Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed written by Rob Tebeau from the blog Fringe Wine, a site focusing on the lesser-known regions and grapes in the wine world, based on his first visit to the Finger Lakes wine region. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the NYCR or its editors.
By Rob Tebeau, Fringe Wine
From June 24 through July 1, 2011, I was on vacation in the Finger Lakes, checking out the local wine scene. New York Cork Report executive editor Lenn Thompson helped me with an itinerary full of can’t-miss places that I tried to stick to as closely as possible, but when you’ve got a full week to kill, you have the luxury of a little free-wheeling experimentation.
On day one I went off list and decided to try the Belhurst Castle winery. It seemed like a logical stop since I was planning to do the western bank of Seneca Lake that day and Belhurst would be a good jump-off point before working my way back south. Plus, we figured visiting a castle would be a pretty cool experience (it turns out the place isn't really a castle, it's just a really big building, part of which happens to look kind of old).
Whenever my wife and I are in a wine region and have plans to visit multiple places in a single day, we always bring along our opaque blue plastic cups so that we can discreetly spit our samples and make our way through the day safely and soberly. Belhurst apparently has a pretty strict no outside food or beverage policy, so when the pourer noticed our cups (about four pours in), she asked what we had. When we explained, she made a face and loudly repeated, “They’re for SPIT?” before incredulously telling everyone else at the tasting counter what we were using the cups for and then informing us that we should feel free to use the buckets on the table to pour unwanted wine samples into, but we should, under no circumstances, pour the contents of our spit cups into them. She was visibly disgusted and proceeded to treat us for the rest of the tasting as if we had just crawled out of the sewer.
This episode bothered me for a couple of reasons. First off, spitting when wine tasting is the responsible thing to do. If I am only going to one or two wineries, then yeah, I can see how spitting may be unnecessary, but we ended up at seven wineries that day and did it in about 6 hours. If I had swallowed every sample of wine that was poured for me, I would have been pretty blitzed by the end of the day and would have been a hazard not only to myself and my wife, but to every other person who had to share the road with me. I don’t want to share the road with drunk drivers and I don’t expect that many other people want to either.
Second, I was in the Finger Lakes for seven days and visited more than 30 wineries and I did not see a single other person spitting their wine. It’s difficult to be the only person in a room full of people doing something. My wife and I bring opaque plastic cups so we can be as discreet as possible when we sample wine because, let’s be honest, spitting can be a little gross. I am aware of that fact, but I really do not appreciate having the fact announced to a tasting room full of people and being made to feel like some kind of disgusting freak.
Now, I should also point out that of the 30+ wineries that we visited, Belhurst was the only one that hassled us about the spit cups. Many places didn’t notice what we were doing and the ones that did commended and praised us for what we were doing.
Overall, the trip was overwhelmingly positive and my impression of the Finger Lakes is that there are some amazing wines being made there and some wineries that can compete with anyone, anywhere in the world. Hermann J. Wiemer is one of those wineries. Their Rieslings have an incredible, electric kind of acidity with amazing depth. Their single-vineyard bottlings are expressive and rich, illustrating the adaptability and expressiveness of Riesling on different terroirs. We also had the fortunate experience of having a 17-year-old bottle of Wiemer Riesling at the Village Tavern in Hammondsport that showed definitively that these were wines that were not only phenomenal now, but definitely had the stuffing to go on for decades. Wiemer was undoubtedly the star of the region for me.
The list of those who can challenge Wiemer is lengthy. Anthony Road is doing great things with their Riesling and Vignoles and their Trockenbeeren dessert wines are lush and amazing. Fox Run’s Riesling and pinot noir bottlings are excellent. Red Newt’s gewürztraminer wines are perhaps the benchmark wines for that grape in the region. The Tierce bottlings featuring the grapes and winemaking talents of the three aforementioned estates are also wonderful and refreshing to see.
And then there’s Konstantin Frank. And Ravines. And Damiani. And Red Tail Ridge. The ice wines of Standing Stone were a revelation. The Black Russian from McGregor is one of the most interesting wines being made in the United States. And there many others in a tier slightly below that. But I realized throughout the week that the places that we were really targeting and that were receiving most of our attention were doing so not only with their vinifera based wines, but also with their offerings from hybrid grapes and native labrusca-based wines as well.
