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Lester Eber, longtime distributor, dead at 82

Lester Eber, who worked for more than six decades in the wine and liquor industry, much of that time representing the former family-owned Eber Brothers Wine & Liquor distribution company in Rochester, died April 5 from complications of COVID-19. He was 82. 

Several groups affiliated with the industry have posted tributes to Mr. Eber upon learning of his death, as he was a familiar face across New York and Connecticut.

If you asked anyone in New York state government that had any involvement in our industry, they knew Lester because Lester was tireless. He regularly traveled all across New York to get the job done, and it was always with a kind word,” read a tribute shared by the Metropolitan Package Store Association. 

Sam Filler, executive director of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, said in a weekly newsletter that Mr. Eber “always treated me with kindness and generosity even though I often was on the opposite side of public policy debates from him. We even had a plan to play tennis together sometime this spring.”

Mr. Eber lived his entire life in the Rochester area, graduating from The Harley School and later the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Upon completing his degree at Wharton in 1959, he began working for his father at Eber Brothers, eventually taking over leadership of the company. 

In his later years, Eber continued to work as a lobbyist in Albany for Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, the company that bought his family’s business in 2007. 

The son of the late Evelyn and Allen Eber, Mr. Eber is survived by his wife, Ellen, son David, daughter Wendy (Eric), and five grandchildren. Sisters Mildred Boslov and Sally Kleeberg predeceased him.  

An active golfer, tennis player and swimmer, Mr. Eber was also a fan of basketball and the Buffalo Bills football team. He served for many years on a number of Rochester boards of directors, including those for Rochester Management, The Jewish Home, and Allendale Columbia school. 

Because of health restrictions due to the pandemic, no calling hours nor public funeral were held; the family may schedule a memorial service at a later date. Memorial donations may be made to Strong Memorial Hospital, or a charity of the donor’s choice.

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Wine industry awards honor Arbor Hill’s John Brahm III, others

The late John Brahm III, founder of Arbor Hill Grapery and Winery in South Bristol, Ontario County, was honored at the Unity Awards Banquet Wednesday on the opening day of a wine industry conference in Henrietta.

Brahm, who also founded Brew And Brats, died as the result of an accident at his home in 2019, just a few days after he attended last year’s BEV NY conference. His family accepted on his behalf the Jim Trezise Lifetime Award recognizing his contributions to the industry.  The NY Wine and Grape Foundation, which presents the Unity Awards, announced that it was renaming its annual grower award for Brahm.

John H. Brahm III
John H. Brahm III

In presenting the lifetime award, Trezise said Brahm was a creative man who always had new ideas. “He had more lightbulbs in his mind than GE ever created,” he said. Brahm also was a friend, mentor and supporter to many in the Finger Lakes wine industry, Trezise said, recalling how Brahm had helped him overcome some hostile attitudes when he first arrived in the area in 1982 as director of the then-brand-new NY Wine & Grape Foundation. After working in that job for many years, Trezise moved to a national wine organization.

“We all carry a piece of him in our hearts and souls,” Trezise said.

The NYWGF also presented 10 other awards, with six of them going to businesses, people or organizations represented in the Finger Lakes region, the state’s largest wine region.

The local winners were:

  • Peter Bell, winemaker at Fox Run Vineyards on the west side of Seneca Lake, won the Jim Finkle Industry Award, which recognizes outstanding wine industry achievements not covered by other awards.
  • Boundary Breaks Vineyard, on the eastern side of Seneca Lake, won the Winery Award.
  • Hans Walter-Peterson, head of the Finger Lakes grape program for Cornell Cooperative Extension, won the Researcher Award.
  • Hunt Country Vineyards, on the western side of Keuka Lake, won the Sustainability Award.
  • Karen Aumick, of Empire Merchants North, which has facilities in Gates and the Long Island-New York City area, won the Ron Reals Distributor Award.
  • Brown Hound Downtown, a restaurant inside the Memorial Art Galley that features an all-New York wine list, won the Restaurant Award.

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Grapes and wine have significant impact in New York, study reports

For every $1 million the state provides to boost the grape and wine industry in New York, it gets $1.3 billion back in taxes, according to an economic impact report that just came out.

