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April 21, 2011

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Reminds me...I need more of those "The meal was fine, but where's the New York State Wine?" cards to leave at restaurants here in NYC...

So many good points here, Jim. Excellent piece. One thing I would have liked you to touch on was how winemakers/vineyard managers/owners hone their craft and their palates.

I know you mentioned to stop comparing to other wine regions, which is fine, but I think NY should never stop learning from them or strive to meet their quality. If a FLX winery is trying to produce great Riesling, have they visited Germany? Have they put themselves into the cellars of these wineries and vineyards that have been working for hundreds if not thousands of years to perfect their wines? If a winery is striving to make, and yes, even call their wine a "Bordeaux Blend", have they got down and dirty in Bordeaux and really immersed themselves and tried to learn how they have grown Merlot and the Cabs for centuries? I know for a fact that a lot have not. Do they drink German Riesling or Bordeaux even? I know there is a level of pride that one holds with regards to their own terroir and winemaking practices, but you can not go wrong or let pride get in the way of learning from a region that has been doing what you are trying to do for centuries or even millenniums longer. And no, if you are producing Riesling, having done a harvest in California or working as an assistant in Australia is not going to cut it. This may help your skills in the cellar, but it's not going to teach you anything about the the fickle Riesling grape that even the Germans are still figuring out.

Another point which may or may not have it's place in this article is how often do winemakers/growers/owners subject themselves to wines outside of their own? or their own region? I think one thing that can easily happen is that a winery will only drink their own wines, or only wines from their region, and their palates becomes desensitized to what quality is on a worldly level. They get "tunnel vision". Of course you are going to think your wine is amazing if it's all you drink! Of course to counter that you could ask, "Does the little farmer/winemaker in the Rheingau or the satellite towns of Bordeaux drink outside of their region? Probably not, but they are the ones with the centuries and generations of experience guiding them.

Jim

Great post! Love a lot of it. I agree. We have too many wineries that are thinking too small. The more I see, it seems for many that complaining is easier than rising to the challenge.

I have long been an admirer of what you’ve accomplished at Peconic Bay. Very impressive. I think New York wine can look to you for a lot of good ideas.

Quality, value, and distribution all remain challenges. New York must not look at itself in a vacuum, but see itself compared to the larger market. If you expect your wine to sell in a shop, how does it compare to the wines of the world. What is its reason for being? Being local is a nice add-on sales point – but is it good wine? Is it fairly priced? By and large people don’t care about organic or local as a first rung of decision making – they want to taste it first. People who like wine, want to like the wine first, they want to feel better about themselves because its organic or local second.

Where we differ are the following:

1.We need more branding in New York City where the wine media congregate. We need to show the wine media that great wines are being made here. And we need to get in front of more stores and restaurants. Yes, each winery needs to do what they can, but we need to take that same look in the mirror that you’re talking about, and ask why aren’t we doing the same kinds of tasting France, Italy, Spain, and even Oregon and Washington are doing in the city. Why are we competing at the same level? Long Island holds tastings in the city, but other regions need to do the same. There should be a New York tasting event.

2. You come down pretty strongly against hybrids, but I would posit that new grapes are always being played with. In Rioja, for example, where many that make Tempranillo tinged with a few additional blenders, but heirloom varieties are being brought back in a big way there now.

And where would regions like Argentina be without Malbec, or Australia without Pinotage, or Niagara without Vidal ice wines? Washington is known for great Pinot Noir and also for great Baco Noir. I understand if you’re poking holes at sweet, syrupy concoctions, but there are those of us who are making lovely wines with things like Baco Noir. Benmarl and Hudson-Chatham’s wines are in many fine restaurants and stores in New York City and throughout the region. I would put those wines up against a lot of other wines. Benmarl sells it’s wine for $30 and sells out each run without problem.

What stuns me is that people will try Gruner Vetliner or Zweigelt before trying a quality Baco Noir or Chambourcin. It's ludicrous.

I would say the real issue is quality. If you’re making a stunning wine with a hybrid, there’s no problem. If you’re making a bad wine with a hybrid – that’s a problem. And that’s where you and I agree.

