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Bill Wagner

Founder of Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery
1927 – 2010

Wagner Vineyards founder, Bill Wagner, passed away at his home at the age of 83, on June 26, 2010. While he is greatly missed, his legacy lives on in the form of the business he built – literally from the ground up – and the family members that are carrying on.

Bill was regarded as a true pioneer and leader in the New York wine industry. When he started Wagner Vineyards more than 30 years ago, only a handful of wineries existed in the Finger Lakes region. Today there are over 100.

Below is the NYWGF article penned by Jim Trezise, published shortly after Bill’s passing.

BILL WAGNER, one of the true pioneers and great guys of the New York grape and wine industry, passed away last weekend at the ripe age of 83.

Bill was one of a kind: When they created him, they threw away the mold. A tall, thin, lanky farmer with an impish smile under a silver mustache, most at ease in jeans and a denim shirt, Bill was always on the leading edge of experimentation and change. He planted one of the Finger Lakes’ largest and most varietally diverse vineyards, including Native varieties, Cornell creations, and Riesling when it was still highly unknown and seen as risky in the region. The gleam in his eye reflected unbridled optimism: The first time I ever met him, in 1982, he proudly handed me a glass of Wagner 1981 Riesling from vines recovering from the Christmas Massacre of 1980 (sudden deep freeze) and said, “See how tough we are?” The wine was stunning.

He opened his winery in 1979, among the first to capitalize on the Farm Winery Act of 1976, and designed the extremely efficient and iconic octagonal winery with the cellars underground taking advantage of nature’s cooling system. When we got major winery deregulation legislation in 1984, he was the first to establish “satellite stores” in Manhattan, Syracuse, and the Thousand Islands region. He also opened the “Ginny Lee Café”, named for his granddaughter, and later created a micro-brewery which complements great wines and food with great brews.

He was an incredibly healthy guy, always believing that moderate wine consumption with immoderate garlic consumption and regular exercise were keys to longevity—and he proved it.

Bill was afraid of nothing, including failure, and no one, including commercial bullies. His satellite store on East 67th St. in Manhattan didn’t fly, so he closed it. When in 1984 former Governor Mario Cuomo proposed wine in grocery stores to help struggling grape farmers, Bill was quoted in a newspaper as saying that his winery was doing fine in liquor stores, but he also understood the growers’ perspective about the need for a greatly expanded market. His wholesaler called him that day and told him to come and pick up all his wine because they would no longer represent Wagner. That wholesaler is now defunct; Wagner Vineyards lives on.

But to me, the best thing about Bill Wagner was that he was a team player, a good listener, and an upfront guy. He understood the power of unity, as independent a person as he was in so many ways. He was always respectful of other opinions, even when he disagreed and said so, agreeably. He said what he meant, and meant what he said. No need to read between the lines: there weren’t any.

The New York wine industry has grown astronomically since Wagner Vineyards opened decades ago, now with some 50 wineries circling Seneca Lake alone, but it is good for all of us to remember that we stand on the shoulders of Bill Wagner and people like him who had the vision, courage, and commitment to take huge risks and turn them into realities. Happily, his sons John and Stephen and daughter Laura continue that tradition.

- Jim Trezise

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