Sam Filler
Sam Filler

The report compiled on behalf of the New York State Wine & Grape Foundation concludes that the industry had a $6.65 billion impact on New York’s economy in 2019, including jobs and wages, expenditures to support the industry, and sales of grape and wine products.

“I’m encouraged that the industry continues to grow and it’s an important contributor to the state’s economy, especially in the rural parts of the state,” said Sam Filler, executive director of the foundation.

It’s difficult to make side-by-side comparisons with this 2019 report and others, as a previous report the foundation commissioned in 2012 used entirely different methodology, Filler said. That report indicated an impact of $4.8 billion from the New York wine and grape industry, but it didn’t include the foundation itself or the research dollars and wages surrounding grape and wine research at Cornell AgriTech, Filler noted.

A 2017 national report by Wine America showed the wine industry had a $13.8 billion impact on New York, but again used a different methodology. That report didn’t include juice grapes, and did include out-of-state wines sold in New York.

Filler said the national report’s New York findings included, for instance, sales offices in New York established by large California wine brands. The foundation’s report was aimed solely at determining the impact of the home-grown industry, especially direct impact.

“Those are actual jobs and actual tax revenue and salaries paid that are directly attributed to the presence of the New York state wine industry,” Filler said. Such data helps when seeking additional support from state economic development sources, he said.

Both the latest New York report and the 2017 national report were conducted by John Dunham and Associates, a Brooklyn economic research firm.

John Dunham, managing partner of the firm, said the report shows “The New York wine industry is really quite healthy—it’s growing in terms of revenues. It’s not growing jobs as fast, but that’s expected in most manufacturing” sectors. The number of jobs were flatter than they might have been, Dunham said, because Constellation Brands, headquartered in Victor, sold some of its wine brands to Gallo, moving some of the associated jobs to California.

The modeling used to account for jobs in the foundation’s report is more realistic, Dunham suggested, because it’s tailored to the state rather than using a mathematical formula that cuts a national model down to the state level.

Key findings of the foundation’s 2019 New York report:

  • The industry is directly responsible for the full-time equivalent of 71,950 jobs. Many of the industry’s jobs are seasonal.
  • Those jobs paid $2.79 billion in wages.
  • Some 1.43 million people visited wineries and vineyards in the state for a total of 4.71 million.
  • Wine-related tourism resulted in $1.33 billion in other kinds of spending, such as lodging, food and transportation.
  • Total taxes, including state, local and federal, from the industry were $2.4 billion.
  • The state had 471 wineries in 2019, an increase of about 30 since the 2017 report and more than 170 since the 2012 report.
  • New York has about 35,000 acres in grape production with just over two-thirds of them devoted to Concord grapes, which are primarily used for juice instead of wine, and a little less than one-third planted with grapes destined to make wine. A small percent of acreage was devoted to fresh grapes.

Though grape juice production is larger than wine production in terms of volume and acreage, the report indicated that wine production is much more lucrative, starting with the value of the grapes. Wine grapes tend to sell for up to eight times the price of juice grapes, depending on varietal.  Additionally, wine production promotes tourism, produces products of higher dollar value than grape juice and involves retail interactions at the wineries themselves.

“Selling wine continues to be an important way for wineries to contribute to their businesses and interact with consumers,” Filler said.

Still, the report noted, grape juice production is not to be overlooked.

“All told the grape juice industry in New York is responsible for 688 jobs, paying almost $39.28 million in wages. Over $154.22 million in economic activity in New York is due to the grape juice industry,” the report said.

A study on economic impact of the grape an wine industry in 2019 includes research and development work such as the breeding done for Cornell's Bruce Reisch.
A study on economic impact of the grape an wine industry in 2019 includes research and development work such as the breeding done for Cornell’s Bruce Reisch.

For the first time, data was collected on a county-by-county and legislative districts, Filler said, providing some interesting takeaways. Those more detailed reports showed Yates County, the third-least populous county in the state out of 65 counties or boroughs, is the center of New York’s wine country, he said.

“Yates is the heart of the industry in terms of vineyards planted,” he said, with about 5,000 acres under cultivation. Not surprisingly, Yates also had the most vineyard jobs to tend those vineyards.

