Low Risk Grapes

This month’s American Wine Society meeting was hosted by friends John and Sandy Tuller on Seneca Lake near the Anthony Road Winery. Like several in the area, John is a Kodak-person-turned-grower, and he was among the first to get established here. He and Sandy run a vineyard, supplying high quality grapes to a number of wineries.

The theme for the meeting was “Wines from less risky grape varieties,” which was timely considering the past winter. We were treated to two whites (La Crescent, Fontenac Gris), and six reds (Frontenac, St Croix, two Nortons, Foch, and Marquette). Pre-meeting grazing was accompanied by wines we all brought, including a lovely homemade sparkling wine. Our host from the previous meeting also gave us our evaluation sheets from last month’s tasting of Spanish wines, so we could see how our tastes aligned or misaligned, as the case may be. Of course, there really is no “right” answer, as wine appreciation is as essay test.

Two homemade wines and two commercial wines from "Low Risk Grapes."

Two homemade wines and two commercial wines from “Low Risk Grapes.”

Last month's Spanish wines.

Last month’s Spanish wines.

While many of us are familiar with the Cornell breeding program (especially Traminette), except for the Foch and Norton, the varietals we tasted came from the University of Minnesota and, of course, were focused on winter hardiness. The table below summarizes several characteristics. Since these varietals are so new, growers and winemakers are still learning about how to manage the crop, when to pick, and how to coax flavors out of them. Some of the reds are challenged, in that they produce a combination of high sugars, high acids, and low tannins that can make wines that are somewhat in your face. But all of these were enjoyable, with the La Crescent and Marquette being my personal favorites.

University of Minnesota grapes.

University of Minnesota grapes.

Compared with the varietals above, Foch and Norton are ancient. Foch is a European produced hybrid grown mostly in the Eastern U.S. and Canada and finds uses as both a varietal wine and in blends. It is winter hardy down to -25°F and also quite disease resistant. The bottle was quite lovely. Norton, on the other hand, is a warm climate grape introduced by Dr. Daniel Norton in the early 1800s. Although a native varietal, it did not have the “foxy” flavors of grapes such as Concord and Diamond, and found its way into dry reds. It is grown widely in Virginia and Missouri. Of the two Nortons, the one from Chrysalis in Middleburg, VA, was quite nice.

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49 Degrees in July

Going into July, our bones seemed still chilled from the winter, but at least relative to many growing seasons, we were on track for normal (see “The Vineyard at Solstice”). The first two days of July were near 90, and then the bottom dropped out with lows of 49 degrees recorded at Cornell on July 5 and 6. Lows in the 40s have returned several more times since then.

Accumulated degree days for four years.

Accumulated degree days for four years.

The chart above shows data going back to 2008 and skipping the abnormally warm seasons of 2010 and 2012. You will notice the trend of near normal at the beginning of the month and then steadily getting cooler. With the berries continuing to grow, the next time to take the pulse of the growing season will be at veraison, when the red varietals undergo their annual color change. We can expect that unless things change this will be later than normal, but time will tell.

 

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Wine at the Racetrack

Annual fun occurs at the Watkins Glen International racetrack when wineries from New York State converge for the Finger Lakes Wine Festival, which runs from Friday afternoon through Sunday. The wine festival kicks off with a toga party, and it is pretty much downhill from there.

One of the four exhibitor buildings.

One of the four exhibitor buildings.

Being so familiar with the Finger Lakes wineries, the main interest here is to meet wineries that travel in from other regions of the state (such as Niagara, Lake Erie, Long Island) or wineries that we don’t often visit, such as those on the east side of Cayuga Lake. Although only 20 minutes as the crow flies, we are not a crow, and the slog from Keuka Lake is through Watkins Glen and then Ithaca. Between Cornell, Ithaca College, and shopping, you can spend a lot of time just trying to get from one side of the town to another.

An innovative winery.

An innovative winery.

The wineries at the festival run the gamut, from those doing dry reds and whites to those doing more party-style sweet wines, to those who are really different such as Pazdar, which is home of the original chocolate wine, as well as such offerings as “Wuby Wabbit White” and “Hot Sin.” On a more serious (for me) vein, the discovery this trip is Coyote Moon Vineyards from the Thousand Islands region. They make two terrific wines from Frontenac Gris and Frontenac Blanc, both of which are mutations from the red hybrid grape Frontenanc. According to the University of Minnesota, Frontenanc has produced a fruitful crop after being hit with temperatures down to minus 33. Along with the red hybrid Marquette (which they had unfortunately sold out of), these illustrate what can be done with the right combination of science and art.

