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July 19, 2011

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Rob, I can't agree with you enough on multiple counts. I've been lauding Keuka Spring lemberger at the retailer where I work as an example of a wine made appropriately to the region; I've also tasted awesome seyval, vignoles and other hybrids and natives that were delicious and climate-appropriate styles (as well as Riesling and Gewurztraminer and other cool-climate vinifera grapes,of course).

Judging by comments from customers at the store and in the tasting room where I used to work, I totally agree that attempts to make styles that don't fit the climate or terroir are much more hurtful to the New York wine industry than the use of hybrid and native grapes more suitable to the climate. There are plenty of delicious dry styles that can be made with vinifera, hybrid, and native grapes in the Finger Lakes, but trying to do 20 styles to please the market is just silly. Pick what works well, and do it right.

To your first observation: Every winery should provide spittoons or encourage guests to spit. The sweet-wine-lei-limo-and-bus-culture has created an atmosphere of drunkenness at tasting rooms, often amplified by the demeanor of the tasting room staff, and for drivers it's a recipe for disaster. Shame on the staff at Belhurst for mocking the practice. I'm suspicious of anyone who works in the industry in any capacity who is grossed out by spitting. Grow up.

Dear Rob:

Sorry that you did not enjoy our Sangiovese. I must assure you that the grapes were ripe and that we made the Sangiovese in a lighter style. Honestly, a number of people do like it and it sells well. In fact, we are currently sold out—you got one of the last tastes! We’re not here to question your taste buds, either. I am sure you know your wines and which wines you prefer.

I know I had tweeted you to come here due to the fact that your mission was to try unique wines in unique places. Frankly, I thought you would like trying our Sangiovese and some of the other limited production wines here at Glenora. Sangiovese is truly unique for this area and we are one of the only wineries to produce it. If we stuck only to what was tried and true and didn’t push the envelope a little bit, where would we be today? Same thing with the other wineries and Cabernet Sauvignon—at least you liked a handful of them. Kudos to those vintners! Next time you are around, may I suggest our Reserve Tasting Room where we profile a number of limited production products. Your feedback on some of the up-and-coming unique wines would be appreciated.

Sincerely,
Steve Richards, General Manager, Glenora Wine Cellars

To my mind, the bigger problem that I see is producers who are dead-set on producing wines from grapes that are just completely inappropriate for the region.

Agreed. Wholeheartedly.

I am also going to step into the somewhat controversial and say that Pinot Noir falls into that category as well. It's a very finicky grape (I heard it described once as, "The most high-maintenance redhead you will ever date" - as a redhead, I enjoyed this description!), and the climate in NY is too unpredictable.

Having said that, I've had some *drinkable* pinots throughout NY (and I'm lumping all of the regions into here, not just the Finger Lakes), the one I'm most likely to purchase being Brotherhood's pinot noir (though I've heard good things about Heart and Hands and intend to try it soon). However, usually, I'd rather just buy it from the region(s) it grows well in - northern Napa and Willamette. You bring up an important point, however - I know where cab sauv, sangiovese, pinot noir, etc., are grown well and select as appropriate. Many people don't.

I second Julia's mention of Lemberger and will raise her a Baco Noir. I've had some fantastic ones in the Finger Lakes and I really hope they start to focus on these varietals some more as really great, standout reds. While I understand Glenora's urge to push the envelope, it is frustrating to see so many vineyards producing grapes that are not appropriate for the region, while it is harder to find, say, a good Lemberger. In other words, I want to drink what you grow well.

To your other point, I've had some great hybrids (seyval and viognoles are my favorite, however the new melody is quite nice, too), great locals (the Cayuga whites are my "go to" white table wines, particularly this time of year), and great vinifera (when chosen for the proper climate). However, while your point about revenue is well made, what some places serve is just plain 'ol swill, and it does taint people's impressions. For example, I hadn't been back to Americana's tasting room until April when my husband and I went to the Wine and Herb Fest, as I remembered them featuring sugary sweet candy-wine that I myself drank before I had a palate. However, they were one of the only places that we went to on Cayuga lake that had a Baco Noir, and it was really fantastic (we came home with a bottle, and have been since delighted to learn a couple of wine stores sell it locally). Their wines, when skipping over the swill, were fantastic.

