Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Report from: Finger Lakes Wine Festival – July 21, 2007

The Finger Lakes … an area loaded with summer homes and cottages, beautiful scenery and I don’t know how many wineries (it seemed like there was a winery on every corner). It’s also home to the Finger Lakes Wine Festival, held every July, and as the Irish Rovers are apt to say “Wasn’t That a Party!” My count from the official “Tasters Guide” puts the number in wineries in attendance at 98, plus the food venders, wine paraphernalia vendors and kitsch vendors … that’s a lot of booths and a lot of things to do; no wonder they sell three day passes to this event. The event itself is held at the Watkins Glen International Race Track, and it’s a good thing too, because they need all the space they can get. Three long tents house the wineries and a majority of wine related booths … the rest are outside the tent encircling the main area. There is also a seminar area where you can rest, relax and learn … I stopped in for a wonderful chocolate and wine presentation (and I’m not just saying that because I knew the presenter). We like to slag our neighbours to the south as loud, obnoxious and, in wine circles, we blame them for their predominantly sweet palate, but they sure do know how to put on a wine festival that: 1) everyone wants to attend and 2) all the wineries want to participate in … I’ll have more on that in an upcoming newsletter, but suffice it to say the liquor laws and the regulation of sales, aren’t governed by a lone monopoly who holds all the power.

So what were the highlights and my comments from the festival? In no particular order here they are:

1) The Americans palate is still sweet; especially at events like this and the wineries in attendance know it – a majority of the wines poured had a residual sugar level well above 2%; and I would guess sales for sweet versus dry wine was 10 to 1 (if not higher).

2) Riesling is everywhere; but if you’re looking for “dry” Riesling, look elsewhere. “Dry Riesling” down here is sweet, “Semi-Dry Riesling” is sweeter, and “Dessert Riesling” is just plain good.

3) Keuka Overlook makes a 2005 Johannisberg Dessert Riesling that has the smell and taste of white chocolate and sells it for a mere $10.50 (375ml) – yawzah! This was a definite purchase – I also made a point of visiting the winery the next day.

4) Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery seems to be a hallowed place to many. He makes some very nice wines, including a 2006 Dry Riesling, which actually is dry (peach, lemon/lime with good follow thru) $17.99; and a 2004 Merlot, which is a dry easy sipper with tons of black fruit. I found a lot of his stuff to be expensive, but what do you expect for serious wine … and next to that $6 bottle of sugary booze water or course it’s expensive.

5) Ravine Wine Cellars makes good, no nonsense wines with very little sweetness (only one of his 9 wines has any perceptible residual sugar). This guy is serious about making wine – the 2006 Cerise poured at the show was spectacular. Another one I was prompted to visit the next day.

6) I notice a lot of wineries make “port” or “port-style” wines, and many are quite good though few match up to the real thing from Portugal.

7) I almost dropped a load when I found a Zinfandel and Syrah at a place called Long Point Winery. Turns out they don’t grow them but maybe, hopefully one day they will. The grapes are sourced from Lodi, California, and Zin making is a family tradition that spans generations: grandpa made it, dad made it, and now son, Gary Barletta, makes it. It was my favourite red at the show (I bought three bottle - $15.99 each, minus 10%) – the 2005 is suppose to be even better.

8) There are lots of farms that have turned to grape growing, winemaking and finally turned into wineries.

9) There is something afoot on the other side of the border from Niagara, Ontario – they call their area the “Niagara Escarpment”, it’s one of their newest recognized regions, and they’re making something fabulous at a place called Warm Lake Estate: Pinot Noir, damn good Pinot Noir. I tried the 2004 Warm Lake Estate Pinot Noir ($29.95) and was blown away by the good earthy, strawberry nuances of the wine. And Pinot Noir is all they do; witness the Glace Noir, a port-style wine made from Pinot Noir grapes, fortified to 19% alcohol and 10% residual sugar: fabulous cherry and strawberry on the nose and taste. This place may require a hop over the border to witness more.

10) The place was packed … even arriving at 10:30 in the morning I couldn’t avoid the crowd, but many seasoned attendees will tell you “Saturday is always busy – Sunday is quieter, more elbow room.”

11) Finally, and a brilliant idea – the “sleep it off station” … as you were leaving the venue the police were posted at the exit gate from the grounds. They stopped every car and gave each driver a Breathalyzer test. If you blew over, you weren’t going any further than those gates – and with no designated driver you camped out on a cot until you were ready. I took my first ever and blew a double zero – proving I’m a seasoned veteran, or didn’t blow properly.

Lots of fun, lots to taste, and lots to discover; I hit a handful of booths in each tent and I feel I barely scratched the surface. But what a great event, on so many levels.

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