Local wineries cry foul on wine distributors at fair

hile attendance may be up at the Fair this year, several local wineries say their sales have slowed to a trickle and many owners say itâ??s the result of a flooded market.

â??[Sales] have been down a bit,â?? said Leon Hurlbut of Ashley Lynn Winery. â??I think they added some wineries and the amount of people coming in is about the same so thatâ??s hurting some of the older wineries.â??

But a few owners are blaming their slow sales on one group of wineries in particular. For the first time in four years, wine distribution and event management group ROC Marketing and Events is back at the Fair, and with them, a trio of local wineries and Beak & Skiffâ??s hard ciders. Booths for Hazlitt Winery, Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, Bully Hill Vineyards and 1911 Spirits are staffed and fully managed by ROC Marketing employees, which is causing a controversy among the wineries running their own booths.

â??Business is business and weâ??re doing what the wineries have asked us to do,â?? said Joy Aukema of ROC Marketing and Events. â??Itâ??s harvest season at these wineries so for them to take their product and drive it down here every day is a big process that also leaves the wineries short-staffed.â??

But while many wineries say they can see the financial incentive to working with a distributor, they donâ??t believe itâ??s whatâ??s best for business.

â??Youâ??re representing a product thatâ??s so painstakingly crafted, so you really need to be there representing this product and not just leaving it in the hands of someone who has so little vested interest in this product,â?? said Jarrod Ingram, sales and off-site events manager for Swidish Hill, Penguin Bay and Goose Watch wineries. â??When you have wineries with their own tasting room staff, their owners and winemakers here on hand to talk about the product that they bleed, sweat and cry for, it makes a big difference.â??

And itâ??s a difference discerning fair-goers notice.

â??I want to talk to the people who make the wine. Thatâ??s what Iâ??m looking for, the actual vintners,â?? said Greg Liss of Liverpool. â??Itâ??s a craft and you want to talk to the person who actually makes the wine.â??

â??Iâ??d rather talk to the actual people who make the wine,â?? agreed Michele Cooper of Syracuse. â??You want unbiased opinions and information about the wine, rather than someone pushing you to what needs to be sold.â??

Representatives from self-staffed wineries met with Fair directors today in hopes of reversing what they believe could be a harmful trend.

â??What happens down the road if you let one come in, in five years all the small wineries will be gone because theyâ??ll take over. The smaller wineries wonâ??t be able to compete,â?? said Hurlbut. â??Itâ??s like when a Loews comes in and you see a lot of family-owned stores go out of business. Itâ??d be the same at this type of venue.â??

Though no definitive decision was made after todayâ??s meeting, several wineries indicated that they likely wonâ??t be returning to the Fair again next year.

â??We plan to meet with representatives from the industry after the Fair to come up with a solution that is best for not only the Fair but also this thriving New York State industry," the Department of Agriculture said in a statement today.