New York Renaissance: Interview with Jim Trezise
In the early 1980’s, the New York wine industry was in a crisis. Consumers were increasingly less interested in the state’s pillars of sweeter and fortified styles in favor of dry California wines. Then, growers who had for decades sold to mostly benevolent buyers like Taylor and Gold Seal found those declining giants sold to Coke and Seagram’s, respectively. Hopes were high for a corporate turnaround, but instead the corporations increasingly squeezed the growers, shipped in juice from California, and then sold and re-sold and devalued the companies beyond recognition.
Bold action was needed, and the growers pooled their meager funds to form the New York State Wine Growers, which later underwent a few iterations and name changes to become the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. They also recruited a guy from the Philadelphia corporate world named Jim Trezise. For over 34 years, Jim led the Foundation as the “quarterback” as he puts it, calling out plays and building team morale to rebuild the New York wine industry into the powerhouse it is today with 471 wineries and 11 American Viticultural Areas. He left the Foundation in 2016 to became President of WineAmerica, the national organization of American wineries who lobbies on behalf of the industry on the federal level.
Jim is known as one of the most gracious, passionate, and generous guys in the business, so it was no surprise he was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss his early days at the Foundation, and what a state with a rising wine industry can learn from the New York revival. He was also gracious enough to share twenty pages or so of his biography for background for this interview. We hope he finishes the story, as it is very conversational and gives great insight into those years. So, if you read this, tell him how much you want him to finish it!
Also invaluable in researching this story was Circle of Vines: The Story of New York Wines by Richard Figiel.
Tell us about the state of the 1982 New York wine industry. Those were very challenging times.
It was really a perfect storm. Prior to the late 1970’s, if you were a grape grower in the Finger Lakes, which is where most of the wine grape growers were at the time, life was good. They had the Taylor Wine Company especially, plus Widmer, Gold Seal, Canandaigua and others that would buy their grapes. But then Taylor was sold, and it became a bean counter company. Coca-Cola said “why are we buying all these grapes we don’t need at prices we don’t need to pay?” Another part was the huge subsidies on European wine that made them so dirt cheap any American wine had a difficult time competing. And then were also changing consumer tastes. A lot of the wines we made were sweeter, which was falling out of favor.
(Ed: New York had, and still has, a bustling grape juice and jelly industry, which is not the focus of this article. Most of those farms are based in Chautauqua, near Lake Erie)
How do you even begin to tackle a problem like that?
With a lot of prayer (laughs). I was totally new to the industry, but I have always believed if people worked together, we could accomplish anything. I relied on the grape growers and wineries to educate me on their industry, what the problems were, and what the possible solutions were. My sermon ever since I started was “diversity is our strength, unity is our power” meaning that it is a strength that we have different types of grapes, different types of wine, and different philosophies, because that is what is makes us interesting. But if we really want to get things done and be a force in the wine world, we have to work together. I have been preaching that to the point people get sick of it, but it did resonate with a lot of people. It allowed us to come together first as the New York State Wine Growers, then as the New York Wine Council, then finally as the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.
My role was to be the quarterback for the industry. I was the play caller who said we had to work as a team. Fortunately, there were other people in the industry who felt that way as well. I carry that attitude today on a national level at WineAmerica, stressing collaboration and cooperation as the keys to success.
I have to ask, what was your personal motivation in all of this? It certainly wasn’t the money. You could have done a corporate job with a lot less work and stress and more money. It had to be something more than just liking wine.
There were several. First, I always enjoyed a challenge. I have been the underdog in several situations in my life, being told I couldn’t do this or that. I love when they say that, because I want to see if I can, and I was able to in most cases. Prior to this, I was working at a large corporation in Philadelphia, and it was fine, but I didn’t see it as the rest of my life. We had a small family and we hadn’t settled on where to be. My parents were living in the Finger Lakes in Penn Yan, working in a vineyard. So, we looked around, and coincidentally found this job. My wife at the time and I decided to take the jump.
Another reason was quality of life. We liked Philadelphia, but wanted to see if we could make it work somewhere else. It was a big risk, but even in the darkest hours, and there were many, we never regretted the decision and never said we wished we hadn’t done that. The grape growers and the small winery owners are wonderful, gritty, passionate people. When things got tough, we just said we were not giving up.
Inexperience and naivety can be powerful tools sometimes. Tell me something in those early days you look back on and think “I can’t believe I was dumb enough to think that would work, but it actually did.”
