Just off West State Street in Ithaca, over a one-lane bridge and at the end of Taber Street stands Ports of New York winery, owned and operated by Frédéric and Joanna Bouché. For 100 years, the Bouché family has been making French-style wines with unique flavors, and on Sept. 22, Frédéric and Joanna are celebrating a century of winemaking at their Ithaca-based business.
“All these barrels are full,” Frédéric will tell anyone eager for a tour of Ports of New York, located at 815 Taber St. in Ithaca, where dozens of large barrels are stacked on the walls.
As husband and wife team Frédéric and Joanna can attest, Ports of NY is more than just a winery. In addition to producing four different French-style wines – two table wines and two port wines – the Bouchés house plenty of winemaking antiques passed down from Frédéric’s family, who, beginning in 1919 in Normandy, France, started a winemaking business that would withstand even World War II.
Frédéric’s great-grandfather, Armand Bouché, began shipping base wines from the family vineyards in Buzet to Lisieux, where he purchased a set of buildings as home and production site for blending, aging and bottling wines. He opened his winery, locally known as Maison Bouché, in 1919, Frédéric said.
In 1944, on D-Day, the Lisieux was bombed by Ally forces to stop Nazi advances, causing approximately 80% of the city to be destroyed and the death of 10% of the population. In this bombing, a bomb landed in the courtyard of the winery and Bouché home but did not explode, allowing the Bouché business to continue.
Frédéric’s grandfather continued Maison Bouché after the war and finally sold it in 1993. Frédéric learned most of the winemaking traditions he practices today from his grandfather, but as Frédéric explained, it wasn’t always that way.
“I actually broke that tradition, and not only me, but my father [as well],” Frédéric said. “It was fairly archaic at that time, so I went my own way and eventually became an artist.”
Before Frédéric took up the mantel as winemaker, he was an artist whose medium was large-scale installations. He married Joanna in ’84 and came to Ithaca from France in ’94 after she got a position at Cornell University. After over 16 years of exhibitions, Frédéric said, it was time for a change.
In 2003, there was a law that allowed the exporting of wine from New York state, allowing the Bouchés to start an urban winery specializing in old-world, port vinification method wines.
“The wine industry at that point in this region started to make a lot more money because they started to export their wine … and the wine became a lot better as a result,” Joanna said. “Along with that, which benefited us tremendously, is that the tourist industry has grown enormously. … So, we grew in parallel with what was happening in the region.”
The Finger Lakes is no stranger to wineries, so Joanna and Frédéric knew that, to do well in the region, they’d have to find their niche. Thankfully, Frédéric’s long-standing winemaking traditions helped them do just that, providing a space that is as much of a wine-making facility as it is a museum showing how the wine is made.
“We understood that these antiques that we have here, it’s a different angle that no other winery has, so we offer an experience that is quite unusual, a lot more educative than most wineries,” Frédéric said. “As a result, we have a quality of people that come here that really enjoy what we have to offer, and a lot of people look forward to that.”
Frédéric and Joanna spent a long time before the business opened in 2010 in Ithaca creating a unique experience for customers. Frédéric used his artistic skills to build the entire winery, using architectural salvage to create a façade of a 19th century storefront and make it look like it’s always been there.
“There was a lot of thought and creative energy that went into this, and that’s something that was very satisfying,” Joanna said.
Joanna said deciding what to sell also required focusing on a niche market, especially since Ports of NY is not part of the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail.
“In starting this winery, we decided we didn’t want to do yet another Riesling, yet another wine that was well-represented here,” she said. “We also wanted to work with Frederic’s background, his knowledge, his traditions, so the style of wines that we offer, for the most part, are different from what most wineries do.”
In just the past nine years, Ports of NY has faced its fair share of challenges and changes, including turning down an offer to go wholesale.
“It was a hard [decision] to make because that was a big check coming in, but at the same time, it would’ve sun all the aging we had done, and we would have buried that whole project,” Frédéric said. “It became clear that it was more important to keep the business artisanal, very small, to keep that quality.”
One of the things Frédéric and Joanna said they enjoy most is interacting with customers. Whether they’re a wine aficionado or completely new to the practice, spending quality time with guests is both good for business and a reassurance that Ports of NY has a place in the community.
“There’s an aspect that is a challenge that is somewhat fascinating to us, is to win over a customer that is a little uneasy, suspicious about the veracity of what we have to offer,” Frédéric said. “To win them over is a fantastic pleasure.”
Starting Ports of NY was no easy process, but, as Frédéric and Joanna agree, it’s well worth it.
“It’s a lifestyle; it’s not a job,” Frédéric said.
Joanna, too, said that, though the winemaking tradition is not with her side of the family, she is glad it became her tradition, too.
“It’s a part of my life that is very meaningful to me, and I share in that sense of tradition even if it came at a later point in my life,” Joanna said.
Ports of NY would not be where it is today without area-wide help. Joanna and Frédéric are committed to being 100% Finger Lakes-sourced, with good relationships with distillers and growers in the region. Ithaca Legislator Rich John joined as partner in the production of fine table wines in 2015.
“A Centennial Celebration: exhibition and tastings” will take place on Sept. 22 at 4 p.m. at Ports of New York to celebrate the Bouchés and their family traditions. The event is free, but please register ahead of time via this link, by calling Ports of NY at 607-220-6317 or by visiting the winery in Ithaca.
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