“I am drinking the stars!” exclaimed Dom Perignon in 1693.
According to legend, the French Benedictine Monk had just invented champagne. The truth is that bubbles were present in wine long before his important role was recognized, due to a secondary fermentation that often happened in the bottle.
In the often snobby, high-priced world of French champagnes, the Reims and Epernay area of the Champagne region of France was, and still is, the center of the bubbly wine universe. But in 1867, a funny thing happened to shake up French sensibilities. A little known Finger Lakes wine company shocked the world by winning an honorable mention at the Exposition Universelle in Paris – the first award in Europe for an American sparkling wine. Six years later, the winery’s champagne earned a first-place in Vienna. In between, a wine connoisseur in Boston declared it “the Great Champagne of the Western World.” And so, Great Western was born. Today, it remains the flagship brand of the Pleasant Valley Wine Company in Hammondsport, and holds the distinction of being U.S. Bonded Winery No. 1. The European-style winery commands a picture postcard spot just outside the touristy little village of Hammondsport.
In 1962, the Taylor Wine Company bought Pleasant Valley Wine Co., its next-door neighbor. After many subsequent ownership changes that included corporate beverage giants Coca-Cola and Seagram in the 1970s and ’80s, Great Western has been in the capable hands of the Doyle family since 1995. In 2002 they purchased the historic winery outright.
Charles Davenport Champlin and some of his friends opened the first winery near Keuka Lake in 1860, after they recognized that the soil and climate conditions were similar to those in the Champagne region of France. They carved impressive wine cellars out of a hillside overlooking Pleasant Valley. They resemble the champagne caves in Reims, France, to this day.
Two noted French winemakers were brought in to oversee the winemaking operations. Not to be outdone, the U.S. Post Office was persuaded to open a branch at the winery in 1870 with the postmark “Rheims, N.Y.” (Note the addition of an “h” to the French spelling.) It was used until about 1945 when rural delivery started.
Champlin’s portrait still hangs in the dark, wood-paneled, Gothic-style boardroom where family patriarch Michael Doyle and his son Patrick talked to me recently. Patrick heads up sales and marketing, and another son, Matthew, manages Pleasant Valley’s extensive vineyard operations.
Doyle’s involvement goes back decades as general counsel for the Taylor Wine Company. His determination to keep the lights on prevented the winery from being broken up and the assets sold off to resolve bank issues. “We would never have been able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again if that happened,” Mike says. “I didn’t want to see the place go away forever.”
While Pleasant Valley Wine Co. is thought of as the granddaddy of Finger Lakes wineries, the Doyles have acquired the labels of Gold Seal and Widmer, which also go back more than a century. Mike says Widmer’s Lake Niagara is still an incredibly popular brand. “It’s all about preserving the tradition of these labels that go back so long.”
Patrick has practically lived Great Western ever since he and his brother were kids. “I’ve been part of it since I was eight years old. Now we not only make it here but we own the winery, which is pretty cool.”
What makes Great Western special in many champagne lovers’ minds is that the sparkling wine undergoes a second fermentation “in the bottle,” the traditional way champagne is made in France and called Methode Champenoise. Its price point at under $10 a bottle gives it an edge with consumers looking for quality at an affordable price.
“Great Western and the Pleasant Valley Wine Co. have a rich and distinguished history in the Finger Lakes and the New York wine industry,” points out Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. “The Great Western brand has become well known throughout the country, and the facility is historic and very impressive in scope.”
Eight of the winery’s original stone buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Pleasant Valley’s Great Western is the largest producer of bottle-fermented champagnes in the eastern U.S. Pleasant Valley also produces an extensive list of table wines including a semi-dry Riesling, and several dessert wines like Solera Sherry and Vidal Blanc Ice Wine.
The Doyles have also kept the loyal and talented workforce going. One employee has been on the job there 52 years. Currently, the family is making a multimillion-dollar investment in the winery by purchasing new bottling equipment that will increase capacity on the production line from 90 bottles a minute to 400.
Pleasant Valley also bottles for a number of other companies. The day I visited, a wine for a company co-owned by singer Nicky Minaj was on the production line. Myx Fusions is a Moscato grape beverage infused with exotic fruit flavors.
Mike Doyle loves history, and is a dreamer of all things possible. He’s thinking of converting unused winery space into an inn or conference center. With its world-class Visitors Center, Great Western is poised to become a bigger Finger Lakes destination. Car and Driver magazine says it has the “best winery tour in New York.”
Looking back at all he has accomplished, Mike says, “This wasn’t the smartest thing to do from a business standpoint at that part of my life. But you can’t help falling in love with this place.”
Guided tours of the historic winery are conducted daily from Memorial Day through Thanksgiving Week, weather permitting. The tours take about 45 minutes and start at approximately 11 a.m. with the last tour departing at 3 p.m. Guided tours are $5 per person. There is no charge to tour the Visitors Center, which features historic exhibits, winemaking displays, and a unique theater-in-a-wine-tank. There is a large horseshoe-shaped bar for wine tastings and an interesting gift shop.
Visitor Center Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, April thru December; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday from January through March. Closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
For group/bus tours, call 877-662-8833, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations and group rate information.
Ray is a retired news reporter/anchor at WHEC-TV Ch. 10 in Rochester.