Do You Ship?

This is a question most of us have asked while visiting wineries, and we probably have not thought much beyond the “yes,” “no,” or “yes, but not to [fill-in-the-state] answer. We had the opportunity recently to research the issue and were amazed at the hodgepodge of state rules and the burden placed on small businesses.


Within New York State, wineries can ship to residents (no more than 36 cases per year to any one resident) as part of their winery license. They must used an authorized shipper, and packages must be clearly labeled as containing alcohol. Packages can be delivered only to persons of age 21 years or older (signature required). With regard to other states, the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) maintains reciprocal agreements with 24 states that allow wineries in New York to ship to residents in the other state. These agreements are subject to various limitations, such as quantities and number of shipments per year. The SLA ensures that shipping between states is on equal terms so that if, say, Connecticut limits New York State wineries to x number of gallons, then Connecticut wineries shipping to New York must follow the same restrictions. Beyond details of these agreements, wineries must follow all laws and regulations of the destination state.

Two very useful sources of information on wine shipping are the California Wine Institute and ShipCompliant. The Institute primarily serves its California member wineries, but has a rich stock of information on its website. Details on state shipping laws are provided by ShipCompliant, which is a partner of the Institute.

In general, issues surrounding shipping wine to a consumer involve the possible need for the winery to:

  • Have a direct shippers license in the destination state.
  • Register its brand.
  • Provide a bond.
  • Pay taxes.

In most states that allow shipment, a direct shipping license is required. One exception is the state of Connecticut where, in the case of a small farm winery, shipping is allowed through an in-state transporter (e.g., UPS). Otherwise, the winery must apply for a license, which might be free or might cost a few hundred dollars. Each state has its own documentation requirements (possibly requiring a bond), and the process takes as long as it takes.

Beyond licensing, wineries can expect to pay tax in the destination state. There may be sales tax (percent of price), excise tax (cents per gallon), or both. For some states, sales tax may vary depending on the county to which the wine is being shipped. Tax may be due monthly or quarterly with varying due dates, and the winery might be required to use the state’s on-line tax filing system, which can introduce another learning curve into the process. On the other hand, some states require not only forms, but also paper copies of all invoices.

For a fee, ShipCompliant can manage the shipping process for you, can integrate with the transporters’ data systems, and even pay taxes. Easy Wine Licensing (a ShipCompliant partner) can also obtain licenses and manage renewals. The only rub is that small wineries are hard pressed to afford their services. Thus, the onus is on the owners, or perhaps the tasting room manager or an outside sales person, to use whatever tools are available – phones, calendars, copiers, and Excel spreadsheets.

As frustrating as this all is, one can only sympathize with the needs of states to protect their revenue base. As far as taxes go, wineries are treated no differently than Amazon or mail-order electronics or plumbing parts suppliers. Sadly, because wine is alcohol, consumers in about half of our states have no access to any New York wine except wine produced by large commercial wineries that are represented by wholesalers. Where boutique wine can be shipped, the need for small businesses to deal with both licenses as well as taxes creates steep hurdles.

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Quiet little Dutch Street in the Town of Barrington swells to a population hundreds of people larger than normal during the third Saturday in August when it is time for the annual Clan Club picnic at McGregor Vineyard and Winery. As we noted in an earlier post about the Black Russian, McGregor is one of the first generation Finger Lakes wineries. Its record of innovation goes beyond wine, though, as McGregor also formed the first wine club in the region, paving the way for others to follow.

Clan Club members gathering for the annual group photo.

Clan Club members gathering for the annual group photo.

Most Finger Lakes wineries these days have some sort of wine club. Some are entirely informal (often operating on the honor system), where one belongs simply by purchasing a case during a year and is then eligible to receive discounts and attend events. A more widely used business model is where you sign up for x number of bottles y times per year, and at the time of pickup or shipment your credit card is charged. Benefits include, again, discounts, events, and often access to pre-release and limited quantity wines. The McGregor model is different, consisting of an annual up front charge that gets you a Clan pack (usually 2 bottles) each month. In this model, you trust that by virtue of the selections the winery makes, you will have received fair value. Judging by the smiles on the faces of everyone associated with the winery, this standard is being met or exceeded.

Since many members live in states that do not allow shipments (notably neighboring Pennsylvania where much tourism here originates), the picnic provides the opportunity to collect bounty in conjunction with an annual visit to the region. Others who can receive shipments choose the pickup option because they know they will attend the picnic and it is convenient. In addition to accumulated club packs, members also pick up wines they purchased as futures in the white (fall) or red (spring) barrel tastings. Suffice it to say, a before and after picture of the warehouse would show some dramatic differences, and if this is not enough, there is even more wine purchased on the day of the event through auctions (more later).

