What Can New York’s Wine Industry Teach Us?

by Maximilian Eyle

Today, the State of New York is one of the largest wine producing regions in the United States. New York boasts nearly 300 wineries, about a third of which are in the Finger Lakes region. The industry has a total economic impact of $3.8 billion annually, creating jobs and tax revenue while also bringing increased tourism. It is only in the last few decades that the industry has grown significantly, so why is this happening now? The answer lies partly in agricultural advancements, and partly in drug policy.

Wine has been made in the Finger Lakes region of New York since in the early 1800s. But these were Concord grapes – a much sweeter and less interesting variety than their European vinifera grapes like Riesling, Chardonnay, and others that are better known. Those were not grown here as they had trouble surviving the harsh winters. Despite this, the wine industry was expanding up through the early 20th century. It continued that way until 1920 when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed – creating a prohibition on alcohol. Alcohol prohibition decimated the wine industry during its 13 year existence. While legal wine producers were forced out of business, criminals took over the industry and crime rose until the law was repealed in 1933.

In 1951, a Ukrainian immigrant by the name of Dr. Konstantin Frank started work as a janitor at Cornell University’s Geneva Experiment Station. Although an expert in wine production in Ukraine, his experience was not recognized in the United States. However, his work at the Experiment Station put him in contact with scientists experimenting with wine production in the Finger Lakes region. Dr. Frank believed that he knew which grapes would grow in New York State and how best to grow them. After being ignored for years, he was finally able to test his theory and was proven correct.

Dr. Frank’s revolution meant that New York could start growing the grapes that the world wanted to drink – but it would be a long time before the industry could mature. Long lasting regulations from the era of alcohol prohibition put heavy restrictions on local wine producers. Until 1976, small winemakers could not sell wine directly to customers – but had to employ a wholesaler. It was not until the 1980s that regulations loosened enough for the wine industry to take off and become a driving force in the New York State economy. Now, grapes are one of New York’s top three most valuable fruit crops along with apples and cherries.

We cannot blame early wine producers for not understanding how best to grow European grapes in the harsh climate of New York. Such scientific research takes time and is difficult. However, we can blame the prohibitive nature of America’s drug policy for stifling an otherwise wonderful industry for more than half a century. Even today, New York is one of the few states that prohibits wine from being sold in grocery stores.

Although wine production has soared in New York State, we are seeing history repeat itself with cannabis. As the economic benefits of cannabis legalization are observed in states that have ended prohibition, New York continues to block the industry. Just as we look back at the futility of alcohol prohibition, so will future generations look back on our prohibition of marijuana.

Maximilian Eyle is a native of Syracuse, NY and a graduate of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He has experience working in the drug policy field and writes about it every month for CNY Latino. Maximilian learned Spanish while living in Spain where he studied and worked as an English teacher. He can be contacted at maxeyle@gmail.com.