Friday, November 27, 2009

The Origin of Finger Lakes Wines is Closer Than You Think

Part II

Vineyard Will Cover Dansville’s East Hill --Again

Ask any Ellis B. Hyde Elementary School fourth grader, and he will tell you that one of the chief crops in Dansville in the late 1860’s was grapes.

In fact, question almost anyone growing up in Dansville, and they will share remembrances of the abundance of grapevines on the East Hill.

Today when you take a hike up Perine Street you will see the remnants of those grapevines, and if you stop along the way you will notice backyard arbors loaded with grapes.

Imagine a hundred years ago that there were over two hundred acres of grapes and half a dozen small commercial wineries flourishing on this slope!

“Dansville’s location, despite its distance from any large body of water, is a very promising location for most grape varieties that are suitable for the Finger Lakes,” according to wine enthusiast, Gary Cox, of Geneseo.

Dansville’s Dr. Francis Perine determined in the 1800’s that there is no better soil and climate for a successful grape culture to be found anywhere in the Eastern states than on the slopes of the East Hill.

Cox does not concur with Perine, and is much more cautious about where to plant grapes than Perrine was.

“Selection of grape varieties must be done with up-to-date information about each variety’s needs, susceptibilities and with the knowledge as to who will purchase the grapes. Commercial success requires a reliable market for the crop.”

Throughout the Genesee Valley, farmers in the mid 1800’s continued to search for crops to replace the wheat fields that had proven so unproductive. By 1860, for the first time, the value of corn exceeded wheat; tobacco and hops were also making inroads in regional agriculture.

In Dansville, grapes would be a major crop for many years, and the man who started the ball rolling was Dr. Francis Marion Perine. On eight acres of family-owned land to the rear of the water cure, or Castle on the Hill, its full name, he planted a test crop of the standard varieties including Catawbas, Concords and Isabellas. Catawbas proved to be particularly successful, and Perrine won blue ribbons at Hammondsport fairs for his efforts.

Others followed his example, and over the next thirty years 200 acres of local land would be used by various people to grow grapes, mostly on East Hill, where grapes ripened even earlier than their counterparts in Naples.

By the turn of the century, Perine would produce 3000-4000 gallons of wine annually as cited in “Dansville Turns 200” by David Gilbert published by Jane Schryver in 2003.

National Prohibition ended the wine industry in Dansville along with other small wineries in the area.

However, like most things, what goes around comes around, and interest has been rekindled in establishing a successful grape crop in Dansville.

At least that is what Tim McGowan’s plans are on Sterner Road in Dansville, where during the winter he will cut down his trees and prepare to plant five acres of grapevines on his southeastern sloping hillside.

“It’s a risk. It will be a hobby, but there is only one way to do it, and that is to give it try,” commented McGowan.

After a discussion with Cox and Dansville master gardener, Harry Hellwig, McGowan has selected the Cynthiana grape, one native to America, to grow for a start, and later may try other varieties.

Cox and Hellwig visited the site, advised soil testing and cautioned about planting the notoriously late ripening, but very desirable Cynthiana. In Livingston County the ripening would be at least mid-October, assuming that the growing season hasn’t already been brought to an end by a killing frost.

“ It will be added to the New York State Heritage collection that the York Historical Society has established provided all goes well,” Cox stated.

Cynthiana grapes produce a rich, full-bodied red wine with a dry character similar in style to Cabernet Sauvignon but with more spice. They have excellent resistance to most diseases that affect leaves and fruit. Vigorous plants bear small, flavorful grapes that are labor intensive.

“Poppy’s Pumpkins” is a small seasonal business for the McGowans, and along with the vineyard, they are also planning an apple orchard.

“We want to make use of our property and have it a family-friendly place to visit for picking apples and grapes,” adds Diana McGowan.

McGowan remarked that he will plant one hundred grape plants this year and in four years he could have enough for 600 bottles of wine.

“It’s a slow return investment. It’s a gamble. We’re the only ones doing it here. If it takes off, and we can successfully grow grapes, we might try a winery.”

Throughout the history of the area, starting with visionary entrepreneurs, Warren in York and Perine in Dansville, there has been a determination to utilize the natural environment and climate to grow grapes.

Now another family, the McGowans, will lead the way with bright new possibilities for the East Hill in the twenty-first century.