By Laura Ness
If you’re one of the many wineries—or consumers—that have benefited over the years from the ability to ship across state lines and increased access to choice, you can thank James (Jim) Trezise. He’s been on the front lines helping wineries survive in the face of the 3-tier distribution debacle, guaranteeing that wine lovers can get more of the wines they want, and thereby helping grow the US market for boutique wines.
A native New Yorker born in Rochester, he’s a longtime resident of Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes, and holds a Master of Arts degree in International Communications from American University in Washington, DC and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Allegheny College.
Since 2017, Trezise has been President of WineAmerica, the National Association of American Wineries, which represents over 500 member wineries from 44 states. Prior to that, he served for more than 25 years on the Executive Committee of the organization’s Board of Directors, helping to protect and enhance the business climate for the American wine industry through national grassroots public policy advocacy.
About his entry into the wine world, Tresize explains it was true serendipity, involving midwives (his then wife was one), Mennonites (a village of them in NY needed a midwife), and being in the right place when opportunity knocked. “In 1981, I had a secure, well-paying job as Director of Corporate Communications in a big Philadelphia company, which I left to take a huge pay cut running a nonprofit called the New York State Wine Grape Growers Association. It was a depressed industry during a recession. Smart? And in six months it all fell apart, but I refused to quit, and the destitute grape growers kept us alive, so I could go to Albany and get legislation to help. At that time, the NY grape industry was in danger of collapse, but we were able to turn it around with unity, grit, and public policy.”
There were 30 wineries in New York at that time: today, they number around 450.
An article in the New York Times, on a Friday in October of 1983, alerted the late great former Governor, Mario M. Cuomo, about the crisis in New York vineyards. Cuomo asked his Ag Commissioner for a solution by the next Monday at noon, and the Ag Commissioner tapped Trezise to create it. According to Trezise, four key elements comprised the solution: New York wine sales in grocery stores, winery deregulation, New York wine tastings in liquor stores, and the creation of a statewide promotion and research agency.
Says Trezise, “The first ended up as wine coolers (not wine), but essentially all four passed and, in combination, turned around the industry, which soon became the fastest growing industry in the large agricultural and tourism sectors of New York’s economy. The first three were immediate, short-term fixes, whereas the last (to be called New York Wine & Grape Foundation) was for the long term. Its major accomplishments have been to unify the industry, consolidate programs of promotion and research, grow the industry statewide, and get New York recognized as a true player in the world of wine.”
He gives all credit to those stalwart farmers who took money out of their own pockets to pay him, so he could continue to fight on their behalf.
Among them, he points to Bert Silk, then Vice President of Canandaigua Wine Company, Neil Simmons (Simmons Vineyards) and Monty Stamp (Lakewood Vineyards). “The grape growers are the salt of the earth,” he says.
Trezise is revered for his efforts in helping open up New York State for direct shipments from out of state wineries, in the face of objection from retailers and distributors. He credits many with assisting him in the effort, including Pete Saltonstall, winemaker/owner of Treleaven Wines in Cayuga County of New York. Trezise says Pete laid his livelihood on the line, as distributors literally tried to shut his business down. The two worked to lobby the New York State Liquor Commission to allow direct shipment of wines into the state. Key was the outcome of the case that Ken Starr (yes, that Ken Starr) was arguing before the Supreme Court in May of 2005. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot ban out-of-state wineries from shipping wine directly to consumers while allowing in-state wine producers to do so.
It easily could have gone the other way. “What a crazy ride it was! So many New York wineries now rely on their shipping clubs as an important revenue steam. Jim was on the front line to help make that happen,” says Saltonstall. “He was the best cheerleader and mentor. He really showed me the ropes on how to work through the legislative process to get things done.”
For Trezise, unity, mentoring, membership, and respect are the words he lives by. “’Diversity is our Strength. Unity is our Power,’ has been my sermon for the last 37 years, whether at a state or national level. It is not just a phrase, but the truth. My principal role and value, I believe, is bringing people together and convincing them to believe in themselves and each other.”
