Grapes with Extra Layers

Whoever said grapes can’t grow in negative 40 degree weather?
The Thousand Islands-Seaway Wine Trail is saying, “Bring it on.”

Story by Elaina Robinson
Photos provided by Elaina Robinson and Coyote Moon Vineyards

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Cold hardy grapes come in all shapes, colors, and sizes

Meandering through both sweet and delicate flavors and passing by some of Jefferson County’s most loved destinations, the Thousand Islands-Seaway Wine Trail captures the essence of North Country wines.

Boasting a large variety of cold-weather grapes, the trail was created in 2007 and is nearly 78 miles long. It encompasses four wineries in Jefferson County, N.Y., including the Yellow Barn Winery outside of Sackets Harbor, Coyote Moon Vineyards in Clayton, The Thousand Islands Winery outside of Alexandria Bay, and Otter Creek Winery in Philadelphia.

The grapes are able to grow in such cold weather because they are genetically produced to bear the extreme temperatures of northern New York. Steve Conaway, owner of Thousand Islands Winery explains the ambient air temperature in winter will kill most European variety grapes, which typically cannot withstand temperatures any lower than negative 10 degrees Fahrenheit without crop damage. These grapes will open up early and be exposed to damaging frost. However, by combining the European grape variety with an American variety- the end result is a grape with extra layers or more scientifically: a cold hardy grape.

“Traditionally, people come to the Thousand Islands in the summer for the river, and now we will become a wine destination for tourists”

Conaway says his cold hardy grape varieties were created at the University of Minnesota and can withstand temperatures as low as negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit. T.I. Winery, which started producing grapes in 2002 and officially opened its doors for business in 2003, is home to four different cold hardy grape varieties. “Our newest grape is the Marquette variety, but our most common and largest produced grape is the Frontenac,” Conaway says. The winery also grows Frontenac Gris, a grayish grape that finishes into a white wine and LaCrescent, a white grape.

So far, the cold hardy grape has proven a success in the North Country. According to The State Wine and Grape Foundation, New York grape production last year increased 32 percent from 2009. The Northern New York region currently has 17 vineyard wineries with another five expected to open this year. That leaves the potential for an average of $22.7 million a year in income, according to the Northern New York Agriculture Development Program.

Kevin Iungerman, a northern New York fruit specialist says, “right now there are around 6 to 12 cold hardy grape varieties in northern N.Y. From those varieties, three to four are typically used in making wine.”

 “To some degree there is competition, but we all try really hard to promote the other wineries and get people on the trail.”

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The Thousand Islands Winery is located on an old farm that was built in 1836. Steve and Erika Conaway purchased the Farm in December 2002.

Iungerman, who organizes workshops and provides educational support for those looking to get into the winery business, says if it weren’t for the cold hardy grape developed in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the North Country would not be able to grow grapes. “This area was not conducive to growing grapes, but now with the cold hardy grape, we are gaining experience and new circumstances,” Iungerman says.  The Thousand Islands-Seaway trail also points to another gai: tourism.

“The Thousand Islands-Seaway Wine Trail has had a big tourism impact,” Conaway says. 52,000 tourists circulated through the wine trail last year, ranking only behind Boldt Castle. “Traditionally, people come to the Thousand Islands in the summer for the river, and now we will become a wine destination for tourists,” Conaway says.

Rick Hafemann of Otter Creek Winery agrees. “This trail is a new enterprise for New York and is a driving engine for tourism,” he says. Hafemann's son, Kyle opened Otter Creek Winery in 2007 and became New York’s youngest winery owner. Rick expects the winery to produce roughly 8,000 gallons of wine this year. Otter Creek Winery is situated in Philadelphia, N.Y., and in turn attracts many Adirondack area residents and college students from the Potsdam area. “That’s the interesting part right there,” Rick adds. “Each winery along the trail has its own dynamic because of its location.”

Hover over the dots to see the locations of four Watertown wineries!

With Coyote Moon Winery’s location, it attracts visitors from the famous town of Clayton, N.Y. Coyote Moon recently took home 10 medals from the April 2011 Pacific Rim Wine Competition and was named the New Business Venture for 2010 by the Jefferson County Job Development Corp.

The winery, which opened in July 2009, won more than 40 medals for its wine in its first year of business. “We are building a business to stand the test of time, a business not only for the benefit of our immediate family, but one that benefits the entire community," says Phil Randazzo, owner of Coyote Moon.

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If you can't make it to the Thousand Islands Winery, you can purchase many of their wines online.

Benefiting the strong community already in place, recognition for Jefferson County’s wine industry continues to grow. Cold hardy wine grape production is a focus of the 2011 Northern New York Agriculture Development Program research. The horticultural research is designed to assist regional producers who have invested thousands of dollars in vineyards, winemaking equipment, and agritourism showrooms.

With five new wineries in northern New York expected to open up over the next few years, the research will be a welcomed effort.

As a new enterprise grows, so does a rise in general competitiveness. Kristina Ives, who is in charge of public relations and marketing at Coyote Moon, says the four wineries on the trail are all really close.  “To some degree there is competition, but we all try really hard to promote the other wineries and get people on the trail," Ives says. Ives believes northern New York wines are unique because they are produced from hybrid grapes. “You’re getting the best of new world and old world grapes,” Ives says.

“If you’re going to have a winery and vineyard, you need to be able to do two things: grow good quality grapes and make decent wine.”

Conaway, who just got back from a trip to Germany, says the possibilities for northern New York wines are endless. European countries like Germany, who are known for great tasting wines, are interested in bringing American wines over. “We right here in Upstate New York are internationally involved,” Conaway says.

Iungerman says the potential for future wineries in Upstate N.Y. is good. However, he points out that these wineries are a new enterprise without any track record. “Wineries growing cold hardy grapes in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska are doing quite well,” Iungerman says, who also adds wineries can be linked to bed and breakfasts, food production, and entertainment.

All future potential set aside, Iungerman lets the world in on a little secret. He says, “If you’re going to have a winery and vineyard, you need to be able to do two things: grow good quality grapes and make decent wine.”


What do you expect the future of northern New York wineries to be like?

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