By Ray Levato
His velvety rich voice fills the airwaves every weekend, offering an unparalleled knowledge of all things food, wine, and gardening in the Finger Lakes.
Michael Warren Thomas is the voice of the Finger Lakes. He broadcasts live from restaurants, wineries, and garden stores, and features interesting guests often. His Saturday and Sunday morning radio shows on WYSL 1040-AM – “Naturally Green,” “The Grapevine,” “Discover the Finger Lakes,” and others – are required listening for folks who like to keep up with the region’s wine and restaurant scene.
The 53-year-old hails from Rome, New York, and went to the University of Rochester to study economics. After graduating in 1986 he took a job at the Center for Governmental Research, but after a couple of years, he decided to follow his love of alternative landscape design. Thomas also fell in love with Rochester’s 19th Ward where he still lives today. He is married with two daughters, ages 16 and 20.
He served as horticulturalist for the City of Rochester for five years, but his weekend radio work – which he started in 1994 – has become his fulltime job.
Thomas is his shows’ host, producer and remote location technician. He even does the advertising sales and promotion.
Yes, he has visited all 11 Finger Lakes and about 100 wineries, many more than once. No, he doesn’t have a favorite winery, nor a favorite wine, red or white. In fact, he raves about the quality of all Finger Lakes wines in general, and dry rosé, Riesling, dessert wines and now even some reds, specifically. He says many wineries are now making “90-point wines” – wines of distinction rated by leading industry publications. They have fared well when they’re up against wines from all over the world in events like the San Francisco International Wine Competition.
On one of his recent shows, Thomas shared an article from a major wine magazine. It rated the Finger Lakes high on a list of places to visit. He often takes written praise like that to restaurant owners to convince them to add more Finger Lakes wines to their wine lists.
Oh those lists
One of Thomas’s pet peeves is that the wine lists of New York State restaurants either don’t include any Finger Lakes wines, or they offer a very limited selection. In fact, he devises spreadsheets that list just about every restaurant in Rochester, Syracuse and Albany according to the number of Finger Lakes wines they offer.
“Our state capital has only about 4 percent Finger Lakes wines by the glass and bottle, while Rochester had 7 percent a few years ago. It might be up to 10 or 12 percent now,” he says. (A Rochester update is in the offing.)
The beauty of his system is that he can measure change over time, “so we can promote the restaurants that decide to highlight local wines,” he declares. “My goal is 50-percent New York wines by the glass and bottle, which leaves 50 percent for the rest of the world!”
Not all the Finger Lakes have wineries. The Big Four often mentioned on his show are Seneca, Keuka, Cayuga and Canandaigua lakes. They haven’t “gone corporate” yet, like the wineries on Long Island. “Wineries in the Finger Lakes are family owned. I like that part of it,” he says. “But it won’t stay that way forever.”
Still, “If winemakers and chefs go to Napa Valley in California, they may not be able to make a splash. But here in the Finger Lakes, they can have a huge impact, and also afford to have a business here.”
What others say
Scott Osborn, president and co-owner of Fox Run Vineyards on Seneca Lake, has supported Thomas’ radio show since they began in 1994. “I was very impressed that he recognized what was happening with our industry so early on,” says Osborn. “He was the only local media person at the time who understood what we were doing from a quality standpoint. He also saw the problems we were having getting our wines into local restaurants.
He continued, “Michael is one of the best advocates for the Finger Lakes wine industry out there. He is also one of the best advocates for purchasing and using food grown locally instead of produce from far away.”
Holly Howell, Rochester wine educator and writer, is a Michael Warren Thomas fan. They met at a wine-tasting years ago and became good friends who often travel together to talk to winemakers. “He’s dedicated so much of his life to learning about the people in the Finger Lakes and helping promote them.”
“He’s opinionated,” she adds. “He’s quick to tell you what he likes or what he doesn’t like.” That includes the fracking and private company gas storage efforts that have stirred up controversy in the Finger Lakes. Says Howell, who for more than a decade wrote the “Wild about Wines” column for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: “Michael is protective of the region. He takes on an activism that is personal.”
His knowledge of the Finger Lakes comes across to the listener. “His research into his stories and the industry has given him a wealth of knowledge,” Osborn at Fox Run says. “He’s able to give depth to his stories and interviews that make them very interesting and compelling.”
Live broadcasting can be an adventure
About 10 years ago, Thomas’s chair collapsed during a broadcast at the Rochester Public Market. “It happened while I was talking, but I ended up sitting on the ground so I was able to keep talking, get up and do the rest of the show standing up. I don’t think the listeners knew what happened, but maybe they heard the chair break!”
He recounts another time, again at the market, when he was inside the first floor lobby. “It was quite a sound chamber with the tile floor. Someone brought in a screaming young girl who had caught the skin of her neck in her coat zipper, and there were a bunch of people helping her. I told my audience what was happening and quickly went to a break.” (The girl was later okay.)
The segment breaks on the show feature an eclectic mix of music – the kind you rarely hear on radio anymore.
Looking to the future
Thomas has been on the air for 23 years. “Doc and Katy Abraham hosted their gardening show on WHAM 1180 radio for 52 years. I’m shooting to beat that; I’m almost halfway there. By that time I’ll be in my 80s and the thought keeps me humble.
“I love being a member of the community, connecting with people, and helping knit it all together,” he adds. “It’s just such an exciting time in the Finger Lakes.”
Michael Warren Thomas
Saturdays: 9-10 a.m. ‘Naturally Green’
10-11 a.m. ‘For the Love of Food’
11 a.m.-Noon ‘Discover the Finger Lakes’
Sundays: 9-11 a.m. ‘The Grape Vine”