Not really, kind of the opposite. There were some things that I was convinced would work but didn’t. One was wine sales in restaurants. In 1984, when Governor Mario Cuomo had a reception for New York wines, the head of the restaurant association, Fred Sampson, was there. Governor Cuomo asked him in front of me why more New York restaurants didn’t serve our wine. Fred said, “it is not because they’re not good, it is just there aren’t enough of the ones the restaurants want.” So, I took this as an opportunity and said “Fred, I am going to put together a New York Wine Line, and ask all the wineries to list all the wines they have in quantities of at least 100 cases. I will make a catalog and get it to restaurants.” I put a huge amount of work into it. We announced it hoping there would be a flood of responses from restaurants wanting New York wine, and I got one response, and it was a guy wanting to advertise for his restaurant. It was a total bust.
Was there legislation you could never get through that would have made an even bigger difference for New York wine?
Wine in grocery stores. I tried very hard in 1984. We got wine coolers in grocery stores, which helped, and in fact saved the industry. But it is silly the third largest wine producing state in the country can’t sell wine where most people would buy it. It would open a huge market for all wines. It is not going to happen for the foreseeable future, because of the people who felt that it would be the death of their business, which was the liquor stores and wholesalers. I haven’t worked on it for a long time, but I still want to see that happen.
(Ed. Everything old is new again in wine and spirits, and the current seltzer trend is no exception, as those who remember wine coolers can attest. Those 5% ABV fizzy drinks accounted for over 10% of all wine sales at their peak. They also used up a lot of New York grape juice until the first Bush administration increased the wine excise taxes to such a level the makers switched from grape juice to malt liquor.)
Was part of your job representing the larger bulk guys? And if so, how did you do that while also representing the small producers, especially knowing what they were doing to the industry?
My job was representing everything grape. I made sure everyone understood the law that created my job required I promote everyone. From juice to table grapes to wine, we promoted without prejudice. Fortunately, we had some big players, in particular Widmer and Canandaigua, who were very collegial. The late Marvin Sands of Canandaigua always used to say to me “help the little guys.” They were by far the largest contributor to the Foundation, but they never once in thirty years told me what to do. Maybe it was because I was doing what they liked, but they never held it over my head the threat of getting out if they didn’t like what I did. The small wineries also understood that we had to balance everything. People may have disagreed, but they saw the greater need for industry. It wasn’t as hard most of the time as it would seem.
The first year or so of the Foundation was a challenge, because it was a totally new organization comprised of people from all walks of life who had never worked together. You had wholesalers, retailers, restaurants, along with grape growers, wineries, and grape juice people all coming together to solve this crisis, and it took a bit of time to get everyone oriented in the right direction. Once we did, that diversity of outlook became our strength.
From the beginning, you were thrown into one legislative battle after another to try and save the industry. Tell us about the atmosphere of those times and how you managed to do it.
It was an interesting lesson in real government, not like I learned in civics class. I had no choice-the only way the industry was going to be saved was through public policy. I keep that lesson with me today, and it is why I love what I do for WineAmerica, it’s all public policy.
Everyone thinks about climate because it is what determines how good the grapes are and how good the wine is. But people often forget the business climate, which determines how good the industry can be in terms of growth and profitability. That’s another one of my sermons. When I started, it became very clear to me that even though I was hired to do something else, I had to go to Albany to make the case to save the industry. I had good help from New York Farm Bureau and lobbyists from other industries who helped educate me. The growers were also very committed and they hopped on buses and helped. We also had some incredibly good and helpful people in the government like Governor Cuomo’s assistant, Elaine Ryan, and Assembly Majority Leader Dan Walsh. I came out a lot stronger and smarter after just one session. But I wouldn’t want to do it again.
Regardless of anyone’s personal political leanings, I think we can agree politics are much more divisive these days. It is hard to think now deep-blue NY had then a very GOP Senate, and both houses and both parties contained legislators on both ends of the political spectrum. If you had to do in 2021 what you did then, do you think you could?
It depends on what and where you are talking about. I don’t have to worry on the state level anymore. But I can tell you that on the federal level, which is where I am focused these days, wine is now a very bipartisan product. The major piece of federal legislation we got passed in the last few years was the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act. That had over 300 House co-sponsors with equal representation of both parties, and 75 in the Senate. There is a huge amount of political fighting these days, even within the same party, but wine is a bit of an oasis where people can work together.
Could I do what I did before? I think I could, but it might be more difficult. You might think it would be easier with one party rule, but that’s often not the way it works out.
You bring up a good point. It does seem in a lot of states, opposition to a lot of wine laws like Sunday sales and out of state shipping are disappearing and is doing so in a bipartisan fashion.
For the majority of states, there is a recognition the wine and grape industry is important to the state economy. In 2003, one of the smart things we did in New York was fund an economic impact study of the industry. It showed an amazing amount of impact. We transformed it into a one page illustrated flyer and took that to Albany. It made my life so much easier. People used to say “why should we care?” I was then able to give them the flyer and say “because it is $3.5 Billion.” Since then, other states have seen the benefit of those studies, and WineAmerica sponsored one in 2017 on a national level showing $220 Billion of national net impact. Our industry is in in pretty good shape politically.
