Disturbing news came in my e-mail today, courtesy of an article in the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat & Chronicle. New York Gov. Patterson, trying to cope with the economic downturn and a rising state budget deficit, is proposing to eliminate funding for the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. The state executive branch currently provides $1 million per year to the foundation, an amount matched by industry. The legislature contributes $1.8 million.
Jim Tresize, the foundation's director, told the paper that the proposed cuts could mean the end of the foundation's promotional efforts on behalf of the state's wine industry.
Wine lovers around the country should be alarmed at this. Why?
State governments around the country are facing severe budget crises and will have to make painful cuts in services and support to various industries. That is an unfortunate fact of life. Gov. Patterson is also proposing to increase New York's excise tax on wine from 18.9 cents per gallon to 51 cents. That's a matter of maybe, oh, a quarter per bottle of wine? If even that? No biggie, there.
But cutting the foundation budget could have a lasting negative impact. Tresize, whom I've met several times over the years, is probably the most forceful advocate of regional wine in the United States. Sure, his job is to promote New York wines. But in doing so he has brought attention to the rise of regional wine throughout the country. He serves as a judge at wine competitions from coast to coast and is a tireless promoter of Wine America, the national winery trade association. His foundation helps sponsor viticulture reseach at Cornell University - one of the nation's leading viticultural programs - which benefits wineries all over.
The foundation also sponsors an annual Governor's Cup competition to crown New York's best wine. I had the pleasure of judging once a few years ago when one of the regular judges canceled at the last minute. I was impressed not only by the quality of the wines but by the professional and efficient way Tresize managed the competition. I've begged him to invite me back, but the regular judges don't give up their seats easily - the wines are that good, and the event is that fun.
I've written several articles about New York wines over the years, most notably for The San Francisco Chronicle just after the 2005 Supreme Court decision prompted the state to allow direct shipping to consumers. I don't know how much wine New York sold as a result, but the article would not have been possible without Tresize's help in getting word out to wineries that I needed samples and interviews.
New York wines are finally creeping onto shelves in the D.C. area. Not a whole lot of impact yet, but I suspect they owe a great deal of their presence to Jim Tresize.
Jeff Siegel is right. If New York ends its support for its wine industry as a result of the financial crisis, other states may follow its example. Virginia's wine industry would not be as successful as it is today if it did not have state support. Richmond cut off that support a few years ago and closed the state office that was analogous to the N.Y. foundation, only to restore it on a more modest scale later. I haven't had time yet to research how other states may or may not support their wine industries. But whatever support they give - that means product improvement, market expansion, jobs, revenues, and tax income for the state.
I don't know what we wine lovers can do to stop this, given the economic circumstances. And most comments posted on the Democrat & Chronicle article were in favor of severing state funding for the foundation.
But we can at least call attention to the threat this poses to the growth of regional wine - in New York and elsewhere.
And we can contact Gov. Patterson to voice our support - from across the country - for the New York Wine & Grape Foundation.