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Local food craze hits booze market, too

The local food trend in the North Country is starting to fill a new niche: alcoholic beverages. And not only are brewers and winemakers crafting their products there, but they're also taking advantage of the rural region to double the local appeal, with homegrown ingredients. Several of these businesses just opened in Jefferson County.

Dave Fralick walks through the vineyards at Cape Winery, in Cape Vincent. It's one of the county's newest wineries. He says he has about five acres of grapes planted now. “And we have five different varieties that we grow here,” he explains. “The Frontenac, the Frontenac gris, the Sabrevois, LaCrescent, and Marquette.”

Fralick says north country winemakers are still learning what these cold-hardy grapes can do. That challenge excites him; these ingredients – and flavors – are completely new.

“And I think that means a lot to some of the consumers,” he says. “'This is the only place I can get this particular wine, off this land, anywhere in the world.'”

Newer to the north country are craft breweries. A hip, high-end one just opened in Watertown. On Skewed Brewing's first days, I heard more than one patron say they felt like they weren't in Watertown. But being in Watertown is really the point: the menu draws on – and helps support – the region's culture and agriculture. Ryan Chaif is co-owner.

“It becomes a communal thing. You go in and say, 'What are you drinking? Oh yeah? Try this!' 'Alright, you try mine!'” he says.

Next I headed to the Clayton Distillery, where co-owner Michael Aubertine is stirring up a concoction with a canoe paddle. He makes gin, vodka, moonshine, and limoncello, with corn from a nearby farm. When the business first started, Aubertine got a hint of the huge demand to come. The magazine Martha Stewart Weddings wanted to feature the distillery in a story on Thousand Islands ceremonies. They asked for sample bottles to photograph.

“I didn't even have the labels yet,” Aubertine says. “So I printed it out on my printer, and took a glue stick and glued it on the bottle, and just mailed the bottles to them.”

Aubertine has been trying to catch up with demand ever since.

Jay Matteson is agricultural coordinator for Jefferson County. He says consumers are flocking to products that merge craft with local ingredients, boosting business for both producers and growers.

“If a beer maker can say, 'Hey, you know I'm using hops grown in Ellisburg, here in Jefferson County, I'm supporting my economy in more ways than one. It tastes great. So that's what I'm hearing constantly, is people are looking for those types of products,” Matteson said.

Both Matteson and the business owners say they're just starting to think about marketing all of these ventures together.