Kathy Hochul, the U.S. Representative for New York’s 26th congressional district, in western New York, grew up in upstate New York, worked as an attorney in Washington, D.C., and has notched time as an elected official as a County Clerk in Erie, N.Y., and on the Hamburg Town Board. She won her seat in Congress in a special election in 2011, and with it, the opportunity to represent a burgeoning wine region. Her district is home to the Niagara Escarpment AVA, which encompasses 31 wineries and shares many of the same climate and soil conditions as its more famous neighbor to the north, the Niagara Peninsula in Canada. Rep. Hochul recently spoke with Wine Spectator about how wineries can play a vital role in a state’s economy, how government can create favorable conditions for wineries to flourish and which wines she drinks at home.
Wine Spectator: What is the current state of the wine industry in Niagara?
Kathy Hochul: It’s doing exceptionally well. If you look at the agriculture and tourism sector of New York’s economy, the fastest growing sector is wineries …. We’re very excited about the exponential growth of the wineries we’ve had in the past decade [in the Niagara region]. What people don’t realize is that they talk about the Canadian side of the border and what a great region that is for wine, but we share the same climate and the same soil on the U.S. side of the river.
WS: What benefits—economically or culturally—does the wine industry bring to the district?
KH: We have 8 million people a year come to [the Niagara Falls Park] to visit, and many of them just come for a day. We encourage them to make longer trips, and now that we have this attraction of having a wine trail throughout the region with over 31 wineries—16 right on the wine trail—that’s very significant. It’s having a huge economic impact, the spin-off businesses that are benefiting from it. The farms are finding ways to benefit from not just the grapegrowing, but also they are now really charming wineries and each one has a different character. People on the East Coast don’t have to go across the country to have a first-rate experience visiting wineries.
WS: What activities—legislative or otherwise—have you undertaken to support the wine industry in your district, or generally? Anything in process now?
KH: I became a member of the wine caucus in Congress. New York is the third largest grape producer in the U.S. after California and Washington state. I know how important it is to our economy. I’ve also convened “wine roundtables” to talk about boosting business at the local wineries. Participants invited people from the economic development agencies in our area as well, to talk about how we can capitalize on their growth.
One thing I wanted to make sure we do is make our region more accessible to foreign travelers, so I introduced a bill: the National Treasure Promotion and Investment Act. If someone is coming over from another country … we would give them priority [for a visa] if they checked that they’re interested in visiting a national park or a national heritage area …. That is exactly what we have in my region with Niagara Falls and the Erie Canal. The wineries are all along that region. Our goal is to … make it easier for them to come and they will be able to take advantage of wineries that are just booming.
Between the legislation and the round tables … I’m just doing whatever we can to draw attention to our area. … [Wine] is an incredible economic catalyst for our area. The direct impact of the wine and the grape juice is $3.2 billion, but if you take the overall impact of wages paid, the jobs, the tourism, it all adds up to about $7 billion statewide. A significant number. … My objective is to get people to want to come up to our area. Spend a day, spend a week in the area, stay at the little inns, visit the new culinary center in Canandaigua. A new culinary school [just opened in Niagara Falls], promoting the pairings of local wines and local agriculture. The wine industry is really the cornerstone of the upstate agricultural economy.
WS: Do you drink wine on a regular basis?
KH: I do enjoy wine. I tend to go more for the whites. Last night, my husband and I were sitting out in the moonlight and enjoying wine from Leonard Oakes. I had a chance to meet the family who runs it and learn about their success. It was called Blanc d’Orleans. It was really neat, one of the local grapes, Cayuga White. I’m always willing to try something new. I really do enjoy ice wine after dinner, the local novelty we have up here. We’re very proud of it.
WS: Do you have any anecdotes to share regarding wine and politics?
KH: I invited Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta up to our district to look at our air base at Niagara Falls, and I gave him a Buffalo Bills hat that had been made here in Western New York and a bottle of our award-winning ice wine from Arrowhead Springs. The secretary is from southern California, so I said, "I don't think you have much opportunity for ice wine in your area so you must enjoy ice wine from upstate New York."