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Mountain Home Magazine

Champagne Moments

Oct 01, 2020 10:47AM ● By Mike Cutillo

Mike Doyle knows a thing—or three—about business. With a master’s degree from the University of Virginia’s celebrated Darden School of Business backed up by a law degree from Syracuse University, he has the paperwork to prove his pedigree. That is, if he felt inclined to do so, which he normally doesn’t.

However, it is a decision Doyle made about twenty-five years ago that defied anything he learned in any classroom that has come to define him, and will be his legacy.

In 1995, he broke from standard conventions and bought into a path dictated by his heart, rather than his business acumen. He leased—and later bought—Pleasant Valley Wine Company, which had barrels full of history on its side but not much else at the time.

“It was an emotional decision. It wasn’t a business decision,” Mike says with an easy laugh, a portrait of the winery’s founder, Charles Davenport Champlin, looking on from over his right shoulder. “I wouldn’t have done it if it was a business decision because there was nothing here—no brands, the facilities had nothing to sell, so we kind of had to build from scratch.”

While the spirits industry in the Finger Lakes region has exploded in recent decades and now is home to about 200 wineries, distilleries and cideries, Hammondsport’s Pleasant Valley was the very first one. A farmer, Champlin opened it along with twelve other investors on March 15, 1860. At the time, James Buchanan was the fifteenth president of the United States, the Civil War wouldn’t begin for another year, and not a drop of Jack Daniels, America’s quintessential whiskey, had yet been poured. Later in 1860, Champlin’s PVWC became the first bonded winery in the United States, officially becoming a commercial enterprise that could produce and store wine under a bond that guaranteed payment of federal excise tax. Or as current Sales and Marketing Director Matthew Healy jokes, “It gave us the great opportunity to be the first to pay taxes on our wine.”

The actual Pleasant Valley was fertile, fruit-producing terrain just off the southern tip of Keuka Lake, the Finger Lakes’ only Y-shaped lake. The winery named for it was constructed just outside the similarly historic Steuben County village of Hammondsport, founded in 1827 and later known as “The Cradle of Aviation” in honor of native son Glenn Curtiss.

PVWC got off to a rollicking start under famed French winemakers Jules and Joseph Masson, making its first shipment of wine in 1862, shocking the wine-drinking world by winning its first award in Europe in 1867 in Paris, and then capturing a gold medal for its Great Western Champagne in 1873 at the World’s Fair in Vienna, Austria. While today’s Finger Lakes AVA—or American Viticultural Area—is known more for its rieslings, chardonnays and rosés, sparkling and sweeter wines were favored in the early days; the early, award-winning champagne was made primarily from native grapes, Delaware and Catawba.

In 1961, just after its centennial anniversary, PVWC was acquired by its neighbor, the Taylor Wine Company, touching off a veritable merry-go-round of transactions. Taylor sold it to the Coca-Cola Company in 1977, which sold it to Joseph Seagram & Sons in 1983, which sold it to Vintners International in 1987. Mike was general counsel for, and later president of, Taylor and was also general counsel for Wine Spectrum, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola. He slowed down the carousel when he first leased PVWC in 1995 and then completely shut it down when he bought it outright in 2002, bringing in his sons Patrick and Matthew to help with operations.

These days, the Doyle family—bolstered by fifty or so employees that are treated like family—are eyeing a return to the glory days while also preserving the winery’s rich history, especially its Great Western Champagne, which has been used in celebrations in Cooperstown, at Watkins Glen, at the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, and has ties from the Finger Lakes that extend all the way to the Kennedys’ Camelot.

More History—Fieldstones and Caves

Mike loves spinning yarns as much as he enjoys running PVWC. Maybe more. Relaxing in the dark wood-paneled boardroom, his tales run the gamut from secret doorways, legendary Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim, alleged ghostly sightings around the winery, real estate developer Robert Congel, and the newspaper industry before he gets back around to the topic at hand: Pleasant Valley Wine Company.

“My plan was not to own a winery,” he says with a chuckle. “I got out of the service early to go to law school and then went to work for a law firm in Rochester, Nixon Peabody, that represented the Taylor Corporation. They sold to Coke, and Coke sold to Seagram. I survived the sale to Seagrams, and I survived the sale to Vintners, then, after that, we didn’t see eye to eye. The chairman wanted me to fire half the people who were here, put blood on the streets of Hammondsport. We didn’t do that, so I left for awhile and then bought this place back from the bank.”

When asked about his plans upon buying Pleasant Valley, Mike laughs again.

“Plans? None. Actually, it was a save. I just wanted to keep the place going. If you looked up the road four miles, Gold Seal was falling down. Taylor was no longer a winery. My intent was just to kind of save it because I had spent a lot of years here and wanted to keep it going.”