One of WineAmerica’s supremely important accomplishments under his leadership has been passing of excise tax reform under the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, which he considers by far the most significant and far-reaching. “This is largely the work of WineAmerica Vice President, Michael Kaiser: I rarely get directly involved in the specific issues or lobbying.”
What he does get involved in is leading and mentoring. Talk to anybody who has worked with him and they rush to superlatives.
Marty Clubb of L’Ecole 41 Winery in the Walla Walla Valley, is Chairman of the Board of WineAmerica, and has known Trezise for 20 years. “Jim has a unique ability to keep the big picture top of mind. He often stands up to thank several people for their important work for the industry, inspiring the rest of us to work harder. Jim is everyone’s friend, but he can also be direct and to the point, but does so in a manner that garners respect even if you are getting slightly put down in the process. His industry outreach has helped WineAmerica broaden its grassroots outreach. Jim pumped blood into the New York wine industry, creating in its early years the inspiring logo ‘Uncork New York.’”
Janie Heuck took over her family’s winery, Brooks Winery, in Oregon 15 years ago when her brother passed suddenly, in 2004. She met Trezise when he came to encourage Oregon producers to take part in his International Riesling Foundation. “Riesling has always been Brooks’ primary white varietal so I was eager to get involved,” says Heuck, who subsequently joined the board. Trezise also asked her to be on the board of WineAmerica: she moves to the chair position in 2020.
Of his leadership, she says, “Jim’s commitment to any organization he works with—whether a paid or volunteer position—is approached with the same energy, investment of time and care for the overall good of the mission, vision and people involved. Considering I am on two Boards and about to lead both says a lot for how he has inspired me—all in addition to my full time job at Brooks. I only hope I can do as good as a job as he does!”
Highly lauded throughout the wine world, Trezise has received many awards over the years. Asked which means the most to him, he says, “The Wine Integrity Award from the Lodi Winegrape Commission is especially meaningful because of what it stands for, and because other recipients include people like Robert Mondavi, Robert Young, Karen Ross, and Dr. Curt Ellison. The ‘Jim Trezise Lifetime Achievement Award’ from the New York Wine & Grape Foundation is also very special, given that the organization is my ‘baby, and I’ve spent about 35 years nurturing it.”
And he’s not done nurturing yet. There’s no question he’s still on a much-broader mission, naming climate change, consumer change, and neo-Prohibitionism as the top issues facing the wine industry. He’s optimistic that the industry can address them all, but it’s going to take a lot of smart people working together to fight them.
One of those people is Trent Prezler of Bedell Cellars on Long Island, New York, who met Trezise 20 years ago as a Master’s student at Cornell. “He took the time to meet me in his office and answer a thousand questions about New York wine. From the very first time we met he was always so gracious and generous with his time, and was a relentless promoter of New York wines.” Prezler later served on the Board of the NY Wine & Grape Commission, as well as on the Board of WineAmerica, of which he was a former Chair.
Says Prezler, “Jim is inspiring to so many people because he is just so relentlessly passionate about what he does. He is always ‘on’ in every conversation and appearance and meeting, always has done his background research and is armed with the right talking points to put everyone in the room at ease. He is the ultimate diplomat and spokesperson. He was particularly successful at bringing dissimilar parties to the table to find consensus, like when he helped us navigate a transition in WineAmerica where there was some staff turnover and we had winery members making anywhere from 900 cases to 9 million cases. He’s always been a champion of the ‘unity is our strength’ mantra, which has worked quite successfully on Capitol Hill with our legislative and policy efforts on behalf of the American wine sector.”
Asked what can be done to help fight the industry’s challenges, Trezise encourages you to first, join organizations (local, regional, national) that are protecting and enhancing your business interests. Second, get and stay educated in terms of what the key issues are. Third, show up, stand up, and speak up. “We need to remain vigilant and proactive. Don’t assume that other people are going to take care of everything for you.”