Garry Hoover, a Pendleton native, was attracted to the winemaking business through a friend after 26 years in the trucking and transportation business.
The owner and winemaker at Honeymoon Trail Winery on Ridge Road admits the career change may sound odd, but he says his management background with Waste Management and Hazmat Environmental helped tremendously when he decided to start his own wine business.
Hoover and his wife, Lori, bought and renovated a vacant winery in 2005, started a vineyard from scratch and became the sixth of 10 wineries now included on the Niagara Wine Trail.
Garry Hoover is a down-to-earth businessman with a simple approach to producing wine that he says begins with good grapes. His chemistry lab, in the corner of his winery's large production room, includes just a few pieces of equipment to test acid, pH and sugar.
The approach seems to be working. Honeymoon Trail's 2006 Lake Erie Pink Catawba was recently awarded one of 23 Double Gold medals, the highest award, at the 2007 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.
The competition was held several weeks ago in Rochester and included more than 2,126 entries from 12 countries.
Hoover said many of the wineries along the Niagara Wine Trail have won awards in various competitions, and he hopes that will draw attention to what he sees as the area's growing success in the industry.
You're a self-taught winemaker, so how did you learn the trade?
I began by experimenting, and I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of days with the head enologist from Cornell University's state Agriculture Experiment Station [in Geneva], who gives me constant suggestions. They're constantly working in their million-dollar lab, and if they see grapes are stressed, they make recommendations.
I adjust my winemaking technique each year. I start with a clear head, and when I get my grapes each year I'm not necessarily going to make it the same way as the previous year. I gauge new vintages on the customer, so when I make wine I try to make what the public likes.
Do you make wine from your own grapes?
Right now I buy mostly from [growers in] Burt and also Fredonia. We had to start from scratch here, and we had all our friends and family help plant. If all goes well, we'll be harvesting one variety this year.
I have 2 acres planted right now, and one more acre is going in this summer. I'm hoping to harvest a half acre of Noiret, an experimental grape from the Geneva breeding program. It's a hybrid red.
What do you think about the viability of the Wine Trail?
A lot of people take the Niagara Wine Trail for granted. They think it's not there yet, but I think there are world-class wines on the whole trail, with a group of top-notch winemakers. What has been said is that there are 13 [million] to 14 million visitors to Niagara Falls each year and, if the Wine Trail can get 1 to 2 percent, the county wouldn't be able to grow enough grapes to support them.
Do the wineries work together on winemaking?
Do we know each other? Yes. Collaboration? No. I believe every winemaker leaves a blueprint in their wines. People notice the difference as they travel the Wine Trail.
We may not collaborate about our winemaking techniques, but we do collaborate about how to get customers here.
What do you think could help?
The number of people attending the monthly Wine Trail events has really grown. I think it's important to get people to realize the trail is here and that it's for real. Our hardest hurdle is local restaurants. They can buy a gallon-and-a-half of Cabernet for $5 and sell it by the glass for . . . I won't even take a guess.
(His wife adds that the Fieldstone Restaurant in the Town of Lockport, the Bistro at the Old Fort Inn in Youngstown, Asa Ransom House in Clarence and Danny Sheehan's Steakhouse in Lockport carry the couple's wine. "I'd like to see more local businesses support each other," she said. "We get a lot of people that want to stay and eat on the trail. There's a lot of opportunity for bed-and-breakfasts on the trail.")
Any bright spots?
We've noticed more people from Rochester, including liquor store owners coming from Rochester and asking for samples and selling the wine in their stores.
What about online sales of wine and all the lawsuits over states' regulation?
That's a mess. I took a virtual computer seminar by a firm out of California on direct-ship compliance. They said you can send a case of wine on Tuesday, the law changes on Wednesday, and you can end up in a lawsuit by Thursday. It's very confusing, and I don't want to take any chances.
We most definitely would benefit because we get so many [tourists] coming from Niagara Falls that can't bring it on the airplane and ask about ordering. You would gain lifetime customers, but you're not allowed to ship. I'm shipping within New York right now, and I'd like to expand and start out with one state at a time. I hear Illinois is the Number One state to buy online wine, so that's where I'll start.
Where did the name of your winery come from?
I did some research and went to the Niagara Falls library, where I found all this stuff about how Route 104 used to be called that in the late '20s because it leads to Niagara Falls, the honeymoon capital. We even give certificates to newlyweds who visit to commemorate their trip to the Honeymoon Trail.
Today is the last day of the latest Niagara Wine Trail event, which features wine and food pairings, as well as recipes. For more information, visit www.niagarawinetrail.org.