Photo by Carlo DeVito

Last Wednesday, I boarded a 7:15 a.m. Amtrak train up to Albany where, along with several hundred winemakers, brewers, distillers, and farmers, I got to sit in on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New York State Wine, Beer, and Spirits Summit. The invitation had come in the week before: “Governor Andrew M. Cuomo cordially invites you…”; the date, place, time, and RSVP instructions.

What, exactly, was going to happen? I really wasn’t sure, but as soon as I walked into the Egg Center for the Performing Arts I understood that this was going to be a serious afternoon, and hopefully one where progress was the order of the day.

Dressed in Sunday best was a who’s who of the New York wine, spirits, beer, and cider communities crowding into chairs facing the U-shaped dais where the Governor sat flanked by two long tables of representatives from our various sippable industries. People like John Martini of Anthony Road Vineyards; Jim Tresize, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation; Larry Perrine of Channing Daughters; locavore chef, restaurateur, and president of the New York State Restaurant Association, Marc Murphy; Dean Norton of the New York State Farm Bureau; Ralph Erenzo of Tuthilltown Distillery; Carlo Devito of Chatham Vineyards; David Katleski of Empire Brewing Company and president of the
New York State Brewers Association; Elizabeth Ryan of cidery Breezy Orchards, and many others — each given a 3-minute time slot to speak directly and publicly to Governor Cuomo about issues, problems, and ideas for growing our homegrown adult-beverage industry.

A little perspective: According to Tresize, when he began working in the then newly formed (by Governor Mario Cuomo) New York Wine & Grape Foundation, the wine industry was “a landscape of despair; the industry was going down the tubes.” Andrew’s father recognized the potential, though, created the NYWGF, got the New York Farm Bureau involved, and things began to change. Back then, the wine industry brought in about 350,000 visitors annually across the state, said Tresize; today, it’s more than 5 million. That’s a whole lot of tasting room fees.

And beer and spirits (and, to a smaller extent, cider) are showing their fiscal muscle, too. When Empire Brewing’s Katleski got started a decade ago, he said there were ten breweries in the state, a number that has grown tenfold to 100.

And spirits? Well, you can’t throw an ear of corn without hitting a distillery in Brooklyn these days, where half of the state’s 28 current distilleries reside.

Two topics were off limits, Wednesday: Fracking (a hot potato issue near to the nerve-center of brewers and distillers, certainly) and wine in grocery stores. Other than that, producers were allowed to speak their minds to the Gov and several hundred attendees in the audience.

Important sticking points were laid bare, like the fact that barely a New York-centric sipper is featured at our New York State Fair, whereas wine and beer options from elsewhere around the country were readily available. That brewers are not allowed to pour their own beer at outside events, leaving them to rely on uneducated volunteers who can’t answer simple questions or, even better, speak about how the brew was made; that distilleries, cideries, and breweries should have signage and be part of a more encompassing beverage trail tourism angle in the future along with the more well-trod winery routes; that the “I Heart NY” campaign seriously needs to include wine, beer, spirits, and cider in its well-seen campaigns for tourism; that distilleries should be able to sell as well pour their wares at local greenmarkets; that the State Liquor Authority should allow one facility to hold multiple licenses, so that, say, a winery or brewery could distill in one building; that a little more money for promotion wouldn’t be such a bad idea; that the state should put some muscle behind a glittery, blow-out, all-NY-product, consumer drink and food extravaganza, bringing in super-star names to promote the great goods we’ve got and take our epicurean culture — and consumer knowledge of it — to a higher level.

There was talk of better tax structure; of bringing back the grain-growing industry to what it had been many, many years ago; of re-adjusting licensing fees and permit costs based on gross volume production; that cider is its own unique category that needs some new definition on the books; about reducing red-tape paperwork for small boutique producers who become mired in a process that is ripe for streamlining.

What was interesting, though, was the governor didn’t seem to be setting aside a few midweek hours for a gripe session; he actually appeared to be listening. And so he should — we’re still climbing back from the brink of financial destruction in our state, and a shiny penny like the beverage industry — which appears to be growing by leaps and bounds with or without state support — is a source of revenue that would be very unwise to ignore.

We broke for lunch, and within that hour, Cuomo came back with results: Multiple licenses may be issues by the SLA for one facility; the $1,000 tasting permit fee is now reduced to a far-easier-on-the-pocket marketing fee of $125 for the year; distillers can both pour and sell their spirits at greenmarkets; a hearty promise that a State Fair over-haul and I Heart NY promotions will get underway ASAP; and in a money-where-your-mouth-is cherry on top, Cuomo has now earmarked $1 million of the state budget for promotion of New York wine, beer, spirits, and cider — plus, up to another million matched if the industries can collectively raise more money to add to the pot. “I want you guys to have some skin in the game, too,” he said.

The author with the Governor.

By 1:30 p.m., we were all headed by bus to the Governor’s mansion for a walk-around tasting of dozens of examples of New York wine, beer, cider, and spirits from all parts of the state, and the mood — consumption not withstanding — was pretty high. The hostly Governor smiled for pictures (heck, I got one) and shook hands. Still, among the conviviality and glad-handing, I couldn’t help but wonder at the quick turn-around on the requests and concerns raised — was it actually possible to get those answers and issues signed off on over lunch? Had this whole thing been a little bit of a well-orchestrated dog and pony show, placating the pouring masses and quelling complaints for at least a little while?

But even if some of the big questions and concerns were submitted ahead of time and Cuomo’s staff got a jump on conversations with the SLA, etc., in order to bring good news to the camera-ready table, so what? Your momma probably told you not to look a gift horse in the mouth — and you certainly shouldn’t smack it on the ass and make it run away, either.

Cuomo seems to get it, and is willing to make investments, as well he should. The numbers don’t lie. The room may have been packed to the gills on Wednesday afternoon and my view of the action in the front pretty much blocked, but it was easy enough to see the plot unfold: If you pour it, they will come.