Approaching the courtesy checkpoint.

Approaching the courtesy checkpoint.

The slight downer each year is the exit from the grounds through the so-call “Courtesy Checkpoint,” where the Schuyler County sheriffs screen drivers and, as the situation dictates, may also invite them to blow into a tube. Drivers who are over the limit are allowed to go hang out for a while and get re-screened without being cited. It’s hard to argue with safety, but for us this becomes a very selective winery visiting with lots of spitting.

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A Happy Seventh Anniversary at Red Tail Ridge

Red Tail Ridge on the west side of Seneca celebrated their seventh anniversary on Saturday with music, food, and wine for the public, and some special treats for members of their wine (Nest) club. RTR has been a terrific story since it opened, and being part of its growth – if only as a consumer – is really special.

The winery was founded by husband and wife team Mike Schnelle and Nancy Irelan. They moved to the Finger Lakes from California, where Davis-trained Nancy was the Vice President of Enology and Viticulture Technology at Gallo. Their commitment was to produce cool climate wines while also being respectful to the environment, and this led to  their being New York’s first LEED® (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) gold certified green winery

Red Tail Ridge LEED certified production facility.

Red Tail Ridge LEED certified production facility.

All visitors received complimentary pours of two sparking wines – a Blanc de Noirs made from 100% Pinot Noir, and a newly released (and second vintage) sparking Teroldego. Teroldego is a dark red grape grown mostly in northern Italy and, along with Dornfelder, illustrates Mike and Nancy’s commitment to experimentation.

Blanc de Noir on right and just-released sparking Teroldego on left.

Blanc de Noir on right and just-released sparking Teroldego on left.

I had missed last year’s sparking Teroldego, and I was quite surprised to see the color. Trying to member bad sparking wine from 30 years ago, Mike reminded me of Cold Duck, and we both had a chuckle about this. But there was nothing funny about this wonderful wine. It had fruit, spice, texture, and was simply delightful. I am looking forward to doing a more serious tasting of this with food and friends when the opportunity presents itself.

Mike and I chatted briefly about the vineyard and the effects of the winter. While RTR is not in Seneca Lake’s “banana belt,” the vineyard came out of the winter in reasonable health. Fruit will be down and there will need to be some trunk renewal, but it will not be necessary to do significant replanting, which could impact production for the next few years.

Nancy presenting a Riesling vertical with a Blaufränkisch bonus. Note the screw caps in the newer bottles.

Nancy presenting a Riesling vertical with a Blaufränkisch bonus. Note the screw caps in the newer bottles.

Our special Nest Club treat was a tasting of 2009 through 2013 Rieslings with Nancy, followed by a taste of the 2009 Blaufränkisch. The short answer on the Rieslings was that all were lovely and aging well. The 2009 had the distinctive petrol quality of older Rieslings, while the younger wines were more fruit forward, especially the 2013. The contrast between the warm 2010, cool 2011, warm 2012, and cool 2013 was interesting, with the warmer years exhibiting a more tropical feel. The Blaufränkisch was terrific and showed once again that wines from 2009 that we might have been tempted to dismiss a few years ago are growing into a wonderful maturity.

Nancy spoke briefly about how, as a winemaker, she has learned to react to developments in the vineyard and even predict what will be happening in the next few days based on her familiarity with the site. She and Mike are decidedly about taste and less so about chemistry, although they rely on the lab to confirm and supplement their perceptions.

The epiphany for me was when she stated that before coming to the Finger Lakes she had almost no experience with Riesling. This certainly made sense, but at the same time was remarkable considering what she has accomplished as part of a community that has either “grown up” here or come from the old world (thinking Johannes Reinhardt, for example). Her Rieslings are spot on, she is doing some of the best Pinot Noir in the Finger Lakes, and then just to liven things up there is Dornfelder and Teroldego. Happy seventh, Mike and Nancy, and best wishes for many more years.