First came the purchase of the winery property and its ten handsome buildings, eight of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the exteriors are built out of fieldstone, which is similar in appearance to cobblestone, while the interior features are stone and solid wood. There are twenty-six caves, which the original owners carved deep into the hillside to use as cellars, “riddling” rooms to store and work champagne, and high-vaulted rooms for monstrous oak barrels and stainless steel tanks, some of which hold 40,000 to 99,000 gallons of wine. The smell of wine and oak permeates many of the older rooms.

Beyond the physical property, with its 425,000 square feet that can store fourteen million gallons of wine, Mike set about buying the rights to the brands that would stock Pleasant Valley’s portfolio: primarily Great Western Champagne, Gold Seal, Charles Fournier, and Widmer.

How ironic that as the rest of the Finger Lakes wine region boomed, the bellwether had fallen out of favor, was in disrepair and usually was overlooked by the thousands of wine trail-trekking aficionados. However, in just a short period of time, Mike’s “non-plan plans” were off and running.

A key in recent years has been tapping into other local businesses, creating jobs and a sense of community. One of those is Works Design Group of Hammondsport, hired to freshen up PVWC’s labels and packaging.

“They started working with us and we started updating and bringing in some new packaging and labeling for them,” says Jon Beckman, WDG director of business development. “What a huge success story if we can bring PVW from forty or sixty employees back to the 300 they had in their heyday, if we can rebrand them, and introduce the entire line to the millennial customer.”

Adds Matthew Healy, who has over three decades in the wine industry: “I love it. I love the story, love the family, love the fact that Mike wanted to preserve this. From a sales and marketing perspective, these brands are so old they don’t need a lot of things, but what they have that no one else has is the story.”

The Tie to JFK...Twice

A large part of PVWC’s story—make it an “aircraft-carrier-sized” part of the story—is Great Western Champagne’s role in two of the most prized ships in the American Naval fleet, both of which were named after our thirty-fifth president, John F. Kennedy. Two threads intertwine in the christening of both the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) in May of 1967 and the immense USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) in December of 2019: a bottle of Great Western from Hammondsport, New York, was smashed over the ships’ hulls, and JFK’s daughter Caroline did the smashing. There are YouTube videos to prove both.

No one remains at PVWC from 1967, so why GW was chosen for that first christening is lost to history, though Mike suspects it was because of the champagne’s standing in the wine world. “It was a major player,” he says. “It was in the White House, we were the official champagne of the baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, it got a lot of play like that. It was the finest champagne in America.”

When Mike came across a black-and-white photo of nine-year-old Caroline christening the first JFK aircraft carrier and wanted high-quality reprints made, he brought it to his friends at Works Design Group. That would touch off a series of events that would land GW back at the shipyard for the second christening.

“We sat around talking about it and googling the event, and we came across the fact that another christening was going to be held for the CVN-79 on Dec. 7 in 2019,” remembers Jon Beckman. “So we reached out to some regional connections and worked our way into the shipyard and got to be there for the christening.”

Works Design Group recreated the GW Extra Dry Label from May 27, 1967, for the 2019 christening—held on the anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. The label highlights the champagne’s 1873 World’s Fair award. Jon and his wife Michele were invited to the VIP dinner the evening before the christening, along with Mike and others from PVWC, including Patrick Doyle, Cameron Dunlap, and Bill and Donna Hutches.

“There were forty-five to fifty tables and we were, like, table forty-eight or forty-nine, so we’re way in the back by the exit door, but we had access to all the champagne we wanted,” Jon jokes. “I was pretty starstruck. The Kennedy family was all there, and it was just really, really cool to be a part of.”

Bryan Moore is the director of communications at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, the only company in America that builds the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, which is what the CVN stands for in the name.

“The great thing about working at the shipyard is we christen these amazing ships, and we want to make sure the event is a great, memorable, historic event, not only for the people who are invited but for the shipbuilders who work so hard,” Bryan says. “We obviously wanted to make it a special event for Caroline Kennedy, to make sure it was done right so it was something her family and her father would be proud of.”

Although it’s been christened, the newest JFK won’t go into service until the 2020s. It is a 100,000-ton, 1,100-foot-long behemoth that cost $11.3 billion for over 3,000 shipbuilders to create, using 500 suppliers from around the country, including 150 from Pennsylvania and New York.

“Just to go on these ships, it’s such a sense of awe,” Bryan says. “It’s basically a functional city with an airport. You can’t take them for granted. And the fact that we were using the same champagne (as in ’67) and to have Caroline Kennedy participate as a little girl, and then come back in 2019, it’s very historic, very rare. It’s an amazing, unique situation.”

