Slim fingers' burden
Why there isn’t more Finger Lakes Wine in local restaurants—and what’s being done about it
Six years ago, Savor Life radio host Michael Warren Thomas, along with Break the Ice Media’s Nicole Mahoney, launched New York Winespotting, a project that documented the actual number of Finger Lakes wines available in Rochester-area restaurants. “People talked about how few there were, but we didn’t know how few,” he says. Thomas set about visiting every restaurant in the Greater Rochester area, looking at wine lists, and measured wines both by the glass and by the bottle. The final tally Thomas produced was an abysmal seven percent by the glass. Right now, with new restaurants having opened since and others having closed, he’s working on an updated list and estimates that the final tally will be around thirteen or fourteen percent. The number of Finger Lakes wines by the glass doubling may be an improvement, but for Thomas and many others who work in the wine industry, that’s not enough.
Travel to any other world-class wine region, and you’ll see that the wines on that list are primarily wines from that region. Thomas has observed this on the restaurant lists of Spokane, Washington, which is close to the Walla Walla Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), and wants to see Finger Lakes wines in Rochester restaurants at seventy-five percent by-the-glass. “We’re the only major wine region that doesn’t support its own wines,” Thomas observes. Winemaker Steve Shaw notes that even nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake, just over the Canadian border, has wine lists mostly composed of wines from that region. “The Finger Lakes region is way behind other areas of the world in terms of regional wine representations on wine menus,” he says.
Local restaurateurs, by and large, are mostly focused on catering to the locals, whose taste they believe either skews elsewhere or simply don’t value local wines. However, as Dan Mitchell, sales manager at Fox Run Vineyards in Penn Yan points out, the lack of local wine options can be baffling to the outsider: “There’s always a disconnect when a traveler comes from another region and sees these great, high-quality restaurants that aren’t giving local wine options.” The problem is not unique to Rochester. Restaurants in Syracuse and even the progressive-minded Ithaca have had a hard time getting on board with putting Finger Lakes wine on their menus, and a recent survey put the state capitol of Albany at a meager four percent New York by the glass.
Finger Lakes wines are sold in forty countries and have placed first in the white wine category in the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle wine competition four out of the last eight years. Hermann J. Wiemer is carried by 400 restaurants in New York City alone. And in 2015, Wine Enthusiast, a publication with a circulation of nearly one million, awarded New York “Wine Region of the Year.” Yet this reputation is rarely reflected on Rochester-area wine lists. “I find that when I go into the New York City market, we’re welcome with open arms. People are seeking out Finger Lakes wines,” says Katie Roller, who handles marketing and public relations for Wagner Vineyards in Lodi, as well as sales for the metropolitan New York City market. “It is far too often in our own backyard, we’re our own worst critics.” She characterizes restaurant sales in the Rochester market for Wagner as “lackluster.”
Nicole Héroux, whose Simply Crêpes topped Thomas’s original Winespotting list in 2011, has noticed a stark contrast between customers in their Canandaigua and Pittsford locations in terms of embracing local wines. While Canandaigua customers have always been highly receptive, customers at the Pittsford location have had a bit of “learning curve,” as she puts it. “Sometimes we’re met with a snide remark about expecting something ‘sweet,’ but since it’s free, folks generally sample. Then it always feels great when they look surprised and want to learn more about the winery.” Damiani Wine Cellars’ tasting room manager Michael Cimino, who worked as a sommelier under Iron Chef Peter Kelly before moving to the Finger Lakes in 2013, says that the motives are sometimes economic. “There’s so much bulk wine coming out of California that’s good quality for a very good price. Finger Lakes wines are largely handmade, done in very small batches, and sometimes carry a higher price tag. From a business perspective, sometimes it doesn’t make any sense to have a New York wine by the glass.”
The reason cited by the restaurateurs themselves lies in distribution. One restaurateur from Rochester’s East End believes there’s not enough Finger Lakes Wines in distribution to warrant putting more local wines on his list, and says, “I don’t think there’s a disproportionate lack of local wines. I think there are more local wines here than there are local wines in Phoenix, Arizona, because they don’t have a wine industry there.” Another general manager of a restaurant within the city limits who selects the wines for his restaurant says that he would carry more New York wines—if his distributor offered them to him. “If my reps were bringing me Finger Lakes wines—which they’ve never done—it would make my job a lot easier.” Art Rogers, owner of Lento, calls it a “cop-out”: “I would say ninety-five percent of the Finger Lakes wines on my list are distributed through wholesalers. I have to contact the other five percent who are always willing to come to the city to set up tastings. They always come here, and self-distributing labels will deliver if you give them a heads-up of a few days.”