We had 12 years of Governor Mario Cuomo followed by twelve years of Governor Pataki, and then other governors after that. How did the industry adjust to the transition between administrations?
It was a difficult time due to the economy going up and down. I have worked with Governors Mario Cuomo, then Pataki, then Spitzer/Patterson, then Andrew Cuomo. We have typically depended on the state for around half of our funding. Under the Pataki administration, it went to very low levels, and it was a huge challenge. After his administration, we had the crash of 2008, and Patterson zeroed us out in the budget. We were able to rebuild and get our budget back, but it was a challenge.
Mario Cuomo saved our industry from extinction and Andrew Cuomo gave us the opportunity to take it to next level, and he has used the wine industry as an example to build the craft beer, distillery, and cider industry. I think New York now has the largest number of cider producers and is second in number of distilleries, three in wine, and around four in craft beer. It reinforces the point I made earlier that public policy and the people who shape it are so important.
Were there any particular big moments for the industry that only those deeply embedded realize how big they were for the turnaround?
One of the programs we had was a wine competition called the New York Wine and Food Classic. This became one of the gold standards for wine competitions, attracting judges from all over the world. We even held it out in Napa Valley, taking New York wines to Napa. It really helped to get the reputation of our w ines to the broader public.
More recently, we started a program called “New York Drinks New York”, which focuses on getting New York wines into our restaurants. Even though we are lucky to have New York City as our main city, it has not traditionally been loyal to New York wines. In fact, there was almost a reverse discrimination that if it’s local, it can’t be good. New York City is probably the most competitive wine market in the world and is a major port of entry for a lot of the wines of the world. So that program involved bringing people from the city to the wine regions to taste the wines and meet the people and hopefully come back as missionaries. The other part is we take the winery owners and marketers to the city to orient them to the market. It has been phenomenally successful and has made a huge difference in terms of getting a real presence and respect.
Our promotion was two pronged: take the wine to the people and bring the people to the wine. What I just described is take the wine to the people. Bring the people to the wine is tourism. That is really the lifeblood of the smaller wineries. New York really pioneered that with the wine trails. The first trail was Cayuga Wine Trail in 1983. Now they are everywhere. Small wineries without big marketing budgets need people to come to them.
Like wine regions always do when they are rising, NY attracted a lot of people with an interest and drive (and often money), but no real winemaking experience. Tell us about that.
Most of the time, it was great. The New York wine industry first grew out of the soil, then it grew out of failure, then it grew out of success. It grew out of soil in that the first period we talked about, the late 70s, early 80s, because there were a number of long-time grape growers who were totally devoted and passionate. Instead of closing up shop when things got tough, they opened their own wineries. They were helped by the 1976 Farm Winery Act. That brought in wineries like Wagner, Anthony Road, and Lakewood, and others. Then after a while, people from the outside saw a growing industry and perhaps had a romantic vision and thoughts that if they could do it, I can do it, and became the new wave.
Typically, I would be the first person they would call or visit at my office, and they would often frankly say, “we don’t know anything, what can you tell us?” We worked with Cornell to put together some resources on how much money and work it would take to start a winery and how many years you will be unprofitable. We also created a 500-page winery handbook showing the nightmare of regulations. We had our law firm do it, and I thought it would be 30 pages, but it contained everything.
What I found is most of the people were smart, did their homework, and wanted to make a commitment to the industry. I can’t think of any people I met along the way I thought was unsuited. We now have a nice mix of those older growers and the new wave, and that diversity is our strength.
A lot of the talk about New York wine when you started was the Finger Lakes region, and that seems to still dominate the talk of New York wine, but a lot of the other wine regions started to rise or revive on your tenure. That must have created a lot more work and challenges for you.
It was incremental. I was doing it anyway, and we just added more people and news as time went on. I never had a big staff, but I always had really good people who worked hard, and that helped. When I started in 1982 there were around 30 wineries in the state, with half in the Finger Lakes. Now, there are wineries in 59 out of 62 counties, including Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. There is even a rooftop vineyard in Brooklyn. Now, politically, it is easier to get things done because legislators have wineries as constituents. Back when wineries were only in ten counties, New York City politicians would consider our plight not their problem.
Also, as an organization, much of what we did was to fund other entities. As wine regions grew, so did their wine trails. The other wine regions would copy what the Finger Lakes had done. We became the clearinghouse for that process, but we didn’t have to do all the work, we just funded them.
You may no longer be head of the NYWGF, but you undoubtedly keep track of what your successor (Sam Filler) is doing. Tell me the challenges he faces that are different than what you had to deal with?
