Saturday, July 28, 2007

Report from: Finger Lakes Winery Tour - July 20-22, 2007

This summer I decided to re-visit the Finger Lakes region of New York – I had done it a few times before, most recently 3 years ago, but this time I was coming at it from a different vantage point: that of a writer. I was prepared to leave my prejudice (New York wineries serve only sweet wines and because of Americans love for sticky wines -as I had found my last few times thru) behind; and instead embrace the wine industry and base my finding on service, knowledge and of course, the wines served to me. I packed up the car – loaded a few bottles of my Ontario favourites for nighttime sipping (just in case) and off I went. I had two set stops on my agenda the New York Wine and Culinary Center on Canandaigua Lake (see Newsletter 63 – August 16, 2007) and the Fingers Lakes Wine Festival in Watkins Glen (separate On the Road article); other than that I was going to let the wind and recommendations of others take me where they wished.

Day 1 – Friday, July 20 … After my stop at the Wine and Culinary Center I proceeded, with map in hand, to hit up some of the recommended wineries my waiter and host had proposed. First stop, Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars, a beautiful winery overlooking Seneca Lake (editor’s note: most Finger Lakes wineries overlook a lake of which there are 3 major and a bunch of minor lakes). The region is becoming well known for its Rieslings, but they also dabble in other vinifera varieties and lots of native and hybrid varieties. The American palate still prefers sweet (as many winery employees will tell foreigners like myself looking for something a little more on the drier side) which is why many of then still make at least one or two sweet wines – even if they’re trying to specialize in more “serious” wines (there are of course some exceptions to that rule – but not many). There is a movement afoot to woo “serious” wine drinkers too, that’s where wineries like Lamoreaux come in. (Editor’s note: the term “serious wine/drinker” in this article refers to those who prefer vinifera wines and wines that are dry). Here I tasted a Dry and Semi-Dry Riesling – both good and well priced at $14.99; I tried a Non-Vintage Barrel-Aged Cabernet Franc (a blend of 2003 and 2004 grapes). The nose had lots of green pepper and black cherry, while the palate showed good complexity of pepper, herbs, green pepper, black cherry and a long finish with some silky tannins. Finally, the Estate Red ($9.99) a blend of Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cab Franc and Cab Sauv – smoke and tobacco dominated the nose, while in the mouth the same elements continued with pepper, raspberry and cinnamon also showing up. The wine list also featured Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer and a Rosé. All told a good start to the trip. New York Wineries 1 – Preconceived Notions 0

Next up a trip down Seneca Lake to Wagner, where they make both beer and wine. They grab you at the door, speak fast, force the “wine or beer” a decision on everyone who enters, get your money, give you a ticket, point to door A (wine) or B (beer) – instruct you in quick English (I think it was English) and then it is up to you to fend for yourself. I had not even been in the door 30 seconds before all this happened to me – and I am sure other visitors’ felt the same way by the look of confusion on their faces. It was all very frantic and I felt herded like cattle. When I finally figured it all out I started in the beer room … the beer was tasty, especially the Belgian Cherry Wheat and the Honey Wheat, while the wines were underwhelming, lots of sweet whites and smooth drink now reds; the best of the lot was a Merlot for $15.99 with a good all round plum, vanilla and black cherry smell. The smell of the wine was a respite from the wine jockey who had some of the worst breath I have ever smelled and it wafted over the bar frequently – if I did not have big feet to keep me standing he would have knocked me over. New York 1 – Preconceived 1

Final stop on the Friday was a winery I was informed I had to visit or not bother returning to my province of origin. A winemaker friend of mine from Niagara said he’s been and was impressed – the rest of his information about the place and the winemaker was all wrong, but I too was impressed. Shalestone Vineyards is an exception to my earlier rule about having at least one sweet wine in your portfolio … they make “serious” wine and their motto is “Reds is All We Do”. From their blends to their straight varietals there isn’t a drop of sugar to been seen anywhere, these are all dry wines that show what can be done around the Lakes. New York 2 – Preconceived 1

Day 2 – Saturday, July 21 … After a few hours spent pushing through the crowd at the wine festival I hopped back into the car, consulted a map and up the West Side of Seneca Lake I went. Stopping first at Lakewood, because it looked nice from the road. Inside it’s the tale of two wineries – the one serves the sweet crowd, the other respects the “serious” wino, you just have to prove to them which side of that fence you are on. Jack-of-all-trades and Entertainer Extraordinaire Tracy Gumtow pegged me for somebody serious right away. Playing to the crowd with the semi-dry Riesling, Delaware and Niagara sweet whites, he would slip over to me while the others tasted and poured me some stunning, award winning wines – keeping his voice low, as if sharing the secrets of these wines with only me (no sense letting others know that serious wine is being made behind all that sweet stuff). A 2005 Chardonnay ($12.99) loaded with buttery vanilla and a pineapple core; a crisp peachy 2006 Gewurztraminer ($16.99); a 2006 Pinot Gris with a titch of residual sugar (good papaya and pineapple notes); a cherry smelling, burnt caramel finishing 2002 Pinot Noir ($15.99) a good example of how Pinot does in the area (cranberry and earth through the mouth). A deeply tannic-black fruit based 2005 Cabernet Franc; and to top it off, a Baco Noir 2005 Port with cherry, chocolate, plum and a lasting finish. The port is interesting because it’s 100% Baco, from the grapes used to the fortification spirits – 100% Baco. There are some seriously good wines here. New York 3 – Preconceived 1

