By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor


Libby Prejean has not been back to West Virginia in 60 years, but sometimes she just can't help it. The "I" becomes an "Ah." The edges of her speech get lethargic.

"I can't call people on the phone without them knowing!" she says.

But as she turns 80 years old, Prejean admits that if her speech hasn't changed, so much else has. She helped launch Prejean Winery on Seneca Lake nearly a quarter century ago, and I caught up with her over a glass of Marechal Foch on a slow Wednesday morning, yesterday.

"They thought we were crazy to even plant Gewurztraminer!" she tells me, laughing. "I'm talking about the experiment station in Geneva. The folks at Cornell. They didn't even care very much for the idea of planting riesling. Just imagine that." As she thoughtfully swirls her glass she adds, "But they were looking out for us financially. I can't blame them. Those dry European wines weren't supposed to sell."

The good news is that "they" were wrong all those years ago. The bad news is that they weren't wrong enough.

"We still sell a lot more semi-dry than dry," she says. "Sweet wines move out the door. That hasn't changed. But now there are more people who come in and want dry wines. They know more about dry wines. It's more accepted. That's been a significant change, even if the sweeter wines are easier for people."

The Marechal Foch we're drinking is not by any means a sweet red wine, but it's not Vitis vinifera, either. And Prejean says that hybrids have helped keep the vinifera operation chugging. "It would still be hard to profit with nothing but vinifera," she says. "It's easier to make it work when you have other things helping."

The Foch is a nice example, as I imagine it's easier to sell to many customers than a bottle of cabernet franc. It's dark in the glass, but it's soft in the mouth, even if it's not deep or complex. "We worked for many years to get this Marechal Foch to a point where you'd want to drink it," Prejean admits. "It wasn't always approachable. We're happy with where it is now."

Unlike many other Finger Lakes operations that have been around for nearly three decades, growth has never been the highest priority for Prejean. They're holding steady at 6,000 cases, and that's enough for Libby Prejean. "We don't need more than that," she says, smiling. "That hasn't changed for us." Her endearing accent reminds me that one of the keys to life is finding out what needs to change and what does not. At Prejean, they think they've got it figured out pretty well.