Hybrids and native American grape varieties are kind of a touchy subject in the Finger Lakes, I found. There’s definitely a school of thought that posits that wines made from these grapes represent a threat to the credibility of the region. It’s a thorny debate, but my personal feeling is that these non-vinifera wines are not the most serious threat to the Finger Lakes’ reputation on a large scale.
People who know the difference between vinifera-based wines and non-vinifera based wines and who have a strong preference on the matter will likely avoid most of these bottlings while those who don’t know the difference will probably try them and, if the tasting sheets at the wineries themselves are honest and accurate, will most likely enjoy them. These wines tend to be the big cash cows for the wineries that produce them and while many of us may turn our noses up at them, there’s something to be said for popular appeal and generating revenue (to a certain extent). Lord knows as an English major I’ve had my share of conversations lamenting the popularity of the Twilight series or The Da Vinci Code, but at the end of the day, if more people are reading books, it’s probably a net win.
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. I saw an awful lot of cabernet sauvignon on an awful lot of tasting sheets and can count the memorable versions on a single hand (and even then they were blends with the more appropriate cabernet franc and some merlot). I know that cab is king but unless you have the perfect spot for it in the Finger Lakes (and I’m not sure that there is one), it’s really not worth planting it. The native and hybrid grapes make a certain kind of sense in this respect because they were either selectively bred to be compatible with this kind of region or have evolved to handle the vagaries of the Finger Lakes climate over many years. Yes, the wines made from these grapes are never going to be as complex or deep as the finest wines in the world, but they can be respectable if grown and vinified carefully. Poorly chosen vinifera grapes, though, are doomed from the outset if they require warm weather and long growing seasons because those are two things that the Finger Lakes just cannot provide on a consistent basis.
The most egregious example of this kind thing is being perpetrated at Glenora Wine Cellars where, for some completely inexplicable reason, they are bottling a varietal sangiovese wine. The wine was pale, thin and woefully under-ripe. I’m trying to think about the kind of wine consumer who would be drawn to this sangiovese and I can’t come up with anything. Worse, it’s a massive turnoff to people who are familiar with sangiovese-based wines and who are told at the tasting counter (as I was) that this was similar in style to Chianti. If I were a Chianti producer, that remark would have probably resulted in an altercation.
I'm not necessarily trying to single out Glenora, as there are several other places that have made some questionable choices in terms of grape selection. Glenora is probably one of the more visible estates on the western bank of Seneca Lake, though, with their massive tasting room, restaurant (which was actually quite good, if pricey) and on-premise boarding. As a result of this visibility, Glenora is the most obvious target and exemplar of a problem that I witnessed not only in the Finger Lakes, but in every emerging wine area that I’ve visited in the US. Pindar on Long Island and Sakonnet Vineyards in Rhode Island are two that spring to mind as representative of the same problem for their respective regions. All of them offer about 20 different bottlings of all kinds of different grapes whether they’re suitable for their climate (or terroir or whatever you want to call it) or not.
It may not necessarily seem like it from the overall tone of this post, but I really enjoyed myself in the Finger Lakes and look forward to tracking the region’s progress in the future. I’m one of those people who is excited by local wine and I want to see it succeed, so I’m a little hypercritical at times with wineries and estates that are straying into dangerous territory. You can make good wine in the Northeastern United States but it’s a tougher task than it is on the West Coast. There are more limitations here and they are much more unforgiving than in other climates.
There are a lot of wineries that are playing to the strengths of the Finger Lakes climate with their grape selection and are combining that selectiveness with careful, serious winemaking. Most of the wineries that we visited on Seneca and Keuka Lakes fit that description (those were the only two lakes we had the time to check out). These are the places that are going to be the flag bearers and the ambassadors for the region on the national and even global stage. I hope that the rising tide they are creating is sufficient to buoy the region as a whole and that the few places that are trying to merely cash in and move product aren’t doing enough damage to sabotage the whole effort.