Back to the Future at Eagle Crest Vineyards

Most visits to a Finger Lakes winery are planned outings where several wineries are visited, often along a route that brings tasters to a nice lunch or dinner spot along the way. Even without a plan, one is bound to stumble across enough wineries or eating establishments to make a day of it. Such establishments are so densely packed along the major four lakes (Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, and Canandaigua) that any winery not within a few short miles of another winery is considered to be in the boonies.

Consider Eagle Crest Vineyards the exception to that rule. It is situated on the western shore of a minor Finger Lake (Hemlock). No wineries share its general locale. There are no restaurants up the road, down the road, or across the road. In fact, not a single summer cottage dots the shoreline of the heavily wooded and steep land that surrounds the lake. Eagle Crest Vineyards lies in splendid isolation and yet possesses a long, storied history that dates further back than any other Finger Lakes winery, save Pleasant Valley in Hammondsport.

A visit to Eagle Crest Vineyards is a purposeful one. Any wine lover who wants to make the journey should be in the frame of mind for a country drive and a bit of exploration, the wine being only one part of the experience. A trip to Eagle Crest Vineyards will consume most of a day, but a trip off the beaten path is hardly something to lament.

The Eagle Crest label was founded in 2005 and is not widely distributed in stores, but many readers have tasted wine from the winery without even realizing it. The parent winery, O-Neh-Da, which is the Iroquois word for Hemlock, was founded in 1872 by Bishop Bernard McQuaid to produce sacramental wines for the Diocese of Rochester. Over the years, the sacramental wine portion of the winery has grown, producing wine for Catholic parishes all over the eastern United States (as well as some Protestant churches that use wine in their services). At 12,000 cases annually, O-Neh-Da is one of the largest producers of sacramental wine and remains the oldest sacramental wine company in the United States.

The main source of pride for O-Neh-Da, explains co-owner Will Ouweleen, is the winery’s strict adherence to Catholic Canon Law, which dictates that sacramental wine must be a natural, unadulterated product of the grape. “We do not use any products that do not come from the grape, such as non-grape sugars. We also use local grapes, many of which are grown in our own vineyards. Not all producers of sacramental wine do this anymore.”

The wine is sold directly to parishes, where the typical congregations consume a few cases per year. Like regular table wine, most sacramental wine is sold in 750 mL bottles.

Circumstance led to O-Neh-Da’s unique history and identity. In the late 19th century, the City of Rochester acquired Hemlock Lake as its main drinking source, and used eminent domain to buy and demolish the 100 or so cabins that dotted the shoreline in order to protect the water quality. City officials permitted Bishop McQuaid to retain his vineyard and summer home, although the home has now been reclaimed by nature.

After McQuaid’s death in 1909, the Diocese of Rochester briefly ran the winery but soon found a group more interested in the task. The Society of the Divine Word, a Dutch monastic order, came to the hills above the lake and administered the vineyard and winery for more than 50 years. A sharp decrease in vocations led the society to lease the operation in the 1970s and 1980s until a group of new owners came on board in the 1990s.

Will Ouweleen did not arrive at O-Neh-Da/Eagle Crest on purpose. A New York City investor who left Wall Street in the early 2000s to return to his native Rochester, he purchased a home perched above Hemlock Lake to try something different. The home
happened to be adjacent to the winery property, and Will soon found himself drawn to the winery and its history. “It’s like a family. The winemaking team has been in place for 30 years, which is incredible. There’s a real sense of pride here in what we are trying to do.”

Will owns a share of the business, but is completely hands-on, organizing efforts in marketing, sales, tasting-room management, and event planning.

Rob Beckmann, the head winemaker for 30 years, creates all of the sacramental wine for O-Neh-Da as well as the table wine for Eagle Crest, which includes a mixture of native, hybrid, and vinifera grapes, the last group sourced from grape growers on Keuka and Seneca. Beckmann is not the first O-Neh-Da winemaker to make table wine. From time to time throughout the 20th-Century, winemakers at O-Neh-Da blended and bottled wines for general sale to consumers. The tasting room and laboratory contain numerous old bottles from these efforts, some dating back more than 70 years. O-Neh-Da was part of the early consumer wine business in New York State, and at times its bottles were as well-known as Gold Seal, Taylor, and other early companies.

History permeates every inch and every corner of Eagle Crest, highlighting an operation that hit its stride decades earlier than most Finger Lakes wineries. The bottling machine is vintage 1940s. The destemmer and press hail from the early 1960s and sport a funky yellow paint job. The giant wooden tanks in the production facility are more than 80 years old and hold between 4,000 and 6,000 gallons of wine each. “You work with what you have,” says Rob Beckmann, who notes that the equipment functions well. Through a dedication to sustainability, the staff keeps the equipment operational without rushing to replace what does not need to be replaced.

The tasting room has been remodeled to reflect the old and the new, the focus of which is the Eagle Crest lineup of wines. There are numerous varieties available, ranging from dry to sweet. The native grape wines are not necessarily all very sweet – a common practice – but range in style from off-dry to semi-sweet to sweet. The Riesling is made in a particularly aromatic style, and there are multiple vintages of unoaked Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc available for tasting. Will Ouweleen believes that there is a “little something for everyone” in terms of wine styles at Eagle Crest. Ultimately, the experience of the winemaking team shines through, with most of the wines – even the sweeter varieties – demonstrating restraint and balance.

Eagle Crest Vineyards is the latest attempt by O-Neh-Da to retain a place in the table wine market, and all indicators point to a brand that is here to stay. “We are trying to have fun with wine,” Will Ouweleen says while explaining Grape Jamm, the annual music festival that takes place on the winery’s grounds.

Will and his team market their wines directly to consumers when possible, and distribute the wines themselves. Each visitor to the tasting room is given a personal wine tote with the purchase of just one bottle. The staff at Eagle Crest knows that their winery is a bit off the beaten path, and they are willing to meet consumers halfway. Their enthusiasm is infectious, making the long drive seem well worth the effort.

by Jason Feulner

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