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Mead joins Niagara Wine Trail lineup
Black Willow, newly opened in Burt, adds the ancient drink to its offerings

A local couple thinks it may have a honey of an idea to make its new Black Willow Winery different.

Searching for a niche on the Niagara Wine Trail, Black Willow owners Cynthia West-Chamberlain and her husband Michael Chamberlain decided not only to offer grape wines, but also a variety of honey wines -- not available anywhere else in Niagara County.

Honey wine, also known as "mead," is the ancestor of all fermented drinks.

"We're calling ours 'meade' because it will be flavored and so a little different, so we are spelling it differently," West-Chamberlain said, noting that it can be sweet or dry. "You can add fruit or spices to it, and you can ferment mead completely to dry. When you do this, it still has the overtone of pure honey, but can be dry, which is totally unexpected."

"Hopefully, we'll have three or four varieties and will offer them by March," she added. "No one else on our trail does this now, but there are a few meaderies in the Finger Lakes and Erie [Pa.]."

Black Willow, at 5565 W. Lake Road, opened last month as the 13th winery on the Niagara Wine Trail, making a longtime dream a reality for the couple.

They make their home on a 43-acre spread, which also houses the winery, having converted a 35-year-old pole barn into their tasting room and production area. They have hired local winemaker Domenic Carisetti as a consultant and scheduled a grand opening for Jan. 29.

Black Willow is open seven days a week and currently offers five wines:

*Bare Cat Blush, a semisweet blush with floral aromas.

*Trilogy White, a delicate blend of white wines with soft floral notes and a nice clean finish.

*Chardonnay, lightly oaked with crisp Asian pear and delicate vanilla flavors.

*Trilogy Red, a medium dry red blend, with a rich berry character.

*Cabernet Franc, a dry red with a lovely bouquet of black cherry, raspberry jam and hints of smoke, with flavors of vanilla, candy apple and a soft pepper finish.

"We will also be coming out in a few weeks with Black Widow Berry, a sweet red with a natural blackberry flavor," said West-Chamberlain, adding that the quirky name is a play on the mispronunciation of "Black Willow."

"We have been doing everything off-site except bottling, but we will start our first production here in a couple of weeks and will do our first vineyard planting here in the spring," she said. "We'll plant a white grape called 'Diamond'; a hybrid Cabernet, which should do well here because of our proximity to the lake; and a cold, hardy red from Missouri called 'Norton/Cynthiana.' We already have 500 peach trees and 30 cherry trees."

"We talked to other wineries and vineyard owners in the area to see what's possibly needed here," she said of their choices in grapes.

Elizabeth Seivert, marketing coordinator for the Niagara Wine Trail, said diversity can be key.

"We market the wineries on our Trail as 'unique and diverse,' and with Black Willow offering mead, this is one more way to make that winery diverse," she said.

Seivert said Black Willow was the second new winery to open in 2010; the first was James and Kathy Baker's Chateau Niagara Winery, at 2466 W. Creek Road, Newfane, in the spring.

"And we're excited to have two more projected to open in 2011, one in Sanborn and one in Ransomville," she said.

All 13 wineries will participate in the Niagara Wine Trail's next event, planned Jan. 21 to 23 and called "Warm Your Winter with Wine."

West-Chamberlain took a circuitous route to the vineyards, having spent 14 years at Ingram-Micro Co., where she was laid off two years ago as a marketing development manager. That layoff gave her the nudge she needed to pursue a longtime dream.

"It was a leap of faith," she said, adding that her husband also is self-employed as owner of Milestone Builders in Lockport.

"I love working with people, and I've always been in sales and marketing, and I'm using that background now," West-Chamberlain said. "I'm finishing my [two-year] degree inwinemaking through VESTA [Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance] and interned for 500 hours at two local wineries."

"We've been welcomed into this farming community even though we don't have a background in this," she said. "Everyone in this industry has been so helpful and supportive. They are not competitive with each other. They feel, 'The more, the merrier,' because it brings visitors to this area."

For more information about the Wine Trail, visit www.niagarawinetrail.org. Presale tickets for "Warm Your Winter With Wine" may be purchased for $20 per person at the website or for $25 at the trail wineries during the event.

Contact Black Willow at 439-1982 or visit www.blackwillowwinery.com.

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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