ALBANY, N.Y. — When Billy Joel sang about “a bottle of white, a bottle of red” 40 years ago, the Long Island native probably wasn’t in a New York state of mind.
But the wine universe is growing and changing, and today New York regularly tangles with Washington state in a two-coast tussle to maintain the No. 2 spot in behind California for domestic wine production.
And it’s not just about quantity. The Empire State is getting a reputation as a quality maker of Long Island white, Hudson Valley red and hundreds of smaller regional wines besides the traditional Finger Lakes Rieslings that gained prominence over the past decade.
Now an unprecedented promotion by the industry has launched to use the holidays to introduce more New Yorkers to their homegrown wines. It’s a soft-sell effort that costs just $25,000, mostly to put posters in liquor stores and restaurants, that state officials hope will also boost sagging revenues in a state that faces a $2 billion deficit next year.
Meanwhile, wine sellers are organizing some price cuts and promotions they describe as “bottle by bottle, customer by customer,” and the Last Store on Main Street coalition is making direct pitches to liquor store owners and wineries.
New York has been in the business of taxing and promoting wine before and since Prohibition. But the wine industry says more is needed now after three years of state budget cuts for promotion, increasing competition and the industry’s inability to afford a big promotional blitz of its own.
The National Association of American Wineries in its most current data shows New York at No. 2 as of 2009, with 28.5 million gallons produced compared to 25 million by Washington. But industry experts say Washington is gaining fast and may overtake New York when the figures are updated.
Both states lag far behind California and its annual output of more than 566 million gallons.
New York’s grape production for wine — an industry that employs some 5,000 people — is worth about $20.5 million a year, though the industry says that figure is well over $1 billion from growing to retail sale.
A new law this year cuts red tape for vintners allowing them to open more “satellite stores” that can fuel a growing tourism trade. Meanwhile, a bipartisan bill with strong support would create a state wine council to promote sales and provide funding for bigger promotions through an existing wine tax. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has hinted that a state-funded promotion also is planned.
“In the scope of things, the greatness and strength of our wine industry is a story that has not been told,” Cuomo said in a recent “town hall” online chat.
New York’s challenges aren’t all domestic. Low-cost wines from Australia and other countries also cut into the state’s market share. The boutique nature of New York’s wine industry — made up of many small vintners — means wines cost more compared to the volume savings of big California and foreign producers. New York’s weather also allows for only a single, shorter growing season than warmer climes, providing less flexibility for volume pricing.
The three-month campaign is targeting the state’s 2,800 liquor stores that sell wine. Vintners hope to reach 50,000 restaurants from October through December.
“New York has no presence in the No. 1 market, New York City, in promoting wines, but Chile, France, Oregon and Washington all have presence in New York City,” said Michael McKeon, spokesman for The Last Store on Main Street, made up of wine sellers, wineries, liquor store owners, unions and distributors. California wines are a given in New York City restaurants and dinner tables.
For New Yorkers, the industry’s promotion will include “Fall in Love with New York State Wines” posters — hoping to piggyback on the highly successful “I (heart) NY” ad campaign — and will ask liquor stores and restaurants to spread the word as the holidays approach. This time of year, liquor store sales soar as many customers — including many who otherwise seldom buy wine — are looking for recommendations.
“New York has some very high quality wines, the best of New York wines can stand proud,” said Joe Czerwinsk, tasting director and senior editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine. He cites Finger Lakes rieslings as the most well-known.
“But I still think New York has a lot to do in building recognition for its product,” he said.
Similar efforts helped boost Virginia’s wine industry recently, where production increased 37 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to industry reports.
The campaign connects retailers with wineries for regional promotions and hopes to succeed where past promotions failed to create much of a buzz. Helped by the Last Store coalition to connect with retailers, a Finger Lakes vintner already has gotten a foot in the Buffalo market after years of failing, despite an eye-catching name aimed at a broad market.
“If you give people a chance, they can appreciate New York wines for what they are and some are actually superior,” said Michael Lucent, who with his wife, Donna, owns the Pompous Ass Winery near Seneca Lake. It has four full-time employees and 14 part-timers.
As for the name? They aren’t exactly targeting the stuffy stereotype of old wine sippers.
“We’re all about a good time,” Michael Lucent said. “We love wine, but we’re not too pretentious about it.”