Hosmer Winery Featured on Syracuse.com

“The rise of the Finger Lakes, through the eyes of a pioneer”

Hosmer Winery was featured on Syracuse.com in “25 Things That Make Syracuse Great”.  Don Cazentre has written a wonderful article about the history of the wine industry and Hosmer Winery from the point of view of our owner, Cameron Hosmer. Read along below or read on Syracuse.com HERE.

It would be nice to say that Cameron Hosmer stood on the slopes overlooking Cayuga Lake some 30 years ago and envisioned a time when the Finger Lakes would be a world-renowned wine region.
Could he foresee the day when the area would boast more than 100 successful wineries, dozens of breweries and distilleries, a bustling farm-to-table food scene and too many tourists to count?
“No. Not a clue,” he said. “Not a clue. Not. A. Clue.”
And yet Hosmer is as responsible as anyone for what the Finger Lakes has become today — one of New York state’s premier attractions.
Hosmer, with his wife Maren, was there at the start. In the 1970s, they planted grapes to sell to large winemakers like Taylor, Gold Seal, Canandaigua and Widmer. When they opened Hosmer Winery in Ovid in 1985, they were among the pioneers launching smaller farm-based operations, making wine from their own grapes and selling it to people driving by.
The Hosmers embraced changes in the variety of grapes the vineyards planted and adapted to the new styles of wines consumers wanted. They saw Finger Lakes wines boost their reputation with critics and sommeliers across the country.
Today, with a successful winery now in its 34th year, Hosmer and his son, Tim, are helping lead the way into the future. They run a side business that is one of the major planters of new grape vines in the region.
“This is a special, beautiful place to be,” Cameron Hosmer said on a spectacular fall day during the 2019 harvest season. “Like you could drive around today and go ‘Holy $&#$ I’m glad to be here.’ And every day I get to be here to live and work.”
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Grapes have grown in Upstate New York since long before the arrival of European settlers and colonists. The native grapes — like Concord, Catawba and Niagara — flourish in the harsh conditions. They formed the bedrock of early Finger Lakes wines.
Those are the varieties that growers in the region were planting when they were mainly in the business of selling to large wineries, especially Taylor Wine Co. in Hammondsport.
In the early 1970s, Hosmer said, red wines were vastly more popular among U.S. consumers than whites. Taylor began pushing the Finger Lakes growers to plant red American-French hybrid grapes like DeChaunac and Baco Noir, which yielded high quantities.
Cameron and Maren Hosmer, who grew up in Syracuse, had begun planting grapes in 1972, on what had been Cameron’s grandfather’s farm in Ovid, on the west side of Cayuga Lake. They called the vineyard Patrician Verona. They planted DeChaunac and the other in-demand varieties.
“Then the house of cards fell in,” Hosmer said.
The first card to fall was Taylor: The family-owned company was purchased by Coca-Cola, which decided it no longer needed all the grapes the Finger Lakes farmers were growing.
At the same time, American consumers’ taste in wines was changing. They started drinking more white wines.
“People wanted Rhine Wine, Chablis, Chenin Blanc — wines that were supposedly healthier and more for the diet-conscious,” Hosmer said. “The shift was fast. You don’t just turn the grapes a different color overnight.”
All of that left the grape growers in a quandary.
“We were just simple farmers with a little land and too many grapes, wondering what the heck we were going to do with them,” he said. “(In 1975) Taylor announced their grape prices and said they only wanted half (of what they had been buying). And we’re like, ‘What are we going to do with the other half?’ ”
But there was another shift happening in the Finger Lakes in the 1960s and ‘70s: A Ukrainian immigrant named Konstantin Frank, working at a winery on Keuka Lake, led the way in demonstrating that some of the classic European wine grapes, called vinifera, could be successfully grown in the Finger Lakes.
One of the vinifera grapes that showed the most early promise was a white called Riesling.
All these forces came together, and by 1976 some of the state’s leading grape growers had pushed for a change in state law that would eventually redesign the Finger Lakes landscape. The 1976 Farm Winery Act allowed smaller vineyards to start their own wineries and, to make it profitable, sell wines out of their own on-site tasting rooms.