Rob and Iresira, I have to respectfully disagree regarding cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir in the Finger Lakes: both have a place, and pinot noir a prominent one.
Everyone I've talked to has agreed that pinot noir is notoriously finicky, but that varietal characteristic does not preclude the FLX from making some excellent wine. I think Heart and Hands clearly leads the region when it comes to this grape, but they are hardly alone in making quality pinot: Ravines, Shalestone, Wiemer, and Fox Run immediately come to mind, and I'm sure others could be listed too.
I also think that a survey of the past several years dispels the notion that the FLX climate cannot handle pinot. Of the past five vintages, I believe that only 2009 could generally be considered a down year for pinot. Going back a decade might add another couple down years, but it's also worth noting that 2001, 2005, and 2008 were all very good years for pinot. The last ten years have had at least as many very good years as down years. As a consumer, I consider that an acceptable tradeoff.
Regarding cabernet, blending alone justifies its presence in the region. Ravines Meritage is consistently one of the best wines in region. I'm also quite fond of McGregor's Rob Roy and Shalestone's Harmony. A couple weeks ago, I opened a bottle of Dr. Frank's 2005 Cabernet. It profiled very differently from a Californian cab, but that doesn't mean it's not an excellent wine in its own right. To say that it never should have been produced strikes me as rather harsh. And if I remember correctly, Wine Spectator rated Dr. Frank's 2006 in the high 80s, and 2006 was not an especially great year for reds. Shaw, Damiani, and Shalestone have also produced quality cab.
There are definitely producers who should just stay away from these varietals and stick to grapes that grow more easily. Frankly, the majority of wineries probably fall into this category. But when done well by the right winemakers, cab and pinot do credit to the region.

Irisira - I would never consider "Northern Napa" as a quality Pinot producing AVA. That's Cab country. If I am going to drink a quality cali pinot that isnt disgustingly overripe and alcoholic it's almost always from the true Sonoma Coast. That is the motherland for Cali Pinot.

I also disagree with your statement about Pinot in the FLX. While H&H is leading the pack, others arent far behind, including Red Tail Ridge, Wiemer, Ravines, and even down here on LI, McCall is making what I think is one of the best in our state next to H&H. Pinot is finicky but cool climates make the best pinot. One important thing, which Tom Higgins will tell you, is that vineyard management and sorting is very important. In 09 (the vintage Ryan love said was not favorable for pinot) H&H produced an absolutely awesome pinot noir and can tell you how hand harvesting and rigorous sorting at the winery gave him brix levels that were just as ripe as the hotter years, while wineries that machine harvested and did not sort thoroughly brought in brix levels that were much lower. It's all about your vineyard and winery practices. That's why I live by the motto that a god winemaker will make a good wine no matter what the vintage.

Hi Everyone:

Thanks for the comments. I'm going to respond in a few different comment blocks to keep my thoughts separate from one another.

Firstly, I wanted to respond to Steve at Glenora. I'll take you at your word about the ripeness levels of the grapes and will say that if you're really aiming for that lighter style, telling people at the tasting bar that the wine is similar to a Chianti is misleading and a little off-putting. Yes, the grape is the same, but the style you are using is very different and the comparison just isn't valid. I wouldn't have a problem with you informing the taster that it's the same grape as Chianti, but a direct comparison is problematic and dishonest.

I also want to stress (emphatically) that I have absolutely no problem with experimentation and pushing the envelope. If winemakers and vineyards didn't do that, then my site wouldn't have much of a reason to exist. In fact, if Dr. Frank hadn't decided to experiment with vinifera vines in the first place, it's hard to say where the Finger Lakes would stand right now in the world of wine.

There is, however, a time to recognize when an experiment isn't working and pull the plug on it. Many vineyards have experimental plots where they test out various grapes to see how they do, but they rarely offer bottlings from those plots to the public until they've determined that the experiment is worth pursuing given the results they've seen. I am happy to see the current experimentation with Gruner Veltliner in the Finger Lakes area, as this is a grape that can handle the local climate and which can be made into interesting, compelling quality wines.

