A New Captain at the Helm

story and photo by Jason Feulner

New York is one of the main grape-growing and wine-producing states in the U.S., although long overshadowed by California, which produces more than 80% of U.S. wine, and closely beaten out by Washington State. Regardless, the New York wine industry is a large one by North American standards, and for much of its recent history it has been represented by the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, based in Canandaigua.

For over 30 years, the New York Wine and Grape Foundation was led by Jim Trezise, who spearheaded a number of broad and well-known marketing, policy, and advocacy campaigns that many visitors to the Finger Lakes region would recognize (Uncork New York, or even the well-known wine trails on each lake). In the spring of 2017, Jim stepped down to enjoy retirement and Sam Filler was brought on board as the new Executive Director of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.

I was able to catch up with Sam during a recent tour of Casa Larga Vineyards, just southeast of Rochester. After a tour and tasting, we had a chance to sit down and talk about a variety of topics related to the future of the New York wine industry and the Finger Lakes region.

Strong Policy Background

Sam Filler does not come to the New York Wine and Grape Foundation as a wine expert per se, but one who has looked at economic initiatives from a variety of viewpoints and positions. A native of Westchester County, Sam attend Vassar and NYU, where he obtained a Master’s in Urban Planning. It was after NYU that Sam entered the Empire State Fellows Program, which trained young policy-minded managers for public service. Sam also had previous experience in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC in a variety of policy-related areas.

“At Empire State Development, I happened to share a desk with Pat Hooker, formerly the Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets,” Sam tells me. “Next thing I know, I’m putting together a policy book for Governor Cuomo’s first Beer, Wine & Spirits Summit – that was the start of it all.”

Bitten by the wine bug, Sam soon took the position of Director of Industry Development, or the “One Stop Shop,” for wine, beer, and spirits at the Economic Development Corporation, a position which brought him to the board of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. In this role, he became acquainted with the organization prior to the retirement of Jim Trezise.

A Proud Tradition

Without hesitation, Sam praises the work done by Jim Trezise over the previous decades. “To quote Jim,” Sam jokes, “this whole New York wine industry is a 30-year overnight success.”

Sam shares his appreciation for Jim Trezise’s dedication to keeping the disparate wine regions of the state in some form of union despite the vast geographic differences. “I’m only a few months on the job and I’ve already put 10,000 miles on my car,” Sam tells me, stressing how large and far flung the state’s wine industry is when you take into account all of the active regions.

“Jim’s greatest achievement was ensuring that the state government realized that the wine industry was worth investing in. That’s easy to take for granted years later.”

A Sense of Discovery

Now that he’s fully on the job a few months, and tasting wine like mad, Sam says he has been surprised by a few things.

“The Rieslings, they really do vary in tasting profile from winery to winery,” Sam concludes, recounting a recent trip to Seneca Lake with the Drinks NY program. “The winemakers talk about terroir, and there is certainly something to that, but the overall quality is a testament to experimentation and winemaking.”

Sam said he’s also been pleasantly surprised on the overall strength of Cabernet Franc, which he found to be consistently good from winery to winery. “The Finger Lakes deserves equal recognition for reds and whites.”

Getting Creative

Despite the overall success of New York’s wine industry, Sam wants to look at areas for improvement. He cites the large number of smaller, vinifera-focused wineries that have been established in recent years and how some of the larger marketing campaigns may miss the appeal of these important wineries.

Sam says he wants to “evolve our programming” and references the already-established Drinks NY program which brings sommeliers, beverage managers, and media from New York City to the Finger Lakes for cellar tastings and harvest events. He believes this program can be expanded and continue to be a model for exposure to high-quality wines.

To understand how differentiated marketing might benefit various tiers of the New York wine industry, Sam says he wants to engage in a strategic planning process to examine where the best opportunities might be. He’s also hired a director of member relations and development to expand the membership and reach of the organization.

Sam emphasizes that it isn’t all about one kind of wine – native, hybrid, vinifera, sweet, or dry – but identifying, supporting, and highlighting quality at all levels and sizes of winery.

Some Parting Thoughts

As we wrap up, I put Sam Filler on the spot about his favorite varietal. “Tocai Friulano,” Sam blurts out, an aromatic white native to Italy that is produced by Millbrook in the Hudson Valley and Channing Daughters on Long Island. This wine does have a bit of a cult following despite its limited availability.

Sam’s go-to wine that is produced mainly outside of New York Is Grüner Veltliner, an Austrian white that has some limited plantings in the Finger Lakes. Sam is looking forward to more of these wines being produced in New York.

I press Sam on what sort of a model he’ll use to guide the New York Wine and Grape Foundation moving forward, and he mentions looking for successful case studies in agritourism from around the world. “Visitors to wine regions in Europe and California aren’t just thinking about wine; they’re looking at food and food products, restaurants, accommodations, natural scenery, and a whole variety of areas. The Finger Lakes and other New York wine regions have these things to offer as well.”


New York Wine and Grape Foundation

The website for the New York Wine and Grape Foundation provides background materials on the industry, a guide to all of New York’s wine regions, and links to individual wineries broken down by region (or even by lake).

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