Sunday, December 28, 2008

This year? NY director gives his spin

Here's the latest, and maybe last, from Jim Trezise of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, summing up New York wines and 2008. Proposed budgets cuts might eliminate funding to the foundation, which would impact the thorough weekly e-letter that Tresize sends out. But he did manage to provide his usual mix of information and thoughts to wrap up this year.

"In the recent history of the New York grape and wine industry, 2008 ranks as one of the very best years in some ways, from a superb grape harvest to increasing recognition and continuing growth.

In other ways, it was a year which brought many concerns to the forefront, mostly related to the state, national, and global economies.

But it was definitely a year which advanced the New York Wine & Grape Foundation’s strategic goal: “To have the New York grape and wine industry recognized as a world leader in quality, productivity and social responsibility.”
Here some brief highlights in various areas:

GRAPE CROP: Across the state, the quality of the 2008 grape crop was comparable to 2007’s vintage, which had been hailed as the best in at least 15 years. At times the weather conditions were unusual and worrisome, but in the end produced an excellent crop that the Wine Spectator online rated “A” in the Finger Lakes and “B” on Long Island in terms of initial impressions. The downside of this year’s harvest involved soft demand, with grape prices weakening and some grape varieties (like Cabernet Franc, and even some Riesling) looking for a market late in the harvest. This is a troubling trend for grape growers unless somehow demand is strengthened by next fall.

INDUSTRY GROWTH: The wine industry continues to grow rapidly, with 13 new wineries opened and 17 others awaiting licenses in 2008, bringing the total now operating to 245—or 12 times the number just 30 years ago. The wine industry is one of very few that are growing in New York, fueling new investment, jobs, and tax revenues that benefit the State and all its counties. A 2005 California study showed that our industry in 2004 generated over $3.4 billion in economic benefits to New York’s economy, a figure that clearly has gone up over the years (even though we haven’t had the budget to fund a formal follow-up study). The wine industry would grow even faster if the licensing process is expedited, which was one of the major recommendations of a Wine Grape Task Force report released in December.

MARKET RESEARCH: The New York Wine & Grape Foundation funded a major study by Wine Opinions on the perceptions of New York wines by consumers and the trade in New York City, the rest of New York State, California, Florida, and Washington, DC. The results, unveiled by John Gillespie and Christian Miller at the Wine Industry Workshop in April, are providing a strategic basis for our future promotion programs.

MARKET PROMOTIONS: NYWGF created two statewide “New York Wine Month” promotions in April and October; launched a major new effort to promote New York wines in New York City; and continued working on other promising markets such as Florida. The two statewide Wine Month promotions included hundreds of liquor stores and restaurants, with great support from our wholesaler partners, and will be repeated in April 2009. The “New York Wines & Dines” program in New York City resulted in sales increases exceeding 36% on average for participating wineries. A second year of New York wines at the six-week Epcot International Wine & Food Festival in Orlando generated sales far exceeding anyone’s expectations.

WINE COUNTRY TOURISM: 2008 provided dramatic evidence of how broader economic conditions affect the wine industry, which in New York is highly dependent on direct sales to tourists at the wineries. Based on anecdotal accounts (we did not have a budget for a formal study), it appears that after decades of strong growth, wine country tourism essentially held steady despite the recession and high gas prices, with the number of tourists typically mirroring specific economic conditions and forecasts of the moment. In some cases, wineries had fewer visitors spending more, with others having more visitors spending less, and others experiencing both syndromes at different times of the year. The $4-a-gallon gas shock temporarily but sharply reduced both visitors and spending, though later in the year as gas prices declined many wineries reported record crowds on Columbus Day weekend and even afterwards. Tourism is the economic lifeblood of our wine industry, and vice versa, which is why for decades NYWGF has provided funding to a dozen wine trails throughout the State, and hope to continue that in 2009.

