By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Correspondent
When you meet Heron Hill's winemaker, do not make the mistake of calling him "Tom." That is not his name, and he'll correct you. Before I spoke recently with Thomas Laszlo, I was warned by a writer friend not to call him by the wrong name. "He's pretty serious about it," I was warned.
To Thomas' credit, he acknowledges being a little edgy about his name.
"My mother was very particular with names. She always pushed for Thomas, so it's Thomas!" he says with a subtle laugh.
He's just as particular with names as his mother, and it extends into his winemaking. On July 1st, Heron Hill will release the first Blaufrankisch from the Finger Lakes. Of course, Blaufrankisch has been grown and bottled before, but only under the name "Lemberger." Laszlo scrapped Lemberger in favor of Blaufrankisch and now Heron Hill managers are hoping the new name results in big sales. (Note that Keuka Spring Vineyards will also be using Blaufrankisch going forward).
"Even with my neighbor, just the mention of 'Lemberger' brought associations with Limberger cheese," Laszlo explains. "That's obviously not a good thing. Most of the plantings around the world carry the name 'Blaufrankisch,' but otherwise it's not 'Lemberger,' it's 'Limberger,' exactly like the cheese. Only in the United States is it called 'Lemberger.' The TTB consciously changed the I to an E to make it more user-friendly, but I don't think they went far enough. They were misguided from the start, and that mistake is a big reason why it's not more widely planted in this country."
Beyond the unfortunate comparison to cheese, Laszlo has other reasons for dumping Lemberger. "Blaufrankisch has more standing in cultural wine circles," he says confidently. Then he makes an assertion that is bound to raise some eyebrows at Dr. Frank, or Fox Run, or Anthony Road, or the other producers that make Lemberger. "It's made in the Finger Lakes as Lemberger, but I don't think there's a following for Lemberger at all. There's no risk in going with a different name because it hasn't caught on at all."
Regardless of what it's called, the wine has to be good to convince consumers to buy it -- especially for $35 a bottle, which is the aggressive price that Heron Hill has set for the 2007 Reserve Blaufrankisch.
"In cooler years, Blaufrankisch comes off a lot like Pinot Noir," Laszlo says. "In warmer years like 2007 and 2008 it's much more like a Syrah with a Burgundian profile. But even in tough years it never really shows the green or herbaceous notes that you'll find in other varieties. And it has a very attractive, dark color."
Laszlo vehemently disagrees with those who have compared Blaufrankisch to Zinfandel. He believes that eventually, the Finger Lakes will hold Blaufrankisch up side-by-side with Riesling as the most suitable varieties for the region. And he says unlike many other red vinifera, Blaufrankisch will not keep winegrowers awake late into the bitterly cold winter nights.
"It's much more winter-resistant, and it's just not prone to rot like other varieties," he says, adding that the 2007 Blaufrankisch -- sourced from the highly regarded Hobbit Hollow Vineyard on Skaneatles Lake -- checked in at four tons per acre, but he's comfortable with as much as five tons per acre.
Laszlo's version of Blaufrankisch won't be shy with oak -- he performed extensive oak aging with "quite a bit of new oak for 18 months, giving it a bit of the Cabernet Sauvignon treatment," he explains. The winemaker is urging consumers to drink it now or hold it for as long as 10 years. "This wine definitely has a 10-year window. I'm not going with the kind of winemaking that others tend to do that leads to a bunch of awards but then the wine has problems in just a few years. You'll be able to hold onto this one."
That's a bold statement, but then again, that's Tom Laszlo. Pardon me, that's Thomas Laszlo.