The program for the afternoon is typically:

  • Registration and grazing of shared appetizers that members provide.
  • A blind tasting of a flight of white and red wines, where participants guess the grape, guess which of the wines is the McGregor wine, and vote on which is their favorite. The goal is for the McGregor wine and the favorite wine to be the same, and this happens often enough (while paired with some impressive gold medal winners from various competitions), that John McGregor and his winemaker can be proud of what they are doing.
  • An auction consisting of over a dozen packages, mostly verticals.
  • The pig roast.

During the day, there is live music (again provided by members), corn (cooked by members), and silent auctions for individual odd bottles such as a jeroboam of this or double magnum of that or something else rare and interesting. In addition to the rare wines being auctioned off, several members plan their own library tastings, and it is not unusual to see a group at a table enjoying bottles or magnums of wine from the early 2000s or even earlier. It is always interesting to see what has stood the test of time.

Attendees having their own library tasting.

Attendees having their own library tasting.

The auction is always fun, and the bidding for some lots is spirited. Some of us who live on Dutch Street have formed our own pool, where we decide what we want to bid on and send our best (or perhaps most threatening looking) front person into the fray to get it. This gives us an excuse to get together a few times a year, grab a couple of old bottles, and pair them with a nice meal. Having won a Cabernet Franc vertical last year (6 bottles for about $400), we saw a vertical of Riesling as Lot #2 this year, figured it would be a bargain, and scooped it up for $200. And yes, Rieslings age quite well, thank you very much.

John McGregor awarding a bottle Black Russian to the winning bidder (from 2012).

John McGregor awarding a bottle Black Russian to the winning bidder (from 2012).

The most interesting story here is the title: loyalty. We belong to several wine clubs on Keuka and Seneca Lake, have formed friendships within those clubs, and thoroughly enjoy the events. There is, however, something unique about the McGregor family. Many of the members have associations with founders Bob and Marge going back to when the winery was started. Others such as myself joined along the way and have watched this winery-that-could continue to succeed as the number of new wineries has exploded. Together, we numbered of 300 last weekend. The Clan Club is an annual reminder of something so true and so simple: it’s all good.

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One of the most visible signs of harvest approaching is when the red grape varieties begin to develop their color, in a process called veraison. The term in French means “the onset of ripening,” and everywhere in the world where grapes are grown it is accompanied by excitement and a buzz of activity.

Table grapes at veraison.

Table grapes at veraison.

Veraison actually started about a month ago in the Finger Lakes. Each varietal marches to its beat of its own drum, with the unknown table grapes shown above from last weekend well on there way, while Cabernet Sauvignon right across the street is less farther along. Concords in my yard just have a few berries per cluster showing signs of pink.

Cabernet Sauvignon at veraison.

Cabernet Sauvignon at veraison.

From the time berries form until veraison, energy goes into cell division. At veraison, changes occur in the cells so that energy goes into sugar development. At the same time, malic acid degrades, leaving tartaric acid as the dominant acid component. For Chardonnay and red wines, it is often desired to convert tartaric acid back to malic by malolactic fermentation, but more about that when we actually get there.

One of many tools to scare away birds.

One of many tools to scare away birds.

Unfortunately, birds and deer also know something is up, in part visually and also due to changes in the aromas in the vineyard. Growers have a number of tricks at their disposal, such as these modern versions of scarecrows, propane powered cannons, and netting.

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Dialing for Grapes

Based on data collected by Cornell, the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets has notified wineries that they may purchase out of state grapes due to this year’s winter damage. State law allows this on a per-varietal basis when the loss for the varietal is 40% or more. The affected grapes are:

  • Brianna
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Chardonnay
  • Frontenac
  • Gamay Noir
  • Gewurztraminer
  • La Crescent
  • Lemberger
  • Merlot
  • Noiret
  • Pinot Gris
  • Pinot Noir
  • Riesling
  • Syrah

Several of these are surprising, for instance Frontenac and La Crescent that are supposedly winter hardy down to minus 33 degrees. A spot check of weather recorded up north (Watertown) and out west towards Buffalo, where wineries producing with these grapes are situated, did not uncover anything near that. It would be interesting to know more about the affected wineries and their fruit sources.

