Concord grape innovation awards highlight new opportunities

Six food and beverage producers from across New York took home shares of over $100,000 in prizes Friday at the first New York Concord Grape Innovation Awards, a business competition aimed at stimulating growth and innovation in the state’s Concord grape industry.

The prizes were awarded Dec. 9 at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, where 12 finalists met to pitch their products before a panel of judges.

The competition was hosted and organized by the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture (COE) at Cornell AgriTech and sponsored by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM). At the awards summit, NYSDAM Commissioner Richard Ball stressed the importance of competitions like these for jumpstarting innovation in a sector that’s been part of New York’s agricultural success for more than 200 years.

Cornell impacting New York State

The plans for the competition date back to 2018, when Ball gathered with then-Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, former Senator Catherine Young, who is now executive director of the COE, and Cornell researchers at the New York State Concord Grape Summit in Westfield, New York, to discuss challenges and identify new opportunities for the state’s Concord grape industry.

“As commissioner, it was very exciting for me talk to growers about these challenges, to spend time diving into the issues and the research, and to come up with a plan and make it happen,” Ball said. “It’s so satisfying for me to see the impact.”

Elad Tako, associate professor of food science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is a co-founder of Stil-Bène, Inc., which makes a powdered dietary supplement from grape pomace (skins and seeds left over from pressing grapes) designed to improve digestive health. Stil-Bène took home the top prize in the best new Concord grape-based products category, which includes a $20,000 cash prize and a package of expert support from Cornell valued at $8,000.

Tako, a leading researcher into the health benefits of grape pomace, said he connected with Siena Development Group, a Geneva-based food and beverage product development business, about a year ago with the goal of turning his scientific knowledge into a product that can benefit the public. Their partnership grew to become the company.

“Everything that we did in terms of the grape pomace itself was done here at Cornell AgriTech,” Tako said. “That’s the beauty of the symbiosis with technologies and other companies here, like Siena Development, because this is what they do.”

Westfield Maid Cooperative, one of the largest and oldest marketing grower cooperatives based in the Lake Erie grape growing region, won the top prize in the best new beverage category for its “Good n’ Grapey” Concord grape juice pouches, aimed at supplying school cafeterias. Westfield Maid, the state’s first New York State Grown & Certified juice processor, was part of the 2019 “Grape-to-School” pilot program that aimed to bring New York-grown Concord grape juice to select school districts across the state. Its pilot product used foil-topped plastic juice cups, which often required storage in schools’ already limited freezer space. The new juice pouches are shelf-stable with colorful branding designed to encourage more kids to drink Concord grape juice.

Terry Bates, senior research associate in CALS’ School of Integrative Plant Science and director of the Cornell Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory in Chautauqua County, was one of five judges in the competition. The Lake Erie region of New York and Pennsylvania is home to over 32,000 acres of vineyard, of which nearly 98% is planted to Concord – making it the largest grape growing region in the U.S. outside of California, and the largest Concord growing region in the world. As a judge, Bates said he was looking for products that would use a significant amount of New York’s crop to help boost the industry further on an international scale.

“A competition like this is very important because we have a large and old Concord industry and we need to find new outlets for those products,” he said.

Along with Bates, the judging panel consisted of Olga Padilla-Zakour, professor of food processing, director of the Cornell Food Venture Center and interim director of Cornell AgriTech; Cathy Young, COE executive director; Sam Filler, executive director of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, and Michael Nozzolio, an attorney and former state senator who serves as a director and advisor to several public and private food production companies.

In addition to the prize packages, winning products will also be featured at the 70 Taste NY markets and 10 welcome centers across the state.

First Place winners receive a $20,000 cash prize and a package of expert support valued at $8,000; second Place receives a $10,000 cash prize and a package of expert support valued at $5,000; and third place receives a $5,000 cash prize and a package of expert support valued at $3,500.

Best New Concord Grape Beverage:

  • First Place: Westfield Maid Cooperative (Portland, New York) – “Good ‘n’ Grapey” Concord grape juice pouches
  • Second Place: Pleasant Valley Wine Company (Hammondsport, New York) – The Spiked Vine Artisanal Hard Soda
  • Third Place: Knapp Farm (Lowman, New York) – Concord Switchel

Best New Concord Grape-Based Product:

  • First Place: Stil-Bène, Inc. (Geneva, New York) – Stil-Bène
  • Second Place: Chia Smash (Brooklyn) – Concord Superfood Jam
  • Third place: The Center for Discovery (Harris, New York) – New York State Concord Balsamic Vinegar

Jacob Pucci is the marketing and communications coordinator for the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech. Sarah Thompson is a writer for Cornell AgriTech.

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Lindsey Knewstub