by Susan Mikula Campbell
While so many Western New Yorkers have waved goodbye to their youngsters heading out to greener pastures elsewhere, Oscar and Melinda Vizcarra are keeping their three grown children here in Niagara County by providing good jobs.
And, those jobs are with a traditionally declining business - the family farm.
The Vizcarras have built success by changing with the times ... and adding wine to the menu.
Their farm, founded by Melinda's great-grandfather in 1894, is Becker Farms in Gasport, on the eastern side of Niagara County. Their latest venture is bringing their wines to potential customers in the western end of the county by opening a satellite wine shop inside the Mill Marketplace, 5890 Ward Road, Sanborn.
Melinda grew up on Becker Farms. By the time the farm was handed down to Melinda's mother, her father was working at General Motors and was only a part-time farmer. She and Oscar have been full-time farmers since they married and planted their first strawberries in 1979.
Becker Farms has been known as a fruit farm for 25 years and is a popular stop for pick-your-own enthusiasts.
"People don't can and freeze like they used to. We had excess fruit and were looking for another market, another way to sell our fruit," Melinda said.
Oscar visited wineries in the Finger Lakes and Long Island, and came back saying, "They're not any smarter than we are."
Vizcarra Vineyards was born in 2004.
The couple started with about 10 different wines, every year adding different types. Today they offer five reds, six whites and nine fruit wines.
"We have a wine for everybody," Melinda promises.
There's Red Coop, their newest dry red blend of merlot, rougon and cabernet sauvignon. Or try Barreled Over Niagara, a semi-sweet white table wine, with fruity white grape characteristics. The specialty fruit wines are a treat. Rhuberry has a sweet strawberry start and a semi-dry rhubarb finish. Emperor Cherry tastes just like a tart cherry pie (the Vizcarras recommend pairing it with dark rich chocolate). With Spiced Apple, imagine a big green apple with a hint of mulling spices.
Mill Marketplace is an antiques, collectibles and gift co-op. A friend of the family, who has one of the shops in the co-op, recommended the Vizcarras consider opening a satellite shop there to attract both tourists and antique hunters.
"This way, they can have a great shopping experience and at the same time, enjoy our wine," Melinda said. "We love our place in the country, but not everyone wants to drive that far."
Lou Ann Gosch, owner of the Mill Marketplace, calls the pairing of her business' usual shops with the wine satellite "just unique," not to mention mutually beneficial.
Tours and tourist groups already are planning to stop at the Mill Marketplace for the wines this summer, bringing in extra customers, Gosch said. Summer months are usually slow for the antiques/collectibles shops because they are competing with garage sales and outdoor flea markets. By contrast, business heats up for her co-op during the fall and winter months, when wine tours might not be as active, she said.
Currently, the Vizcarra Vineyards satellite shop in the Mill Marketplace is open for wine tastings from noon to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but the Vizcarras may expand the hours during the summer. Bottles of Vizcarra wines can be purchased anytime during regular Mill Marketplace hours - 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday.
Becker Farms/Vizcarra Vineyards on Quaker Road in Gasport is part of the Niagara Wine Trail. The farm also offers itself as a site for weddings and parties. In the busy season, the Vizcarras hire about 60 local people, who don't have to drive far to get good jobs. Their oldest employee, an 85-year-old pie maker, retired this year because she remarried and was too busy to work, Melinda said.
Most importantly, the winery has helped ensure that the fifth generation of Melinda's family can stay down on the farm.
"We weren't thinking that was going to be possible," Melinda said.