by Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Region Editor
Randy Biehl doesn’t tend to wax romantic when he talks about his new production building – the construction of which is close to completion – at Eveningside Vineyards, the winery he owns on the Niagara Escarpment with his wife Karen. “I’m very aware we are in a critical time for our business,” he says. “Expansion is when many businesses end up failing.”
Knowing Biehl, you don’t chalk this up as simple boilerplate pessimism, but rather to his meticulous planning and outlook for his winery.
The road to what is now Eveningside all started in the 1990s, when the Biehls began exploring wine and making trips to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. The wine industry there was already flourishing and its success inspired the couple to wonder why there hadn’t been any movement toward the cultivation of wine grapes on the New York side of the border.
Reading consumer magazines like Wine Spectator soon turned into trade publication subscriptions and attending conferences during his free time. Convinced that fine wines could be grown here, Randy knew that he needed to get Karen on board. “One New Year’s Eve I finally talked her into it,” he says. “I got her a little tipsy and she said 'Okay, let’s do it.'”
And with that, Biehl began his search for property, knowing he either wanted an Escarpment or lakeshore location. During his 18-month search, the area’s first winery, Niagara Landing, opened, followed quickly by Warm Lake Estate. It was also during this period that Biehl was getting hands-on experience in the vineyards of Cave Spring Winery in Niagara, Ontario.
He then took the first major step when he planted one acre of grapes behind the old farmhouse they purchased on the bench of the Niagara Escarpment. Chosen mainly for their cold-hardiness, he put in a mix of cabernet franc, chardonnay and riesling for his initial planting. As his vines matured and he became more comfortable with growing, he began looking for a winemaker.
It turns out he didn’t have to look any further than the vineyards his was training in. To his surprise the vineyard manager there mentioned that Angelo Pavin, winemaker for Cave Spring, might be interested in working with Biehl.
“So I called Angelo and he wanted to come out first and check things out,” says Biehl. “He liked the way I was managing the vineyard. He agreed to work with me, saying that it reminded him of Cave Spring in 1975 when they had no money and no equipment. I think he liked the idea of working for such a small roots winery.”
Seven vintages later, Angelo is still the winemaker for Eveningside.
The wines have gotten better and better along the way, with some standouts like his rieslings, 2007 Cabernet Franc and his 2008 unoaked Chardonnay – which was recognized as the best Niagara Region white wine by the NYCR.
Making wine in such a tight space – a mere 1200 square feet – never meant for such ambitious projects wasn’t easy. “Something as simple as a floor drain we didn’t have. That means you’re using mops and buckets after cleaning tanks…everything just takes longer,” says Biehl. It also prevented him from having the freedom to do things like bottling on a Friday because that same space would need to be ready for the public the next morning.
Space issues are no longer an issue with Eveningside's new 2800 square foot production building completed just in time for the 2009 harvest and on schedule with his recent retirement after 30 years in a government job. He’s looking forward to the convenience of having a large dedicated building just for winemaking. “Everything’s just going to be easier,” he says.
And with that he thinks his wines will improve even more with the ability to easily cold-stabilize tanks by moving them outside and back in with his new tow lift. Biehl is also convinced his temperature- and humidity-controlled barrel room will add to the quality of his wines, reducing evaporation and the need to top off as often.
The most immediate impact his building will make is in capacity. He’s gone from the ability to produce 750 cases to 2000, with his first move toward this increase in ramped up riesling production. In addition to his estate-grown riesling – which he plans to keep dry – he has sourced grapes from Lake Erie this year to produce a semi-dry riesling.
As he sits in his office overlooking his vines, tasting room facility and first floor of his production room, Biehl seems to be enjoying his new building. But while you’d think he’d be relaxing and taking in his new surroundings, he’s already making plans for his next big move. “We’re not sure if we’re going to put in some more vines or build an adjacent tasting room to this building,” adds Biehl.
Either of these projects may come as soon as 2011.
I’ve personally always wondered why Eveningside had stayed so small for so long, even as their wines began to rival some of the best New York wineries. Now I know it’s no accident. Indeed, it’s been Biehl’s plan all along: this is just the beginning of his hobby becoming a full-time business.