Over the next decade, smaller farm-based wineries slowly began popping up across the Finger Lakes and other regions of New York. And the visitors started coming.
* * *
Initially, the Hosmers kept plugging way as vineyard operators, planting new grape varieties and trying to find buyers.
“It was about five years of wondering where the grapes were going to go,” he said. “But we weren’t stopping. We started planting vinifera (Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc etc.). We knew there was going to be a market, but we had to shift gears. You can’t have just one customer, like in the past. You have to find multiple customers.”
On the west side of Cayuga Lake, as elsewhere in the Finger Lakes, vineyard owners began to talk among themselves.
In particular, Hosmer recalls Bill Brown, who was an agricultural extension agent with Cornell University and vineyard owner before opening his own Lakeshore Winery just south of Seneca Falls.
“Bill Brown was visionary,” Hosmer said. “He would get us all up there together in trailer in (the town of) Romulus and he’d have an easel and a magic marker and he’d be drawing arrows and things and telling us what we had to do to be successful. And he had a vision that one day it could be really, really good.”
At one point, Brown proposed that several of the vineyards owners join together and open a cooperative winery.
“I sometimes wonder, ‘Boy wouldn’t it have been great if we did that,’ Hosmer said. “Why didn’t we? It was just so much forward thinking. It was scary for us.”
Instead, using the Farm Winery Act, a string of wineries sprung up along Route 89 on the Cayuga Lake shore, just as they had in other parts of the region. They included Lakeshore, Swedish Hill, Planes (now Cayuga Ridge) Knapp, Americana, Lucas and others.
Cameron Hosmer, who had studied wine-making while a student at Cornell University’s Agriculture School, decided to jump in. The Hosmers opened their winery in 1985. They made the wine in the basement of their farmhouse, and sold from a small garage turned into a makeshift tasting room.
“It was small,” Hosmer said. “We were small. But we could grow if we didn’t screw up.”
It took another five years, but it was around 1990 when Hosmer realized that maybe they hadn’t screwed up.
“We were still making wine in the basement and selling it out of the house because we just weren’t sure,” he said. “We thought if we don’t like it, we’re not in so deep we can’t get out.”
Then some land across Route 89 came for sale. The winery was doing well enough and things were starting to roll across the Finger Lakes.
The Hosmers bought the extra land, planted more vineyards and built a new tasting and sales room.
“So, now we’re in with both feet,” Hosmer said. “Now we’re not wading anymore. We’re swimming.”
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In the early 1990s, Bill Brown had another idea. He invited some noted winemakers from France to com to the Finger Lakes, take a tour and taste some wines.
“These were like the most famous guys in the wine world,” Hosmer said. “And they tasted our wines. And they were polite. But … We had a lot of learning to do. As one of them said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ve had a 300 year head start.”
Things started to change later in the 1990s, he said.
“That’s when we started making wines that were respectful and gathered attention, because it took us that long to figure out how,” he said. “You know, at first we didn’t know what we were doing. You have to get the grapes and make the wines that fit the area. It took time to figure that out.”
The positive reviews and accolades started to come in. That was boosted, Hosmer said, when the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance was created and began sending samples of local wines for tasting by the leading magazines and ratings agencies.
In 2013, Wine Spectator, one of the world’s leading and most quoted wine magazines, conducted its first comprehensive tasting and analysis of the region’s wines.
“As the region’s steadily growing ranks of winemakers gain experience, homing in on the best grapes and vineyard sites, the Finger Lakes is quickly becoming an excellent source for quality and value,” wrote senior editor James Molesworth. “It’s time for serious wine consumers to take notice.”
“Everybody remembers that story,” Hosmer said.
Meanwhile, the region was continuing to develop itself as a destination for weekend outings, tour buses, weddings and bachelorette parties. The growth of a thriving restaurant scene — and the later appearance of craft brewers, hard cider makers and distilleries — contributed.
Some of the visitors were looking for decent wine. Many were just looking for fun.
“I’ve always said I don’t know why a winery can’t do both,” Hosmer said. “You can make good wine and get people in the door, too.”
