Photographs show the Raphael wine library and Raphael barrel room
Before New York state wines will be taken seriously by a wider swath of national and international consumers, they will have to show a track record of graceful aging. The problem is that most New York wine producers do not have a consistent library program.
This is changing.
On a recent visit to Long Island's North Fork, I was smitten with the gorgeous and extensive library at Raphael. This is the standard to which many other wineries will aspire, but laying bottles down requires building cash up, and that's not easy in the wine industry even when the economy is not suffering.
But for a moment, let's look at what's possible when money is less of a problem. At Rapahel, the library is inspiring.
"I'm hoping that many of the wines I make will outlive me by many years," says Raphael winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich. "This is a multi-generational project. It's the next important step in our development."
The Raphael library currently houses 300 cases, with room to double in size. In 2010 the winery will open a library tasting bar, allowing visitors to taste older vintages and understand the value of laying bottles down.
"We're drinking a lot of wines on Long Island that are not aged long enough," Rich says. "It's wonderful to taste wines that are ten years old or more and realize how even more beautiful they can become."
In the Finger Lakes, Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars features a library of 375 cases dating back decades. With an emphasis on riesling, Dr. Frank has been able to show that wines made in New York state can evolve and improve with years in the bottle.
"We believe it is important to track the aging characteristics of our wines and also to show the consistency of quality from vintage to vintage," owner Fred Frank explains.
Over on Cayuga Lake, general manager Bob Madill has put together an impressive library at Sheldrake Point that provides benchmarks and comparison.
"When we are working with a current vintage we normally taste and compare the wine in question with several of its predecessors," Madill says. He also points out that a strong library can allow the vintage to tell a complete story over time - and sometimes it conflicts with the hype or knee-jerk reporting surrounding a vintage in its infancy.
But for now, these are the exceptions. Privately, winery owners will say that accountants aren't interested in wine libraries. They want every bottle sold yesterday if possible. And as romantic as a wine library sounds, keeping the operation solvent is essential.
Still, Olsen-Harbich stresses the need to make small sacrifices if possible. "It is important to draw the line on sales somewhere as it is important to have a lasting inventory that can be tasted for the next few decades," he says.
Expect more New York wineries to broaden their libraries soon.
At Lucas Vineyards on Cayuga Lake, winemaker Jeff Houck says the typical plan calls for laying down only a few bottles. "But we may need to change that as interest seems to be increasing," Houck says. Winemakers and owners across the Finger Lakes have been making similar determinations in the past year.
They realize that quality is better than ever and there is a real opportunity to show the wider wine world a track record.
For the customers who are true wine enthusiasts, the club members and the patient aficionados, a library program can tell the story of the past as it rolls into the future. Library wines tend to be more expensive, but wineries that have an inventory tend to make it available to customers.
Ultimately, a wine library is not that different from a book library. Each contains stories. Some are flawed, some are exciting, and some even move us to tell our friends that there is something special worth experiencing. The more New York wineries that lay bottles down, the more successful stories they'll have to tell in the future.