Finally, my aim was to try unique wines from unique places, as you mentioned, and that was specifically why I tried your Sangiovese. My feelings about it are on record here. I am very interested in unique wines, but uniqueness alone is not enough to make a wine good or worthy of purchase (by me, in any case). The Black Russian over at McGregor is a unique wine that is also very compelling in the glass.

Part of the aim of my site is to find those wines that are unique but which are also worthy of people's time and attention. Mere uniqueness is not sufficient for me and often leads me to wonder about the reasons for its uniqueness. You say that your Sangiovese is unique to the area, which leads me to ask the question, why might that be? There was a time that Riesling was unique to the area, but that's not the case any longer because it grows well here and makes compelling wine. I suspect McGregor's wine is unique because of the difficulty of selling something made from Saperavi to the general public and because it's so odd that anyone else attempting it would be seen as a rip-off artist (though I do understand that Standing Stone has some experimental plantings that they are slowly ramping into larger-scale production). Sangiovese shouldn't have the same recognition problems that Saperavi has, so it makes me wonder if maybe you guys are the only ones doing it because other wineries realize that it's just not right for the climate. Sometimes you're alone because you're a visionary and sometimes you're alone because nobody else wants to follow your lead.

Rob

I'd also like to respond to Ryan and Lisa regarding Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon in the Finger Lakes.

First, about Cabernet. My statement that it's not worth planting it was probably a little over-harsh, and I should qualify that statement. I did mention in my post that most of the Cab that I had that I thought was decent was in blends and to that end, Ryan, your point is well-taken. It is definitely worth planting for blending purposes. My target was more at places that are shooting for 100% (or nearly 100%) varietally bottled Cabernets, which I didn't find very compelling on the whole when I tasted them in the Finger Lakes. My point isn't that good wine can NEVER be made from Cab grapes, it was more that the climate is such that expecting great wines with any kind of consistency is going to be a lost cause. There are going to be outliers and exceptions to nearly any everything, but those single outliers don't necessarily justify the entire enterprise. Consumers are looking for consistency from wine regions and I don't see that happening with Cabernet Sauvignon here.

As for Pinot Noir, I agree with Mark and Ryan completely about the fine wines being made in the Finger Lakes from this grape. Pinot Noir is definitely a finicky grape to grow, as Irisira mentions, but it's finicky to grow absolutely everywhere. It's called the "heartbreak grape" for a reason, but I don't think that the fact that it's difficult to grow should be a deterrent. I think that there are sites in the Finger Lakes that are capable of and which are currently producing very high quality Pinot Noirs. Heart and Hands leads the list and is a testament to finding the right site. Their soil type is ideal for Pinot Noir and as a result, they are making extraordinary wines. I brought home several bottles of Fox Run's Pinot Noir and enjoyed the ones I tasted as several other places. Are all of them great? Not by any means, but the level of consistency is much higher for Pinot Noir across producers and across vintages than for Cabernet Sauvignon which is compelling only every once in a great while.

The point I was really trying to make is that you CAN, technically, grow any grape anywhere, but SHOULD you? Grapevines are hearty plants that will grow and produce berries no matter where you stick them. The art of producing fine wines is finding the right spot to grow a particular grape. There are certain spots where Pinot Noir can thrive and those are the spots where it should be grown. There may be some places where you can consistently get Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen fully in the Finger Lakes, but I have serious doubts about it.

Of course, I also understand that wineries are businesses and Cabernet is the king of red grapes. People who don't know much about wine still know what Cabernet Sauvignon is and when they walk in the door of a winery, they may have certain expectations about what they will be served. My point is that if you're just trying to meet that need, you're probably not being well served by it and may turn off more people than you bring in. My belief, and it may be kind of naive, is that if you serve someone a wine grown well and in the right place and vinified carefully, that wine will find a way to spark the interest of the taster and will win you more fans than if you're just trying to fill a niche in the marketplace. In the long term, quality production will buy you more repeat customers, which are the people you should be aiming for rather than the foot-traffic people who are looking for a souvenir to serve at their next dinner party.

Rob

Finally, because I don't want to leave anyone out, I want to say that I agree with pretty much everything Julia commented on. Lemberger makes interesting wines and grows well in the Finger Lakes area. I'd like to see more German and Austrian reds as well like Dornfelder, which is made at Fulkerson, but not particularly well, or like Zweigelt or St. Laurent.

