Wineries are facing many challenges on the eastern side of Cayuga Lake — remote locations, a growing craft beverage industry, climate change — but owners and managers are anything but pessimistic about their businesses' futures.
"I think it's a really exciting time to be here," said Susan Higgins, co-proprietor of Heart and Hands Wine Co. in Union Springs. "It's a nice community, and I think people are really supportive of one another, which is really fantastic."
Farm-to-table restaurants, craft breweries, specialty agricultural producers, bakeries, wineries ... Cayuga County has all of them, and in num…
The eastern side of the lake is like another world from the western side. With significantly fewer wineries and more sweeping vistas of farmland and water, establishments are turning away from the trail model and thinking more destination. It's a move that hasn't impacted the camaraderie wineries share, but it has changed their methods of attracting visitors.
For example, the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail is down to one Cayuga County participant, Aurora's Long Point Winery, this year. Treleaven Wines of King Ferry pulled out after nearly 25 years of membership.
"I don't think businesses over there see it as advantageous to be a part of the wine trail because there isn't as much over there," said Katherine Chase, event coordinator for the wine trail. "There are other wineries that either don't meet our criteria to be members, or just don't want to be for their own reasons. We do the best we can for our events to get people to that side of the lake. We almost have to force them, or they won't go."
Chase called the eastern side "a hidden gem," adding that she tries to start events at Long Point Winery. Participants, she said, don't always appreciate the scenic 30-minute drive to the next stop, Montezuma Winery in Seneca Falls, however.
Wineries like Heart and Hands and Bet the Farm Winery in Aurora have said they can't handle the numbers wine trail events pull in, and participating in events is a requirement.
It's a concerning trend for Chase.
"We're already in Seneca Lake's Wine Trail shadow, unfortunately," she said. "Even though we're the first wine trail in the country, we're still in their shadow. I almost don't want to go there."
Gary Barletta, owner of Long Point Winery and board member of the trail, said he's planning to remain a trail member. He said the advertising and events attract a good number of people. The wine trail, he added, will be reviewing its strategic plan, something that hasn't been visited in about a decade.
"There's always room for improvements, and we're always looking for new ideas, and I think the promotion committee is doing a good job of that," he said.
Treleaven Wines Vice President Lev Saltonstall said the business is done with wine trail, most likely for good. The booming craft beverage industry, he said, has caused the winery to look at how it attracts business and how to keep competitive in the marketplace.
"What's happening is breweries are popping up, and it's the new and exciting thing to do," Saltonstall said. "As wineries, we have to be creative to keep us relevant as well. The wine trail is a fantastic organization, but the direction they're going in is sort of the continued wine trail event, and our biggest direction is more of the concert venue and music, as well as being a site to hang out, enjoy your summertime, and for that reason, we basically decided to leave the wine trail after almost 25 years."
While wine is still the main feature on the menu, several establishments are keeping the craft competition on tap. Both Treleaven and Apple Station Winery of Cayuga mentioned they partner with Cortland Beer Co.
Barletta said keeping up with customers' wine tastes can also be a challenge. With vineyards needing multiple years before they're ready to produce wine, it can be tough to keep up with what's popular to the taste buds.
"I remember when I first planted my first grape vines, (they) were Chardonnay in 1999," Barletta said. "They were the hot item. By the time I got my first crop off, which was three or four years later, (people said) 'Sure, anything but Chardonnay.' But now Chardonnay is making a comeback, so there's these cyclical terms of what people want and what's in demand."
It's made most of the area's wineries grow significantly in their offerings. Heart and Hands, which opened its tasting room in 2009, has gone from three wines to 12. Long Point opened its doors in 2000 and has gone from offering one wine to about 22. Treleaven has gone from four wines to 21. Eleven years ago, Bet the Farm had three wines. Now it's up to six or seven.
Those on the outskirts of the lake have seen growth, too. CJS Vineyards in Aurelius has expanded its offerings from about four wines to 10 in the last 15 years. Montezuma Winery didn't even start making wine; it made mead. Now it offers over 30 wines and spirits. Robert Wintamute, owner of Apple Station Winery, said he started out with four wines. Now he offers about 20.
While most businesses have expanded in some form — adding on larger production areas, tasting room space, acreage to vineyards — most of the purveyors like their smaller sizes, touting quality over quantity.
As vineyards expand, however, unpredictable weather caused by climate change has some winemakers worried. Chris Scholomiti, owner of CJS Vineyards, said the few days in January where wind chill temperatures dipped well below zero had him concerned, since extremely cold snaps are harmful to grapes.
Higgins, too, said it doesn't help when one day temperatures are below zero, and the next day they're 60 degrees.
"Being able to do things that will help protect our grapes from that is a challenge, and just the uncertainty is a challenge," she said.
Wintamute has also been frustrated with conditions.
"Every year now, it just seems like there's no norm anymore," he said. "We go from one year where there's a drought, then last year, it never quit raining for five or six weeks. When you're growing fruit ... it just creates problems and issues that you have to deal with, and it's hard to deal with them."
For new winemakers Donna and Mike Wilson, the 2017 Pinot noir crop was not up to what they were hoping. The hot dry summer of 2016, however, was just right and they will be selling their first batch this summer.
The Wilsons are the newest vineyard on the block, with plans to open Wilson Family Cellars and Bright Leaf Vineyard this June. Located on Clearview Road in King Ferry, the Wilsons have 14 acres of grapes planted and broke ground on their tasting room and production area in May last year.
Their winery neighbors are ecstatic to have them in the area. Barletta, Saltonstall and General Manager of Bet the Farm Winery Kit Kalfs, all mentioned the Wilsons when discussing the potential for adding more business to the eastern side of Cayuga Lake. All want to see more vineyards crop up.
"The best way to look at it is friendly competition," Kalfs said. "By all means, the more the merrier over here because that brings people."
For Donna Wilson, there couldn't have been a better spot to get started.
"It's super friendly here," she said. "Everyone wants their neighbor to succeed and it's just a wonderful environment to be in. ... It's an incredible amount of work, and just getting the licensing. It's truly a labor of love."