WESTFIELD – Frederick Johnson can always tell when the grape harvest is approaching: the days grow shorter, the temperatures cool, and his vineyards along Route 20 begin to smell like jam.
Frederick and his wife, Jennifer, are the third-generation owners of Johnson Estate Winery, which has been in his family for more than a century. Each fall, the winery staff harvests some 800 tons and 13 varietals of grapes across 100 acres of vineyards, including the Concord grape that has a nearly two-century history in this region.
“Drive through here on the first of October, roll your window down, and you’ll smell 30 miles of jam factory,” Frederick Johnson said. “The first time I can smell the grapes, that shifts your gears and you start looking forward to fall.”
Johnson Estate differs from most other wineries by providing its customers with an opportunity to pick some of its grapes each fall and take them home. Over the next four Sunday mornings to Oct. 4, the “Great Grape Walk” provides visitors with a basket to fill, a vineyard map and an unlimited amount of time to roam. The walk ends with an outdoor wine tasting that draws a connection between the grapes customers just picked and the winery’s offerings.
Visitors on the walk will see views of the Chautauqua Ridge to the east and Lake Erie in the distance to the west – two geographic features that produce the ideal growing conditions for grapes in the region. They’ll also journey through the winery’s history.
Those who head toward the back of the vineyards will find the “first-generation” Concord and Delaware vines that Frederick’s grandfather – who shared the same name – tended to after he moved there in 1908 and started a fruit farm. (In Johnson family lore, he may have even bottled some wine for himself during Prohibition).
Frederick’s father, also named Frederick, opened the winery in 1961 and planted the second-generation grapes: French-American varietals that were the first of their kind in the Chautauqua region. And then there’s the third-generation Riesling and Chardonnay that Frederick, 67, and Jennifer helped to plant over the last two decades.
The walk is a throwback to the Johnson Estate’s early days of hand-picking the autumn harvest. The winery used to employ dozens of employees for picking decades ago, but that process waned in the 1960s as mechanization took over and ended by 1975.
A hard freeze during the frigid winter of 2015 destroyed much of the estate’s grapes, except for those near the bottom of the plants beyond the reach of the Johnsons’ machines. So the Great Grape Walk originated as a practical way for the Johnsons to salvage some of that year’s harvest and evolved into one of the winery’s storied traditions each fall for customers to enjoy.
Frederick Johnson explained the event’s evolution with a Spanish mantra.
“No hay mal que por bien no venga,” he said. “There is no bad from which good cannot come.”
Johnson Estate is one of nearly two dozen wineries and 30,000 acres of vineyards in Lake Erie Wine Country, which stretches from Silver Creek to Northeast Pennsylvania and specializes in the Concord grape. And the estate is around the corner from the Village of Westfield, where Welch’s built its first plant in 1897 and continues to operate a facility.
The Great Grape Walk intends to leave a lasting impression not just of the winery, but of the broader region.
“We’re trying to create a sense of place that’s uniquely Chautauqua,” Jennifer Johnson said. “If you live near enough to Chautauqua County, the world’s largest Concord Grape region, and you haven’t been out in the vineyards, this is a chance to go.”
IF YOU GO
The Johnson Estate Winery
8419 West Main Road, Westfield (716-326-2191, johnsonwinery.com)
Hours: Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
The Great Grape Walks run from 9 to 11 a.m. Sundays from Sept. 13 through Oct. 4. In order to maintain social distance, groups of up to eight visitors will meet outside the winery every 30 minutes to head out into the vineyard. The cost is $30 per person; visit the website or call ahead to make a reservation.
Suggested scenic drive
Stop by the Grape Discovery Center (8305 West Main Road, open Friday to Sunday, grapediscoverycenter.com) just down the street from Johnson Estates to get acquainted with the Lake Erie Wine Region and learn more about the area's history of grape growing. A number of other wineries and bucolic landscapes can be found on or near Route 20 as it winds its way through Chautauqua County toward the Pennsylvania state line.