Tracy recommended a few places for “a serious wine drinker such as yourself” in those same hushed tones as he pulled out a map from under the counter. So on Tracy’s word the next stop was Miles Wine Cellars. Miles scores a point for New York because of there mix of “serious” (3) to people pleasing sweet (2) wines … and their reds have “balls” as they say, with good ageability and their Chardonnay was very good. Plus they have some older vintage stuff that has stood up quite well and a program where they make only “reserve” wines in the good years. New York 4 – Preconceived 1 Moving on to Fox Run Vineyard, whose claim to fame is a garlic festival – at least that’s what struck me when looking up at their events board. Most of the Fox Run tasting menu was on the sweet side and the rest of the stuff was over-priced: 2005 Cabernet Franc ($25), 2005 Cab Sauv ($19.99), 2006 Dry Riesling ($19.99); while some “limited release” wines started at $24.99-$45.00 with no explanation as to why and no one willing to say. But the sweet stuff flowed like water and was pushed on everybody who entered. New York 4 – Preconceived 2

Final stop of day 2, Ventosa Vineyards, now in their second year. They get points for innovation (they grow Sangiovese) and their pizza (my late lunch for the day) which was one of the best I’ve had in a long time: a 5 cheese blend with fresh basil and parsley made with their own homemade sauce. Their balcony overlooking the lake and the view was stunning. Well worth the stop for the food alone. The Vino Rosso is quite nice too. New York 5 – Preconceived 2

Day 3Sunday, July 22 … The road home took me by Keuka Lake, so I decided to make a few stops along the way. Having tried one of the most amazing wines at the Festival the day before, I made my first stop the winery that served it to me: Keuka Overlook. Not much to look at, and not much in the way of production (2500 cases) but here’s a guy who’s figured out how to make good wine. Sure he has his share of the sweet stuff for the crowd and fruit wines for those not into the grape, but Bob (owner and winemaker) gets it. His “Premium Reds” are all 14 months American oak aged and he reduces the acidity for a more drink now style. But unlike every other winery I had visited so far he talked about crop thinning, dropping fruit to the ground, reducing tonnage and making more highly concentrated fruit. The reasoning is simple and time honoured, the fruit that is left gets the nutrients from the vine and isn’t competing with other bunches thus producing better, riper, more concentrated fruit … bottom line – better building blocks, better wine. As for the “amazing wine”: it was a late harvest Dessert Johannisberg Riesling 2005, which had the taste of white chocolate (not a word of a lie) … Bob says he thinks it was a combination of the Botrytis on the grapes and the red wine yeast he used. New York 6 – Preconceived 2

“Serious” wine can also be found at Ravines Wine Cellars. Winemaker Morten Hallgren was born in Denmark trained in France and cut his teeth, on American soil, in Texas. A wine list of only 9 wines keeps this winery focused on quality, and only one sweetie on the menu (Keuka Village). “We don’t do well at the shows,” Morten told me, “because most of our wines are dry, but we do it for the exposure.” Ravines is one the few making Sauvignon Blanc, and he does it very well; his dry Riesling is just that, dry (0.2); the Chardonnay (sur lies) is made with 50% dehydrated grapes … his whites are delicious and impactful. The reds: “Cerise”, a blend of Pinot Noir and Lemberger is a cherry lovers dream (dry); the Cabernet Franc is all red fruit nose and cranberry taste, good tart finish; and the 2005 Meritage has 3and a half weeks of skin contact, bold and brilliant. Ravines is a wine lovers paradise, and the view should go without saying, is nice too. New York 7 – Preconceived 2

After Ravines Heron Hill was a let down – lots of wines to choose from yet master of none. They perceive themselves as a Riesling specialist with 6 different ones on the tasting menu. Unfortunately, this is another cattle-herding winery; not as abrupt as Wagner, but similar in tasting room style. The view is spectacular and the building divine (actually looks like a monastery), but the serving staff had little to no flair (like Tracy), the wines didn’t speak for them (like Ravines) and a half finished, corked-tainted bottle of “our best selling red” just didn’t show any care or concern by the serving staff … after the second bottle proved to be corked, I walked. New York 7 – Preconceived 3

Many of the “serious” winemakers know they are fighting an uphill battle against the sweet palate of their countrymen; but there are enough “serious” winemakers in the Finger Lakes that will keep trying to make a difference that I’ll be heading back there soon to try some more. May I suggest you give it a go also – you might find some great little surprises along the way.


Finger Lakes Weekend Wino said...

Grape Guy, Great Post! I'm going to link to your post on my blog:

Koddy said...

I have been there a couple of times, it's a wonderful place. I'd like to have another chance to be there some other day. Once I was in Finger Lakes, someone recommended viagra online in order to treat my erectile dysfunction, and it worked!