Over a fine lunch that her husband Thijs Verschuuren made for us one recent Saturday afternoon in their Victorian-era house in Montour Falls NY, Katie Cook tells us: “When we were thinking about a name, we originally thought about using a family name or a place name, but ‘Cook’ was already taken and ‘Verschuuren’ is a difficult name. We didn’t have vineyards so we couldn’t really tie it to a lake or place in the Finger Lakes so we started looking at Iroquois names and words. Onyare is a character in a fictional tale, we liked the idea of storytelling using wine, so it made sense. Plus Onyare is a lake monster (dragon-like horned water serpent), it fit right in’”
When asked about their winemaking philosophy, Katie says “We prefer to let the grapes do the talking, but there is a reason you call it winemaking. You don’t just pick the grapes and let them do what they want. Decisions must be made: picking decisions, how long and slow do you press, how high do you go on your press. how clear do you settle your juice, do I add sulfur and yeast? It’s like being a parent, sometimes you can be hands off and sometimes you have to set some rules and boundaries. Sometimes the kids get out of hand and it’s time to be a little tighter.”
Originally from the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, Katie had no family involvement in the wine industry, and as a young woman she never thought of wine as a career. Her interest in soccer and biology brought her to college in Houston, Texas, where a wine appreciation class piqued her interest in fine wine. “I didn’t want to work in an office setting and wear a business suit every day. I wanted to get my hands dirty and be outside. In Houston my interest was in environmental science, doing things like wetland restoration.” After graduating she received job offers in environmental science because of her connections there: “As a naive 22 year old, I thought I could go back home to Minnesota and just as easily find work there, but everybody wished I had more education or experience.” After thinking about applying to grad school for a degree in Environmental Science, she decided that she needed to travel.
Katie found a three month wine program in the south of France, where she would learn about sommelier topics, learn about wine regions and learn some French. At the time, she still didn’t see wine as a career, she saw this program as simply building a life skill and hobby. Her teacher, a top sommelier in France, had a small winery, so she got a lot of exposure to the vineyard and production. “The biologist in me was fascinated by how production methods and terroir influenced wine’s flavor. I didn’t want to work in restaurants, because I had been working in restaurants through high school and college, so maybe wine production was what I wanted to do.”
In 2006 she traveled to Quintessa winery in Napa Valley to help with the harvest. “After the harvest, I thought ‘this is what I want to do with my life’. I had so much fun! I loved every part of it, including cleaning out the tanks.” She realized there was much more to be learned about winemaking, she considered going to school in California to study Enology. The winemaker at Quintessa told her “You just came from France, why aren’t you thinking about studying in France?”
Still wanting to travel as much as possible, Katie left to help with a harvest in Argentina in January of 2007 and returned that May. She was accepted to the University of Burgundy in June and on a plane to France in July.
In 2009, Katie completed a Masters level program Enology.. “I did a six month internship in Alsace at Domaine Zind-Humbrecht while there, and I was very interested in learning more about biodynamics. That was a great experience, and I fell in love with the Riesling up there.” Katie continued exploring Riesling by working in Australia’s Great Southern Region. While in Australia, the opportunity arose to return to her home state of Minnesota and take a position at the University of Minnesota. It was during research collaboration with Cornell University that she had the opportunity to travel to the Finger Lakes and began to fall in love with the region.
Thijs Verschuuren was born in the Netherlands, moved to France when he was six and raised in the the Loire Valley in the heart of Muscadet. He grew up in the kitchen of his family’s restaurant working alongside his father. However, at the age of 16 he worked for a local winery, Domaine Michel Bertin, during harvest and decided to pursue his studies in viticulture and enology. He was fortunate to live near Campus Briace, a private high school that specializes in Agriculture and Horticulture. He received a “Brevet Technical Superieur degree in Viticulture and Enology in 2009.
Thijs spent the next several years working for wineries in the Loire Valley, Bordeaux, and Alsace. At 24 years old, he was excited to travel and see more of the wine world. When an opportunity to work at Dr Frank’s in the Finger Lakes fell through, he was connected with a start-up winery in Minnesota. Thijs was asked to help the owners establish a winery there, which, although it made him a little nervous, he was successful. At the time, he was sending wine samples to a researcher at University of Minnesota by the name of Katie Cook. After a long courtship that included a long-distance romance while Thijs took a position at a winery in Tuscany, then worked with a Biodynamic producer in Muscadet, they were married in November of 2013. Together they traveled in 2014 to the Finger Lakes to take jobs at Hermann J. Wiemer. Katie became the assistant winemaker and Thijs became the vineyard manager.
At Wiemer, Katie worked the 2014 and 2015 harvests. “In 2015 we did our first production of Onyare. We had just worked two 12 plus hour shifts at Wiemer when we went to Shaw Vineyards to press our own grapes. It was cold and raining and we said: something has to change if we want to start our own project.” Katie left Wiemer to take a job with Scott Laboratories (a supplier of winemaking products), where her hours are a bit more flexible – especially during harvest.
They have two vintages in bottle: A 2015 Riesling named “Beautiful Little Fool” (A “Great Gatsby” reference. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Minnesota native) and a 2016 Riesling named “Nostalgie” which they hope to release in the spring. The 2015 vintage (160 cases) had lots of botrytis, underwent a long and gentle press cycle of six hours, used spontaneous fermentation and became a rich, full-bodied wine with the wonderful botrytis flavors. The 2016 vintage (also 160 cases) was “a beautiful vintage”. With a long fermentation cycle, the malolactic fermentation mostly occurred along with the primary fermentation, producing a wine that has a steeliness and racy acidity and is bone dry with a salivating sharpness.
Katie and Thijs wish to remain a relatively small winery, someday perhaps producing 2000 cases. They are currently producing their wines at Element Winery in Arkport, NY but hope to have about 20 acres under vine and a small tasting room where they can give their customers individual attention. They would like to be able to produce Riesling, Chardonnay, Cab Franc, and perhaps Pinot Noir.
Information about their wines, where to buy locally and online, and contacting them can be found at their website: https://www.onyarewine.com
P.S. They will both be at Barry Family Cellars on March 10th from 2pm to 6pm, pouring their wines along with other small-batch winemakers.