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NIAGARA'S WINE PRODUCERS MAKE THEIR MARK IN COMPETITIONS

CAMBRIA - Niagara County's two fledgling commercial wineries, both family-owned, are bringing home awards in state and national competition.

Cambria Wine Cellars, on Van Dusen Road, received a gold medal and two bronze medals at the recent New York Wine and Food Classic.

Chiappone Cellars, on Murphy Road in Newfane, won two silver awards and one bronze at an international wine competition at Purdue University in Indiana, a bronze medal at a national match in Colorado and two bronze medals at the State Fair in Syracuse.

Cambria Wine Cellars will celebrate with its first Harvest Stomp from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday and next Sunday. The event will include vineyard tours, fresh grapes, grape juice and other food, an opportunity for visitors to pick their own grapes and a Purple Foot contest for those who want to stomp some defenseless grapes into submission.

The Smith family, which has grown grapes on Van Dusen Road for decades, went into the wine business two years ago. About 145 of the operation's 150 acres of grapes are devoted to Concord grapes, the familiar purple grapes most often used for juice, jam and jelly.

But Concords also can be used in winemaking, and Captain's Choice, a medium red wine that won a bronze medal at the Wine and Food Classic, is made from Concords, according to Jackie Connelly, secretary-treasurer of Cambria Wine Cellars.

Her sister-in-law, Nancy Smith, is the wife of Peter Smith, company president.

About five acres of the property are devoted to wine grapes, ranging from Niagara and Catawba to Vidal, Cayuga, Chardonnay, Riesling and Steuben.

Smith's home-grown Catawba grapes were used to make Boxer Blush, so called because of the picture of the family's boxer dog on the label. The wine won the gold medal at the Wine and Food Classic and was one of 11 wines to advance to the Governor's Cup competition. Connelly described it as "similar to a white Zinfandel."

"It's an in-between wine," Nancy Smith added. "Dry drinkers and sweet drinkers both like it."

Boxer Blush, the top seller among Cambria Wine Cellars' 12 varieties, also won a gold medal at this year's Lewiston Wine, Chocolate and Tulip Festival.

Misty Niagara, a white wine made from Smith's Niagara grapes, ranks second on the sales chart. It won the firm's other bronze medal in the state contest.

In all, Cambria Wine Cellars has sold 6,000 gallons of wine in the past year, Connelly said. The wines also are on the menu at a few local restaurants and are sold in some area liquor stores.

Cambria Wine Cellars purchases juice from Finger Lakes farmers from three varieties it doesn't grow on the premises. Two of them - Reugeon and DeChaunac - are blended into Cambria Red, another of the firm's popular wines.

It also offers Cambria White, Pinot Noir and Merlot and this fall is planning to introduce brut Champagne, a port made from Concords and Blue Marlin Splash, a semidry white wine blended from Catawbas and Cayugas.

Winemakers include Garry Hoover, husband of Vice President Lori Hoover.

"Garry has been our best friend for a long time. He's a great salesman and he loves wine," Nancy Smith said.

Other winemakers - Patrice DeMay and Dominic Carrisetti - are in the Finger Lakes.

Outside the family and friends who constitute the partnership, the operation has only one part-time employee and no full-time hired help.

"We are the slave labor," Connelly laughed.

"We're doing umpteen outside activities," Nancy Smith said. "We had a customer who was getting married and wanted to carry our wine (at the reception)."

Cambria Wine Cellars charges $15 a bottle for its Merlot, Riesling, Champagne and Pinot Noir and $12 for Chardonnay. "Everything else is $9.95 or lower," Nancy Smith said.

So far, they're not getting rich. "It's early on. We are reinvesting every penny that comes in," Connelly said.

At Chiappone Cellars, Thomas Chiappone, a Lockport resident, is the winemaker, the chemist and the owner. He also is a former partner of the Smiths, a relationship that he says "didn't work out," he said.

While planting grapes on the Murphy Road land, Chiappone is making wine with juice purchased elsewhere in the state. He expects his first wine from his own grapes in 2003.

Unlike Cambria Wine Cellars, which sends grapes elsewhere to be pressed, Chiappone has the equipment to do it himself.

"I'm a wine chemist. I've been doing this for 30 years as a hobby," he said. "This is a hobby that's turned into a nice business."

Chiappone, 47, is still holding down a job at Delphi Harrison Thermal Systems in Lockport but is counting the days until he can retire in two years and become a full-time wine man.

"We have the capacity to produce 8,000 to 10,000 gallons of wine," he said. This year's output, however, is expected to be about 3,000 gallons.

He sells 10 varieties of wine and prefers French-American hybrids. Besides Niagara, Catawba and Pinot Noir, he buys more exotic varieties of grapes such as Chambourcin and Bako Noir.

On 8 1/2 acres of land, he has begun planting Seyval blanc grapes. Marshal Foch is scheduled to be planted next year, Vidal blanc in 2003 and other varieties after that.

With purchased grapes, however, "We've probably got 25 to 30 gold, silver and bronze (medals) in the commercial wines," Chiappone said. "I've been competing for a number of years," including his time as a hobbyist.

His Chardonnay and Seyval blanc won bronze medals at the State Fair this year. Seyval blanc also took a bronze medal at the Purdue competition, while the Marshal Foch and Vidal blanc received silvers. At the Colorado contest, Chiappone's Riesling won a bronze medal.

He has shipped wines to Germany and Australia for judging this fall and is planning to enter the American Wine Society contest in South Carolina in early November.

"We offer free tastings and half-hour tours," he said.

His prices range from $5.99 a bottle for Vidal blanc and Niagara wine to $17.99 for Pinot Noir.

Chiappone said his first wine with home-grown grapes will likely be an ice wine in the winter of 2003. Ice wine is made by leaving the grapes on the vines until they freeze, picking them when the temperature is about 17 degrees and pressing them outdoors. Ten bushels of frozen grapes produce about three gallons of juice.

A third winery, Warm Lake Estates on Lower Mountain Road in Cambria, is growing grapes and is expected to begin production next year.

Niagara County Wineries

Cambria Wine Cellars (433-8405) is located at 4434 Van Dusen Road in Cambria. Hours are 2 to 6 p.m. Monday and Thursday, noon to 6 p.m. Friday, noon to 6 Saturday and noon to 5 Sunday. It is closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

Chiappone Cellars (433-9463) is located at 3401 Murphy Road in Newfane. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. daily.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com