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Wining and Dining at Culinary Center

New York Wine & Culinary Center becoming top destination point, in part thanks to new manager

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

John Berndt, 62, general manager of New York Wine & Culinary Center with a guest. “He is a great marketer,” said John Urlaub, 57, owner of Rohrbach Brewing Co.
John Berndt, 62, general manager of New York Wine & Culinary Center with a guest. “He is a great marketer,” said John Urlaub, 57, owner of Rohrbach Brewing Co.

John Berndt has a liking for the finer things in life.

It’s not about the expense of the item or activity as much as the appreciation for when something quality is done with care and creativity.

Berndt, general manager of New York Wine & Culinary Center in Canandaigua for the past year, has been instrumental in stretching the reach and scope of the business.

A staple in the heart of the Finger Lakes for the past decade, the mission was to create a gateway for people in New York state, nationwide and worldwide, to experience dynamic agriculture, wine, craft beer and food industries.

After working in international hospitality, Berndt chose to come home and continue his passion for the center and upgrade its services for the industry and community.

“Berndt has maintained the high-quality standard the center has enjoyed since the beginning, but in addition, he is a great marketer,” said John Urlaub, 57, owner of Rohrbach Brewing Company. “He is very proactive in developing new events and programs to drive traffic to the center.”

In one year, several aspects of the center underwent tremendous change, giving it higher visibility in the area through more partnerships with community wineries, additional culinary events and greater employee knowledge about various parts of the business.

“My brother has worked with Wegmans for more than 25 years and I would come to visit the area after being overseas for years. I would visit the culinary center and I was always impressed with what they did,” said Berndt, 62, of Bristol Harbor. “I was an unofficial ambassador when I would go to Oregon, Napa, Australia or New Zealand and see similar centers.”

The center’s state-of-the-art facility overlooking Canandaigua Lake features a hands-on kitchen, demonstration theater, tasting room, private dining room, culinary boutique, and locally sourced restaurant, the Upstairs Bistro. While he was impressed, Berndt understood the Wine and Culinary Center might not be reaching its full potential.

Step back and learn

So when he arrived around Thanksgiving last year as general manager, the first thing he did was spend months as an observer in the offseason.

“I wanted to understand what the public thought of the center and what wineries and the agricultural community thought as well. No matter how good of a job you are doing, you can always improve,” added Berndt. “I wanted to see what the center had accomplished in its first 10 years and develop a strategic plan for what the future would look like.”

In his observation, he noticed most people had positive comments about the center. However, there was a bit of confusion about its mission and goals, and how the combination of services like classes, the restaurant and programs connected with that mission.

“We had to create a clear identity and increase the ability to serve the community and industry,” he said.

Berndt also required that every new employee attend as many different wineries, tastings and festivals in the community as possible in an attempt to build relationships and a better sense of the current winery landscape.

“It was very much important to me that our employees understand the various roles from working a tasting room, attending and learning to teach a class and tending bar to being in our bistro,” he said. “It makes for a well-rounded ambassador.”

Urlaub said the center showcases their products in the bistro and at special events. In addition, the staff benefitted from its many educational programs.

“It is a destination for people interested in New York state and the outstanding agriculture and beverage production we have in the state,” said Urlaub. “It highlights and offers all state craft beverages and educates.”

Bonding with agriculture

As a farmer, Jessica Winum says the NYWCC offers her a market for products and a little time in the spotlight. For her business, Maplestone Farm CSA and Pastured Meats in Stanley, it’s truly a thrill to see their name on the menu and to work with the center on events. Her involvement with the center coincides with Berndt’s presence at the business.

“When we first met him at a meeting there and told him what we did, he was eager to foster more collaboration between the center and our farm,” said Winum. “So, I see in him an excitement for engagement with the local and regional community, and the leadership to give the staff the freedom to be forward-thinking in the ways they work with and highlight New York state agriculture. The center is incredibly important in our community.”

While the year has gone by quickly, the center is not just resting on its success. It wants to be viable well beyond the current landscape.

“We want to be just as relevant in the next 10 years as we are now,” said Berndt. “I am a very positive person and I think this can continue to be a positive vehicle in the community.”