There are outliers. Rogers is working toward making Lento 100 percent by-the-glass. Simply Crêpes, which currently has eleven Finger Lakes wines by the glass, spotlights a different winery every month, offering free samples of their wine. “When Simply Crêpes started offering small samples of local wines to everyone who came in for lunch and dinner, wine sales went up, check totals went up, and tips went up,” notes Thomas. In January of 2016, Trish Aser opened a new location of her Brown Hound Bistro at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, becoming the first Rochester restaurant to offer 100 percent Finger Lakes wine by the glass. Aser acknowledges that there was some resistance toward Brown Hound’s all-local wine approach when their original location opened in South Bristol in 2005. “Our response was, ‘If you go to Napa and find Finger Lakes wines on their list, we’ll start putting out-of-state and out-of-country on ours.’” Customers were far less resistant when the Memorial Art Gallery location opened. “The onus is on the restaurant to inquire about Finger Lakes wines,” she says. “Not for the salesperson to push it.” Both Aser and Héroux credit the Finger Lakes–friendly distributor Opici for helping cultivate their New York–centric wine lists.
Surprise entries on the New York Winespotting list were chain restaurants like Bonefish Grill and Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano. Biaggi’s, located at Eastview Mall had ten Finger Lakes wines by the glass on the original Winespotting list. For Thomas, the fact that chain restaurants like Biaggi’s are willing to put Finger Lakes wines on their menus makes the rationales of independent restaurants sound all the more absurd. “The local restaurants should be embarrassed. How does Biaggi’s get them? They ask for them.” Biaggi’s corporate headquarters no longer permits them to draw up their own wine list, but they still host winemaker’s dinners once a month during the school year. In the past, they’ve featured Three Brothers, Wagner, Lamoreaux Landing, and Dr. Konstantin Frank Wine Cellars. Front of the house manager Jenny Cierpial calls these wine dinners “immersive experiences,” saying, “It’s like a little community that gets together, sort of like a wine club.” The leftover wine from the wine dinners is made available at happy hour and by request. Aser and Cierpial stress educating the customer, with Cierpial stating, “Finger Lakes wine for customers is all about education. I recommend the winemakers come to the dinner or have some kind of education connected to it. Otherwise, people won’t pick it for themselves.”
The wine industry is doing their part as well. Damiani Wine Cellars has conducted winemaker’s dinners at Coltivare and Just a Taste in Ithaca as well as Hazelnut Kitchen in Trumansburg, and Cimino says that Rochester’s Hose 22 has expressed interest in hosting a dinner as well. Damiani sends either Cimino or one of the owners to educate customers at the dinner. The Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, founded fifteen years ago with the mission to brand the Finger Lakes to the wider wine world holds a program called “Riesling Camp,” where they bring buyers, media, and sommeliers to the area. Inspired by a similar Pinot Noir–centered seminar held in Oregon and suggested by Lakewood Vineyards’ Liz Stamp, “campers” spend time at the Finger Lakes Community College Viticulture Center in Geneva as well as time trimming and tying vines in local vineyards. This past year brought visitors from Boston, Rochester, Buffalo, Albany, and the Hudson Valley. Tracey Dello Stritto, the Wine Alliance’s executive director, says that they are working on a one-day camp specifically for local markets.
And it may be the wine industry itself that’s most optimistic about the future of Finger Lakes wine on Rochester menus. In an interview with the website New York Cork Report in 2013, Dan Mitchell lamented, “The fact that it is easier for me to sell Finger Lakes wines in New York City, Boston, Virginia, and western Canada than it is in our Thruway cities is a disturbing mystery to me.” Today, Mitchell still considers Upstate his toughest market, retail-wise, but no longer considers it impenetrable. “The number of opportunities in Rochester have grown. Our sales have remained steady throughout that growth, which is probably a good sign given the increased number of high-quality wines that are worthy of restaurant lists.”
Cimino concurs. “There’s still a lot of growth to be done, but I think we’ve grown by leaps and bounds, and the growth potential is tremendous. It’s difficult but optimistic, for sure.” Dello Stritto believes that brand ambassadors like Roller and Mitchell will be important to the upstate market in the coming years and says, “Any way that you can involve a consumer with a product is a win-win for the establishment.” Ultimately, though, it will be up to the restaurants to turn the tide.
As Trish Aser concludes: “It’s a win-win and a benefit to our local economy. Is it work? Yes. Do their products cost more? Sometimes. Do we think it’s worth the effort? Absolutely.”
Erin Scherer lives in Geneva and orders Finger Lakes wine off the menu whenever possible.