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From the Bronx to the Bottle: Lucas Vineyards

A stop into Lucas Vineyards, one of the oldest wineries on Cayuga Lake, provided an ideal respite from a rainy weekday afternoon. Strolling up the stone path, surrounded by lush landscaping, you’ll feel a sense of anticipation before you even open the front door. The winery’s lively and bright tasting room is filled with quirky wine-related gifts and apparel, and bottles of Lucas Vineyards vintages. Best of all, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, including the people who work there!

Stephanie Lucas Houck, the personable daughter of Lucas Vineyards founder Ruth Lucas, told us that she was in kindergarten when her parents left the Bronx, packing up their three children to head upstate to live off the land. “They were looking for adventure,” she says, laughing. “Everyone back then wanted to get out of the city but most people only made it as far as Long Island or Westchester!” Her mother has a simpler explanation: “I fell in love with a man who wanted to be a farmer,” she says. “I gave in and moved up here to grow grapes!”

The young family jumped headfirst into the farming life, purchasing 60-plus acres in Interlaken, a rural village on Cayuga’s west shore. They knew nothing about either planting or harvesting grapes. Ms. Lucas recalls an anecdote from these early years, of looking at a grapevine and asking which end should go in the ground. In that first year in Interlaken, the Lucas family sold 34 tons of grapes to Taylor Wine (now the Pleasant Valley Wine Company), a wine manufacturing company in nearby Hammondsport.  Despite this success, it was hard for the Lucas family to see their hard-won grapes dumped casually into bins along with harvests from other vineyards. When Taylor Wine cut back on their production and the Farm/Winery Act was passed, allowing grape growers to function as wineries, the senior Lucases made the life-changing decision to strike out on their own and launch Lucas Vineyards.

Ms. Houck recalls an active childhood of pounding posts, trimming vines and pulling brush, but she readily admits that she wasn’t fully cognizant of the dedication it took to keep the grapes growing and the wine flowing. Though Ms. Lucas was working constantly (her husband was a tugboat captain and gone for long stretches of time), to her daughter it always seemed like her mother loved what she was doing. Ms. Lucas didn’t attend college but that didn’t slow her down at all, especially with the resources of Cornell University and the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station just a short drive away. “We were always going there with jars of grape juice and leaves and bugs in bags to be tested or identified,” Ms. Houck notes. “They’d look at what we brought and tell us what we should do about it.” Local winery owners learned from each other, too, and eventually banded together to form the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, a group of diverse wineries situated on both of the fertile lake’s shores. Ms. Houck explains that this move was instrumental in allowing the individual wineries to uniformly promote the region as opposed to just a single winery. Having a Wine Trail provides visitors the opportunity to sample multiple wines and diverse experiences at each location. Though wineries host their own special events, they also participate in Trail events like the popular “Wine and Herb Festival” in the spring and the festive “Holiday Shopping Spree” in November and December.

Currently run by three generations of Lucases, the winery continues its commitment to the initial goals of creating award-winning wines and providing excellent customer service to all who pass through their doors. Lucas Vineyards produces about 25,000 cases of wine each year, composed of 25 varieties of reds and whites. The Vinifera grapes are hand-picked and their hybrid grapes are machine-harvested. Varying from wine to wine, winemaker Jeffrey Houck ages the grapes in either stainless steel or oak casks. Lucas Vineyards has a wine for everyone, Ms. Houck asserts, ranging from the more dry Chardonnays, Rieslings, Syrahs and Cabernet Francs to their intensely sweet Cabernet Franc ICED (residual sugar 21 percent) and newly released Vidal Blanc ICED wines. All of their wines can be purchased by the bottle or case and Lucas Vineyards also offers several different price points and wine club memberships.

Lucas Vineyards not only attracts worldwide tourism, it’s also extremely popular with local and regional visitors. At the winery, we’ve met neighbors and colleagues, new friends and old, and a demographic representative of the local flavor: a college professor, visiting grandparents and a group celebrating a 21st birthday. Jennie Owens is a middle school guidance counselor who works at Lucas Vineyards during the summer. “I love it here; the Lucas family is great!” she enthuses. The ultimate server, Ms. Owens clearly enjoys her job. While pouring, she throws in tidbits like, “‘Blues’ is a good party wine. It has a smooth taste and the cobalt blue bottle with the lighthouse makes it look really appealing to your guests,” and “Tugboat Red and Tugboat White are fruity, lighter and easy to drink so they make awesome Sangria!” (Sangria recipes: www.lucasvineyards.com). She also adds comments about how the area’s climate and geology impact the taste of the wines she’s serving. Encouraging a spirit of adventure in her tasting group she advises, “If you think you only like sweet wines, try something dry, you may be surprised.”

Contemplating her consumers, Ms. Houck says she’s seeing a tangible shift in the demographic. “Younger people are much more interested in drinking all types of wine and learning about the grapes it’s made from,” she notes. “Kids today are different than we were. They’re all about checking out the latest things. They like to see the vineyards and talk to our staff, to gain an understanding of the whole process of winemaking.” Additionally, she observes that her younger tasters aren’t as interested in being told about food pairings; “That’s old school. They’re more flexible. They’re not bound by the constraints we were. If it tastes good they’ll drink it with whatever they’re eating!”

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