The typical Finger Lakes tasting alludes to the romantic notion that the contents of the glass standing before a consumer is wholly connected with the lush vineyard in view of the tasting bar. As many consumers are aware, however, the sourcing of grapes at any vineyard is a complex affair, and even those wineries with extensive vineyard holdings are likely to buy grapes from all over the region to round out their wines.
While many wineries do not refer openly to their sourcing practices, recent fads such as single-vineyard bottlings of certain varietals has led wineries to educate their consumers about site selection and the qualities that different vineyards can impart to the same type of grape.
For decades, the bulk of the grape market in the Finger Lakes has been made up of independent growers – those who own their own land and grow their own grapes for sale directly to the wineries.
Matt Doyle, who founded Doyle Vineyard Management with his wife Carre in 2009, saw an opportunity to fill a void within the market for vineyard management expertise. “Out West there are a lot of vineyard management companies,” says Carre, referring to the vast California growing regions. “In the Finger Lakes, it’s been all about independent growers. We wanted to become the first vineyard management company in this region.”
The art of vineyard management
What is the difference between a vineyard management company and an independent grower? For the most part, an independent grower works the vines on his or her own land. A vineyard management company provides growing expertise by working vineyards owned by others, often through a leasing agreement, or by providing specific services directly to vineyard owners.
In the case of Doyle Vineyard Management, the company completely manages over 900 acres of vineyards and helps with the harvest at 200 more. While Doyle actively provides to the market the yield of over 1,000 acres of grapes annually, the company itself owns only 70 acres of its own vineyard property.
Matt Doyle is a graduate of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, where he majored in agribusiness management and economics. A native of Hammondsport, Matt’s exposure to the service side of the wine business comes from his father, Mike Doyle.
A long-time employee of the Pleasant Valley Wine Company, Mike purchased the business in 1995 after a series of corporate dealings broke up the once formidable Taylor Wine Company (at the time a holder of Pleasant Valley). In addition to its own wine offerings, the Pleasant Valley Wine Company plays an integral role in the Finger Lakes wine business by providing services such as bottling and wine storage in its vast facilities.
For over eight years, Matt worked for Constellation Brands, managing its vineyard holdings in the Finger Lakes. During that period, he also briefly worked for Estancia Estates in California (a company held by Constellation), where he saw firsthand the important role that vineyard management companies play in that market. “In California, the weather is not as much of an issue as it is here,” he muses, “but all the variables make each season here in the Finger Lakes kind of fun.” After a season in California, Matt returned to New York.
When Constellation decided to get out of the grape farming business in 2008, Matt was left with a choice: explore management in a different region, or try his hand at management here. “We saw a calculated risk and went with it,” Matt says of his and his wife’s decision to found Doyle Vineyard Management in the Finger Lakes, a region which previously had not played host to a professional management company. Over the past four-and-a-half years, the staff at Doyle has grown to 11 full-time employees, an achievement that Matt and Carre note with pride.
Branching into the Finger Lakes
Doyle manages vineyards for all sorts of clients, including companies, wineries and established growers. One of the growing segments for vineyard management is represented by “backyard” vineyards, which are usually a few acres planted around someone’s Finger Lakes residence. These clients range from existing land owners who are looking for new sources of income, to retired professionals who like the idea of having a vineyard attached to their seasonal home.
“This is a tough market for beginners,” Matt cautions, referring to the startup costs to plant vines and install trellis in a vineyard, as well as the three years of wait time for vines to reach maturity. Some small-scale vineyards, however, provide excellent sites for growing grapes.
Doyle’s business is representative of the Finger Lakes region as a whole. While vinifera, or European grape varieties, receive most of the acclaim and attention from an external audience, they make up only about 20 percent of Doyle’s production. Hybrid grapes make up an additional 30 percent of the annual yield produced by Doyle, and 50 percent of the grapes are of the native varieties.
Matt’s work extends through the heart of the Finger Lakes region, concentrated on the hillsides around Keuka and Seneca lakes, but touching vineyards around Canandaigua and Cayuga lakes as well. While the vast majority of Matt’s business comes from Finger Lakes wineries, he manages vineyards that sell to Welch’s juice program, as well as to wineries in the Hudson Valley, New York City and Long Island.
The native and hybrid grape market is pretty stable, notes Matt, but it can be hindered by all sorts of variables that affect demand and pricing on an annual basis. He has seen a steady growth in the vinifera market. “There’s a huge demand for Riesling we can’t fulfill,” Matt says, noting that he continues to plant that varietal. With a growing demand for vinifera, however, Matt sees a lot more work that needs to be put into each vine. “With vinifera, there’s a lot more time invested throughout the season with shoot thinning and leaf pulling. Also, wineries have different standards and measures for harvest.”
While Matt is proud of the grapes he produces for all of his clients – native, hybrid and vinifera alike – he has been particularly excited about the recent predilection of some Finger Lakes wineries to create single vineyard wines from a particular source and promote them as such. Wineries such as Silver Thread, Fox Fun and Inspire Moore have recently created wines adorned with the “Doyle Family Vineyard” designation, crafted 100 percent from grapes grown by Matt Doyle and his team. “It’s really inspiring as a grower to see that,” Matt says. “I’m proud of what we do.”
For more information on Doyle Vineyard Management, visit
doylevineyard.com or search “Doyle Vineyard Management” on Facebook.
What’s in a Grape?
There are three main species of grapes grown in the Finger Lakes: Vitis labrusca, Vitis vinifera and hybrid grapes.
Vitis labrusca, or “native” grapes, are endemic to the eastern United States. Some of the best-known examples of these grapes are Concord and Catawba. Native grapes are winter-hardy and tend to have high yields, but are not considered by world authorities as the best winemaking grapes available. There is a long tradition of native grape winemaking in the Finger Lakes, both in sweet and dry wines, and native grapes still represent the largest acreage of plantings in the region.
Vitis vinifera, or “European” or “noble” grapes, are native to Europe and Asia, and have been cultivated for thousands of years for wine production. Some of the best-known examples of these grapes are Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Riesling. While flavorful and dynamic in wine, vinifera’s roots have trouble with cold winters and the fruit needs warm summers to ripen. While there have been many successful attempts at vinifera production in the Finger Lakes throughout the 20th century, the plantings of vinifera began to increase rapidly only in the 1990s through the present.
Hybrid grapes are either an accidental (natural) or engineered crossing between Vitis labrusca and Vitis vinifera (and sometimes a related vine known as Vitis riparia). Some of the best-known examples of these grapes are Traminette and Baco Noir. At their best, these grapes tend to demonstrate the cold-hardiness of native grape vines, while showing some of the favorable flavor profiles found in vinifera. Many hybrids grown in the Finger Lakes and throughout the United States were created by Cornell at the university’s testing station in Geneva at the north end of Seneca Lake.
by Jason Feulner