Two weeks ago the Niagara Wine Trail hosted its second annual Niagara Wine and Culianry Festival at Artpark in Lewiston, NY, welcoming close to 1,100 guests to taste local wine and eat local food during a weekend that saw perfect weather. In its second year, the event drew twice as many people as its first.

I had an insider’s look at this year’s festival as I spent all day Sunday pouring wine and schmoozing with food vendors. Having just participated in the much larger Finger Lakes Wine Festival I was impressed at how coordinated the Niagara event was despite its youth and small size.

Honestly, when I first heard of the event and its tie into the monthly wine trail event schedule I didn’t know what to expect. Even though I’m not a fan of the monthly themed events hosted by the trail, they really do get people in the doors and sell wine — despite all the commotion that comes with giveaways, costumes and entertainment. Why put all the wineries in one outdoor festival space when you already have a loyal following that packs into cars, trucks and buses to get to the wineries once a month? When that outdoor venue is Artpark, however, it starts to make sense.

Lenn_NFWF02 Located on the Niagara River (literally) a stone's throw from Canada, Artpark is a cultural gem that has been hosting camps, theater companies, live music and organizations such as the Buffalo Philharmonic for years. Since the wine trail is still in the crawling period of its evolution, it still hasn’t worked its way into the collective subconscious of Western New York, especially the Buffalo area. The festival’s association with Artpark enables it to reach an appreciative, city-centric public that hasn’t quite been convinced to drive out to Niagara County’s rural areas for local wine.

In its first iteration, the festival didn’t exactly get a ton of promotion from the venue. “They didn’t know what to make of us,” explained one winery owner. But after a calm weekend of wine tasting and music, the plans for this year’s event were bigger and better.

Wendy Oakes Wilson of Leonard Oakes Winery saw the difference. “Anytime you have a year's planning under your belt, you’re bound to have a well-planned event,” she said. “Because we purposely kept things small, we are learning on the fly without stressing the organizers out too much.”

The venue handled the music and entertainment and the Niagara Wine Trail was behind the marketing and setup. Promotions included print literature, radio spots and television commercials along with the online promotions. With the press being so widespread it’s Wilson’s view that some wineries from other parts of the state will want to take part next year. They also hope to see more food vendors and more tent real estate to spread it out while keeping everyone under cover just in case the weather doesn’t cooperate.

The wineries appeared to be selling more than enough wine to make it worth participating. The crowd was much more serious and curious than what makes it out to your average winery-hopping wine trail event, and most importantly, it wasn’t the same old event crowd that I recognize once a month in the tasting rooms.

Anytime the wineries can associate themselves with people who support the local arts scene, they are likely to pick up loyal customers with experienced palates and expendable income. Indeed, says Wilson: “Great wine, live music, culinary delights and the beauty of Artpark — does it get any better than that?”