N.Y. Wine Group Plans for Succession

Jim Trezise to transition into 'president emeritus' status at New York Grape & Wine Foundation

by Linda Jones McKee
Jim Trezise speaks during the announcement of the 2015 Governor’s Cup Wine Competition in August. Photo: New York State Governor’s Office
Canandaigua, N.Y.—Trent Preszler, CEO of Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, N.Y., and chairman of the board of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, announced Jan. 10 in the foundation’s weekly newsletter, The Wine Press, that Jim Trezise had decided to “step aside at the end of 2016.” Trezise has been president of the NYWGF since it was established in May 1985.

When contacted about his decision to step aside, Trezise told Wines & Vines with great emphasis, “I’m not retiring! We decided to announce our plans now, because we’re in an unusual situation. I told the board two years ago that we needed to do some succession planning. This is a complicated organization and a complicated job, and we need to plan for a transition just like wineries need to do. We plan to take the time to find the right person for leadership in the key aspects of the organization.”

He continued, “We want to find someone to take over fundraising, the administration of the foundation, the political role both within the industry and in Albany (the state capital of New York), and communications. We’re getting the official word out to let people know what’s happening so we can start getting resumes in, review them, cull them, then interview people. We’re looking for someone who can provide leadership in the key aspects of the organization, to preserve and develop the foundation and take it to the next level.” Trezise then plans to work with the person to transition him or her into the job, to introduce them to the wine and grape industry and to the political scene in Albany.

As the new person transitions into the role of executive director, Trezise will move into a position that could be described as that of “president emeritus.” He wants to become more involved in the foundation’s export program, for example, and plans to continue his involvement with several national and international organizations that focus on key issues facing the grape and wine industry around the world, including WineAmerica (where he is on the executive committee and the board of directors), the International Riesling Foundation (he is the founder and president), the council of FIVS (formerly Fédération Internationale des Vins et Spiritueux, based in Paris, France), the National Grape and Wine Initiative and the Wine Market Council. He will also continue serve as a professional wine judge at numerous wine competitions and as a speaker at wine conferences.

The New York wine and grape industry is in a very different place today than it was in 1985. (See “New York Wine’s Overnight Success.”) At that time, Taylor Wine Co. had announced it was canceling all grape contracts for both Taylor and Gold Seal Vineyards, grape prices were falling, wineries were closing and vineyards were being abandoned. Then-Gov. Mario Cuomo realized in late 1983 that the industry was in desperate straits and decided to come up with legislation that would provide assistance to the struggling industry.

Cuomo asked his then-commissioner of agriculture and markets, Joe Gerace, to find a solution for him. Gerace in turn contacted Trezise, who at that point was president of the New York Wine Council, a small organization of grapegrowers and winemakers with an office in Penn Yan, N.Y. Trezise wrote a white paper for the governor (in less than 48 hours) that detailed a four-point integrated plan to help the grape and wine industry. A bill based on Trezise’s solutions was signed by the governor in May 1984 to allow the sale of low-alcohol wine coolers in food stores (but not wine), the tasting of New York wine in liquor stores and the deregulation of some burdensome restrictions while also offering new marketing opportunities. The creation of the NYWGF had to wait until the following year for passage and implementation.

As Preszler stated in The Wine Press, “Much has changed for the better during Jim’s leadership tenure. The New York grape, wine and juice industry has grown dramatically in terms of volume, quality, and respect.” Today New York has more than 400 wineries located in 59 of New York’s 62 counties, five American Viticultural Areas, 20 wine trails and approximately 18,500 acres of vineyard. With its value-added multiplier effect, the grape and wine industry generates $4.8 billion annually in economic benefits and adds 25,000 full-time equivalent jobs in the state of New York.

“Scientific research funded by NYWGF at Cornell University has been a vital force for dramatic improvements in quality, productivity and sustainability,” Preszler noted. “A wide range of promotional programs has generated greater awareness and respect for our industry worldwide, including wine trails, highway signage, wine competitions, international export promotion and a public relations campaign in New York City.”

Trezise grew up in Rochester, N.Y., graduated from Allegheny College with a degree in psychology. While finishing a master’s degree in international communications from American University he lived for three years in France (drinking primarily red wine from Algeria) and then moved back to Washington, D.C. He worked for several years for Conrail, ultimately becoming director of corporate communications. Meanwhile, his parents retired and moved from Rochester to Keuka Lake, and Trezise and his wife decided to move to the Finger Lakes.

By chance, Trezise met Doug Knapp, owner of Knapp Vineyards on Cayuga Lake and a member of the New York Wine Grape Growers. NYWGG had received a marketing order and hired Trezise to be director of the organization. The Taylor Wine Co. objected to the marketing order, however, and took it to court. In June 1982, the court threw out the marketing order, and at that point there was no money to fund the NYWGG. Trezise told Wines & Vines, “The Grape Growers told me, ‘If you want to stay, we’ll make it happen.’ They tried to figure out a solution and dug into their empty pockets to keep the Trezise family afloat.”

In late 1982 Bert Silk, vice president at the Canandaigua Wine Co. and a member of another industry group, the New York Association of Wine Producers, convinced members of that organization to merge with the NYWGG to form the New York Wine Council, with Trezise as president. His task at the council was to work on projects that had grapes and wine in common. It was in October 1983 that Gov. Mario Cuomo saw the article in The New York Times about the problems facing the grape and wine industry in N.Y., and stepped in to find a solution. As stated above, the ultimate result of that initiative on the part of Cuomo was the creation of the NYWGF in 1985.

“I share one voice with the board that we are profoundly grateful for Jim’s 30 years of excellence, and I am confident we will build on Jim’s tremendous success,” Preszler stated. “On behalf of everyone in the New York grape, wine and juice industry, I would like to thank Jim Trezise for 30 years of dedication, excellence and, most importantly, his friendship. Jim is the ultimate champion, a tireless promoter, a supremely skilled administrator and our most enthusiastic ambassador. We look forward to a smooth and successful transition.”

Read more about “New York Wine’s ‘Overnight’ Success” in the December 2015 issue of Wines & Vines.

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