In 2003, Jonathan Oakes and his father, Darrel, thought it would be a good idea to plant some wine grapes at their family's LynOaken Farms, a large apple farm in Orleans County.
They went through a few test batches over the next several years before opening the doors to their Leonard Oakes Estate Winery in 2007.
The winery is the eastern-most of the 16 wineries that make up the Niagara Wine Trail, with a tasting room and store in Medina and a vineyard and processing facility in nearby Lyndonville.
Leonard Oakes produced about 800 cases to start and now makes 8,000 cases annually, with the Riesling, Cabernet Franc and SteamPunk hard cider among their biggest sellers.
Jonathan Oakes, 29, who studied at Niagara College in Ontario, is the family's grape grower and wine maker and also consults with Schulze Wine and a few others on the trail.
Oakes talks fluently about the effect of the region's mineral-rich soil and moderating climate on the grapes grown here.
But he's also passionate about the economic impact these wineries can have on the region as they seek to boost their brand awareness and market their wines statewide and internationally.
The News spoke to Oakes at his family's wine-making facility shortly before next month's Niagara Wine Trail Harvest Fest.
>Q: How long has your family had this farm?
A: Leonard was my great-grandfather. I'm the fourth generation on the farm. Leonard started the business in 1918. And we've been farming ever since in some capacity or another. We started with chickens and tomatoes and it's evolved over the years. But pretty much the last 80 years we've been apple farmers. The farm side of the business is LynOaken Farms. And we sell apples into just about every Tops in New York State.
>Q: What is the wine trail? How would you describe it?
A: For the consumer, we link together as a trail, obviously, to put in people's mind that we're trying to create more of a draw for an entire region. Drawing on the experience of linking these wineries together so that it's a day or a weekend getaway.
>Q: What are the geologic conditions and soil conditions that allow for the wine grapes to be grown here?
A: It's called "terroir." It's a French word. There's really no English definition of it. Basically it's all the collected influences that make your region a signature. And when those influences together are imparted on a grape, the results in the vineyard translate to results in the winery. … It tastes of the Niagara region. The Niagara region tastes different than all other regions of the world.
>Q: How large do you see the wine trail getting?
A: The positive side is we have plenty of room to grow. I would say the other side is we're seeing people that are coming in and investing, that are setting up wineries but not necessarily vineyards to supply them. So we really would like to see more people growing. So, again, we keep our money in our communities and we keep growing a particular taste profile, a particular style, and that helps to fill out the marketing and the branding of the region.
>Q: Is Canada a potential ?market?
A: Their market is a little bit elevated beyond ours at the moment, so we're kind of playing catch-up. Their land prices are a lot higher, their taxes are higher, their wines are a lot higher. The biggest issue right now is cross-border transit with wine. There's a lot to deal with, the tax issues. Canadians can pay up to 150 percent duty trying to bring wines back from the United States.
>Q: Is that something the wine trail is lobbying on?
A: We really want to see a sustained relationship across the border. We feel we can benefit their industry and they can benefit ours. Not to mention that I have lofty aspirations that are really blue sky at the moment. But someday I would love to see an international wine route that extends from Toronto to New York City, two of the cultural hubs of the world.
>Q: You think of Western New York and you think beer, Bills, chicken wings. Is Western New York a wine-drinking region?
A: We're consuming a lot of wine. But as far as being known ?as a wine-producing region, I think it's very new. But we are turning a lot of people's heads. Like I said, it has been very fast in the last 10 years or so that we've ramped up production. And the way that we do things, we've taken lessons from the Canadians. We've taken lessons from the ?Finger Lakes. We've kind of built off what they've already achieved, I would say, in an effort to skip all the missteps. And really facilitate the market, which is Buffalo, No. 1, and Rochester, No. 2.
>Q: The wineries on the trail are competitors, but you're also working together?
A: The way our business is set up, and Schulze's, and a few of the others, we look at it as the more we can do together, as a whole, to draw the consumer, the tourist, whoever it be, to your door, the better off we're all going to be. We all produce wines in different styles. We all have our different signature varietals, or niche products, that kind of define who we are and what we do.