Over the July 18 weekend, I attended the 2008 Finger Lakes Wine Festival held for the past dozen years at Watkins Glen International on the southern end of Seneca Lake. Once a year, this huge racing complex is transformed into the Finger Lake’s largest tasting room. The 2008 event hosted a record number of 89 New York State Wineries – there are over 100 in just the Finger Lakes, which is the largest wine producing region east of California. Wineries from Long Island to Lake Erie were also in attendance. Festival goers, numbering in the tens of thousands, paid $40 ($35 advance sale price) for the weekend tasting and were given a souvenir wine glass and a 130-page Tasters Guide to help navigate them through the 500+ wines poured at this huge event.
I was reminded of the first annual Finger Lakes Wine Festival, which I attended back in 1994. It was held on the grounds of the New York Chiropractic College in Seneca Falls and was also a weekend program with, at that time, a record breaking attendance of about 8,000. We tasted wine in three large tents manned respectively by 30 Cayuga Lake, Seneca Lake and Keuka/Canandaigua Lakes vintners. Nevertheless, the program was basically the same as it is today. There were booths set up featuring the work of local artists and artisans plus purveyors of gourmet and ethnic foods. Live music was featured as well by several bands and there was an Education Tent, in which I gave wine & food seminars along with several other featured speakers. All this for a single admission price for the two-day event of only $15 ($12 advance purchase price).
The Festival was conceived by, planned for, promoted and put on by a local vintner couple, Doug and Suzie Knapp, with the help of a few fellow vintners and close friends, all of whom believed in the project. It took at least a year to put together and Doug and Suzie even designed the logo themselves (which the current logo quite closely resembles). I knew Doug and Suzie for many years prior to this event, through my various trips to the Finger Lake that I made for local newspapers for whom I wrote wine articles. So, I helped staff the education tent and my wife, Georgia, joined a group of Suzie's local friends selling tickets at the main entrance.
But we all ended up doing more than one thing. Georgia, and I drove up on the Friday before to help with the set up. We pounded in tent pegs, ran water lines, strung up signs and, in general, joined the other willing volunteer workers in doing whatever we could to help Doug out. I recall seeing young Amish children in their severe black attire, pitching in with the adults in a myriad of chores. It was refreshing to see how these children of local farmers were able to take time away from their farm chores to help the vintners out getting this show up and running.
There was a "barn raising" atmosphere that day. Whenever one vintner was struggling to get something right with his tent, several other vintners dropped what they were doing to give him a hand, making jokes and laughing all the while. It was a beehive of activity and, like a beehive, everyone was working, not only for themselves, but for the Festival as a whole.
This was truly a grass roots project, led by a leading Finger Lakes vintner with a vision for what the Finger Lakes could eventually do for New York and the New York tourism industry. Doug and Suzie sold their Knapp Vineyard and Restaurant to Glenora Wine Cellars eight years ago and are now happily retired. – Jay Roelof - www.suburbanwines.com