Based in Manhattan, Sam Filler is often found in the heart of Finger Lakes wine country.
CANANDAIGUA — New York’s 20 wine trails aren’t lost on Sam Filler, who recently took the helm at the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.
The newly dubbed executive director of the organization is on the road most of the time, leaving his Manhattan home to talk with winemakers, meet with industry groups and delve deeper into the business of boosting an industry that generates nearly $5 billion annually in economic impact for New York state.
Filler is generally in Canandaigua every other week, Tuesday through Thursday, working from the New York Wine and Culinary Center.
His focus as he gets his feet wet?
“To be present in all the wine regions,” said Filler, who took the reins solo on March 31, after a transition from the leadership of longtime foundation President Jim Trezise, who is now president of Wine America, the national organization of American wineries.
From New York Wine and Grape Foundation headquarters at the New York Wine and Culinary Center this past week, Filler talked about building on successes — New York wines continue to win international competitions and gain accolades among industry leaders. He also talked about what’s ahead.
The big news this summer is the latest go-round with a proposal to create a fund specifically for research projects to help grape growers. Called a Research and Development Order — sometimes referred to as a market order — the fund supported, funded and led by growers would help plug the gap between state and federal dollars for research and development and the rising costs for such work.
The industry needs this funding stream to ensure New York’s grape, grape juice, and wine industries stay strong, Filler said. The fund would provide a reliable pool of dollars to keep up with the latest research and development so the industry can remain competitive. Growers are dealing with changing climate conditions and managing pests and diseases that affect vineyards, he said.
Public meetings across the state in July will give growers a chance to learn more. The state Department of Agriculture and Markets will also hold public hearings for grower feedback. Based on feedback, department officials may ask for a vote, ask for changes, or make the decision as to whether the process continues. If there is a vote, growers (of more than 2 acres) will receive a ballot in the mail in late August.
If approved, grape growers would join other growers in the state with such programs. There are five: for dairy, apple, cabbage, onion, and sour cherry.
Filler cited apples as a good example of how the program can work. Apple growers voted to establish the New York Apple Research and Development Program in 1990. Since then, the program has generated over $200,000 annually, according to the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. The apple growers recently approved doubling their assessment because the fund has been successful at solving industry problems, generating profitable practices, and introducing new products and technologies.
Grower John Brahm, owner of Arbor Hill Grapery and Winery in South Bristol, is well-versed in the proposed order for grape growers that has come up previously for vote.
Brahm testified on behalf of the program, which nearly passed recently. He said the method determining how much growers contribute to the fund has been tweaked to better level the playing field for growers of all sizes and he is optimistic it will pass this time. When fellow growers question whether they need the program, Brahm reminds them of what research and development has done.
It can take years to see results, but those results make a huge difference, Brahm said. He mentioned the grape harvester machines developed decades ago that now do work that once had to be done by hand. He talked about what research uncovered about treating soil, which changed how growers use nitrogen — in what amounts and when they use it — to get best results.
The grape industry in New York state is the second largest producer of juice grapes and third largest producer of wine nationally. New York growers produce 30 major grape varieties on 33,000 acres, making New York’s production among the most diverse in the nation. Grape-breeding programs over the past 20 years released seven new varieties with better adaptation to Northeast climate, unique wine flavor and tougher disease resistance, according to the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. What's more, disease management programs led by specialized plant pathologists are developing management programs for fungal, bacterial and virus pathogens.
Filler said another area of focus includes the promotion of sustainable wine and grape-growing practices. A model being developed on Long Island is called the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing Initiative with three main components: Environmental stewardship, social equity, and economic viability. The idea is to improve environmental stewardship, worker safety, job satisfaction and economic fairness — for economic success over generations.
With a lot on his plate at the foundation, Filler said he hopes to reach all those in the wine and grape industry. New York now has more than 400 wineries and 1,631 family vineyards. Much can be accomplished by working together and presenting a unified message, he said.