In 2013 Ollie Sakhno opened the wine bar Keuka Kafe.
Not as you might expect here in the Finger Lakes, home to Keuka Lake, but in Forest Hills in the New York City borough of Queens.
It was on a trip to Lake Placid where Sakhno and his wife, Olga, first experienced Finger Lakes wines — Swedish Hill’s to be exact.
“We were shocked by the authenticity of New York State wines,” Sakhno wrote in an email.
A native of Kiev, Ukraine (Dr. Frank’s native land, as he points out), Sakhno arrived in the U.S. in 1990 and ran a restaurant delivery service from 1995 to 2015.
But his passion was opening up the wine bar in 2013. So far, it’s been a success.
“It’s New York City,” Sakhno said. “If you’re in business after six years that means you’re doing something right.”
On average, Keuka Kafe has about 10 to 12 Finger Lakes wines in stock at any given time in addition to others from around the world. Among the eight now featured “almost spring” wines on the Kafe’s Facebook page are Forge Winery’s Dry Riesling and a Pinot Noir Brut Rose by Goose Watch Winery.
“Since the distribution of Finger Lakes wines is very limited in New York City we carry what we can,” Sakhno said.
Recently, wine dinners have been added to Keuka Kafe’s repertoire. Sakhno said he hopes to stage two a year – one in fall and one in spring. So far Heron Hill, Lakewood Winery and most recently Ravines wines have been showcased at these dinners. Last month, a five-course meal featured Ravines’ 2017 Dry Riesling, 2016 Chardonnay, 2017 Gewurztraminer, 2017 Cabernet Franc and 2018 Pinot Rose. Sakhno said all were great successes.
Another measure of success is the familiarity his customers now have of wines made upstate. At first many are incredulous that such good wines are made so close to home. But they are catching on.
“We consider it our great achievement that most of Forest Hills can pronounce ‘Rkatsiteli,’ ” Sakhno joked.
Over the years that Sakhno has been tasting and selling Finger Lakes wines he has seen an improvement in the production of reds and roses. However he is saddened to see declining interest among wineries in the indigenous varietals in favor of European noble grapes.
“Cayuga, Delaware and such put the Finger Lakes on the map and now they’re being abandoned,” he said.
Last year Sakhno eclipsed his record and visited the region five times. Over the years he said he has developed a great friendship with Ravines owners Morten and Lisa Hallgren as well as close ties to both Steve Shaws of Shaw Winery, Erin McMurrough of Lakewood and John McGregor of McGregor Winery.
McMurrough, brands manager for Lakewood, said the Sakhnos are exposing Finger Lakes wines to a whole new market.
“We’ve had some people come to the winery because of it, which is huge,” she said.
McMurrough first met Sakhno in 2014, a year after he and his wife opened Keuka Kafe, when she made a cold call with a bag of wines. Willing to taste everything, he especially loved the winery’s Lemberger, she said. Two months later the Wall Street Journal did a story on Keuka Kafe and Lakewood’s Lemberger was pictured.
“It was like the stars aligned,” McMurrough said.
She said the Kafe rotates among Lakewood’s selections. Sakhno is very open minded and makes his selections based on a wine’s quality, she noted, consequently offering a breadth of choices.
“He will drink bubbly Catawba on a hot summer day and be totally happy,” she said.