August 16, 2006
Gateway to New York Agriculture

For the second straight year, the New York Wine & Food Classic is being held at the Inn on the Lake in the town of Canandaigua at the northern tip of Canandaigua Lake, one of a handful of long and narrow lakes that form the aptly named Finger Lakes.

Last night, judges from the competition toured the lake by paddleboat. Local winery chefs served chicken quesadillas and crab cakes while area residents treated us to tales of the estates on the shore. The square-foot price of those handsome homes is second only to the mansions of Lake Tahoe, they claim, though no one seemed to have precise figures. Nonetheless, I'm almost positive that was F. Scott Fitzgerald waving to us from the greensward of one spread.

At any rate, last year New York Gov. George Pataki arrived on the last day of the judging to present the competition's highest honor, the Governor's Cup. The day was beastly hot and humid, but he stuck around to help break ground on a neighboring patch of vacant land for the proposed New York Wine & Culinary Center.

If he returns today to again hand over the Governor's Cup he can walk from the inn to the new center, open just since June and already drawing more crowds than projected. Comparisons with Copia: The Amercan Center for Wine, Food and The Arts in Napa Valley are inevitable, but the New York structure is smaller and more intimate, and its mission isn't as grand. It has some art - Andy Warhol's iconic series of paintings of Campbell soup cans brighten walls of the demonstration classroom, equipped with $200,000 in donated Viking appliances - but the center's intent is to introduce, explore and celebrate New York's agricultural bounty.

There's a wine-tasting room with leather couches and a huge rock fireplace. Here, tasters can enjoy the building's sturdy wood craftsmanship between sips of chardonnay or boca noir.

Upstairs, inside or out, they can assemble lunch from a light menu based on New York products - artisan cheeses, charcuterie, mushrooms, tomatoes, greens, eggs and so forth.

There's also a sprawling hands-on instructional kitchen, an exhibit room to showcase the state's agriculture and a gift shop. A garden of New York shrubs, vines, trees and the like separates the building from the parking lot, forcing visitors to see up close that food comes from the land.

Since financing of such attractions is on the minds of many Sacramentans these days, the $7.5 million cost of the center was financed by a combination of public and private sources. The state put up $1.5 million, with the rest coming from such corporations as Constellation Brands, the world's largest congregation of wineries, whose roots are deep in this area (it used to be called Canandaigua), and Wegmans, a chain of grocery stores so snazzy that they are tourist stops in their own right. Don't, however, stop at one if all that is on your shopping list is wine. You can't buy wine at grocery stores in New York, an arrangement that seems just fine by New Yorkers. At least, if the governor does show today I don't expect him to announce any kind of initiative to change how wine is marketed in the state.

Well, got to run and pack...and check the weather report to see what awaits me back in Sacramento tonight.

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