In the early 1970s, when my then-husband Alex Hargrave and I began to look for a place to grow grapes for wine, we spent a great deal of time searching the Finger Lakes in upstate New York for a suitable location. He grew up in Rochester and had spent his summers on Canandaigua and Conesus Lakes, so he knew the region well—as a place to waterski, play tennis, and enjoy the beautiful lakes, if not, initially, for wine. As we drove around visiting the existing vineyards and wineries, chatting with local growers and Cornell Extension agents, it soon became clear that, although the Finger Lakes had been known for decades as a place to grow native grapes like Concord, Catawba and Niagara, consumers were becoming increasingly sophisticated, turning away from Lake Country Red and Cold Duck (sweet, sparkling Concord wine) in favor of drier wines made from European wine grapes (vitis vinifera), either imported or from California.
At the Taylor Wine Company, cheap California wine was brought to the Canandaigua-based bottling plant in tank cars, eventually leading to the creation of “Taylor California Cellars.”
Considerable bulk production of grapes for juice had moved to Washington State and, with the concurrent demise of many dairy farms, the region was suffering from severe economic decline. Many brave growers who wanted to stay in the wine business were planting French-American hybrid grapes, such as Baco Noir and Seyval, which were far less affected by the “foxy” smell from naturally occurring methyl anthranilate found in native grapes, but which failed to match the quality of popular wines made from French vinifera grapes like chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.
In the Finger Lakes, aside from Dr. Konstantin Frank’s sunny site on Keuka Lake, until growers moved to the southern shore of Seneca Lake in the ’80s, there were few places that were warm enough for cold-sensitive vinifera to survive. After ruling out hybrid varieties ourselves, Alex and I decided that if we couldn’t find a site to grow pinot and cabernet, we wouldn’t grow grapes at all. Finally, we took the advice of Cornell professor John Tomkins and moved to the warmer, sunnier North Fork of Long Island, planting Hargrave Vineyard in Cutchogue in 1973.
At the same time we made our search for a vineyard site, across the border on Canada’s Niagara Escarpment a similar drama was being played out, also led by a few individuals who refused to give up on viticulture even as other growers were bailing out of the business. On a recent visit to that region, I was fascinated to learn how the creative tenacity of a young vine nurseryman named Don Ziraldo paired up with the European know-how of Austrian vintner Karl Kaiser, which similarly revolutionized wine in Ontario.
As Ziraldo tells it, Kaiser came to Ziraldo in 1973 and asked, “Can you supply me with grapes that don’t taste Canadian?”
Ziraldo did, indeed, have 30,000 vinifera and hybrid plants that he had been trying to sell to local growers, unsuccessfully. Kaiser’s question defined their subsequent, enduring partnership as Ziraldo became the grower/marketer and Kaiser the winemaker. They planted out the entire nursery stock and, in 1975, founded Inniskillin under the first new winery license granted in Canada since 1929.
Still in a Prohibitionist mood, the Canadian government was paying growers to pull out native grapes, but gave no incentives to replant with vinifera, even after Ziraldo showed that vinifera could indeed survive if planted on low-vigor rootstocks. Undeterred by vinifera’s low yields, Ziraldo and a handful of his adventurous colleagues embraced the quality offered by European grapes and (as happened on Long Island) created a new wine industry as small, boutique-style wineries replaced old-fashioned bulk producers.
Since then, Ziraldo has expanded Inniskillin to include a winery in Okanagan, British Columbia. He campaigned successfully for VQA standards of wine quality, added an import division to position Inniskillin alongside established, respected wines like Stag’s Leap and Gaja, sponsored cool-climate conferences at Brock University and gave Canada’s ice wine international glory by winning Vinexpo’s Prix d’Honneur in 1990. Having sold Inniskillin in 2006, he is a partner with Senhora do Convento, a Portuguese wine estate.
It’s worth a trip to the Niagara Escarpment to taste that region’s delicious wines. They have much in common with Long Island in their freshness, vibrancy and authentic complexity. With over 60 wineries, there are plenty of choices, thanks to the vision and tenacity of pioneers like Ziraldo and Kaiser.