A Few Words on Champagne

Along about now you may be wondering how it is that a winery in upstate New York—basically on America’s East Coast—produces a product that is called “Great Western.”

Well, here’s some more history.

Marshall P. Wilder was born in the Finger Lakes, in Geneva, and was a close friend of Charles Champlin. He was a gifted storyteller, a clairvoyant, a comedian, a film actor, and, later in life, a wine connoisseur in Boston. In 1871, Champlin sent a case of champagne to his friend, who introduced it at a dinner party at the Parker House—which became famous in its own right for its Parker House rolls.

“When Wilder and his buddies had the champagne, they proclaimed it ‘the greatest wine in the western world,’ and they wrote back to Champlin to tell him that,” Matthew Healy says enthusiastically. “That’s where the Great Western name came from. It was named in Boston at a dinner with a bunch of guys. And although the Erie Canal was here, you’ve got to remember, this was the western world. This was the West. There was no Utah or places like that.”

You also may have heard that the word “champagne” cannot be used for wines unless they come from the Champagne Region of France. That’s true for newer brands but not those that are 160 years old.

“I’ve got a white paper on that,” Mike Doyle says with a laugh. “There are wine snobs that would like you to think that. The French, they have a committee that sues people and pretends whatever, but we are grandfathered by law to be able to use the word champagne. You have to use it in connection with an appellation, which means you have to use ‘New York’ or ‘Finger Lakes’ or ‘American’ champagne, but it is totally legal.”

In March of 2006, the United States and the European Union signed a wine-trade agreement, at which time the U.S. agreed to not allow new uses of certain wine terms that had previously been considered generic, such as champagne. But any company that already had an approved label—such as Great Western Champagne—was grandfathered in and can continue using such terms.

Matthew says he uses that ruling to his advantage in his marketing role.

“What I love to do when I am at a trade tasting is I say ‘champagne’ every other word when I’m near neighbors that can’t,” he says. “So, at my table I’m saying, ‘Champagne...champagne...would you like a glass of New York champagne? Champagne.’ I say it hundreds of time just to tease my neighbors. The same goes for ports and sherries. Great Western is a great name, too.”

The People Make It Tick

Like most successful businesses that get their verve and vitality from their leaders, the tone for PVWC is set by Mike Doyle. Matthew notes that each day when employees are getting ready to go home, Mike personally thanks all those he sees for their efforts that day. “Who does that?” Matthew asks.

“There’s just so much energy here, it’s so exciting,” says Jenny Rethmel, who has poured wines and given tours at PVWC for three years after a seventeen-year career at the hospital in nearby Bath. “I love it, I love meeting people, everyone I work with is great. My favorite thing about this place is definitely the history. I grew up in Hammondsport, then moved away. I lived out west and all over the U.S., but really upstate New York is special, and Keuka Lake especially. It’s a gem. Most people...we all tend to come back because it is just so gorgeous and you don’t appreciate it when you grow up here. But then coming home, well, this is truly home.”

Beth Witt, a graduate of the Finger Lakes Community College Viticulture and Wine Technology program, has been the head winemaker for three years. Still using Delaware and Catawba grapes, she also blends in others such as chardonnay, and hybrids like aurore and elvira.

“Beth has done such a great job; these wines have never tasted better,” says Matthew.

PVWC, through its various brands, produces many other types of wines besides champagne, including fortified ports and sherries, a popular chardonnay/riesling blend, sweet and dry reds and whites, and a sparkling burgundy that is a favorite these days.

“It’s kind of interesting to see a young person come in and try a new thing, especially like a port or a sherry,” says Lauren Capluzzi of Bath, who has poured wines for two summers at PVWC while home for the summer from college. “But the champagnes are always the ones where people are like, ‘Wow.’ People just really enjoy the quality.”

In addition to the historic structures, PVWC also has new, $4 million high-speed bottling equipment, and a Visitor Center (where most tastings are conducted) that also contains artifacts from 160 years of making wine in the Finger Lakes. So, wrap all that up—incredible architecture, rich history, ties to JFK and baseball, bubbly that’s been called America’s greatest, a few modern updates, and a boss who gets it—and you have Pleasant Valley Wine Company.

“Like Mike said, it wasn’t a business decision,” Matthew jokes. “He’s very supportive of the community, he’s like the mayor of the south end of Keuka Lake. It’s an incredible place and it’s only getting better. All of this sets us up for another 100 years because the wines are good, the winery’s got the right story, it’s got loving caretakers, the area is good and popular. I don’t see a downside at all.”

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