He is doing great, and it makes me very happy. I consider the Foundation to be my child, as it was me and Mario Cuomo who put it together. Sam has taken it to a new level. But the perennial challenge he has and will always have unless they come up with a new system is making sure there is enough money to do what needs to be done. There is fortunately still good support.
The other challenge is the rapidly changing communication structures around the world. Social media, webinars, and so on, and COVID. I do think people at first though it was much better to have a conference in person, but now people are rethinking that after COVID. Just a few months ago, he was able to obtain great speakers from around the world for a conference because they didn’t have to travel and he didn’t have to pay people to travel.
Suppose I am overseeing another state’s rising wine industry. What are some of the key takeaways I should copy from NY?
Diversity is our strength; unity is our power (laughs). The first thing is that people have to come together, get to know one another, and commit to working together. That doesn’t mean they have to agree on everything, and they can disagree agreeably, but they have to take off their individual hats and put on the hat for the greater good of the region or state. That’s a matter of attitude.
The other thing is taking a survey. What do you have in your state, how many wineries, what size are they, where are they located, and is there a wine culture? Do you have a lot of restaurants where people drink wine and are your retail stores selling a lot of wine? Looking at that and then your population, you can then create a promotional plan.
If the surroundings and geography is right, wine trails are magical in drawing customers. Also, if there are a few key urban areas, programs like New York Drinks New York can work really well. Then, in terms of growing grapes, there are fortunately a lot of research institutions, and most states have something, even if it is only a cooperative extension, which is the information people. But most places have a university, like Indiana has Purdue and New York has Cornell. The West Coast has a lot of stuff, but so do places like Michigan and Missouri. For long term success, you have to figure out what grapes will grow reliably and make wine consumers in your state will want to drink.
Let me add this: Don’t make excuses for what does well in your state if it’s not vinifera. I think of our recent interview with Jeanne Burgess of Lakeridge Winery in Florida. She grows muscadines very well and it’s where they have proudly planted their flag.
Absolutely. Jeanne is a good friend of mine and is doing a great job. When we were doing the New York Wine and Food Classic, we saw New York has a tremendous amount of variety when it comes to grapes. We had the labrusca, we have the hybrids, both French and from Cornell and Minnesota, and vinifera all in competition. I would tell the judges beforehand to not be a viticultural racist. It is not true you can only make great wine from vinifera. You can make it from Concord or anything else.
Is there a mistake you see states repeating and you say “trust me, that doesn’t work!”
One of things we started and pulled back before it really got started was making the trade association also a seller of wines. There are a couple of other states that had been toying with that, and I was able to tell them our experience was not favorable.
Another is don’t create a physical facility (bricks and mortar) to financially support the organization or programs. It is a nice idea, but it’s a black hole for money.
Speaking of that, there is a very valuable group in WineAmerica called the State and Regional Association Advisory Council. Besides our winery members from 40-plus states, we have around 40 regional wine associations. Once a month, we get on a call to compare notes, and it is a great resource for national grassroots lobbying. Donnie Winchell is the executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association and one of the longest serving persons in that job in the country. She started a program called “License to Steal” where we give each other permission to take information from each other on what worked and what didn’t work.
Tell us about the International Riesling Foundation and how that helped the Finger Lakes.
The Finger Lakes are now one of the most recognized regions for Riesling in the world. I was at a conference in Seattle hosted by Chateau Ste. Michelle, which is the largest Riesling producer in the world. I sat down with several other people and we asked ourselves if it made sense to create a Riesling organization. I helped put it together and was President, and the most important thing we did was create the Riesling taste profile on the back label letting the consumer know what to expect from the wine. Riesling is probably the most noble grape in the world but also the most misunderstood. People say they don’t like Riesling because they don’t like sweet wines, not knowing a lot of them are bone dry. Putting that information on the label allowed consumers to see that. The group also provided a forum for us to show our wines.
Every time I have mentioned I have an interview with you coming up, people say “Oh, he came and judged at our competition!” Tell us why you judge so much and what lessons you take away from competitions.
I learn so much. Pre-COVID, I would judge around a dozen competitions a year around the world, and have done so for 30-plus years. Australia, Florida, Indiana, California, other places. It is a great learning experience. Wine is a fascinating beverage because it changes all the time. The same winery with the same vineyard, that vintage will be different from year to year, and then there is the difference with different grapes.
Judging is a way to stay up on what is going on. Are there different styles emerging? Competition will tell you that. I have had the privilege of judging in Florida for several years, and you get to taste the muscadines, and all these fruit wines, like mango or jalapeno. They are off the charts for most people, but a good wine can be made from anything, and seeing the variation is amazing.
And finally, what do you drink when you go home?
Riesling! Unoaked Chardonnay is second, but Riesling in my favorite because of its variability.