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Replacing the Capsulator

Winemaker August Deimel at Keuka Spring Vineyards has a problem. The seal on top of a wine bottle is called a “capsule,” and on a mechanical bottling line this is placed on top of each bottle by a bit of machinery, after which another bit of machinery seals it before the labels are applied. Unfortunately, the capsulator has broken, needs to be replaced, and with an entire tank of red wine to bottle today, the only possible fix is to find a human being willing to work for either minimal wage or, in my case, the sheer joy of it.

The bottling line.

The bottling line.

The view above is the first stage of the bottling line. A person deposits cases of clean bottles at the beginning of the line, where they travel into a filling station and are then corked. The filling station is supplied by a hose that snakes along the floor of the winery, ultimately ending up at a tank that supplies the wine with a filtration stage in between. After being filled, each bottle is lifted up into the cork applicator, where just before insertion the air is evacuated and replaced with nitrogen. The bottles leave Stage One, and then go into the capsule and label stage.

Bottles traveling between the filling and corking station to the sealing and labeling station.

Before and after “capsulating.”

Today’s workaround consists of my hand (not shown in photo) placing the capsule on top of each bottle in between stages. Of course, no one of my generation can think about an assembly line process without immediately have a vision of the famous chocolate scene from “I Love Lucy,” and in fact there are a number of things that can go wrong. They include:

  • Inadvertently placing more than one capsule on the bottle, since they are a bit hard to separate. I do this a few times, creating a slight mess on the other end. Getting two capsules that are stuck together off the neck of a bottle so it can be resealed is a nuisance.
  • Low or high fills. The filler is set to supply 750 ml of wine and does this with a high success rate, but it is not perfect. The more typical problem is a low fill, and optimally someone spots it and removes the bottle from the line. Occasionally, there is a high fill, with the same remediation. These are set aside and become tasting room bottles.
  • Bottle not getting a cork. This might occur either because the container of corks runs out or there is a jam somewhere.
  • Bottle not getting a label. As above.

Towards the end of the afternoon after dealing with various problems that crop up, August is looking happy. The line is processing a pallate’s worth of bottles in a bit over 30 minutes, compared with the more usual 40+. The speed of the line is adjustable, and he explains that the main problem with running the line too fast is misfills, due mostly to dissolved CO2. Red wine has less of an issue, and today’s wine (a Bordeaux style blend) is behaving nicely.

In case you are wondering whether the blogger committed a major faux pas, the answer is “of course.” After being alerted to the misfill problem, I was duly checking the fills and intercepting problem bottles, but at some point perfectly filled bottles passed my station without corks. The eye seeing what the mind expects, I placed capsules on top, and my colleague at the end of the line removed the sealed and labeled bottles, placing them upside down in the case, and then wondered why they were leaking. Reacting quickly, he hit the stop button, and we only lost a case (retail price about $250). Nonetheless, August and owner Len Wiltberger are very gracious and happy that I was able to “fill in.” I leave with a bottle which I promptly mark up with the bottling date. I already know what a yummy bottle this is, and I look forward to an even better aged wine a few years from know that will bring a nice memory and a smile.

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Bottling

It is 85 degrees with a 67 degree dew point at this writing, and I expected to be spending the afternoon sweating on the bottling line at Rooster Hill Vineyards today, where I have volunteered occasionally for the exercise and occasional wine pay. Amazingly, when I arrive I am told there was more than enough manpower, so instead of sweating I took some pictures.

Bottle line truck

Bottle line truck

While much of the year – especially from harvest through fermentation – has a regular rhythm to it, bottling happens when it happens, with wineries making decisions based on stock levels, the market, and other needs of the business. Bottling in the smallest wineries is often the job of one or two people with a cork press and a stack of labels. In the larger operations, it is done by a dedicated bottling line. Rooster Hill, being in the middle, contracts with a portable operation.

Bottle line guts.

Bottle line guts.

Inside the truck, cases of glassware are transferred from boxes onto an assembly line, where they are filled by a pump supplied with a hose connected to a tank inside the winery. Once filled, a cork or Stelvin closure (aka, “screw cap”) is applied, the labels are put in place, and the sealed and labeled bottles exit the other side of the operation, where they are transferred to other cases, packed and sealed. As I arrived, the person sealing the case with a hot glue gun emitted an audible “ouch,” which I have experienced myself. It doesn’t take too many before you train yourselves out of the ouchies.

