Many of you with a dry, childish sense of humor might think the answer is: ‘To get to the other side’. And while you are of course correct, this isn’t my point…
Pleasant Valley Wine Company, mid-1800’s: Like many other Europeans during this time, our Frenchmen, Joseph Masson, crossed the ocean to begin a new life in a free land, in hopes of prosperity. Specifically, Masson wanted to craft sparkling wines out of native American grapes in Ohio. I am sure that his compatriots in the French wine world laughed him out of the country, and wished him a half-heartedly ‘bon voyage’. But soon after his arrival in the U.S. he was offered the head winemaker job at a visionary winery in the Finger Lakes of central New York.
Central New York, especially the Finger Lakes region, is blessed with a slightly more moderate climate and rich soils that other parts of the State. Thus, during the 1800’s it was a large supplier of food and alcoholic beverage to New York City, Chicago, Boston, and other important nearby cities of the time. Many immigrants from Europe, like Masson, coming off a boat at Ellis Island, eventually found their way north-west to the fertile lands of the Finger Lakes. When driving through Finger Lakes wine country sometimes you wonder if you’ve had too much wine and are hallucinating as you pass signs for ‘Florence’ ‘Vienna’ ‘Paris’ ‘Rome’ ‘Venice’ ‘New Berlin’ ‘Verona’, among others, as the new farmers and winegrowers tried to create a sense of home. In fact, Pleasant Valley Wine Company was created in, what became for a long time, the town of Rheims (in reference to the top Champagne producing area of France).
In 1860, Charles Champlin and twelve other businessmen and winegrowers put together $10,000 (well over a quarter million dollars today) and founded the Pleasant Valley Wine Company. With this move it became the first bonded winery in United States history; A number now exceeding 6,500. They had the intent of producing quality mass-distributed wines, with a specific vision on sparkling wine. That’s where our Frenchman Joseph Masson came into play. Building on his old-world experience Masson crafted what would become known as the “Great Western” champagne, after a Boston-based wine aristocrat served it at a dinner at the Parker House with high acclaim.
His American champagne’s quickly became the flagship wines of the United States’ top restaurants and they went on to win awards at serious wine competitions through Europe for years to come. After Joseph Masson’s death, his brother Jules took over, and then Jules’ son Victor. This local, family-run operation produced quality wine for a century (surviving through prohibition by making sacramental wines), until the mid-1900’s when big business took over.
Pleasant Valley Wine Company, late-1900’s: In 1977 none other than beverage giant Coca-Cola purchased the Pleasant Valley Wine Company in a move to expand their portfolio. Instead of continuing to purchase grapes off local grape growers and their own supply of over 900 acres, they decided to buy grapes from California instead. Cue the downfall of “Great Western” quality champagne. I guess they decided the wine business wasn’t for them, so they passed the reigns onto their mixed-drink compatriot, Seagam & Sons in the early 1980’s. The multiple transitions of ownership, a move away from French trained winemakers, and the use of the native varieties like Catawba, Isabella, Delaware, and Concord in dry wines with naturally foxy aromas and a flat palate, diminished what was once a great ‘Champagne house’.
Pleasant Valley Wine Company, Today: Big business is a far cry from the small-town vibe of the Finger Lakes today. Of course there are larger wineries in the region that have either consolidated with, or bought out smaller ones, but the ‘Gallo effect’ has yet to harm the Finger Lakes in any large way. In fact, there is a strong assertion from the producers of this region to stay relatively small and welcoming, with a focus on quality over quantity. Since 1860 the region has grown to over 200 wineries and dozens of grape growers. The vast majority producing high-quality dry wines from European varietals.
If you do miss the sometimes deliciously sweet wines made from native varieties though, you can still find them at Pleasant Valley Wine Company, which was purchased back by a local family in 1995. No matter your personal preference on wine, it’s imperative that you take a tour of the eight building facility that is the Pleasant Valley Wine Company today. Especially if you’re checking off places on the National Register of Historic Places list. You’ll be led through the underground cellars where Masson and his followers have made and stored the Great Western champagne for over 150 years. You’ll see giant 100,000 gallon tanks, some made of redwood trees. You’ll get a look into their famous sherry production, in which each bottle today still has a very small percentage of the 1960 vintage in it. You’ll also learn of the work they do today for Welch’s Grape Juice and Sam Adams Brewing.
They were the first. They were one of the most influential. They were and still are the Great Western.0