Over all, a great post! Like many of your “pull up you bootstrap” ideas.

Mark – Great points, all!

I'll have more to say later, but for now I'll just say: What Mark said. What. Mark. Said.

And Jim, wonderful insights.

@Mark - it's exactly that reason you cite that so many struggle with pricing, or valuing, their products. Having less to do with the cost of production, and much more to knowing your place in the global market - or which place in that market you choose to confront.

Jim,

Very good article, the only thing that I don't agree with is the comment about hybrids. Although most tend to be sweeter and less exciting a well made hybrid wine can be just as interesting as vinifera. The Baco Noirs that I have had from the Hudson Valley seem to be very respectable and the Vignoles from Anthony Road and Keuka Lake Vineyards are both extremely good, I have surprised many friends when serving them Vignoles blind. Agree they have an image problem but it would be a mistake if a winery that makes a very good hybrid switches to vinifera just because it makes the region more appealing.

Great article though. Would really love to see NY Wines get more respect.

How is an issue of quality resolved by changing marketing strategies? Social media, wholesaling, and agritourism would seem to me to reduce quality. If you invest capital into marketing and events, and they provide return, what is the incentive to invest in labor, farming, and production changes over, say, a bigger tasting room or a petting zoo. It is a cyclic and compounding dilemma.

Jim - great writing. Well thought out and complete.

Mark - I drink lots of wines from a variety of regions - I assume any winemaker does (at least all the ones I know do). I am a bit taken aback by the implication that many do not. Hopefully, this is just an assumption on your part about new world winemakers. I wouldn't exempt European winemakers from trying wine from outside their regions. There is nothing mystical or magical about the history of those regions. Nothing that would exempt them from trying a variety of wines or working a season or two in California or New Zealand

Carlo, I think the reason people will try a Gruner before a Baco is that there is a marketing buzz around Gruner. A buzz around Baco could accomplish the same thing.

Good stuff Jim.
Mark, I agree with some of what you say. For one, you may be right on about “tunnel vision” and palate desensitization because I, for one, drink a good bit of NY wine and truly think many are as good as the best on earth but the belief that perfecting the art of winegrowing can somehow be best learned by looking to a region that’s been doing it for a long time is, IMO, a common misconception. I have the deepest respect for the vintners who came long before me but the fact is that the greater understanding of winegrowing has been learned in the last 40 years. What took place generations ago in the wine world is, for me, a source of great inspiration but certainly not where I turn to for knowledge.
Would a modern day surgeon look to learn from the Civil War surgeon who had little understanding of where a disease or infection came from or how to cure them? Would he share the same crude techniques to treat a wound? No, because the knowledge that a doctor possessed 150 years ago is not really applicable today.
The answers to why NY wines have been embraced by “cosmopolitan” NYer’s and the world at large in a slower than expected pace are complex and I believe the “for what it is” attitude is partly to blame and mostly voiced by those who get stuck on the opinion that a product must be better if it is made in a faraway place by people who have been doing it for a long time.

Rich - I take your point, but wine and surgery are hardly a fair comparison. One is a recreational product, the other, not so much.

Unfortunately, Mark is bang-on correct when it comes to the need to experience more of the world. It's no coincidence that the strongest winemakers in the Finger Lakes are often drinking wines from around the world. There is great value in having a broad understanding of wine. More than that, I'd think that folks who work in the industry would be passionate enough to explore the wider world of wine on their own. But I promise you there are plenty of cases where the doesn't happen. I won't name names here, but it's much more widespread than it should be. I wrote about this exact subject after TasteCamp last year.

Morten Hallgren and I have had this conversation before. And the notion that NY wine prices should be based on quality alone, or compared to other NY wines alone, is more than a little risky. Consumers have wine stores in which they're looking at wines from around the world, and they have too many good options to pay too high a premium for local wines.

Expectations for New York wine are higher then ever - thanks to what we have done thus far!

Looking back at even the last decade, we should be very proud of our accomplishments and accolades. The high profile restaurants in NYC whose doors we kept knocking on, are all of the sudden in our tasting rooms looking for product.

New York has been making some fine wine and we have to thank our customers for their support. Surely their
excitement is contagious and has been beneficial to us.


