BY KEVIN PURDY
In an industry that’s thousands of years old, it’s pretty easy to classify Randy Biehl and Michael VonHeckler as newcomers.
But it’s just as easy to call them pioneers in Niagara County’s burgeoning boutique wine movement.
Both men know their grapes, from years of hands-on training or study, and each has their own tastes and marketing ideas. VonHeckler, managing partner for Lockport’s Warm Lake Estate, started with $2 million from dozens of investors, while Biehl maintains a smaller operation at Eveningside Vineyards in Cambria, with his wife and two kids helping out when they can.
The two took time recently to talk about their product, the benefits and drawbacks to growing and offering wines in Niagara County, and the future of the Niagara Wine Trail, of which both are members.
QUESTION: What do you grow, and why?
VonHeckler: We grow exclusively pinot noir, and we grow it because the Niagara Escarpment is perfect for pinot noir.
Biehl: We focus on the fine wines, the cabernets, chardonnays, Riesling ... everybody along the wine trail tends to find their own niche, and ours happens to be the fine ones.
QUESTION: Where do your guests come from, and what are they looking for?
VonHeckler: The winery is busy seven days a week, for tastings and tours ... In our case, it’s pretty simple — our customers are looking for great pinot noir. ... Of course, just because you make it, that doesn’t mean everybody’s going to come and buy it. There’s a marketing plan that’s a big part of success.
Biehl: I’d say about 50 percent of our guests are out-of-towners ... you’ll get somebody who says, “My wife likes to gamble, I like wine,” and they’ll bring a buddy along sometimes ... Some people are very educated and know exactly what they want, others are just looking for something new ... The best thing that’s happening, though, is the younger wine drinkers. Never have their been so many people in their 20s drinking wine, and it’s going to be great for the vineyards.
QUESTION: What’s the hardest part about growing wine in Niagara County?
VonHeckler: The biggest challenge is winter survival for the grapes. Our grapes come from Europe, so they don’t see the winter climate that we do here. You have to do things here like bury the plants completely in soil ... We end up replanting 2, 4, maybe 5 percent of our plants every year, but I’d say that’s pretty standard.
Biehl: Some winters will kill your buds, or kill your vines. But we have the second-mildest winter in New York state here, thanks to Lake Ontario ... Humidity can be a problem, but the trade-off is we don’t have to fight as many insects.
QUESTION: What’s the best, or most unique, part of growing wine in Niagara County?
VonHeckler: The granting from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau that gave us a great distinction, that recognized the Niagara Escarpment as a unique viticultural area, that’s a great thing ... We’ve also got a benign, marginal climate that’s perfect, as far as ripening goes.
Biehl: One of the strongest suits is the diversity along the wine trail. You’ll find fruitier wines, concord wines, fine wines, sweeter wines ... When the weather is nice, too, it’s just beautiful out here, in the summer, in the fall.
QUESTION: What trends or technologies have you seen crop up recently in the wine-making business?
VonHeckler: We picked pinot noir to grow when we started back in 1999, so it was a bit before “Sideways” just happened to put it on the map as an alternative wine ... It’s been great that it got the press that it did.
Biehl: I think we’re seeing something, gravity feeding, that started gaining popularity a few years ago become even more common. Bigger operations use pumps to transfer their wines during their process, but pumps can take out flavor. We’ve been doing gravity feeding for a few years now, but it’s becoming more popular.
QUESTION: Where do you see Niagara’s wine business in five, 10 years?
VonHeckler: I think the trend has been in emerging wine regions around the world that more and more growers start moving into vitus vinifera (traditional European varieties). Several farms now that have grown fruit are making wine from that fruit, and they’re selling to a market that’s based on a tourist destination ... but you can only sell so many bottles through your cellar door.
Biehl: I think we’ll see big money coming to the Niagara Wine Trail, people opening big vineyards, once they’ve seen that we can make it work and it gets recognized ... I think it’s a good thing. They have more advertising dollars, and when people come here, they’re going to want the whole experience. People never just want to go to one vineyard.
TAKE A SIP
4794 Lower Mountain Road, Cambria
Warm Lake Estate
3868 Lower Mountain Road, Lockport