And I do want to stress the point that she mentions about having such a wide range of wines produced at a single estate. My feeling is that if you're trying to make 20-30 different wines, you don't have the ability to really focus to make something stand out. Having such a wide variety is a marketing tool that is basically akin to just throwing out a really big net to catch the most fish. It takes less skill to toss a net than to be a true angler and the results are going to be more varied and less consistent.

In constrast, Hermann J. Wiemer has a range of wines, but they're all basically from just two grapes: Riesling and Gewurztraminer. They make different styles from those grapes, but they have a focus and, as a result, they are making world-class wines. You can be a jack-of-all-trades, or you can aim for mastery in a limited range.

A few quick corrections to my comments above:

1) I've been informed privately that the first vinifera based wines were actually made at Gold Seal Winery, where Konstantin Frank was the winemaker for Charles Fournier.

2) My memory let me down. Hermann Wiemer's portfolio is much broader than I remembered. They do grow Chardonnay and have several red wines as well. The Riesling and Gewurz were just the wines that really stuck with me.

Why the disclaimer? This guy rocks!

I think it is far to early to pull the plug on experimentation with a number of difficult Vinifera varieties here in the Finger Lakes. Experimentation by one grower is not a definitive act for all other growers in any grape growing region and certainly not in the Finger Lakes wine region. I also think that proclamations about which Vinifera varieties are appropriate for the FL region are also premature. After all how many "perfect spots" are there in Bordeaux or Burgundy and elsewhere? Perfect terroir is no garauntee of quality in the vineyard or the bottle. Using that logic I wonder why it is sometimes necessary for many West Coast wineries to add water to the grape musts in order to achieve a complete and dry primary fermentation? Many of those vineyards are irrigated with preciously scarce water resources in order for the vines to survive. Tartaric additions are made to achieve balance in the wines. Are these appropriate measures for the appropriate varieties? I don't know but the question is worth considering. How food friendly are these wines made from cool climate varieties grown in hot climate locations?
My experience in the Finger Lakes is telling me that many difficult varieties make very nicely balanced, complex wines that are a compliment to a meal not a distraction to it.
Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are proving to be great wines for a number of Finger Lakes wineries that understand these grapes from the vines to the bottle.
The consumers of dry old world style wines recognize that each growing season produces a grape crop that is unlike any other previous year and that the wines do not need to show consistency from one year to the next. This is well known in the cool climates of France and I think it is what makes things so interesting here in the Finger Lakes.

To Steve Shaw, thanks for your comments. You make a lot of really good points. I'll try to respond to as many as I can (leaving aside the issue of wine doctoring, which is very prevalent and which I have opinions on, but which fall outside the range of what I'm trying to communicate here).

Perfect terroir is rarely achievable, that's true, but it doesn't mean that it's not a worthy ideal to shoot for. Short of finding that perfect match, I guess I would say that growers should try to get as close as they possibly can and show respect for the grapes they are planting by trying to match them as closely as possible to their ideal climates and soil types. Ideal terroirs are few and far between and when they are found and meshed with the right grapes, something akin to actual magic seems to happen. To my mind, that should be the goal that growers and winemakers are aiming for.

I'm not intending to attack the Finger Lakes directly for this. I am aware that this poor matching happens in all kinds of different wine regions and I don't like it any more when it happens there either. As an outside observer, I was merely trying to comment on the fact that it is a problem here and I think it is a bigger problem than the one I hear talked about much more frequently, which is the problem of hybrid and native grapes being used to make lackluster or sickly sweet wines. You can't gain any credibility with those grapes, but with poor grape selection, whatever credibility you've worked to earn can get wiped away in a hurry from consistently average to below average bottlings made from grapes that have very little chance to succeed in the Finger Lakes.

I'm on record as saying that I think Pinot Noir is a good idea and I'm currently undecided on Merlot, but with Cabernet Sauvignon (and Sangiovese, for that matter), it just seems like a bad idea to me. I don't deny that there are some limited success stories, but these are in the vast minority and, I believe, are outliers rather than signposts. Furthermore, the diamonds in the rough are not good enough, I don't believe, to provide evidence for significant future success with Cabernet. In defense of FLX Cabernet, Ryan said above that Wine Spectator scored a Dr. Frank Cabernet in the the high 80s, which, while it's a nice score, isn't enough to show that the grape has the same kind of potential that riesling has in the area. If score watching is what we're measuring success by (and I don't think it should be), then you've got to get in the 90's and you have to do it often to make people notice.

