet wine named “Ruby” that made me think of jelly beans, their dry rose, appropriate with salmon or something like it, was a nice surprise. If a wine enthusiast enjoys California or Australian wines, these compare favorably.
In a crowded field where the world’s wines tend to be available under one roof, a little showmanship helps, too. Margo Bittner, who operates The Winery at Marjim Manor in Appleton, offers 30 varieties of wines, many of them fruit-infused (Niagara County ranks fourth in the state in fruit-growing agriculture), from an 1833-vintage former convent.
While providing samples of apricot wine and wines named “Plum Dandy,” “Apply Ever After” (with eight kinds of apples and a strong aftertaste) and “Cherry Concerto,” she provides a stream of patter about the ghosts in the house and the people who inspired the bottles’ labels. And just when you think you need a strong cup of coffee as an antidote to all the sweetness, you taste “Strawberry Dreams Forever,” with a wispy and delicate hint of strawberry, and you’re grateful you’re a grownup. It is a novelty wine, to be sure, but a memorable one.
Similarly, the Vizcarra Vineyards, located in the family-friendly environs of Becker Farms in Gasport takes fruit seriously. Although relatively new to the wine business, this has been a working farm for 130 years. The cantina-style tasting room offers a sensational and peppery near-Bordeaux red wine called Quaker Red Rougon, and an assortment of fruit blends — while Marjim Manor’s wine makes me reminisce on the strawberries I ate as a kid, Vizcarra’s “Berry Patch Pink” is an intense jam sandwich of a wine.
Lockport’s Spring Lake Winery has beauty going for it. The vineyards and Tuscan-modern tasting room are located on an estate that includes a sloping hill leading to an eight-acre lake; weddings are regularly conducted here, as are receptions, and the winery sponsors a monthly excursion that includes lunch and a train ride from Lockport to the property. The German-style Gewürztraminer white wine, made from Riesling grapes, has an aromatic hint of apricot, pear and banana, with some acidity; an acquired taste, for some, but it would definitely stand up well to food.
On the topic of Gewürztraminer, we have a winner, and it’s available at the Leonard Oakes Estate Winery in Medina (which technically is in Orleans County, although it is on the Niagara Wine Trail). Their “Cayuga White” is refreshingly not sweet, and has the sturdiness required in a wine to accompany a meal.
I am typically not a fan of white wines, but this one is easy to appreciate. This enterprise, the newest on the Trail, is another adjunct to a generations-old farming heritage; consequently, fruit wines perfect with cheese-and-crackers are on the list, as well as the more serious stuff. Their “Red Oakes,” a blend of five red wines, is as close to a Bordeaux wine as I could find on this tour.
Tom Chiappone, the retired chemist who operates Chiappone Wine Cellars in Newfane, claims to know “63 strands of yeast” and runs a no-frills tasting room that offers up to 23 varieties of wine, depending upon what’s on hand at the moment.
“Forget the fancy walls. My heart and soul is in this,” he said as he pours a complex “Rosette” and a remarkably satisfying “Rougeon,” both semi-dry reds. His low-overhead approach, with the kind of informed chatter one expects from a favorite bartender, make these wines the bargain, and, for my tastes, the best entertainment of the trail.
It’s the wineries immediately west of Lockport, though, lined up almost as neighbors, that make the most lasting impressions.
Niagara Landing Wine Cellars has private airplanes parked incongruously on the lawn, and a new tasting room that includes another compelling Bordeaux-style wine made with Concord grapes called “Captain’s Choice,” a “Misty Niagara” sweet as soda pop and said to be appropriate with chicken wings, and something called “Chocolate Dream” — a blend of cocoa and red wine that is either a charming dessert topping or debasement of two good elements. That product is as good an example of the hit-or-miss nature of the trail. Even allowing for personal preference, there are good wines, bland wines, surprising satisfying wines and some downright weird ones.
Right around the corner is Eveningside Wineries, a farm with a small barn dedicated to wine tasting. Much of its product is barrel-aged for up to 20 months, and attempts to replicate European wines, the reserve chardonnay coming closest.
One local wine critic called its 2006 Reisling “the greatest wine of any color I’ve tasted from Niagara County.”