Are we ready? (for what exactly?) Business plans and goals surely vary from producer to producer. If there is someone who is happy to make 800 cases of wine only to be sold through their door step or waiting list, then more power to them! If there are other producers who are happy to take buses or limos with people demanding blush wine and sweet reds, then more power to them! After all, isn't the diversity what makes any area great? And it is up to the consumers to decide!

Successful businesses will prevail. There will always be New York wine thanks to this enterprise that has been created. Where it goes and how it develops will be decided by the consumers.

I just don't believe that this is a country/state/appellation where we can tell our neighbors that they should change how they are doing something, just to get the "for what it is" statement to disappear. (distribution, plantings, pricing)??

It's not Europe. It's America, we're in the game already and it's too late to change the rules.

@Mark, I know many nofo winery owners who travel extensively to learn, understand and appreciate quality and rich history of regions.
These same people enjoy drinking wines from many great areas from around the world, not just their own!

I feel bad for the little farmer in Rheingau or Bordeaux that may not taste other wine!

"The deed is everything, the glory naught"
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Thanks again for this post, Jim. I think there is a lot of great stuff here.

First, despite what some have said here, there are quite a few winemakers that I've spoken to in New York who seem to mostly drink their own wines and maybe some from their neighbors. I'm basing this on interviews that I've done and email discussions -- not assumptions or guesses. It seems to be less of a problem on Long Island, but regional palate is a challenge in every wine region.

Rich makes an interesting point -- it IS important to drink a lot of wine from your own region as well to fully understand what is possible today and what might be in the future -- but I agree that the winemaking-to-surgery comparison is a tough one to make.

Jake: I don't think that Jim is "telling his neighbors" anything. I think he is sharing his opinions (the op in op-ed) and I think he's leaving room for the mailing list/winery-door sales model. I've spoken to Jim about some of these issues extensively and he absolutely understands that not every business can or should run like Peconic Bay Winery or Jamesport Vineyards.

It's good to see some long-time readers chiming in with comments. I'd love to hear from some of our Finger Lakes readers on this topic as well.

Jim, what you said has been oft repeated (except for hybrids) for the 20+ years thst I've watched the LI industry. There's a small biz mentality: we're small and we can't afford msrketing. As for distribution, many of your compadres would rather take the full mark-up in the tasting room than sell to a wholesaler, who they see overlooking their products in favor of bigger brands in their portfolios. Yes,they need dedicated sales people to call on accounts, but that, too, is reflected by watching the bottomline. Is it hopeless? I don't know.

Good piece, Jim, I disagree with one point and I'd add another.

I agree with Carlo that when produced into solid wine,m hybrids are every bit as drinkable as many of the European grape varieties beyond the well-known dozen or so. Either a winery produces solid, and well made wine, or it doesn't. No need to single out the grape itself.
As for the word "great": When someone defines it to my satisfaction, beyond personal subjectivity, I'll maybe relent. ;)

Finally, as Rich posted: "...those who get stuck on the opinion that a product must be better if it is made in a faraway place by people who have been doing it for a long time."

That's quite an uphill concept to overcome, especially when there is no definitive appellation system with agreed upon and established standards.

Besides, as a major port of entry, New York has always been subject to the idea that imports surpass local product quality--"It's Imported" is among the most vacuous yet established marketing phrases here. It must be overcome, but that takes stellar, pinpoint marketing--and money.

Jim, always a treat to read your smart, no-BS, industry-savvy viewpoint.

I was glad you included "Stop Complaining About the Californians." I've been dismayed and not a little embarrassed lately that pride in our region has occasionally veered into anti-Cali mudslinging. Complaining that all Californian (and for that matter, Australian) wine is fat, overoaked, slutty, and unintelligent is ignorant, and it makes us look like a bunch of headgear-wearing third graders telling the high school seniors they're not allowed in our clubhouse.

Our wine quality should speak for itself without requiring us to put down established regions that have worked hard to deliver reliable value and quality. And customers shouldn't feel like they have to choose between California and New York for the rest of their lives. There's room for us in the market, but we have to acknowledge that there IS one.

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