The difference between the dry, old world style wines that you're mentioning (like Bordeaux and Burgundy, I'm guessing) and the Finger Lakes is that when those regions have optimal conditions, they make legendary, nearly eternal wines. Yes, vintage variation is a problem, but under the right circumstances, when it works there, it works like crazy. Those highs are high enough to justify the lows in off-years. I don't see that happening for the Finger Lakes.

I will concede that there are fans of cool-climate Cabernet Sauvignon and, for those people, the wines coming out of the Finger Lakes may be like a breath of fresh air. I also concede that there are very conscientious winemakers who are making above average wines from Cabernet Sauvignon. But as a consumer, I don't necessarily have the time or the resources to invest in wines that are merely above average. I want extraordinary wines and the world is full enough of them that I can give a pass to those that don't measure up. The Finger Lakes can make extraordinary wines, but I don't believe it can happen with Sangiovese or Cabernet Sauvignon or any other warm-climate grape you care to mention.

Finally, I want to thank Silence for his kind comment. I appreciate the well-thought out comments and the high level of discourse of the NYCR readership and look forward to fielding more objections, questions, encouragements, whatever.

Rob

Rob,

First of all, thank you not only for your thoughtful article, but for your equally thoughtful responses. They make for great reading, and as a local who drinks more FLX wine than anything else, it's good to hear the well-reasoned opinions of an "outsider."
I agree that scores do not equate with success. Still, I couldn't help but chuckle when you noted that "you've got to get in the 90's [in Wine Spectator] and you have to do it often to make people notice." There's some truth to that. But if failure to break 90 in that publication is a reason to stop producing cabernet, then the FLX should just pull the plug on all reds. Wine Spectator has never rated a FLX red above 89 (which I believe some winemakers find suspect...I know I do). I know Heart and Hands cracked 90 in Wine and Spirits, and the Beverage Tasting Institute recently gave Rooster Hill a 94 for its 2009 Cabernet Franc, but those raters don't have the rep of WS.
Whether one judges by scores or not, no red is established in the FLX with the same reputation that riesling enjoys: not cab, not pinot, not lemberger, and not even cab franc. From my admittedly limited vantage point, it seems like pinot and cab franc are leading the pack, with lemberger not far behind, but I think we're far from declaring the region's signature red. I think it will be several years before we can rule out most red varietals as contenders.
I will, however, go out on a limb and say that we can rule out sangiovese.

Ryan -

Thanks for the always pithy comments. I'll agree with you on Sangiovese and I'll add Grenache to that list. Tempranillo and Ruby Cabernet, too. Carignan, Petit Verdot. So many possible follies...

Ryan:

Thanks for your comments and kind words. I do want to stress that the sentence you've quoted from me was in the context of a conditional statement. The statement read IF score watching is what we're measuring success by, THEN you have to score in the 90's to consider it a success. As I noted parenthetically within that statement, I don't believe this should be the metric used to try to measure success at all.

Essentially, I guess what I'm saying is that I think we're in agreement on that point.

Rob

Wow. I didn't check the page for a few days, and it blew up!

First, to Mark - I stand corrected. I am still very very unfamiliar with California wine (I'm getting there), and when I said "northern Napa" I was thinking Sonoma Coast/Russian River Valley. Which, of course, is not north of Napa, it is west of Napa.

Also, I agree that Cab Sauv should be planted in the region, if for no other reason than for blending - while I have yet to have a "really good" cab sauv, I've had some fantastic Bordeaux style blends, primarily because the Cab Franc and the Syrah grapes do grow pretty well there. (I've also had some really good Cab Francs and really good Syrahs - Hazlitt and Damiani have great Syrahs, and Hosmer has a fantastic Cab Franc, for example.)

Also, OK, OK - I will give the Pinots in the region another chance. As I mentioned, I have not yet tried Heart and Hands, and I am excited to try their pinot because I've heard such good things. Also, I'm glad someone mentioned Shalestone, because it was there where I tried the first FLX pinot that I really enjoyed.

