By Evan Dawson, Managing Editor
The wine that is quite possibly the single most interesting wine in the Finger Lakes is turning 20, sort of, in 2011, and the McGregor family is throwing a party. (This is a family that really knows how to throw a bash.) Details on the event to follow, but first, let's lift the veil on a little history.
The McGregor Black Russian Red is, technically, older than 20 years. Bob McGregor spent the 1980s searching for the right blends and combination to unlock the potential in these unusual grapes -- Saperavi and Sereksiya Charni. Today, you can still find an occasional bottle of 1991 Black Russian hanging around. It was the first recognized vintage of this blend, and if you're fortunate enough to find one, don't be surprised if it's still pretty darn good.
It's a story of innovation and determination, led by Bob McGregor and carried on by his son, John, and family. It is not a stretch to say that Bob was a trailblazer, because McGregor was one of the first to recognize what some Finger Lakes winemakers are only now recognizing: In an unpredictable cool climate region, sometimes you have to open your mind to find what truly works.
Bob McGregor had struggled with Bordeaux varieties. His early pinots made him happy, and earned the praise of a few writers, but Bob wanted that big, robust red to round out his portfolio. That was the goal. Cabernet was dying on the vine, literally, in the 1970s and 1980s. Bob McGregor's background pushed him to search for something different.
He had come from the business of photo chemistry. McGregor worked for Kodak, but it's probably more accurate to say he was a physicist whose brilliant work extended far beyond the walls in Rochester. McGregor had done some work on national security projects. If he could handle that kind of work, what was grape growing, anyway?
Not so simple, it turned out. And Bob wasn't surprised about that. Like Steve Sasson, the Kodak researcher who eventually invented the digital camera, Bob McGregor realized that great success is preceded by many failures.
So when he chatted with Dr. John McGrew of the USDA in 1979, Bob listened. Thirty years later, Bob and I laughed about how the names of these eastern European grapes sounded more like hockey names. Saperavi, Sereksiya, Mtzvani, Rkatsitelli. But was he going to turn down a chance to try them out?
The charm of the McGregor story is that for a decade, these varieties caused him more headaches. "Mtzvani was more of a weed than anything," Bob recently told me. But he didn't give up on the big, dark Saperavi and Black Sereksiya. First he tried them on their own -- "They made wine that reminded me of some of the hybrid wines," Bob said -- then he blended them. The blend seemed to hold promise, but he was convinced the French oak was holding it back.
By 1991 it was natural for Bob to think he was cursed, doomed with these varieties, and yet he persisted still. That's the year that his move to American oak seemed to change everything. He loved the smokey, bacony character that complemented the wine while allowing its fascinating nuance to show.
Consider that: It had been more than a decade of experimenting with grape varieties that had very little track record anywhere in the world. It's hard to imagine anyone else not giving up, but McGregor plugged on.
Today, John McGregor continues that tradition by conducting experiments of his own. To wit, McGregor Vineyard is preparing to release the 2007 Black Russian Red 30 Month Barrel Reserve. Can the wine stand up to that much time in wood? John McGregor gives an emphatic yes.
"I have no problem stating that this sets the standard in how far Finger Lakes red wines have come -- it’s truly a stunning example of the Finger Lakes on the world’s wine stage," John wrote to members of the highly devoted McGregor Clan Club.
I recently tasted this wine and found that its unique character is very much there, along with a prominent oak component. I have known people who love the Black Russian Red, and I have known people who prefer other wines. But that is exactly the definition of an intellectually stimulating wine. If you haven't tasted a Saperavi or Black Sereksiya, be prepared for a new experience.
Talk to McGregor Clan Club members, and there is a certain joy in not only sharing the Black Russian with someone for the first time, but in blowing up expectations.
If you watch this video, you will see a perfect example of a wine connoisseur utterly baffled when encountering the Black Russian for the first time. The man critiquing the wine is none other than Bartholomew Broadbent, son of the famous Michael Broadbent of British wine auction fame. Broadbent seems to assume the Black Russian will be sweet, based possibly on his fleeting notions of Georgian Saperavi, which is often sweet. The video captures an evolution in Broadbent's assessment. He seems determined to condemn the wine, then begrudgingly salutes it as a novelty, then admits his expectations were way off. Does he ultimately offer a glowing review? No. Is that based on his prior expectations? You can decide for yourself.
(This is, by the way, not a small parallel to what you'll discover in my forthcoming book, which tells the story of Black Russian through this dichotomy of skeptics and devoted enthusiasts.)
I have been to the annual McGregor Clan Club picnic and listened to people debate the aging curve of this wine based on its high natural acidity (the Clan Club is a thoughtful, educated group of wine lovers). Malolactic fermentation helps tame some of the acid, but there remains a verve and backbone that allows it to age with grace.
But after 20 years, it would stand to reason that other winemakers and growers would pursue Saperavi and Black Sereksiya. After all, McGregor not only has a devoted following for it, but it sells briskly at $60 per bottle.
Tomorrow, the New York Cork Report will have the story of the next major Finger Lakes producer to make wine from Saperavi. Standing Stone Vineyards now has more than an acre of Saperavi, and winemaker Marti Macinski says it could turn out to be the great red wine of the Finger Lakes.
When I asked her if the spread of Saperavi in the Finger Lakes is a tribute to Bob McGregor's work, she replied, "I'm happy to say that! I like to say I've never had an original thought, but I'm a wonderful thief!"
But Standing Stone marks the only other winery to pursue Saperavi. When I talk to other winemakers and winery owners, I get a range of responses as to why. Some tell me they don't believe it's as good as the customers think. Some point to the scores of critics, which have been spotty. But it's Dave Whiting, owner and winemaker at Red Newt Wine Cellars (and the winemaker at McGregor in the late 1980s), who probably sums it up best: "Those grapes are so unique to McGregor that you would have a hard time duplicating what they do anywhere else. It’s not that other winemakers don’t like the wine, but our customers would have no idea what it is. The McGregors have invested years, and now they have people who know what Black Russian is. That’s pretty special."
John McGregor seems to agree that Whiting's take makes sense. "We've put so much effort into this," he explains. "It's not easy. It might take years for other wineries to get to where we are with Saperavi, but I'll be very interested to see the results."
If other producers do eventually follow, Bob McGregor's legacy will only grow. If others don't, he has already created something unique to the region. I recently drank a 1998 Black Russian that was still vibrant and youthful. If Bob thought he had finally found something in the 1991 vintage, bottles like this are the proof.
McGregor Vineyards will release the 2007 Black Russian 30 Month Barrel Reserve at the annual Black Russian Red Dinner at the Village Tavern in Hammondsport on Saturday, March 12. Reservations are still available for $99. Click here for more information.