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Boosting a family tradition in Niagara

At first it wasn't obvious to Tamre Varallo what the land with a lake in an old, spent gravel pit would be good for, besides a cabin, until they discovered thin, sandy soil was just right for grapes -- and the family wine-making tradition.

"It's not like other fruits where you need a rich soil," said Varallo. "The grape vineyards need to be stressed. There has to be hardship in order to produce a good grape."

The 78-acre parcel Varallo bought with her husband, Nicholas, 12 years ago had been mined for decorative "pea" gravel until the water table got hit and filled what is now an eight-acre lake that is 30 feet deep in one end.

"We wanted to keep the serenity of the land," she said. "We thought the wine and park setting went well together, so we put together a test vineyard."

For the last five years that they've been growing grapes and making wine, their Spring Lake Winery's development -- of wine varieties and a bucolic wedding venue -- has followed the Niagara region's growing wine trail, where sweet varieties are the well-known local strength and dry wines are the quiet underdog.

"There's more than just sweet wines," Varallo said. "Anything from a fruit wine to a dry red, a dry white. They're all award-winning wines."

As Niagara County wineries proliferate -- by Varallo's count there were two in 2005 and 17 today -- the government is working to promote the state's wine prowess. Varallo went to China last month to meet new customers and work on a new New York State wine shop opening in June in Shanghai. Spring Lake was one of five wineries included in 21 state projects to win a "Value Added Producer" grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help with marketing in February.

The Varallos now have about $50,000 to add to their budget for upgrading springlakewinery.com. Links and connections to other local businesses will be developed and elaborated on, including the Niagara Wine Trail, train rides from the Medina Railroad Museum, wedding caterer the Lockport Country Club and the White Linen Tea House in Sanborn, which will co-host a Mother's Day tea at Spring Lake.

"What we're trying to do is make sure the tourists that come to Niagara Falls have an extra reason to stay," Varallo said. "We have a wedding every weekend. Now we're booking Fridays and Sundays because we're sold out for the Saturdays. We thought we were just going to make wines, and it's really become much more than that."

>What is it like trying to do business in China?

They're very thorough in making sure that you're going to meet the standards that they want. Their meetings are held with round tables, and they serve you hot tea during your talks and discussions.

You just don't make a business deal right away. You have to build relationships and trust. So it's going to be a three-year process. It's not just a rushed deal, where, "OK, send me some wine."

There's many layers that you have to go through before you build an ongoing relationship. My experience was, I have to build the relationship and go through stages. They want a long-term relationship that they can grow with you.

>Why does the Niagara region focus on sweet wines, like Reislings?

The sweet varieties grow native here to our region. There are some drier ones that work in the region; they haven't been recognized as much as the sweet wines.

The consumer that knows the region tends to go for the sweet wines. We're able to produce a Riesling much like the Rieslings that are grown in Europe. So we have French sommeliers in Europe telling us how similarly our wines taste to the German Riesling.

>So New York is trying to get a wine reputation like the one California cultivated after blind taste tests decades ago revealed the state's wines were as good as the French ones?

Drinking wine years ago was based on the area where the grapes were grown. French would drink French wine. The Spanish would drink Spanish wine

In the '70s, California had the whole marketplace. That was when we started exploring.

The New York State government wants to promote the wines of New York State. It's exciting for our state because we can be recognized like California was 15 years ago. We can grow good wine here. It's a new market for us.

>You are developing your winery into a family business?

My husband, Nicholas, is a family physician and I'm a nurse. So that's our day job. I'm from Niagara Falls and my husband was actually born in Argentina. The family migrated from Italy to Argentina to Lockport, New York. They were used to making homemade wine. We carried that tradition on with our family, our children.

We're trying to retire. Right now, my two sons Dominic and Americo run the winery. Then I do the marketing with my daughter, Christina, who is also a physician.

She's going to carry on her dad's practice, I hope. We employ seasonally 10 to 15. Depending on the events, it could be up to 20 people. It's satisfying work because it's not really work, it's like growing our family and supporting our community.

>Is there a connection with wine and your health professions?

I think it complements who we are naturally. As a physician and a nurse, we take care of people. It's an easy transition because hospitality is important to us. We want to make sure people enjoy their experience and a healthy wine to drink, by making our wine as naturally as possible.

Our family has three generations of homemade wine makers. Our family recipe is made with a zinfandel. Our style is to keep it as organic as possible. We don't put pesticides in the vineyard. We don't add sugar. We keep it as simple as possible. We try to keep sulfur to a minimum.

>Chengdu was one of the cities you visited in China. What was it like?

I was the only American walking the streets much of the time. The streets were spotless. It was very quiet. They used electric motorbikes instead of gas. I walked the streets by myself. 14 million people. I found it very impressive that they were so well organized and the streets were quiet and clean.

A lot of people in the tourist areas, they wanted to take a picture of me because I was different. They were giggling.

It just made me laugh, I guess. They were excited to see an American, and it made me feel proud of my country. They respected our country that they wanted a pictures of someone from America.

>And Shanghai?

There's a street called the Bund. It's right on the water. It was a mini Wall Street in the time of Roosevelt.

Then across the river is the futuristic Shanghai, which looks like the Jetsons. The architecture is glass and twisted buildings. It's just amazing.

The House of Roosevelt, on the Bund, was built in 1920 by the Roosevelt family. It has been redeveloped by the great grandson of Theodore Roosevelt and a nephew of Franklin Roosevelt. The first floor is the Rolex watch store. The second floor is the Wine Cellar lounge and restaurant. We had a government dinner there, and they flew in pork chops from the U.S. They fly in oysters and caviars.

There was this big crystal table, a solid crystal table, where they had a tasting.

We're negotiating with their buyer now to have our Rieslings served in their establishment, so that was really exciting.

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Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Bruce Andriatch, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com