Even still, I will use this example: an acquaintance of mine wrote a review of Dinosaur BBQ on her blog a while back (when the Troy restaurant first opened) lambasting them over a poorly prepared salmon. Many of the comments said to her, "What did you expect? You don't go to Dino for salmon!" The thing is, though, many novice wine drinkers don't know what grapes grow well in what regions, and *that's* why I'm so troubled by seeing so many grapes that shouldn't be grown in the region, when there are so many that are not widely grown that would produce some great wine.

Oh, and my vote is Lemberger for the signature red, and even if that doesn't end up ever becoming the "signature," that's still what I will think of it. As good as many of the Cab Francs are in the area, Long Island edges FLX on that front.

Rob – Very good observations and it did sound as if you had a very good time. I am going to respond to your comment on why some of us are making wines out of varieties that don’t always seem to work here. Because we are stubborn! No that is not the reason. You have to understand the history of the region. Gold Seal planted those first vinifera and it wasn’t till 1976 when a couple of more planted some. The second wave of vinifera planting happened from 1985 to 1995.Those of us who came into existence prior to 1995 did not have much vinifera grape growing history to work with. In other words we couldn’t go to our neighbors and ask what is growing the best. Not because people weren’t growing vinifera and wouldn’t give us advice but there wasn’t enough grown or a growing history to make an educated guess on what varieties to grow. So what did we all do? I and a number of others used the shotgun approach and planted what were mostly commercially accepted grape varieties being sold in the US and also what the grape program at Cornell could recommend based on some small experimental lots that had shown promising results but were not large enough for commercial recommendations. So I planted Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Lemberger, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer. Now I will show you a time line which will help explain much of what we grow and make today. I decide what to plant and then order the vines that is one year! We plant the vines at a cost $18,000 per acre. We wait three more years until we get a harvest but it costs $4,000 per acre to farm each acre until we get our first harvest. That is another $12,000 so before we get our first harvest we are in to it for $30,000 an acre and the banks don’t lend us the money for planting. Now we get into wine making in the Finger Lakes. Lets just say we got good ripeness from all those varieties and our wine makers made some nice wines from the grapes. Riesling will be released in 1 year from harvest and maybe the reds 2 years from harvest. After a year in the bottle we get to look at the varieties as wine and they do look promising because we had a good vintage. So before we can make an educated guess we are 6 or 7 years from planting. Now we go into the second vintage and that is 7 or 8 years from planting. Because of the variability’s of the weather here we need to look at a couple of vintages in a row so we can make an educated decision. Next thing you know it is 10 to 12 years later and we can look at our grapes and say oh look Merlot doesn’t do well. Not because it doesn’t get ripe and it does make nice wines on occasion but because it can’t take the severe cold temperatures in the winter. So I say to myself lets rip them all out and plant a grape variety that does well like Riesling. Oops I don’t have $120,000 to cover the cost of replanting and farming 4 acres of Rieslingt. So I am stuck with my Merlot until I can sock enough money away to make the change or enough of my vines die and I have to replant a few rows at a time. So hopefully you see why some of us are making these wines and many of the newer wineries aren’t and seem to be more focused. The newer wineries have the luxury of planting grape varieties that make more sense because of the experiments those of us earlier producers tried. There are still lots of grape varieties that have not been tried and I am sure some of the newer producers will be trying them. But as far as I am concerned based on my results and the results of my neighbors let the newer players experiment. I on the other hand will eventually rip out a number of varieties and only plant Riesling from now on so my wine makers can concentrate on fewer varieties and hopefully will do a better job overall.
You also have to understand that when we plant a variety we don’t do it blindly there is some good evidence it will grow well here and produce a ripe grape. Learning how to make wine from its unique characteristics can take a number of years. When you plant a new variety to the region there is not a lot of support out there so a wine maker may be learning blind. We are fortunate to be able to communicate with other similar regions to get some help but the reality is we are not beer or soda where you can try new things every few weeks we only get one shot per year. Trust me all the points you made are under serious analysis and discussion by groups of grape growers, winemakers and owners. Here in the Finger Lakes we are not only competitors but collaborators because the ultimate goal is for our region and our wineries to succeed.

Scott Osborn
Fox Run Vineyards

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