QUALITY RECOGNITION: New York wineries continued gaining an international reputation for quality with thousands of medals in major competitions, increasing media coverage, and high ratings in major magazines. In 2008, New York wineries won 535 Gold medals or above in major competitions, and thousands of Silver and Bronze awards. Our “wine competitions” program encourages wineries to enter these competitions through reduced fees. Wineries from Long Island to Lake Erie have received other forms of recognition as well, including mentions and ratings in major wine consumer magazines. Of particular note this year were unprecedented high ratings of many Finger Lakes wines, particularly Riesling, by Wine & Spirits magazine, thanks largely to the proactive efforts of Morgen McLaughlin (Finger Lakes Wine Country) in conjunction with the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. Our “regional branding” program has supported those efforts, as well as other different projects on Long Island, in the Hudson Valley, Niagara Escarpment and Lake Erie regions. The concept is to let each region determine how it wants to “brand” itself under the statewide “Uncork New York” umbrella.

INDUSTRY LEADERSHIP: Leadership by New York industry members in several national and international organizations boosted the State’s reputation as a key player in efforts like the new International Riesling Foundation, FIVS, National Grape and Wine Initiative, WineAmerica and Winegrape Growers of America. Most recently, NWYGF president Jim Trezise volunteered a year’s worth of weekends to get the International Riesling Foundation up and running. Other New Yorkers like Jim Bedient, Tom Davenport, Jim Finkle, John Martini and Nancy Irelan continue to play key roles in various organizations.

GRAPE JUICE PROMOTION: The grape juice industry, which accounts for two-thirds of all New York grapes, has benefited from a major promotion program on the health benefits of Concord grape juice. Thanks to special funding from the State of New York, for three years NYWGF has conducted a broad-based program which will include a major media event in New York City in mid-January.

RESEARCH AND EDUCATION: Cornell University expanded its vital role in advancing the industry through a comprehensive, integrated “Total Quality Focus & Sustainability” program funded by NYWGF and supplementing a broad-based series of projects, along with the new undergraduate Enology & Viticulture curriculum. Cornell Cooperative Extension’s communication and education programs are vital to the grape and wine industry, including the great “Veraison to Harvest” weekly e-newsletter each fall filled with timely, practical information for growers and vintners.. The addition of several new, young scientists in viticulture, enology, and extension roles is a bright spot for the industry and fresh evidence of Cornell’s commitment to it.

TASK FORCE: Agriculture & Markets Commissioner Patrick Hooker, a long and strong supporter of our industry, created a Wine Grape Task Force which issued a final report in December. The report will set the stage for efforts to enhance the business climate for the grape and wine industry in 2009 and beyond.

STATE SUPPORT: The strong growth and major accomplishments of the New York grape and wine industry over the past two decades would not have been possible without the long and strong partnership with the State of New York, including public officials from both sides of the aisle, and the great support of New York Farm Bureau and Long Island Farm Bureau. Virtually every program cited above is supported by State funding (much of it matched by industry) channeled through the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, which was created by the legislature specifically for that purpose. In short, the Foundation is a support mechanism to advance the industry, so it in turn can brings more benefits to the State—a win-win partnership.

WASHINGTON EVENTS: New York Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer, joined by New York’s Members of Congress, continued to advocate for New York agriculture, including passage of an historic Farm Bill which recognized the importance of “specialty crops” like grapes and wine. “New York Farm Day” hosted by Senator Clinton since 2002 was bigger and better than ever, and clearly has conveyed the point that New York is a major farm state, and farming is a major part of the state economy. As always, WineAmerica protected and advanced the interests of the wine industry, in partnership with Winegrape Growers of America.

The year ahead, 2009, will definitely be “interesting”. That is a word often used by people to describe a wine they’re not sure about: hmmm, that’s “interesting”—meaning good, bad or indifferent.

New York Governor David Paterson, who is dealing with a major state economic crisis, has provided the platform for an interesting year in the wine business by proposing total elimination of funding for the New York Wine & Grape Foundation (which really means all the research and promotion programs); allowing New York grocery stores to sell wine (which will be a major battle, and NYWGF is not involved); and nearly tripling the excise tax on wine.

It will indeed be interesting, in December 2009, to look back and see what actually happened.