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The world already knows about the water of Niagara.

Now comes the wine.

A small, but growing, number of vintners in Niagara County have begun to tap into New York State's $40 million wine industry, the third-largest in the United States. They have witnessed the number of visitors to state wineries climb sevenfold during the last 20 years and look to capture the excitement, and dollars, that has come with such an explosion in growth.

"Of all the wine regions in New York State, the Niagara Escarpment has the ability to produce international varieties of world-class character," said Michael J. VonHeckler, president of an association of wine merchants who formed the Niagara Wine Trail two years ago.

Under the right conditions, Von Heckler said, county winemaking can translate into economic opportunity.

Others agree. Two years ago, the Niagara Wine Trail was a fragile stem connecting three fledgling wineries along a 19-mile strip of state Route 104.

Today, there are six wineries along a 56-mile stretch that reaches from Niagara Falls to Gasport, near the Orleans County line.

Four more wineries are being developed in the towns of Cambria, Royalton and Hartland, VonHeckler said. One will open in April. The others will spring up during the next two years.

Winery owners hope to turn the fledgling trail into an international tourist attraction that will one day compete with the state's four main wine-growing regions and the Niagara Peninsula on the Canadian side of the border.

"Wine country tourism is particularly important because it brings visitors to predominantly rural areas and feeds many other businesses," said Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.

Across the state, the number of visitors to New York wineries grew to 2.7 million last year, according to the foundation, a public-private partnership.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a member of the Congressional Wine Caucus, is pressing to have the Niagara Escarpment designated as an American Viticulture Area, which would provide a marketing boost for area wineries.

"Niagara winemakers have the potential to generate enormous economic benefits through investment, jobs and tourism," the New York Democrat said.

Potential is the key word, since the Niagara Wine Trail is small compared with other wine regions statewide. There are 200 wineries in the state in five regions from Lake Erie to Long Island. The Finger Lakes region is the largest, with 100 wineries. The Hudson River Valley north of New York City has 38; northern Long Island has 34; and the Lake Erie region holds 12.

The 100 wineries in the Niagara Peninsula region along the escarpment on the Canadian side of the border attract an estimated 800,000 visitors a year. They account for the bulk of Ontario's $300 million a year in wine sales and $30 million in associated wages, government reports say.

"We have the same soils and climate on this side of the Niagara River and five times the growing area, enough for 50 wineries," said VonHeckler, who owns Warm Lake Estates Winery on Lower Mountain Road in Cambria.

The Niagara wine industry is a relative newcomer. State wine country tradition stretches back to the 1800s. An industry revival began in the 1960s and '70s in the Hudson River Valley and Finger Lakes regions. Niagara County interest rekindled with Cambria Wine Cellars, now called Niagara Landing Wine Cellars, which opened on Van Dusen Road in 1998. It was the first winery to open in Niagara County in 20 years.

Annual production at Niagara Landing has increased from an initial 1,500 gallons of wine to today's 16,000 gallons of 20 varieties of grape wines, plus two fruit wines made from cherries and pears.

"We've experienced a steady 28 percent growth rate, and I see it expanding tremendously," said co-owner Garry Hoover. "The wine trail brought in a lot of traffic this past summer."

Optimism about the future growth of the trail is not universal. Newfane winemaker Thomas J. Chiappone, a Delphi Thermal Systems worker with a background in chemistry, grows eight acres of various French-American hybrid grapes that last year produced about 23,000 bottles of wine.

"Marketing is the key," said Chiappone, "(but) you can only have so many wineries in the area before it becomes saturated."

He puts that point at about 12 wineries.

Chiappone, whose winery is geographically on the Niagara Wine Trail, does not belong to the association of local vintners.

Other winemakers say the potential could be far greater than Chiappone estimates, especially if they can get repealed a Prohibition-era state law that forbids producers from shipping wine to consumers in other states.

"The interstate ban," said VonHeckler, "is a major obstacle and one of the major reasons we cannot penetrate national and international markets."

The ban is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to render a decision by February, said Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Niagara Falls.

"If the Supreme Court ruling favors the interstate shipment of wine, then the entire country is open to Niagara wines," DelMonte said. If the court decision goes the other way, DelMonte vowed to mount a vigorous effort to change the state law.


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