What goes in come out.

What goes in come out.

Whether the operation takes place outside in the heat or inside in more comfortable environments, bottling is usually a dedicated task done on a schedule, and by the end of the day you are extremely tired, but also satisfied. Looking at the stacks of cases now before you in the warehouse, your contribution to the operation is clear, and the next step is to transform what started as fruit to money. Preferably as quickly as possible.

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Views, Vineyards, and Verticals

Saturday was a picture perfect day for a wine club event at Lamoreaux Landing on Seneca Lake. Seneca is the deepest of the Finger Lakes and is about 40 miles long, but Keuka Lake snobs such as myself have somewhat of a jaundiced view of it. Most of the land surrounding the lake is flat, and the lake itself is somewhat formless. Driving up on one side or another, you see homes with decks looking out towards the view, and you sometimes wonder view of what (anticipating barbs and arrows any moment).

The best view on Seneca Lake.

The best view on Seneca Lake.

Rows of Chardonnay.

Rows of Chardonnay.

So having dissed Seneca, it is also true that there are some spectacular views, none of which in my opinion beat the one from Lamoreaux Landing. The winery is run by Mark Wagner, who is a third generation grower, and it has been a consistent standout in its 30 or so year history. The event for wine club members includes a vineyard tour and update, a vertical tasting of single vineyard Riesling, and a blind guess-the-wine tasting to send customers away with a proper feeling of humility.

Cabernet Franc fruit set.

Cabernet Franc fruit set.

Looking at the Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc vines, Lamoreaux has come out of the winter in good shape. There may have been 10 to 20 percent bud kill, but the fruiting canes are doing well, and Mark is expecting a typical year for quantity. He talks mostly about canopy management and the importance of keeping the vines open so that sun and air are able to ripen the fruit and keep it clean. He also gives us a tour of the mechanical harvester Lamoreaux acquired two years ago.

Lamoreaux's two year old high tech harvester.

Lamoreaux’s two year old high tech harvester.

Having heard about some of the advances made in mechanical harvesting, this was my first opportunity to see one of the newest models. Aside from having much improved, gentler, and adjustable shakers, the model features:

  • Automatic vehicle leveling as the machine transits slopes and bumps;
  • Demogging (more in a bit), and;
  • Cruise control. Yes, cruise control.

The key points for winemaker are really the action and the demogging. MOG is an acronym for “material other than grapes,” and may include items such as stones, large canes, insects, and other things. MOG introduces bad tastes in wine and is typically removed by hand sorting on the crush line. Mechanical demogging is making much of this work unecessary, and it also reduces the time between taking the grapes off the vine and crushing them. The improved action of the shakers makes for a higher percentage of the fruit that is extracted and less damage. In answer to a question, Mark said he was totally comfortable using the harvester for Pinot Noir, which is thin skinned and delicate.

Map of Lamoreaux vineyards.

Map of Lamoreaux vineyards.

Our vertical tasting consists of single vineyard Round Rock Riesling from 2010, 11, 12, and 2013. All four wines are luscious, and are fantastic representatives of Finger Lakes Riesling. Lamoreaux has joined an increasing number of wineries here that bottle Rieslings from some of their vineyards individually, as well as so-called “Estate” Riesling that may be single vineyard (for a small producer) or blends.

The remarkable thing to me is how similar the wines are, given the radically different growing seasons. As expected, the 2013 is the most fruit-forward, while the 2011 and 2010 are starting to develop the petrol-like character of older Rieslings, but the family resemblance is clear. Mark explains that the approach in the cellar is pretty much the same year to year, with the consistency and character largely attributable to good picking decisions. Mark also credits the harvester as being a key component, since if they want the fruit tomorrow, they can have it tomorrow. Speed and agility were particularly important last year when, due to the weather, too many of the varietals ripened at the same time. Although there were long days and nights on the crush pad, Lamoreaux avoided having to accept fruit that was sub-par or having any of it spoil.

After the vertical, we go upstairs for some refreshments and the blind tasting. My guesses for glasses A, B, C, and D are, respectively, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Grüner Veltliner. Since my track record for these types of things is somewhere about 25%, I didn’t worry about sticking around for the results. I will enjoy them later.

 

 

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