Quick Questions with … Paul and Cathy Schwenk, owners of Schwenk Wine Cellars

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 11 November 2013 at 12:00 am

Kent couple sees Orleans as part of growing wine region

Photos by Tom Rivers – Paul Schwenk is pictured with two employees in an 8-acre vineyard next to Schwenk Wine Cellars on Bills Road in Kent.

Cathy Schwenk manages the wine-tasting room at Schwenk’s. The winery has won many awards since it opened in 1992.

KENT – Paul and Cathy Schwenk opened a winery in Kent in 1992 and added a tasting room at their Bills Road location in 2007.

They opened the business while working full-time in other careers. Mr. Schwenk was the buildings and grounds director for 17 years at Kendall Central School. His wife was a teacher at Albion Central School for 33 years.

Both retired in recent months from those careers. Now they are devoting more time and energy to Schwenk Wine Cellars.

The couple, which has been married for 32 years, is expanding the tasting room at 1456 Bills Road. They are excited about the extension of the Niagara Wine Trail, which will run across Orleans County to near Rochester, connecting Niagara, Orleans and eastern Monroe counties.

Mr. Schwenk’s grandfather Maxmillan Franz Schwenk moved from Austria to Hilton, and was a dairy farmer with a vineyard. He enjoyed making wine.

The family farm burned down in 1963. Maxmillan’s son Andreas Maxmillan Schwenk switched to growing fruit. He taught his son Paul the art of making wine. They would make it in their basement and sell it to collectors.

Paul in 1992 made Schwenk Wine Cellars official. The winery won competitions and Paul and Cathy soon were selling their product to New York City restaurants.

They grow grapes at 8 acres in Kent, 32 acres in Dunkirk and 30 acres in Penn Yann. During the fall harvest season it can be exhausting, crisscrossing to the three sites.

Cathy manages the tasting room and many of the special events. Paul grows the grapes and makes the wine.

Paul, 58, and Cathy, 57, talked about the wine business with Hub editor Tom Rivers during a recent interview at their home and winery.

These vidal grapes hang on the vines next to Schwenk Wine Cellars in Kent.

Q: Why grow grapes rather than some other fruit or dairy?

A (Paul): I’ve been in the business for 45 or 46 years. We were in peaches and cherries, but there are people I know in Niagara County that have that.

Q: Aren’t you kind of a grape pioneer in Orleans County?

A (Cathy): Orleans County isn’t really known for grapes. But grapes work out here. The lake effects it. We have nice warm falls because of the lake. You get the chilly spring with the late frost, which isn’t good. But the longer fall helps out.

Q: My understanding of the wineries in the Finger Lakes is they helped to rejuvenate many of the farms out there. The grapes and wineries have been part of that area’s resurgence.

A (Paul): My grandfather, when I was growing up, was friends with the winemakers in the Finger Lakes. California and Oregon people are buying up the land over there to have more wineries.

Q: They have a lot of wineries in the Finger Lakes – more than a hundred. Do you think you need a lot of them in an area to make an attraction?

A (Paul): Do you need a lot of them? That’s the thing. In my opinion, in New York State we have 532 wineries. That’s a lot of wineries, probably too many.

A (Cathy): Some of them will make it and some of them won’t. It’s about establishing your name and keeping it going. Some of the younger wineries I don’t know if they will make it. If you totally have to depend on the tourists, there are not a lot of tourists in New York State between January and April to May.

Paul Schwenk checks over the vidal grapes that will be pressed into wine. He uses a 1960 Oliver tractor in the orchard.

Q: With our county, we have two wineries open right now. (Leonard Oakes Estate Winery in Medina is the other one and more are in the works.) Could we brand this county as a wine county?

A (Paul): It’s slowly getting there but I bet it’s years and years down the road.

Q: Will the extended wine trail help get tourists here in Orleans County?

A (Cathy): Yes. The Wine Trail will be along 104, but signs from 104 will point people down to Route 18. We have to get signs up on 104 pointing people to where we want them to come down to 18.

This summer we’ve had a lot of tourists. In the past few weeks I’ve had a lot of fishermen. They will come in and say they caught a salmon and want to know what they can serve with it. They’re bringing their wives or they come in and say their wives said not to come home without buying some local wine.

Q: How to you make a connection to the fishermen?

A (Cathy): Sharon Narburgh over at Narby’s, she knows about us and she sends them over. The people at the Black North will send them over to us. It’s a matter of getting your name out to everyone local. We have a huge clientele of locals. Our locals keep us going. They are our major clientele. The tourists are great, but the locals are our major clientele. During the winter and the spring, they don’t want to travel to the Finger Lakes.

Kim Martilotta Muscarella painted this palette with a grape and winery theme as part of the recent Palettes of Orleans art project. It will be displayed in the Schwenk’s expanded wine-tastng room.

