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Well-Known California Grower Invests in New York's Finger Lakes

Morton Hochstein
Posted: June 14, 2001

New York's Finger Lakes wine region may finally be getting the kind of recognition that vintners there have long wanted. California vineyard grower Robert Young, whose grapes are used in one of Chateau St. Jean's acclaimed vineyard-designated Chardonnays, is investing in a site along Lake Seneca, home to more than 30 wineries.

Young is hammering out final details for the purchase of 105 acres on Seneca's western shore. The land, bordered by several vineyards, is a working farm, not currently used for grapegrowing, and came on the market just a few months ago.

Young and his friend John Martini, the owner of Anthony Road Wine Company (in which Young is a shareholder) on Seneca Lake, have been exploring possible sites in the Finger Lakes for more than two years, said Martini. Anthony Road will develop and manage the future vineyard, which is half a mile from its winery.

"We've been looking forward to this association for a long time, and we'll plant the grapes that do well here: Chardonnay and Riesling, as well as Pinot Noir, which is a promising grape in the Finger Lakes," said Alan Lefko, secretary-treasurer of Anthony Road. Lefko said the development would give Anthony Road an assured supply of high-quality fruit.

Robert Young founded his original vineyard in Sonoma County's Alexander Valley in the 1960s. His vineyards achieved fame when Richard Arrowood, then the winemaker for Chateau St. Jean, used his grapes to produce one of the first vineyard-designated Chardonnays, the 1975 Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay. In 1997, Young's children decided to launch their own label, Robert Young Estate Winery, making a Chardonnay and a Bordeaux-style red blend called Scion.

Jim Young, Robert's son and vineyard director of Robert Young Vineyards, noted that the move brings his family full circle, back to its roots in upstate New York in the mid-1800s. "The Finger Lakes wine industry is expanding rapidly," said Young, "and there is a great demand for the kind of premium grapes we will be growing."

The deal is "a little bit of family history, a little bit of friendship and little bit of a good business opportunity," added Martini. "[The Finger Lakes] have good vineyard sites; we have the infrastructure and relatively low costs."

Vineyard land along Seneca, Keuka and Cayuga lakes sells for about $2,000 an acre, compared with $20,000 to $40,000 on Long Island, and as much as $200,000 an acre in Napa Valley, according to Jim Trezise, president of the New York Grape and Wine Foundation. Trezise said he has been fielding inquiries from several California wineries that are "serious enough to send people east to investigate possibilities."

Scott Osborn, proprietor of Fox Run Vineyard on Seneca Lake, noted that he has been visited by potential investors from southern California and France. Osborn believes the growing threat of vine-killing Pierce's disease in California's vineyards may be influencing growers to seek new sites. "Their visits," Osborn said, "are recognition that the Finger Lakes is a premium wine-producing region."

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