by Morton Hochstein
One day recently, I served a bottle of Sweet Walter white wine to guests. I was surprised when no one at my table knew the story behind that name. How quickly we forget our heroes.
From the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s, Walter Taylor was a latter-day Johnny Appleseed, appearing nationwide. He was inescapable in print, on news programs and television talk shows in farmer overalls and cowboy hats. He was David versus Goliath, a small winemaker battling giant Coca Cola, which had barred him from using his family name after it purchased the Taylor Wine Company, the business his ancestors had founded in 1880 in Hammondsport.
Walter spoke out loudly and openly against local winemaking practices, particularly attacking the use of California grapes in New York wines. In 1970, he told an audience of wine executives in San Francisco that the water level at Keuka Lake dropped several inches during bottling season. Outraged, the board of directors at Taylor Wine, many of them close relatives, told him he could resign or be fired.
Walter, always dramatic, chose to be fired, and moved on to Bully Hill, the original home of Taylor Wine, later a barrel-making plant. Greyton Taylor, his father, and chief winemaker Dick Vine had transformed the site in 1968 to test small batches of grapes.
Before his year in exile ended, Walter had taken over the research winery and converted it into Bully Hill Vineyards and focused on hybrids. Using secondhand equipment and tanks salvaged from other firms, he crusaded for the hybrids designed to withstand the cruel winters of the region. Walter released a batch of wines with names like Old Trawler White, Meat Market Red and Le Grande Blush. Some were hybrids, some were the best of the indigenous varietals. A flamboyant promoter, he made Bully Hill the best-known winery in New York State.
Coca-Cola purchased The Taylor Wine Company in 1977 and immediately went after Walter Taylor. Coke won a court order barring him from promoting any link to Taylor wine, forbidding the use of the Taylor name in any form.
Walter was a dynamic showman and that was all he needed to take advantage of a giant publicity opportunity. A master of media manipulation, he counter attacked. At one point, he gathered 200 supporters for a well-publicized rally where they joined him in inking his name off hundreds of bottles of Bully Hill Wine. He created a label featuring a goat and the slogan, “They have my name and my heritage, but they didn’t get my goat.” On other labels, he pictured himself as the Lone Ranger with the caption: “Who was that masked man?” He issued bumper stickers which declared, “Enjoy Bully Hill, the un-Taylor.” Another label featured an owl, inscribed “Walter S. Who?”
His attacks earned him a citation for contempt and he was ordered to turn over to the Taylor Wine Company the offensive material he had put together. “We brought it down to Coke in a manure spreader,” he told the press.
He once observed: “I have been thrown out of the New York State wine industry, out of my local club, even the Hammondsport Episcopal Church, rejected because I wanted honesty and integrity in the wine business.”
Walter had several passions: the wine industry, art, and aviation. He was proud of the community’s most famed citizen, aircraft pioneer Glenn Curtis, who built the nation’s first flying boat. The Taylor Wine Company helped fund the Curtiss Aircraft Museum in Hammondsport, and Walter foraged many of the aircraft memorabilia featured in the museum.
Walter repeatedly urged the Taylor Wine Company to acquire its own business aircraft to enable marketing executives to travel much easier. He created a landing field on his property but shut it down after the coke takeover. It’s believed he had thoughts of earning a pilot’s license, but set them aside after a frightening experience. One day he declared he would not fly anymore and chose to drive, bus, or travel by boat or train.
Walter often suffered through weeks or fortnights when he would stay awake for 24 to 48 hours and then fall into a lengthy sleep. Often he would arise from one of those long sessions with aberrant ideas that would leave ordinary persons grasping for reality. Some were brilliant. Others were questionable.
On one of his European excursions, a Scottish shepherd convinced him that sheep manure was a great fertilizer for vineyards. Walter persuaded his father to purchase a nearby farm, and imported the shepherd to care for a few dozen ewes and one expensive, well-worn, one-eyed male sheep, named Thor. He and the shepherd set a limit on the number of ewes the ram might service.
One weekend, Thor’s gate was left unlocked. The ram ran rampant through the flock and expired in exhaustion. Informed of the costly loss, Greyton Taylor exploded from his chair with a “WHAT??” Walter was prepared. “Well, dad,” he observed, “at least poor old Thor died with a smile on his face.” Even the dour Greyton had to guffaw at that.
Once Bully Hill wines had found a market, due much to his colorful labels, magnetic personality and media attention, Walter spent an increasing amount of time on his love for art; working on line drawings and paints, and oils. He personally designed and created Bully Hill labels, which later became collectors’ items. He was an official artist for NASA and painted the Columbia Shuttle in 1982. At one point, with the winery in good hands, he hung a guitar on his back and hitchhiked across the U.S., sketching what he saw on his travels.
Walter was correct in his argument that native labrusca grapes were no longer valuable, but his passion for hybrids also was passed over as winemakers like Dr. Konstantin Frank initiated cultivation programs which protected the delicate European varietals and enabled them to survive upstate winters. A few Finger Lakes producers still issue wines made from indigenous and hybrid grapes, but the region now is best known for Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
In January, 1990, when traveling near Tampa, Walter’s van was rear-ended by a truck, leaving him a quadriplegic. He died at age 69 in April 2001. His widow, Lilian Rakic Taylor, has been managing the winery and directing a popular restaurant on Bully Hill. Their youngest son, Greg, has been working at Hardy’s Tintara winery in South Africa and is expected to join Bully Hill in the near future.
Besides enjoying the restaurant and viewing wine facilities, visitors have the opportunity to partake of the past at The Greyton H. Taylor Wine Museum, now dedicated to Walter S. Taylor’s father Greyton Hoyt Taylor. In 1972, he established the Wine Museum that display implements and artifacts that contributed to the winemaking history of the region., and later dedicated it to his father. Within the museum complex there are two buildings, a Replica Cooper Shop/Wine Museum and the Walter S. Taylor Art Gallery, showcasing wine labels and the mass of original artwork created by Walter Taylor.