Q: What about liquor stores as an outlet for you?

A (Cathy): They’re not a major percentage but we are in many of them.

Q: What is the benefit for you to be in a liquor store?

A (Cathy): More people see your name out there. The liquor stores are open more often than the tasting room. We’re open Wednesday through Sunday right now from noon to 5 until New Year’s. After New Year’s we go on our winter hours which is basically weekends through April or May.

Q: Did opening a wine-tasting room make a big difference for you?

A (Cathy): That is making a big difference. We’re able to fit in more groups. We had a few limos here this summer.

Q: Limos here on Bills Road.

A (Paul): Yes, right down here on Bills Road (laughing). We have a love for this area. The big lake is right down front. There’s Point Breeze, Lyndonville, Kendall. We wanted to stay here because this county is hurting. We need more employment opportunities for people. We gambled and we stayed.

Q: It’s nice in a way that you’re a little a bit of a drive from any of the other attractions because you get people moving about the county. You’re not right at Point Breeze.

A (Cathy): Yes. And also during the summer every Friday I’ve been going to the Genesee County Farmers Market at the Batavia Downs parking lot. That’s another avenue to get the name out there. People have been asking where are you located because they want to get wine after the farmers market closes.

I tell them we’re 30 minutes north of Batavia. Take a drive out. We want people to come out more.

Q: I suppose you have to hustle and market and go after very sale.

A (Cathy): You do. We do a lot of events to get the name out there.

A (Paul): I’m on the radio once in a while on WHAM with Jim Salmon. You try to promote the business.

Q: How many types of wine do you have?

A (Cathy): 21. Everything is grape-based, but we do have an apple (One Eyed Jack) and cherry (Crazy Fox Red).

Q: What is fun about this business?

A (Cathy): The different people you get to meet – Amherst, Akron, Canada, Montana, Maryland. We have people from all over the United States.

A (Paul) A lot of people have cottages along the lake, or they are renting cottages.

A (Cathy) They get wine for while they are here and before they close up their cottage and leave, they come and get wine to take home.

The variety of the people is huge.

Paul and Cathy Schwenk have been married for 32 years. They both recently retired from other full-time jobs and now can devote more time to the wine business.

Q: Has this been a fun adventure for the two of you?

A (Cathy): Yes, as a couple we go places and we visit other wineries.

A (Paul): We’re all over the place for conferences. Wineries like to get together. Last year we were in Richmond. A couple years ago we were in Napa, Oregon and Seattle.

A (Cathy): I like to see the other wineries. I like to see how they handle bus tours, how they handle 40 or 50 people coming off a bus. I like to see how their tasting rooms are set up.

Right now we have an opportunity to change our tasting room. We’re doing an expansion.

Q: How will that help you?

A (Paul): We’ll bebetter able to take a bus tour and do other events.

We want people to know how to smell a glass of red wine and taste the bouquet. We’re looking to do that a couple Saturdays a summer. We want to let people know what to serve with a red wine. We want to help change the mindset.

Q: What do you think will happen in Orleans County with the wine trail expansion?

A (Cathy): I’m hoping it will bring more people from Rochester out here, bring them to the west side. We’ve done Rochester events and there are people who say they don’t travel west outside of Monroe County. We need to get them to come over to Orleans County. If it means get them to Orleans so they can go to Niagara County, fine. At least we’re getting them to Orleans County.

We did a tasting at the New York State Fair on a Tuesday this year. Over 2,000 people that day. Ninety percent of the people had no idea where Orleans County was.

Paul Schwenk says the tempering effects of Lake Ontario, plus good soils, make northern Orleans County good for growing grapes.

Q: This is the cold hard truth.

A: Yes, this is the cold hard truth. We tell them Orleans County is partway between Rochester and Buffalo. We’re by Lake Ontario. We have farm markets, we got wineries. We did a lot of that explanation that day. We handed out a lot of brochures. We decided the next time we would bring a New York State map and say this is where Orleans County is.

Q: Can you piggyback on other local attractions?

A (Cathy): We piggyback it on other attractions. Usually if you say Lake Ontario and Point Breeze people have heard about it. They haven’t necessarily been here but they’ve heard of it.

We mention the farm markets, the quilt trail in Kendall, the cobblestones, and that 18 is the Seaway Trail.

Q: You have to go out and educate.

A (Cathy): Absolutely. Being at the State Fair really brought that home that people don’t come out past Rochester. And Buffalo people don’t come east.

Q: It does feel like we’re a little too far away, however, Brown’s Berry Patch draws a lot of people from outside the county.

A: I use Brown’s Berry Patch when we’re at Batavia. They’ve heard of it and I tell them we’re 3 miles past them down on Route 18. It depends on where we are for what location I’ll try to piggyback on.