The county’s unique geography also makes it part of three different Finger Lakes’ wine areas – Canandaigua, Keuka and Seneca – and places it at the center of the entire Finger Lakes Region, the largest wine region in the state.

Filler also said he was not satisfied with available data on vineyards, as federal agriculture censuses only look at two categories of grapes: Concord and all other types. As a result, the federal census provides little information on whether types of wine grapes planted are growing or changing, for instance.

“We need more accurate vineyard data in terms of what’s planted in the state,” Filler said. “That will help us better tell the story of what’s happening in the NYS wine industry.”

The foundation conducted a supplemental survey, but it wasn’t ready in time to be included in this economic analysis, he said. And any survey relies on voluntary efforts of the growers to complete. The industry may have to foot the bill to create a more complete survey to which growers will be willing to devote their time, he said.

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Finger Lakes and New York get lots of wine attention

It’s been a big week in Finger Lakes wine country.

Not only was the area named the top wine region in North America for the second year in a row, but two executives of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, headquartered in the Finger Lakes, were named to the Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 Tastemakers list.

The Finger Lakes region won the USAToday 10Best Reader’s Choice for best wine region, it was announced over the weekend.

“It is truly an honor to receive this award for a second year in a row. We were in the running with such impressive wine regions throughout North America,” said Carmela Barbagallo, executive director of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. “This recognition speaks to the dedication of the owners, tasting room teams, winemakers and vineyard managers. We share this award with of our hospitality partners who create memorable experiences for guests visiting the Finger Lakes region. We have watched out our region evolve for decades and feel grateful that travelers from all over the world are enchanted when they visit.”

The second honor named Sam Filler, executive director, and Paul Brady, brand ambassador of the NYWGF, to its young tastemakers list. Filler has been executive director of the foundation since 2017. Brady, a sommelier familiar with the New York City wine scene, joined the foundation last year.

“It’s an honor to be named to this prestigious list of tastemakers who are all so wonderfully dedicated to their craft and profession,” Filler said. “It’s the perfect time to debut our new look, and show that we, as an organization and state, are boldly moving forward. We’re excited to share the incredible product and passion of our state’s wine and grape industry.”

At the same time, the foundation released its new logo and tag line, “Boldly, NY.” It replaces the Uncork New York! phrase and logo that has been in use for many years and is part of a rebranding upon which the foundation has embarked.

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Wagner Vineyards named New York winery of the year

Wagner Vineyards, located the east side of Seneca Lake, was named Winery of the Year at the annual New York Wine Classic held in Watkins Glenn Monday through Wednesday.

The prize comes as the winery is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

“We are extremely proud to receive the honor of Winery of the Year at this year’s New York Wine Classic,” said Wagner Vineyards owner John Wagner. “Our team has worked tirelessly to strive for excellence for 40 years now — what a way to cap off a season of celebration at Wagner Vineyards!”

The Governor’s Cup, considered the best of show for the competition, went to Six Mile Creek Vineyard in Ithaca for its 2016 Cabernet Franc.

Johnson Estate Winery in Westfield, Chautauqua County, was named Specialty Wine Champion for its Passionate Peach fruit wine.

Some 883 wines and specialty beverages were entered in the competition, described as the “Oscars” of New York wine.  The New York Wine Classic is organized by the New York Wine & Grape Foundation.

“The New York Wine Classic is one of our largest annual events honoring the best of New York Wines. We are thrilled with the turnout this year. The Classic and our annual NY Drinks NY events continue to help New York shine as a truly exciting and innovative wine region,” said Sam Filler, executive director of the foundation.

The Classic awarded 31 double gold, 56, gold, 278 silver and 320 bronze medals to wines as a result of tastings conducted by 21 expert judges.

“The winners of the New York Wine Classic represent the very best of New York’s wineries and the innovation and high-quality production that goes into making these award-winning wines cannot be understated,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.  “New York is proud to support these wineries and grape growers for their accomplishments, and they are a critical component of our tourism and agricultural industries in New York. We’re excited to welcome wine lovers everywhere to New York state so that they can experience our wines for themselves.”

Wines that were named Best of Category and Best of Class will be featured along with the other winners at the New York State Fair Aug. 28 and 31.

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