The two stunners on this trip were likewise near each other. Freedom Run Winery, named in part because the route of the Underground Railroad once ran through it, presents its selections in a wood-beamed and modernist building designed and built by the family that also makes the wine. Big windows, leather couches, art glass decorating the bar. I’ve been in Cadillac showrooms that didn’t look this good.
After tasting a vigorous cabernet sauvignon with a boldness that would stand up well to a steak dinner, I was offered a cabernet franc that was bolder and stronger. Then came a bottle of “Meritage,” another excellent Bordeaux-like wine (although pricey, at $27.95) and I was convinced these artisans, in business for only a year and a half, know what they’re doing.
That left the Arrowhead Spring Vineyards, found at the end of a winding gravel road. Its “Arrowhead Red,” a blend of merlot and cabernet franc wines, has an appealing denseness to it — if we were talking about beer, we’d call it hearty. Consequently, I found it very attractive; a strong wine with little aftertaste, this was my idea of a good glass of wine.
The oak-aged Chardonnay had an citrus element and an appealing tartness to it, and their star wine “Apogee,” made of oak-aged cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese and cabernet franc wines, was remarkably good — a complicated and high-quality wine (at $28.95) that could stand with the best in America.
Twelve wineries, and I’m about out of adjectives. It should be pointed out that the wines of Niagara County run a gamut from bland to sensational. There are dinner wines, ice wines, dessert wines, casual dining wines and silly wines. Some are in part made from grapes trucked in from elsewhere, and all include grapes that have been analyzed, grafted, and otherwise improved since Cornell University began its exhaustive studies of the Niagara Escarpment as a grape-growing region in the 1960s.
Some wineries customize and sell only a few wines, and others offer up to 40. As “agritourism,” the trail has interlocking relationships with the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, Uncork New York and I Love New York Tourism; while some vintners think they’re creating art, some are up to their necks in a serious hobby and others are thinking mostly of commerce, this is turning into a serious part of the local farming economy.
“We cross over a lot,” said Margo Bittner of The Winery at Marjim Manor in Appleton, who calls her industry “agritourism.” “We’re farmers first, but we know we’re in tourism.”
Niagara County celebrates its bicentennial this year. That’s 200 years of farming, growing fruit and feeding Western New York. Suddenly it has a fast-growing wine industry. Tom Tower, longtime artisan farmer and proprietor of Tom Tower’s Farm Market, has some theories of the stimulus behind it all.
“They’ve started from stage zero,” he says, “with a long learning curve. For years, it was a Concord grape-based industry. Then they were growing wine grapes, French wine grapes, from the Finger Lakes wineries. Little by little, wine grapes out here decreased. But we looked at Canadian wineries (in Southern Ontario) and their success, and their influence. They’ve been a big part of the impetus.”
Tower suggested a variety of motives behind the growth in the number of wineries. Some are byproducts of family farms, others are operated by newcomers and hobbyists. After all, there are few barriers to entry, besides the requisite infusion of money. Will there be more wineries?
“There may be a shaking-out period. Obviously, the question is one of competition. They’re making $14 bottles of Riesling when a bottle of Washington State Riesling is $7,” he said.
The cost of a Niagara County bottle of wine runs from $7 to $37 (ice wines, made from grapes picked in the dead of winter night, are higher), but the tasting-room proprietors claim their high-end products are flying off the shelves.
So, are these wines any good, in the worldview of things? According to Jamie Gabrini, opinionated expert and correspondent for the influential Web site “Wine Chicks,” yes.
“The Niagara County region was just undiscovered. It comes with any new wine region. A region has to find its own way,” she said.
The cool weather and the unraveling of the nuances of the microclimate, caused by proximity to Lake Ontario, suggests the wines will improve as the vines age and the vintners’ experience grows. “Even Burgundy wasn’t Burgundy overnight.”
It need not be pointed out that personal preference is a heavy influence in choosing a wine. I have my favorites, but your scale may vary.
The Niagara Wine Trail itself has nearly become a tourist destination of it own, with a bright future. See our falls, then taste our wine. As the number of wineries and available retail outlets increases, word is getting out that some quality work is being done here.
Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore-based freelance writer.
Dare not call them wine bars. They are not saloons, but places to sample the local grape and perhaps purchase a few bottles to take home.
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