By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor
Photo courtesy of Antoinette Di Ciaccio, who was excited to meet Oz in October
British wine writer Oz Clarke visited the Finger Lakes in October to promote his new book "Let Me Tell You About Wine." (Full disclosure: Oz and I have the same publisher.)
I intended to write a story about his views of Finger Lakes wine during that visit, but time got away from me. I was thrilled to chat with him last week, and I found that his memory of wines and wineries is remarkable.
Oz can tell you about a wine he tasted at Martha Clara Vineyards during a tasting of Long Island wines, and he can name individual favorites at Finger Lakes producers like Lakewood and Fox Run. He has bolstered a reputation for being able to travel the world and retain a knowledge of smaller, less-heralded regions. (His book is filled with information on regions you might rarely think about.)
Here are some of Oz Clarke's thoughts about the quality of Finger Lakes wines, what he likes to see growers plant, and how the region might further break through barriers of recognition.
It helps, by the way, to imagine his responses in a mellifluous British baritone.
On whether a wine region needs a "flagship" grape variety
"I can hardly stand when I arrive to hear everyone talking about this or that 'flagship' grape. Why can't they just make the best possible wine without trying to convince you it has to be just one variety? Look at California. For a while everyone thought syrah was the next big thing, the next flagship, if you like. Everyone planted syrah and then no one could sell it. In the Finger Lakes, there's no doubt that riesling is very special. We don't know yet just how good rielsing can be from the Finger Lakes. I simply enjoy diversity."
On how the Finger Lakes can improve its worldwide image and improve its sales
"Those of us who've been to the Finger Lakes absolutely love it. We go away and we talk about it to our friends, but it doesn't necessarily translate to higher sales. In Europe in particular, that's just a difficult thing to do. Wine regions in Europe have to export, but in the states there's a domestic market that can support wine regions like the Finger Lakes.
"But you have to get beyond New York. I would love Manhattan to take the Finger Lakes to heart. Why not bring people from Manhattan up to the Finger Lakes. Take them out on the boat, and show them! Let them see it firsthand. Sunny day, coasting on the water, glass of Riesling in hand. Each time I've been to the Finger Lakes I've been absolutely delighted. So perhaps you can make an impact in Manhattan.
"But there's an entire country! There is opportunity, no question about it. Finger Lakes wines are remarkably well suited to food. I'd choose the food magazines just as much as the wine magazines when I want that kind of attention."
So what kind of wines will the domestic market buy from the Finger Lakes?
"The big charabanc, the big freight train has moved in the direction of bigger, richer, fruitier wines. But that doesn't mean there aren't hobos on that freight train -- like you and me! -- who are jumping off at every turn. The people who love restrained, cool-climate wines might be a minority, but it's growing, and there's a future for those wines.
"There's no point is trying to pump up the wines to become something they're not comfortable being. There's no point in pushing for higher alcohol or more new oak. That simply equals higher costs and no one is particularly impressed. Save your money. No one should apologize for the absolutely stunning cool climate wines that the Finger Lakes can produce. You just have to find the customers who appreciate it."
On the grape varieties he'd like to see the Finger Lakes pursue
"The most interesting are often the most unusual. Why not see what Corvina or Teroldego can do in the Finger Lakes? I know some people are making syrah, and millennials might buy it, but you have to be ready for them to get bored with it. So many wines speak of nowhere, and you have to be open to wines that speak of the Finger Lakes. But there is no 'proper' grape for a single region. There are simply grapes more suited to certain places.
"You're off and running with riesling, and that's wonderful, but it's not the only game in town. We need to get past this 1990s mentality that every winery needs to plant merlot and chardonnay and the like. But it takes a bit of boldness to make something like Corvina, doesn't it? Certainty is fine for large, commercial wines. The world needs large-production wines. But the Finger Lakes is not a large-production wine region.
"We want certainty in our cars, and our shampoos, and our hotels. But one doesn't necessarily want that same kind of certainty in wine. It's just fun to pick up a Port at Fox Run and then a rielsing at Anthony Road and then a Teroldego at Red Tail. Why not? It makes all the sense in the world."
On whether he sees New York wine getting the support it needs
"Look at Virginia. Now there's a state that has a governor who is supportive of the industry. That massively helps. A little political will goes a long way. I'm not saying New York doesn't have it, but it can only help."