Today, in fact, many Finger Lakes wineries are drawing more visitors through what are known as “elevated” tasting experiences, intended to attract more discriminating drinkers.
That relates to the long-held, but never entirely accurate, notion that all Finger Lakes wines are “sweet” and not to be taken seriously.
It dates to the days when big companies like Taylor and Gold Seal churned out mostly sweet wines made from native grapes. It was underscored by Canandaigua Wine Co. (now Constellation Brands), which made its name on sweet products like Richard’s Wild Irish Rose.
It continues to this day, when Hazlitt’s Red Cat — a sweet red wine made from the native Catawba grape — is still the region’s single top-selling wine.
But Hosmer said the perception that Finger Lakes wines are inherently sweet has changed.
“It was true at one time,” he said. ”It was volume — Taylor was selling 1 million cases of sweet wines in a year while while Dr. (Konstantin) Frank was selling 2,000 cases (of mostly drier wines). The sweet wines just dwarfed everything else.”
It’s different now. “Something we’ve seen here in our tasting room — and in the outside market as a whole — in the last six years or so, is that the sweet wines are taking less and less of a position,” Hosmer said. “It just is. We can’t deny it. We are selling more dry red wine than sweet red wine. A lot more.”
Deciding which wines to produce remains a concern for the region’s winemakers. There’s a constant search for the next big thing, the next Riesling. (Many Finger Lakes wineries have embraced Dry Rose for that reason).
“What we have to remember is we’re not Napa Valley,” he said. “We’re not Bordeaux. We can’t duplicate what they make in Chile. We’re who we are and we have to make what we do best.”
* * *
While wine remains king in the Finger Lakes, the region is now home to what is perhaps the state’s most diverse craft beverage industry. The State Liquor Authority’s most recent stats show more than 100 wineries, 66 breweries, 28 distilleries and eight hard cider makers. All in all, the area has more than 200 craft beverage makers
It certainly makes sense — now a group of visitors has the ability to sample every kind of craft beverage on a single day’s tour.
The rapid growth in all these industries is also tied directly to the history of the wine industry. New York state in the past decade has used the 1976 Farm Winery Act as a model for similar changes in laws for breweries, distilleries, cideries (and most recently for mead-makers).
Those changes kick-started the rapid increase is beverage manufacturers and their tasting rooms. The number of craft beverage makers in the Finger Lakes has more than doubled since 2012.
Hosmer remembers another connection: In 1994, Doug and Suzy Knapp, owners of Knapp Winery just off Route 89 in the town of Romulus, produced the first distilled product in New York state since the end of Prohibition. It was a brandy — a spirit distilled from wine.
“What happened was Doug made a batch of wine that wasn’t very good,” Hosmer said. “And he goes, ‘What am I going to do with this stuff?’ And the wheels in his mind were turning. And he thinks, ‘Oh, we’ll distill it and it will be fine.” And he was absolutely right.”
Hosmer says he believes the growing beer, cider and spirits industry is a natural outgrowth of the pioneering wine industry in the region.
“They’re all possessed by the same things that possessed us,” he said. “It’s great to see.”
But now, as the Finger Lakes has developed its reputation as a destination for wine, beer, spirits and more, the pioneers of the original farm-based wine industry are maturing.
“Yeah, that’s a polite way of saying we’re getting old,” Hosmer said. He notes an increasing trend where the original owners are selling their wineries, sometimes to other established winemakers and sometimes to newcomers.
“You either have to sell it or get another family member involved,” he said. “That’s just a fact.”
But he’s optimistic for the future, based on the innovations that his generation brought to the Finger Lakes and the new ideas coming in.
He and his son Tim see it their side business, which has them planting new vineyards, not just in the Finger Lakes but up and down the East Coast.
“It’s going to keep growing,”: he said. “We’re already seeing it, with our planting and what we see happening. There’s a lot of new people coming into the industry. A lot of them have been successful doing something else and now they have the resources to come in, plant vineyards and bring in some new ideas.
“They have the dream,” he said, “just like we did all those years ago.”