By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor
Five years ago, my wife and I wanted to know which winery was the best-kept secret in the Finger Lakes. We were touring the east side of Seneca Lake to celebrate our one-year anniversary, and after a tasting at Lamoreaux Landing we asked if there were any largely undiscovered wunderkinds. "Yes," our server told us. "There is one. Damiani."
We drove south to find a winery following the kind of ascetic practices that few want to endure in the nascent stages: Small tasting room, small production, patience with young vines, moderate yields. It seems that for many start-up operations, the opposite is true: Open with a jaw-dropping tasting room, buy a lot of fruit to launch with a relatively large production, polish the outside of the bottle while hoping there is less focus on what's within.
Anyway, that's capitalism, right? You can't make wine if you can't make money. Not for very long, at least.
But Damiani Wine Cellars banked on slow growth and attention to detail. Five years later, they have shed the wunderkind label and, ready or not, Damiani has assumed a place of regional leadership.
"I am much more conscious of oak... My palate has changed"
Winemaker Lou Damiani embodies the virtue most prominently on display at Damiani: Honesty. That's not some schlock marketing; that's my interpretation. He seems almost incapable of succumbing to the spit-shined marketing persona that is so pervasive among his ilk these days.
To wit, how was that 2009 vintage? "A nightmare for reds, apart from pinot," he says, adding, "We were freaking out all throughout harvest." (Preferred marketing speak: "We achieved optimal ripening and will have world-class everything, per usual!")
How do you like the new tasting room? "It was quite an expenditure, and as a winemaker, of course I'll always prefer to see the investment go to the winery," he says, before stressing, "It's outstanding. We're all very proud." (Preferred marketing speak: "It's a temple and I never thought twice about its value.")
How about arresting fermentation of riesling, as opposed to back-sweetening? "Arresting is just more honest, but I admit that I do both. I'll do anything I can to make the wine taste as good as it can. But our first choice is always the one most honest to the vintage and the vineyard." (Preferred marketing speak: "All methods are equally capable of producing honest, great wines!")
On a recent Saturday I had the chance to taste Damiani's current lineup, and there was a discernible shift in some of the red wines. Since the winery was born, Lou Damiani and grower Phil Davis have put a strong emphasis on the red program. Davis' near-fanatical efforts in the vineyard consistently produce high-quality fruit, and Lou has guided that fruit into impressive wines. For the NYCR team, the one drawback has been the clear influence of oak, as seen in the otherwise-stunning 2007 Cabernet Franc.
"I am more conscious of oak as time goes on," Damiani explained. "In earlier years I tended to put too much oak to the wine. But that's what I used to like. My palate has changed. Now I like to see a lot more fruit in the wine."
That's not to say the oak is gone. In fact, my colleague Lenn Thompson still found the oak distracting in the 2008 bottlings. But here's where we differ: Lenn found the wine tinged by a charry note that betokens American oak barrels; I found the wine standing up to that note with a natural, aged-tobacco character that was highly enjoyable. Either way, the sweeter, vanilla notes are essentially gone.
Lou Damiani and Phil Davis have no problem adapting and adjusting, and they expect their red wines will continue to evolve. And there is no denying the impact of the steep, ideal sites on which Davis grows the grapes. Visitors ought to ask for a vineyard tour; just don't expect a standard vehicle to get you down to the 1997 cabernet franc vineyard, the prize in Damiani's holdings.
"Listen, I'm not a sweet wine drinker, but this time..."
The revelation of the tasting was the 2009 Riesling. Tasting room manager Amy Cheatle asked us to guess the residual sugar in the wine; I guessed somewhere around 2%. I was wrong. Lou Damiani left 4% RS in this wine that hits the mouth like a machine gun and goes down like a satin sheet.
"I don't do anything without a lot of tasting trials, and we're looking for balance," Damiani told me. "I'm not a sweet wine drinker! But this time, we couldn't get over the balance at this sugar level. And now, the more I taste it, the more excited I get."
For the numbers-obsessed, the 2009 Riesling came in with tear-jerking 12 grams per liter of tartaric acid (or just a shade less than that). That's how you balance 40 grams of residual sugar. And now that the 2010 vintage is in the tank, I had to know what the acidity was this year. The answer? 8.5 grams per liter, or more than 30% less.
A nice little experiment is brewing at Damiani. The winemaker told me that the Damiani 2010 Riesling will have exactly half the sugar that the 2009 has, but will probably taste sweeter by comparison thanks to the lower acid. A blind tasting of the two wines side-by-side will challenge tasters to decide which seems sweeter and which actually holds more sugar. It's what balance is all about, and Damiani says he'll never force a wine too dry or too sweet based on a preset standard.
New tasting room already bringing more traffic
This fall Damiani opened a new tasting room, high on a hill overlooking Seneca Lake, and directly next door to Finger Lakes Distilling. It's a dramatic change from those early days in a spartan building and only a small sign to attract visitors.
"We're very happy here," said Cheatle, who was preparing to change the tasting room into a dining room for a large dinner event just hours later. "It's versatile, but there's still plenty of personality." When I jokingly asked if Damiani had "gone corporate," she laughed and said, "Impossible!"
As you'll see in the photo, a dense crowd lined one of the tasting bars on the main floor. Customers were taking in the expansive view, as the main bar lets tasters see a wide swath of Seneca Lake.
Lou Damiani views the new tasting room as the opportunity to introduce many new customers to his wines. "It's a tough world, so you're fighting for every inch you can get," he said.
Fair enough. He should take comfort in knowing that if Damiani began with an inch, they've taken a mile. Going forward, expectations will be high for Damiani wines. They've earned it.