The Pleasant Valley Wine Company, popularly known as the Great Western Winery, located near the village of Hammondsport, New York, is the oldest winery in the Finger Lakes region. By the 1830’s and 1840’s, European settlers found that the Finger Lakes region provided such favorable growing conditions that grapes had outgrown home production capacities. On March 15, 1860, Charles Davenport Champlin and 12 local businessmen consolidated their holdings under “Articles of Association for the Manufacture of Native Wine” and, with $10,000 capitalization, built the first winery in this region, The Hammondsport and Pleasant Valley Wine Company, which was designated as Bonded Winery No.1 in its State and Federal districts.
The original winery was constructed on land whose price had soared from $10 to $100 an acre in one decade! It was built on a slope owned by Mr. Champlin overlooking Pleasant Valley, two miles south of Hammondsport. All winemaking operations were carried out by Jules and Joseph Masson, noted French-born winemakers of the time, in still-used wooden and stone structures, with adjacent cellars carved deep into the hillside. Eight of these Great Western Winery buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
During the winery’s first year of operation, 18 tons of Isabella and Catawba grapes were harvested, yielding 220 gallons of wine per ton. On August 17, 1862, the first recorded shipment, 100 gallons of wine, left the winery. Business thrived. While the Civil War brought supply and labor shortages, as well as price increases and transportation difficulties, the enterprise was sufficiently successful in 1865 to invest in champagne-producing equipment. Twenty thousand bottles of Sparkling Catawba were made that year. In 1867, this wine was awarded honorable mention at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, the first American Sparkling wine to win an award in Europe. In 1873 in Vienna, the winery’s champagne was awarded first prize and its first European medal; since then the Company’s champagnes have received numerous European gold medals and other awards.
Because of the internationally recognized excellence of Pleasant Valley Champagnes and because of the similarities of climatic and soil conditions between the area and the Champagne district of France, Pleasant Valley came to be called the “Rheims of America.” When the U.S. Postal Service opened a branch at the winery in 1870, it used the postmark, “Rheims, N.Y.”, which was used until 1945 when rural delivery took its place.
Disgorging In March 1871, Mr. Champlin sent a case of champagne to his close friend, Marshall P. Wilder, who was a well-known wine connoisseur in Boston. After introducing it at a dinner party at the Parker House, Wilder declared it to be ”the Great Champagne of the Western World.” The Champagne was thus dubbed ”Great Western.”
Shipping records of the 1860’s, 70’s, and 80’s are filled with such prestigious accounts as S.S. Pierce, Macy’s, Park Tilford, George F. Hueblin and Brother, Palmer House of Chicago, Parker House of Boston and individuals such as Professor Henry W. Longfellow of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Pleasant Valley wines appeared on the lists of the most fashionable restaurants. They were even heartily recommended by doctors for their medicinal qualities.
These were exciting years at Pleasant Valley. From 1872 to 1875, Mr. Champlin and area businessmen built the nine-mile Bath to Hammondsport Railroad to combat price increases of canal transportation. Not only was this a successful business venture, but it also brought tourists to the area to ride the Keuka Lake steamers, such as Lulu and Urbana, at 10 cents a ride. Later, on March 8, 1893, the Pleasant Valley Wine Company was registered as a New York State corporation, with the Champlins and Massons holding 205 of 400 outstanding shares of stock. Adding further excitement, on July 4, 1908, Glenn Curtiss made the first pre-announced airplane flight on the Pleasant Valley flats directly below the winery entrance. The world-renowned Curtiss Museum, dedicated to his flying endeavors and the remarkable decades when Hammondsport epitomized the country’s spirit of innovation, attracts aviation enthusiasts from around the world to its spacious quarters across Pleasant Valley from the winery.
The good news that Pleasant Valley had sold more champagne in the first six months of 1919 than in any previous year was marred on July 1 by the enactment of Prohibition. The winery was left with an inventory of 70,000 cases of champagne and substantial quantities of still wine. Yet it survived the 14 years of Prohibition on sales for sacramental and medicinal purposes.
After Repeal in 1933, the Company progressed steadily. Charles D. Champlin II, grandson of the founder and dean of American champagne makers of his time, managed the operation until his death in 1950. The family retained control of the business until 1955 when it was sold to a company run by Marne Obernauer, a businessman from New Jersey, who officially renamed the winery Pleasant Valley Division of Great Western Producers. In 1961, the winery was acquired by The Taylor Wine Company, its next-door neighbor, which was itself acquired first by The Coca-Cola Company in 1977, then Joseph E. Seagram & Sons in 1983 and finally Vintners International Company, Inc., in 1987. Having survived Prohibition and several ownership changes, the winery returned once again to local family control in 1995.
Great Western Winery has the largest plantings of the vinifera varieties Chardonnay and Riesling in the East, pioneered French-American varietals in the 1960’s, was the first New York State winery to produce natural ice wines and is the only New York winery to have won the Governor’s Cup for the “Best Wine in New York” two years in a row. The winery is the largest producer of bottle-fermented champagnes in the eastern United State and for over a century Great Western Champagnes have been the most-honored American Champagnes in European competition and have enhanced the wine lists of some of the most prestigious American hotels and restaurants.
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