The 19 members of the Niagara Wine Trail and the thousands who flock to their establishments each year are toasting a new law expanding the trail and allowing for more comprehensive signage.
As the result of a law signed two weeks ago by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo extending the trail into Orleans and Monroe counties, the trail now will be split into Ridge and Lake sections. This move will help more clearly define the trail and allow more wineries to join. A winery must be located within five miles of the trail in order to have designating signs.
That next crucial step – new signs – may appear by spring.
“Signs are one of the most efficient ways for a business to advertise,” said Margo Sue Bittner, owner of The Winery at Marjim Manor in Appleton.
Bittner and Wendy Oakes-Wilson, whose family owns Leonard Oakes Estate Winery in Medina, traveled to Albany several times over the past two years to lobby state representatives for passage of this bill.
While it will still function as one entity, the Niagara Wine Trail will split into the Niagara Wine Trail Ridge, stretching along Route 104 from Niagara Falls to Route 390 in Monroe County, and the Niagara Wine Trail Lake, which follows the same route as the former Niagara Wine Trail. It runs from the intersection of Routes 62 and 290 in Erie County and follows Route 62 to Route 425. It then heads north to Route 18 (Lake Road), east to Route 269, the border of Orleans County, and south to Route 104.
“The New York State Department of Transportation has clear guidelines about what constitutes a wine trail,” said Bittner. “A wine trail has to have a clear beginning and end, like a piece of spaghetti. It cannot make a loop; it cannot make a circle; it cannot cross itself. We deal with myriad rules and regulations that make it frustrating for people to find our locations.
“Part of our challenge is the rule that a winery must be within five miles of the official trail for signage,” she said. “While that works in some parts of the state, like the Finger Lakes, our wineries are more spread out and a number are seven miles from the trail and so have been denied signage.”
But expect things to start changing – and look for those changes throughout the state. As a sidebar to their work with the state DOT on signs, Bittner and Oakes-Wilson have been instrumental in the adoption of new rules under which every wine trail in the state will have the same type of signs to better achieve continuity.
Lake Ontario Winery and Vineyard in Hilton in Monroe County, which earlier was denied membership to the Niagara Wine Trail because it was located too far away, quickly became a member with passage of the expansion, Bittner said.
The trail also has welcomed the new Flight of Five Winery, at 2 Pine St., Lockport, opened by Jacqueline and Michael Connelly in August.
Jacqueline started one of the Niagara Wine Trail’s first wineries, Niagara Landing Wine Cellars of Cambria, in 1999 with her brother, Peter Smith. She sold her interest in that winery last year to begin her new project – the wine trail’s first urban winery. It is located in Old Lockport City Hall, overlooking the original Erie Canal locks.
“It’s exciting,” she said of being a trail member. “Every winery on the trail has its own unique story and methods and wines. There are no duplicates on this trail. We each have our own niche. And, as an organization, the members of the trail can accomplish so much more than any one can afford to on its own as far as marketing. It is so key in getting people’s attention and bringing them in. It is absolutely a plus.”
The trail was established in 2002 with just two wineries. Bittner said the organization does not keep overall numbers of visitors, but individual wineries on the trail often do, and they have seen those numbers spike.
“We opened Marjim in August of 2004 and had 5,000 visitors that year,” she said. “In 2012, we had 40,000 come through our door. I have a clicker at the door that counts each person who comes in.
“We have an interesting blend of visitors,” she said. “The bulk are regulars from Amherst, Buffalo and Rochester, who want that local wine experience, or others who are travelling through New York State. We also have visitors from across the country and from all over the world. We also do weddings here and guests will come back to buy our wine. And we have many people who come for our special events.”
The trail’s biggest event of the year is Hallowine, the annual murder mystery, which opens Friday. Fourteen wineries will participate and guests may visit each one from Friday through Sunday to collect clues, submit a guess to solve the mystery, and enter drawings for prizes.
“We usually sell 400 to 500 tickets for our special events, but we’ll sell 2,500 to 3,000 tickets for this event,” said Bittner, who also created the storyline.
The trail will offer two more special events this year: Share the Bounty on Nov. 8-11 and Holiday Happening on Dec. 6-8 and Dec. 13-15. Visit www.niagarawinetrail.org for more information.
The trail partnered with the Medina Railroad for the first time in September to operate four rides featuring two different wineries on each ride, Bittner said. And Spring Lake Winery in Lockport also offers its own train excursions to Medina, providing breakfast, lunch and live music in addition to wine tastings. The final excursion leaves at 9 this morning.
The Niagara Wine Trail also includes: A Gust of Sun Winery, Ransomville; Arrowhead Spring Vineyards, Lockport; Black Willow Winery, Burt; Blackbird Cider Works, Barker; Chateau Niagara Winery, Newfane; Eveningside Vineyards, Cambria; Freedom Run Winery, Lockport; Honeymoon Trail Winery, Lockport; Long Cliff Winery, Sanborn; Midnight Run Wine Cellars, Ransomville; Schulze Vineyards and Winery, Burt; Victorianburg Wine Estate, Wilson; and Vizcarra Vineyards, Gasport.
“The wine trail has doubled in size since I went to work on it in 2008,” said Elizabeth Rose Maute, trail coordinator. “It’s encouraging to see people around the area finding this, but so many people still don’t know what’s in their own backyard. You don’t have to travel over the border to Canada or three hours away to the Finger Lakes to get good wine.”