Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Origin of Finger Lakes Wines is Closer Than You Think

First of a series

Fruitful research uncovers a little known fact

You start small with a family operated business, and through hard work become known commercially from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States. Eventually you are wiped out by big business invading your territory.

This scenario sounds all too familiar.

No, it is not your late 20th or early twenty-first century “big box” invasion, or another sad story of a mom and pop business failing on Main Street.

We’re talking about the business of Samuel Warren and his family in the 1800’s, recently recognized as being the first commercial winery in New York State, located nearby in York, New York.

Warren’s motivation for making wine was for sacramental purposes, along with his main business as a general farmer, raising cows, sheep and growing fruit trees.

In talking with local wine enthusiast, Gary Cox, member of the York Historical Society, the Finger Lakes was producing “fresh market” grapes in the 1850’s. Their product was sold on the open market in New York City, transported by water and later railroad.

The surplus grapes eventually led to wine making at Pleasant Valley in 1860, but Warren in York preceded them by twenty years as documented in an ad from 1836 in the New York Evangelist housed at the NYS Agricultural Experimental Station at Geneva. This ad was the decisive document for wine historians, Thomas Pinney and Hudson Cattell, to agree that the Warren winery was the first successful commercial enterprise of its kind in the Finger Lakes and in New York State.

Warren’s first vintage was in 1832. By 1853 Warren had a 3400 -gallon production using grapes, which means that he had at least 12 acres of his own according to Cox. Warren used the grapes from other farmers as well in the area. Mary Root’s, History of the Town of York, was Cox’s source. It clearly stated that Warren had a wine business in the 1850’s.

Also, Cox studied advertisements from old local newspapers, one of which being the Dansville Advertiser, that indeed indicates that by 1864 the Warren family was growing wine for sale.

Warren’s demise came with the railroad taking over his land. In 1872 the D.L. & W Railroad was granted the right of way to build a roadbed right through the Warren farm and it destroyed their businesses, which by then had increased to a saw mill, cider mill, grist mill and brick and tile manufactory.

As recently as 2005, Cox, a retired Philosophy professor at SUNY Geneseo, encouraged others on the Historical Society Board and members of the community to, “join in and research together the Warren’s and their winery putting it to the test as the first commercial winery in the Finger Lakes.”

The Warren “first” fame goes beyond the Finger Lakes, though, reaching all over New York, New England and the Northeastern Coast of The United States.

Cox was amazed that in a matter of a week people were coming forward with newspaper accounts, one of which stated that Samuel’s son, Josiah, had entered 12 different wines in the Livingston County Fair.

The biggest boost to the project, however, was that in less than a week after the cheerleading talk Cox gave to the Historical Society, the late William Orwin house, owned by a non-profit organization that couldn’t use it, became available for purchase on 2431 Dow Road, Piffard, New York, the original home of Samuel Warren. Not only the home, but also a beautiful arboretum was included in the purchase.

One unusual thing about the property is an abandoned well that shows remnants of salt brine, so not only did Warren successful produce a wine business, but he was the first to discover salt on his property, which later would become another productive industry in Livingston County.

Today the York Historical Society has a group of wines called the New York Heritage Collection that is based on the 19th century varieties of Samuel Warren. All the grapes are grown and processed in the Finger Lakes.

Each wine is named after a particular variety grown on the Warren farm. For example, the Fidelia is a delicately fruity, semi-sweet varietal rosé of Isabella, produced by Goose Watch Winery. It earned a gold medal in the 2008 Long Beach (CA) Grand Cru competition. The wine is named for Samuel and Sarah Warren's first child. Had their brilliant daughter Fidelia lived another month, she'd have been one of the nation's first female physicians. Through a small local distributor the New York Heritage Collection is available at select liquor stores in the area, becoming more widely used in area restaurants and being included in the NY Wine and Culinary Center wine tasting rotation at the Center in Canandaigua, New York.

Cox has developed a website,, and you may go there for more information on the Samuel Warren family, the history of the York Historical Society and specific information about the Heritage Collection.

“Absolutely there is a Dansville connection to all this,” Cox stated emphatically. “ Consider the meteorological climate and the growing season in Dansville.”

That fact alone should pique your curiosity for another article about early wine making in Dansville. It will hint at a bright new future for grape growing on the East Hill, too.