New York State produces fine wines that rival those from prestigious wine regions around the globe. Finding those wines on a restaurant menu or on the shelves of a bottle shop isn’t as difficult as it once was, but it’s also not yet as common as it should be.
Wine lovers who enjoy drinking quality New York wines frequently must go to a winery’s tasting room or head to their website to purchase the wines they love, simply because the winery has obstacles to getting those wines to people in other ways. Enter Darrell Carey, sales representative at Empire Merchants North, Upstate New York’s premier wine and spirits distributor. He champions New York wines and ensures they get pride of place in bottle shops, on restaurant lists, and on bar menus.
Darrell has been repping wines for the distributor for five years. As a resident of Geneva, located in the heart of the Finger Lakes, he knows firsthand why Empire carries New York wines in its portfolio. They deserve to be there alongside wines from California, Willamette Valley, Champagne, Loire, Mosel, and other established regions.
Marrying Into the Business
Darrell started in the wine industry in an unconventional way—through marriage.
“My father-in-law was a distributor for Empire Merchants North. My brother-in-law was a sales rep for a beer company,” he says. He started with the beer company when he moved to the Finger Lakes region. He worked his way up from being a merchandiser to a sales rep and eventually went into the liquor side of the company.
But, when his father-in-law retired from Empire, he applied for his route, and was given the job.
“When I came over to Empire, we probably had 10 to 12 New York wines at the time,” he says. “We’ve added more since then.”
He reps wines from Seneca Lake, Keuka Lake, the Hudson Valley, and Long Island, carrying samples from the wineries to buyers in retail establishments, restaurants, and bars. His job is to convince them that their customers will want to buy these wines.
Believing in the Wines
Convincing buyers to purchase wines is easier to do when you believe in the wine, and Darrell clearly believes in New York State wines.
“I love the sense of local and keeping the money in the community,” he says. “If we can get a product from our community that’s just as good quality-wise as from another area, why not keep that money in our own community.”
Because many of his accounts are in the heart of the Finger Lakes, several of his customers already believe in the wines, too.
“I am very fortunate. My accounts are very Finger Lakes-centric. I have stores that have over 30 or 40 feet of just Finger Lakes or New York State wines.”
His job is to open people’s eyes to what is available from the state. Whites are easier to sell because they’re very approachable, he finds, but he’s a big believer in New York Cabernet Franc and enjoys introducing those wines, in addition to many others, to buyers.
“I think New York reds get knocked a little bit, but people need to appreciate them for what they are,” says Darrell. “If you go to Argentina or Chilean wines, they aren’t going to drink like California, but that doesn’t mean it’s not high quality.”
People tend to understand that, and he likes to help buyers understand that New York wines have their own sense of place. He does find that, increasingly, many of them already know that.
“My favorite part of my job, especially in my area, is the willingness of my customers to support the New York wine industry. It’s not just wines. I’ve seen a growth with New York State spirits as well,” he says. Part of Darrel’s job is to sell spirits, also.
Recognition for Support of New York Wine
Because of his passion for promoting New York wines alongside other fine wines from around the world, Darrel was honored with the Ron Reals Distributor Award in the 2023 New York Wine & Grapes Foundation Unity Awards. The award recognizes achievement in distributing and promoting New York wines.
It’s named to honor its first recipient, Ron Reals, a pioneer in the Finger Lakes wine industry, who received it in 2005. He passed away in 2016, and the award took on his name in his honor.
It’s exciting for Darrell to win the award. The recognition is special, of course, but the Reals family is also special to him. When he first came into this industry one of the people to mentor and train him was Ron’s brother Rob Reals. He also had Ron’s son Jordan as one of his merchandisers when he worked on the beer side.
“To be able to receive this award with the name that’s tied to it, and knowing the dedication Ron put into New York state wine, it was very rewarding,” says Darrell.
The Unity Awards were created in 1990 as a way to recognize, encourage, and celebrate cooperation among grape growers, wineries (and their staff), researchers, retailers and others to advance the entire industry. The winery and grower community in New York state has a rich history of working and succeeding together despite facing a variety of challenges through the years. Recognizing the longstanding and bold spirit of our community members and their numerous achievements, the New York Wine & Grape Foundation is proud to continue honoring industry leaders & champions of New York wine for more than 30 years.