Q&A with the creators of the first all-New-York-State wine list
Written by Peggy Haine, Photos by Robyn Wishna
A version of this article originally appeared in the 2013 Wine Issue edition of the magazine.
It’s a constant complaint from regional winemakers about how difficult it is to get their New York wines on lists in restaurants, but decades ago one local restaurant made it a calling card.
Turback’s, now closed, was the first in the state to feature an exclusively New York wine list, a great risk for its time, in the early 1980s, when New York State wines were just beginning to make a name for themselves. Proprietor Michael Turback and manager David Nowicki started out with a list of only seven wines, from the likes of Taylor, Great Western, Gold Seal and Glenora. Following is their story about how it all got started.
Edible Finger Lakes: Turback’s was the first in the country to offer an all-New-York-State wine list, at a time when New York wines were just beginning to make a bid for attention. What ever made you decide to take that risk?
Michael Turback: Basically, the restaurant opened in 1968 and was successful from the early days. There was relatively little competition. But over eight or nine years others opened up. It was a good time to separate yourself from what everybody else was doing. Walter Taylor walked into my restaurant one afternoon. He used to carry a basket with six or so of his wines. I didn’t know who he was, but he had this personality … He told me his story, and we drank his wines, and I thought, “I’ll buy a case of each and we’ll put ‘em on.” I liked him, and I liked the idea, and that was the very beginning. But by then people were making wines as a result of the Farm Winery Bill.
EFL: Dave, how did you get involved in all this?
David Nowicki: We moved to Ithaca in 1979 because [Michael] had offered me a job. We wanted to move up here. He was pretty busy because he had a place in Binghamton too, so he was running back and forth.
MT: I had known David and I knew he could see what I could see very quickly. The more that we did with wines, the more attention we attracted and the wineries at that time were interesting because at that time the guys who were making wine were mostly farmers. You had to be a little crazy to do what we were doing. Some of the early things that got written about us were: this restaurant, they’re either geniuses or fools because it’s an upscale restaurant and the only wines are these wines that nobody’s ever heard of, from a place that’s only been used to drinking …
DN: … Catawba!
MT: One of the ways that we built the momentum was that we would do these weekly events. We’d have the winemaker come to the restaurant.
DN: It got so big, we had to pitch a tent.
MT: We invited Dr. Frank to come. He said, well, I’ll come, but you have to pick me up. David picks him up. It was the biggest event of the season because everybody wanted to meet Dr. Frank. David takes him home and he takes a step up to his door and he starts to fall backward, and David saves his life.
DN: I forgot about that. My heart’s in my throat, and I’m thinking, this is the most famous winemaker in the Finger Lakes and he’s going to die on me!
EFL: How did you know where to go for wine? With grape growers taking their first shots at winemaking, there was a lot of notso-good wine in the area then.
MT: The word gets out. So now everybody who starts a winery brings me wines and we try them. Esperanza was a winery for a short period of time. So he’s got a Riesling, and I taste it—it’s pretty good. I buy five cases. I put them down in the basement, which is where we kept the wines. Two days later I go down and the corks have popped out of every single bottle!
DN: It had re-fermented in the bottle. They hadn’t taken all the yeast out.
MT: With a few exceptions, they didn’t have any distributors, so very often one of us would have to drive over and pick up the wine.
DN: Michael’s father had a Cadillac and the trunk was as big as your living room. We’re picking up wine and bringing it over. I called a couple of wineries, and I told them we’re selling some of your wines and we’d like to buy more. And they said “We don’t deliver to Ithaca.” (much laughter) So I had to get into his Cadillac, and after about a month of that they decided they’d better start delivering to Ithaca.
MT: Wines could be hit or miss in the early days. You had a sense that something was going to happen because they’d get better and better. Even to this day, I think Glenora has probably the most interesting story of any of the wineries.
DN: They had John Williams, who was a Cornell graduate and went on to found Frog’s Leap.
MT: Glenora was the most serious about it. One of the things that made it really fun was the people. Everybody was a character. To decide to make wine in the Finger Lakes at that time, you had to have a touch of the lunatic. I can remember listening to Herman [Wiemer], about how he got fired on Christmas Eve. He’s got the fax framed in his bathroom. Walter Taylor’s in Germany, ironically enough, and he faxes over just a three-line fax telling Herman he’s not needed any more. Walter realized [Herman] had a vineyard going and Walter didn’t like that. He didn’t like being upstaged.
EFL: What about your focus on local foods?
MT: The first time that I ran a marathon in San Francisco, I spent two days in Napa and had dinner at two different restaurants, and at both of those restaurants the only wines that they had on the list were from Napa Valley. And, I thought, it can be done. And I had taken a trip to Seattle and had dinner at the top of the Space Needle, and we had already been doing the all-New York wine list and that was the first time I had seen a food menu where they listed the names of the farms. That was our incentive, now that we made a reputation with wines, to make a commitment to the food. The students were into it. They’ve always been into it. So their parents got pulled into it. I personally thought we were going to get a lot of pushback. But I only remember one story about a guy got up, drove into town, and came back with a bottle of French wine. He would not try a New York State wine. But for the most part people would try them and they’d be surprised. They weren’t always really impressed. I don’t think we disappointed a lot of people and we probably were responsible for educating a lot of them.