By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor
Photo courtesy of Keuka Spring Vineyards
In a previous life, Sheldrake Point Vineyard general manager Bob Madill was undoubtedly a drill sergeant. "Give me 20. Down. Now."
In this incarnation, he drills a regional philosophy into the minds of his colleagues and customers. "Aromatic. White. Wines." It carries the rhythmic punch of machine gun fire.
The challenge, of course, is that while grapes like gewurztraminer and gruner veltliner might perform at a world-class level in the Finger Lakes, most customers remain far more familiar with the ubiquitous merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Wine producers will have to change the drinking and purchasing habits to take riesling's siblings to the mainstream.
They hope it is already happening with gewurztraminer.
"The conditions are perfect here for gewurztraminer," says Mark Wiltberger, winemaker at Keuka Spring Vineyards on Keuka Lake, which produces 400 cases of the aromatic white annually. "I think it's possible to find characteristics in a glass of Finger Lakes gewurz that they might not see in other places."
Advocates like the Wiltberger family and Madill have tried to make progress with customers in the tasting room, but Wiltberger says most people are still unfamiliar with the variety when they stop by. "What is interesting is that customers don't know gewurztraminer, but they love it when they taste it," he says.
That's true when it's made well. For the uninitiated, gewurztraminer tends to bring strong doses of lychee, spices, and floral character. When it's flabby, it can be distressingly similar to potpourri air freshener or -- the dreaded comparison -- Grandma's perfume. When it's right, it can be a rocking and complex white, like the exotic fruits got loose and invaded the spice cupboard.
But even when tasters like it, they might not seek it out again.
"They can't pronounce it, so it's a challenge to get them to remember it," Wiltberger explains. But he notes optimistically, "More people ask for it now than in previous years."
Wiltberger says that at Keuka Spring, cooler years have brought out more pronounced fruit flavors. "The ideal conditions are cool weather and a long season, without too much rain near harvest," he explains. "2007 was, of course, warmer, and the wine was good. But in 2008 the cooler temperatures brought out very spectacular lychee flavors." He says 2009 -- an almost exceptionally cool year -- is showing similar character as it approaches bottling this spring.
Even with a blitz of consumer education, gewurztraminer is certain to remain a polarizing wine. The exotic profile so celebrated by some is simply strange to others. But given the plantings in the Finger Lakes -- there is far more riesling than gewurztraminer -- it's a wine that should sell out when it's made well.
Of course, a little more education can't hurt. If you're wondering, it's "guh-VURTZ" - rhymes with hurts, and the snappier versions deliver much more pleasure than pain.
Tonight, in conjunction with Finger Lakes Wine Country, the NYCR will co-host a Twitter tasting of four Finger Lakes gewurztraminers, including those from Keuka Spring and Sheldrake Point. You can either join us on Finger Lakes Wine Country Taste Live page, follow the #FLXwine Twitter hashtag or, if you're in the Finger Lakes, join us at Red Newt Cellars and Bistro that evening to enjoy the wines too. $10 per person. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to attend.