The biggest players in the region's wine industry gathered around a big table Monday at Niagara University's Bisgrove Hall, eager to capitalize on the buzz of Nik Wallenda's wire walk over the Niagara Gorge and have the ear of U.S. Rep. Kathleen Hochul, who called them all together.
"As you can see, we assembled the dream team," Hochul said.
The team's goal: brainstorm ways to bolster Niagara County's wine production and economic growth in the wake of the Wallenda walk.
It's a time when the region can use all the attractions it can muster.
About 20 industry professionals aired their concerns about the wine industry, including marketing the region as a great place for winery tours as well as the cost to bring wine across the border.
For Hochul, D-Amherst, the discussion provided her with ideas as the newest member of the Congressional Wine Caucus. She is also introducing legislation this week called the National Treasure Promotion and Investment Act, which prioritizes the processing of tourist visa applications for visitors to National Parks and National Heritage Areas.
The bill also makes grants available for transportation infrastructure in communities hosting national treasures. Niagara County is home to two National Heritage areas and would help the region by bringing tourism to local landmarks and increasing the dollars available for infrastructure upgrades.
Before going around the table, Hochul said that New York is the third largest grape producer in the United States and that there are currently more than 316 wineries in the state. The Niagara Wine Trail opened with two wineries in 1999 and has grown to 16 as of December . In January, the Niagara Region was named No. 7 in the Weather Channel's "Wine Region Travel Top 10" list.
"It's part of the fun experi ence of living in this region," Hochul said. "We need to encourage tourists to visit our wineries."
Hochul advised those in attendance that this wasn't the end of the conversation but the beginning.
Margo Sue Bittner, owner of The Winery at Marjim Manor, said that there are currently three wineries looking to join the Wine Trail. As many as 3,000 people will stop at her winery over a two-day period on special Niagara Wine Trail events, she said.
Oscar Vizcarra, owner of Becker Farms and Vizcarra Vineyards in Gasport, said the next challenge will be branding, as the world needs to know that the region has good wine. Vizcarra and his wife, Melinda, have been dealing with exporting wine to China, where New York wine is considered a great brand because it tends to be fruitier than European wine.
Hochul suggested doing something memorable to brand the wineries — much more than a bumper sticker. "Maybe you tie in a tightrope walker," she joked, receiving plenty of laughs.
Elizabeth Rose Maute, coordinator of the wine trail, said Canada's border tax policies influence Canadians not to buy New York wine. Canadians are hit with duties and taxes of up to 100 percent of the cost of a bottle of New York wine. Oftentimes, they come to taste the wine but don't buy. By comparison, U.S. tourists returning from Canada are allowed to bring two bottles of Canadian wine duty-free.
"The 100 percent duty is insane," said Duncan Ross, owner of Arrowhead Spring Vineyards.
Some issued concerns of law inhibiting their lives and proving to "choke our lives out." They said the area needs to sustain itself by getting people to stay in the Niagara Region and spend money, rather than asking for federal grants.
"You're saying you don't want government on your back, but by your side," Hochul said.
Gary Praetzel, dean of Niagara University's College of Hospitality and Tourism Management, said Erie and Niagara counties must be marketed as a region, as tourists would be drawn to the attractions in both areas. "It's really one and the same to a traveler," he said. "The region as an overall destination is the key."
Many said the region needs to talk advantage of the buzz the Wallenda walk created recently.
"We are in the international spotlight because of that event," Hochul said. "And shame on us if we don't capitalize on it. This is our chance."