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Winery exults in its state 'Oscars'

The folks behind Leonard Oakes Estate Winery have been in the business of growing fruit, namely apples, for nearly a century.

Now a member of the fourth generation is helping take the family business in another direction, as the company recently secured top honors for its wine and hard cider in a prestigious statewide competition.

Winery President Wendy Oakes Wilson called the awards "the Oscars of New York State wine," crediting her nephew, Jonathan Oakes, who is the company's winemaker and grape-grower.

"He's the creative one in the family, and he's devoted to his craft. It's pretty cool," Wilson said. "He's great at what he does."

Leonard Oakes' 2008 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine won the awards as best ice wine and best dessert wine at the 2011 New York Wine and Food Classic held in Watkins Glen in mid-July. The winery also earned two gold medals for its Steampunk Cider, a new product and the only hard cider available on the Niagara Wine Trail.

A little genealogy is needed to appreciate this storied, family-owned business.

Leonard Oakes started the apple farm in 1918. He and his wife, Eloise, had four children. Their son, James, took over the farm in 1951, when his father died. James and his wife, Wanda, had five children, four of whom have some role in the present day company.

Oldest son, Darrel, is the apple- and grape-grower and serves as president of LynOaken Farms, located at 11540 Maple Ave., Lyndonville, and 10609 Ridge Road, Medina. His wife, Linda, manages the apple-packing line, farm market and gift shop, and they are the parents of winemaker Jonathan.

Darrel's sister, Wendy, is president of Leonard Oakes Estate Winery, also located at 10609 Ridge Road, Medina. The family first planted the grapes in 2003 and created its first vintage in 2006, opening its tasting room in 2008.

They also have a sister, Diane Oakes Thurber, whose husband, Daniel Thurber, is a stockholder in the farm. Their son, Jerod Thurber, is the winery's tasting room manager and tourism and environmental projects manager.

And they have a sister, Deborah, who is a shareholder in the farm and winery, and another brother, Dana, who is a professional musician in Boston and the only sibling not associated with the farm or winery.

Having grown up with this pedigree, Jonathan Oakes knew his way around the farm but initially opted to pursue archaeology for a career. But then the farm beckoned in 2003, when his father, Darrel, turned the vineyards over to him. The younger Oakes later earned a degree to become a vintner and winery and viticulture technician.

The 2008 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine that took top honors this summer was the first ice wine he produced.

"It was quite humbling," he said. "But it makes working this hard to get things pulled together worthwhile."

Jonathan Oakes explained that of the 16 wineries open or in the process of opening on the Niagara Wine Trail, five offer ice wines. Leonard Oakes is one of three that produces it from its own grapes, joining Schulze Vineyards & Winery in Newfane and Niagara Landing Wine Cellars in Lockport.

"Ice wine is starting to take hold in our region, but it reigns supreme in Ontario, taking the international stage," he said.

Oakes described the very delicate process required to produce ice wine, relying on specific freeze and thaw cycles and then a very tiny window of opportunity in winter for picking the thick-skinned grapes that will be used.

"It has to be 13 degrees Fahrenheit for at least four hours, which means we may pick the grapes at 4 a.m. and press for a whole day or two," he said. "The sugar content in these grapes will be double the normal sugar content in grapes we would pick in September or October."

Due to the painstaking care taken in producing ice wine, it typically sells for $50 to $125 per bottle.

"We produce it in small quantities, usually about 100 cases per year," he said.

Having grown up around apples and cider presses, Oakes said he had been tinkering with creating a hard cider for several years before hitting on the winning recipe for Steampunk Cider.

"It's been 10 years in the making, and I must have refined the blend 100 times, but I think we came up with a fusion of an Old World cider and New Age dessert apple flavor for this," he said.

The double-gold winner "came from the first batch of this we created and entered into a contest," Oakes said. "To win two gold medals with it shows, I think, the attention to detail we've had in refining this product."

The farm grows 23 different varieties of apples, aside from the English cider apples, and 18 varieties of grapes.

Oakes also serves as the winemaker to Schulze Winery in Newfane and a consultant to the new Long Cliff Vineyards and Winery on Lower Mountain Road in Sanborn, which is expected to open soon.

Martin Schulze, who owns Schulze Winery with his wife, Ann, credits Oakes with helping him update his approach to winemaking and his equipment.

"He has upped our quality of wine," he said, pointing to Oakes' help in the Schulzes capturing a number of top awards. These include a double gold for their semidry Vidal and gold for their Mon Cheri in the 2011 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.

In addition, their Thirty-Mile Point Niagara won a double gold and "Best in Class" in last year's New York Wine and Food Classic, all under Oakes' direction.

"Jonathan has helped out many people in this area -- he's information central," said his aunt, Wendy Wilson.

With generations of experience and knowledge behind him, Oakes has an eye on the future.

"I see this whole region flourishing," Oakes said of his partners on the Niagara Wine Trail. "And this will be a boost to everything else, bringing in more tourism dollars and more small businesses.

"The potential is so limitless here," he continued. "We really could be the next Napa Valley, with a different wine product."


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