Friday, October 26, 2012

An unnecessary wine center ‘pauses’ to reorganize

The Finger Lakes Wine Center may be no more.

The downtown Ithaca venue that would have been celebrating its second anniversary next week has closed. Or, as board vice president Fred Bonn, who also is director of the Ithaca-Tompkins Convention and Visitors Bureau, calls it, a “pause” for reorganization.

It was put together with a half-million dollars from state and local sources: i.e., mostly your money. It wasn't as large and glossy as the sprawling New York Wine & Culinary Center in nearby Canandaigua, holding small tasting events and promising classes, and its very existence was seen by some -- including me -- as overkill in a state that already had enough wine-centric operations in the greater Finger Lakes area.

It took only one year for the facility to begin unraveling. At that point, the center began cutting back hours and increasing the number of board members while reducing the size of its staff.

In addition to the aforementioned NYW&CC, there already was an operation also called the Finger Lakes Wine Center at Sonnenberg Mansion & Gardens State Historic Park, also in Canandaigua, an hour's drive from Ithaca. And, that's not even counting all the individual wineries that frequently pool their resources for events that promote the region's wines, not just their own.

Barbara Lifton
The legislation that created the Ithaca venue was sponsored in the Assembly by Barbara Lifton, the Democrat who represents Ithaca. Her formal language for the project read thus:
"The bill will provide authorization for the Finger Lakes Wine Center, a not for profit corporation, to operate as a tourist oriented wine center dedicated to celebrating winemaking and the wines of the Finger Lakes and New York State. The Wine Center will serve as a resource for the regional tour information and provide educational opportunities that include winemaking demonstrations and classes.  
"It will offer the opportunities for visitors to purchase New York state wine and serve as a venue to host events. It will also engage visitors with interactive exhibits. The Center also plans to hold classes in cooperation with participating wineries, local wine experts, members of the Cornell University community from the Cornell Hotel School and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the New York Wine and Culinary Center. The Center also plans to make the Center available for public functions and events such as wedding receptions and business meetings." 
Unfortunately, that is pretty much the same mission statement the New York Wine & Culinary Center in Canandaigua already was carrying out, except that it deals more with Rochester Institute of Technology than Cornell.

The Ithaca project took Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, headquartered in the NYW&CC building, by surprise.

"I hadn't even heard about this Ithaca project until a few weeks ago when Alexa (Gifford, executive director of the Wine & Culinary Center) got wind of it and mentioned it to me. It has no connection at all with us or anything we're doing,'' Trezise told me at the time.

Sen. George H. Winner Jr. (R-C, Elmira), the now-retired backer of the Senate version of the Ithaca bill -- and who forked over $100,000 in taxpayer money to the project as one of his "member items," explained the project in a much more parochial pronouncement at the time, saying, "The wine industry is a mainstay of the culture and economy of the Finger Lakes. Anything we can do to further promote it and help it grow is a good investment for the future success of our region.''

Even if, apparently, it splinters the efforts. And, the latest of such promotional efforts, is the recent one pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo to help promote and market New York-produced wines, beers and spirits. Such a broader sweep is better than a string of region-centric wine centers.

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