By HOWARD BALABAN firstname.lastname@example.org
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — What the Napa Valley is to California, the Niagara Wine Trail could soon be to New York.
With 18 wineries, including a cidery, the trail stretches from Niagara to Monroe County, with Orleans County and the Medina Railroad Museum near its center.
Shane Gustafson, who is the interim chair of marketing on the Niagara Wine Trail, said state legislation has passed to extend the trail out to Route 390 near Rochester. The expansion, which she said “just need’s a signature by the governor for approval,” will make the trail roughly 90 miles long, and likely will include a number of new and unique wineries.
“This is a good region for growing grapes,” Gustafson said. “The temperature profiles, the climate of the region, and the land value are all good.”
The nearest densely populated wine region is the Finger Lakes, but Gustafson said the Niagara Wine Trail is “younger” and is closer to both Buffalo and Rochester, and has the ability to draw visitors from across the Canadian border.
Gustafson said the Niagara Wine Trail has a distinct personality at each of its wineries.
“Some specialize in sweet wines, some in fruits, and one has a brewery, and there are a couple farms,” she said. “Every winery has a unique, individual personality, and there’s not any one kind of large company running anything … it’s all families.”
The Niagara Wine Trail is working collaboratively with the Medina Railroad Museum this fall, and will continue to work with it for more events in 2014, Gustafson said.
Brianna Byrne, a media representative for a number of museum rail excursions, said one publication has labeled the trail as “one of the most exciting places to be in the next 20 years.”
Medina, she said, will be centrally located among the expansion.
“This whole area seems like an untapped resource,” Byrne said. “The trail itself is expanding. It used to just be in Niagara, but now it’s in Orleans and there are plans to expand into Monroe.”
Byrne said the potential is there for people to make a whole weekend out of a trail visit.
“Lots of people go to Niagara Falls for a day, but with the Trail they can make plans for the whole weekend,” Byrne noted. “Down the road we could do a longer train excursion that connects us with the Falls.”
The Medina Railroad Museum has hosted wine tasting trains for the past several years. This year, Byrne said, it spruced them up and created the Niagara Wine Trail Winery Trains. A total of four excursions will have run by the time they are done for the fall, and the trip is a two-hour leisurely ride from Medina to Lockport and back.
According to information provided by the museum, each train features the wines of two wineries from the trail, with a variety of wines to sample to please those who prefer reds or whites, sweet or dry. Hors d’oeuvres are also served on board, with first class passengers able to sit at tables and partake in a little bit extra in terms of comfort and food. The last Niagara Wine Trail Winery Train runs on Oct. 5.
Each train runs from about 1 to 3 p.m., and afterwards the participating wineries and some local businesses become vendors at the museum, showcasing their wares in an attempt to draw visitors to the downtown area.
For the first two train rides, held on Sept. 7 and 14, Byrne said there was a band performing after the ride to entertain guests. For the ride held Saturday, Medina’s Lisa Zelazny played guitar and sang during the ride. She is also scheduled for an onboard performance in two weeks.
Zelazny said the train ride offers a “nice blend” of both education and entertainment. “There’s a lot of history here in Medina and with the train itself,” she said. “And the ride is a relaxing, enjoyable way to get to know the wineries in the area.”
The entertainment and the showcase of local businesses, Byrne noted, “is a celebration of the residents in the village, and for the people not from here, it let’s them know the day doesn’t have to end.” Byrne suggested, for example, a person could ride the train, taste the wine, and then go eat at one of Medina’s local restaurants in the business district or head over to the Shirt Factory Cafe or its outdoor venue Boiler 54 for either more wine, more live entertainment, or both.
“A person can really make a day out of this,” she stated.
Jim Dickinson, Medina Railroad Museum President, said the continued expansion of the Niagara Wine Trail is something the museum wants to be a part of since Medina is centrally located on the trail.
“We’re working on adding another first class car — we’ve sold out the first three,” he said. With another rail platform under construction in Lockport, Dickinson said he could potentially see trains starting in Niagara County and heading east rather than in Orleans County heading west. “Plus, we can tie into some busses and bring in people from the Falls,” alluding to how the area’s tourism industry can benefit.
With two Niagara WIne Trail wineries featured per excursion, Dickinson said that he’s noticed a smoldering ember of excitement from some of those who have already participated.
“The wineries themselves see the potential here, and all of a sudden they seem really excited,” he said. “Once they all get on board, no pun intended, they’ll promote this from a winery standpoint and give themselves exposure.”
Marty Phelps, the museum’s founder and executive director, said he’s heard a positive reception so far concerning the trains. Regarding the bigger picture, he said the Niagara Wine Trail itself is “going to be big.”
“I think this is going to beneficial to all of us,” Phelps stated. “I think it’s a big step in the right direction for tourism here.”
While the Niagara Wine Trail will look to expand, Phelps said he would be hesitant to see the train rides change too drastically. He said the scenic view from Medina to Lockport and vice versa includes three trips over the Erie Canal and a trip on the Upside Down Bridge, and it lasts just long enough at roughly two hours.
On Saturday, the train ride featured Victorianbourg Wine Estate and Honeymoon Trail Winery. The latter’s winemaker, Dave Lindsay, said the “infancy” of the Niagara Wine Trail is what makes the potential so exciting. Whereas other wine trails in New York and across the country have been around for quite some time, Lindsay said Niagara Wine Trail offers an untapped source of fertile land.
“The lake has left some great grape growing soil,” he said. “Not this generation, but the next generation will be getting some worldwide recognition for their wines.”
With the trains available for tasting ventures, Lindsay said that puts this particular trail on the map as one of the few regions worldwide with such an attraction.
Byrne said it is vital to draw in guests from outside the region, and many who consider themselves wine connoisseurs will likely be impressed by the variety of different wines based off the regions climate and soil.
Gustafson said the region’s expansion should lead to more jobs for not only winemakers but for laborers in the vineyards and retail staff at each business.
“Plus, obviously the boost to tourism will help the local businesses,” she added. “People are always looking for more restaurants, and maybe a lot of smaller retailers see additional business.”
Gustafson also pointed out that some regional community colleges have also started getting in on the Niagara Wine Trail’s growth. She said Niagara County Community College has a culinary institute and has started creating a program dealing with winery management and wine making, something she said she believes came from the current boom of the trail.
Along with job creation, the effect on local economies will also be seen. Medina Business Association President Cindy Robinson noted, “Any event that draws people from outside the area is always a plus.”
Though she was speaking for Medina, as the trail maintains its upward trajectory, that statement may become truer for a number of other communities, too.