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Author talks sustainability, food and wine

GENEVA -- Vivacious, knowledgeable and clearly enthusiastic about her subject, Laura Winters Falk engaged a packed audience of students, faculty and members of the larger community Monday, March 30 at 7 p.m. at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva. Falk has a PhD in nutrition; she's co-owner of the Ithaca-based touring and events company "Experience! The Finger Lakes," and her book "The Culinary History of the Finger Lakes" was recently published. Falk is also a member of the Guild of Sommeliers.
Her talk began with a smattering of geologic background, discussing the impact of the glaciers in shaping the topography of the area, and in their retreat depositing the underpinnings of the rich agricultural history enjoyed here since humans lived on this land. The native Americans who grew corn, beans and squash together in symbiotic harmony set a standard of sustainable agriculture, and taught the colonists and post-Revolutionary War homesteaders how to live well on this land.
Frequently punctuating her lecture with requests for audience interaction beginning, "Does anybody know...?" -- somebody older generally did -- she brought out nuggets of local agricultural history inviting further research. She said Geneva -- and in fact the Hobart and William Smith Colleges -- is historically based on the industry of nurserymen; Yates County was once known as the fruit basket of the nation for its apricots, table grapes and peaches; Birkett Mills made Penn Yan the buckwheat capital of the world, though Japan eats much of the buckwheat grown here; Rochester was known as the Flour City because it was the home of so many mills grinding Finger Lakes grains. The primary beverage then was cider made from apples -- often low in alcohol but always safer to drink than un-boiled water.
By the first quarter of the 19th century ("Does anyone remember the Erie Canal song?" she asked. One audience member began singing and refused to stop until others shushed him -- that question, as it turned out, had been more or less rhetorical) the Erie Canal was bringing produce from diversified Finger Lakes farms to markets in New York City, turning New York into the Empire State and its ports into staging areas for shipment in every other direction. By the middle of the 19th century, Finger Lakes vintners were turning native grapes, particularly Catawba, into champagne -- seven million bottles per year, a height of sparkling wine production that has never been equaled, she said.
Prohibition stopped the party. "It was called the noble experiment, but it was a failed experiment," she said. "By the end of prohibition in 1933, the 50 thriving wineries of the Finger Lakes had dwindled to four." People could still enjoy sacramental wine, or wine that was medically prescribed -- "Does that remind you of anything?" she asked with a sly smile -- but as Prohibition had not made it illegal for home winemakers to produce wine for their own consumption, the grape growing business actually did well. "Fifty million baskets of fresh grapes were shipped every year," she said without specifying the volume of a basket. "Grapes that were $12 to $18 a ton before Prohibition rose to $200 per ton in the New York City market."
And grape "bricks" -- concentrated, partly dehydrated grapes -- were shipped with a yeast packet and full instructions on how to make wine, each step in the process sedately preceded by the words "Do not" and the warning that a dangerous alcoholic beverage could be the result if the "not" was ignored.
The depression ended the public taste for celebration and champagne, while the sweet, inexpensive wine people made for themselves "Completely and utterly destroyed the American palate until the 1980s," Falk said. "I'm not kidding, it's the truth." So when the wineries were officially back in business, at the repeal of Prohibition, a sweet, inexpensive wine called "Richard's Wild Irish Rose" became the flagship representative of Finger Lakes wines, she noted. "You're laughing, you had a little too much of it, once, didn't you?" she asked an unseen member of the audience. The eventual resurgence of the Finger Lakes wine industry was based on inexpensive jug wines, she said.
But when the public's taste grew more sophisticated and people began to demand drier wines, the Finger Lakes area was not prepared for that. "Vinifera wines were shipped to the area in bulk tanks and the Finger Lakes wine industry was then completely unsustainable."
Not surprisingly, much of her talk concerned the 20th century and the Finger Lakes wine industry; and Falk ran out of time before she ran out of information -- most of which was new to the younger audience members. Wrapping things up quickly, she discussed the New York Farm Winery act of 1976 and mentioned the Finger Lakes has some of the most diverse vineyards in the world, as well as a large variety of farmer's markets. She also touched on the mutually beneficial relationship between farm-to-table entrepreneurs, chefs and vintners -- together with the abundance of tourists who come for food, scenery, ambiance and experiences. In addition to the wineries, the emergence of cideries, craft brewers, distillers and creameries broadens the area's appeal and helps visitors spend the $5 billion they annually bring into the area.
"Tourism is ingrained in our sustainability," she said. "Our economy is still based on agriculture, and the pinnacle is farm-to-table restaurants celebrating seasonal farm-fresh locally-sourced ingredients."

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