The origin of the term "red tape" is generally assumed to come from the 16th century, when Henry the Eighth wanted so desperately to have his marriage annulled that he flooded the office of Pope Clement VII with roughly 80 petitions. Each document was sealed and bound with red tape.
I share this story because the days of Henry the Eighth might seem long past, but it has been roughly that long that David Sparrow has been wading through his own series of documents and petitions, bound only metaphorically by red tape.
But here's where the similarities end. Because while Henry never got his papally blessed annulment, David Sparrow got his Finger Lakes Wine Center. Finally.
"We prevailed," Sparrow told me. "Creating the center took far longer than we anticipated. We're relieved and delighted to have launched our beautiful facility."
Sparrow, owners of Sparrow's Fine Wines, will only speak vaguely of "bureaucratic frustrations," because he's focused on the future now. The Finger Lakes Wine Center is open in Ithaca, and as president of the board, Sparrow is spreading the gospel.
"We want to establish the center as a focus of exploration of cool-climate viticulture," he said, while noting that for now, the center's goals are more modest. "Financially, we want the center to succeed in supporting itself — that's absolutely essential. Programtically, we want to introduce the nearly 900,000 visitors to Tompkins County each year to the wines of the region, and to increase demand for these wines."
Sparrow sees that as a way to stimulate development across the region in agriculture and tourism.
So let's answer the question: What is this place?
Aesthetically, it is, in a word, modern. The sleek design includes a large regional map and educational illustrations, including a diagram of local soils that contribute to a Finger Lakes wine's sense of place. Visitors first walk through a kind of wine and retail shop, which flows into a wide open space featuring, on the far side, a wine bar. Then there is a room for private meetings, parties and events. The wine bar serves several dozen wines for small tasting fees. On Thursday nights, local bands provide music.
Sparrow wants the Finger Lakes Wine Center to be viewed as a hub of wine education and enjoyment. And despite nearly a decade of wrangling with politicians, Sparrow explained that the main goals have remained the same. "The vision of the task force and the corporation was to create a facility to receive and educate residents and visitors about the region’s wines," he said. "The center’s operations were to be self-supporting through revenues from sales of tastings, wines and other retail goods, rental of its space for receptions and parties, and fees for seminars and demonstrations. That is the present vision too."
So everything works together — the retail shop, the tasting bar, the event space. Money generated helps ensure that the center can sustain itself while staying versatile.
Local wineries have offered a largely positive reaction. Some have declined to submit their wines for the tasting bar, but Sparrow sees progress. "The wineries have been very supportive," he said, "and we continue our outreach to them."
When I visited on a recent Saturday, the tasting bar staff explained that occasionally winery owners have expressed confusion about the overall purpose of the center — but have come on board after hearing that the main goal is wine education and increasing tourism.
There is no restaurant, and the site is smaller than the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua. Staff at the Finger Lakes Wine Center don't seem concerned about carrying a similar name. Sparrow told me that even after one month open, the signs are positive on the financial end. "We've opened at the beginning of the slow season, but we needed to do this now for a number of financial and other reasons," he explained. "Rental demand for the space has sharply exceeded our initial forecast."
Groups can rent the center for $600 and choose between a sit-down experience in the exhibit gallery (the main public space) for 100 people or a cocktail reception for 250 people. The private conference room offers seating for 14 people and rents for $100 for two hours.
I found the vibe to be young and upbeat. The oak barrel tops on the wall and the educational drawings are a nice touch. The wine list carries some — but not all — of the best bottlings from the region.
Sparrow expects the wine list to grow. For now he is thrilled to have the center open, after needing what must have felt like a papal decree. He has it, and it will be interesting to see what he does with it.