Although I have come to believe that decks tend to be stacked against grape suppliers as opposed to purchasers, New York does have a rigorous process for granting waivers. A winery seeking to use out of state fruit must list 3 growers from which it tried to purchase, and the amounts must be in line with what it has purchased in the past. Further, if the wine is less than 75% New York grapes, it cannot carry a New York or regional appellation. The benefit to the winery is that it can at least continue to participate in the wine market. Alas, all the grower has to fall back on is crop insurance.

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The Orange Wine

Several months ago while visiting a local business, we had occasion to pick up an issue of the excellent Life in the Finger Lakes Magazine and discover something that was almost shocking: an article about the Finger Lakes’ first orange wine. We qualify the word “almost,” noting that the winemaker behind the wine was Steve Shaw, about whom nothing should shock.

Steve is a longtime grower who decided to open up his own winery on the west side of Seneca Lake in 2002 (the tasting room opened in 2004). He has a passion for long-aged, complex wines, one measure of which is that many of his current red releases are 2007 and earlier. He is a fixture in the community, is opinionated (in a good way) and funny, and events are always better when he is there. In the spring when we hosted a Canada/New York throw-down, his 2007 Cabernet Franc was hands down the choice for the Finger Lakes entry. And when responding to visitors’ skepticism about the ability of the Finger Lakes to make excellent red wine, the three word answer “Visit Shaw Vineyards” is much easier than a more long winded discussion.

As to what makes an orange wine, the answer is conceptually simple and, no, it is not a wine made from oranges. To make a white wine, the usual process is to crush the grapes, discard the skins, and ferment the juice. For red wine, the skins are kept with the juice for a period of time (perhaps 30 days or so), with the tannins and pigments becoming part of the finished wine. Thirty days of skin contact makes a wine red, while one day of skin contact results in a rosé. An orange wine is the product of a white grape fermented in the style of red wine. The orange tinge results in part from components in the skin as well as oxidation.

It turns out that orange wines are traditional in eastern Europe (notably Georgia), where fermentation is done in a clay pot buried for several months, after which the juice is separated from the solids. Interestingly, one of the grapes often used for orange wine is Rkatsitelli, which is made here by McGregor Vineyard and Dr. Konstantin Frank. Orange wine has been finding its way in Europe and California where it is embraced or vilified by critics. Whatever, eh?

Even the kitty knows something is up with this.

Even the kitty knows something is up with this.

Our quest for the Shaw orange wine had some fits and starts, since on our first sortie the wine was not yet released because our Federal Government had not yet approved the label. We had to drown our sorrows in an excellent newly released 2007 Merlot. Finally, bottles appeared on the shelf and we had the opportunity to taste and purchase. Steve has actually produced two 2013 orange wines, the first of which is a Sauvignon Blanc, and the second (to be released in a few weeks) will be a Gewürztraminer. The SB orange had 32 days with full skin contact with multiple daily punch downs before being lightly pressed and combined with 8% Gewürztraminer, also made in the Orange style. It was racked from two stainless steel drums after 7 months on the fine lees, and bottled it directly without fining or filtration.

A sample of the 2013 Sauvignon Blanc in the tasting room revealed layers of complexity to be discovered, and aside from purchasing the 3 bottle limit of orange, we also sampled the 2012 regular Sauvignon Blanc. The 2012 and 2013 vintages were miles apart, but the fruit sources were the same and one could at least tell that the two wines were related. This evening, we put one of the orange wine bottles in the refrigerator for Steve’s recommended 30 minutes and let the experience manifest itself in the glass.

Well! The nose is beautiful, with hints of sherry (from oxidation), but with more overt layers of honey, peach, flowers, and other goodies. On the tongue there was a degree of tannins from the skin that would never appear in a straight white wine, but the overall effect was succulent, complex, balanced, and delicious. While orange wine may never be more than a sideshow, Steve in definitely onto something, and it turns out that Keuka Lake Vineyards will soon release an orange Vignoles. Between barrel fermented Riesling at Domaine LeSeurre, barrel fermented Gewürztraminer at Keuka Spring, and Steve’s orange wine, our year of innovation and invention continues. Bring us more mad scientists!

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Make It Stop Already

Yet another weather system in moving into the Finger Lakes the next two days with the potential to drop another 1 to 3 inches of rain. According to the Cornell University Northeast Regional Climate Center (NRCC), the temperature hasn’t been far off from the long term averages, but the summer has been decidedly wet, with flooding experienced in Ithaca, Penn Yan, and other areas in the Finger Lakes.

*through August 11
Month Average Temperature Total Precipitation
Normal 2014 Normal 2014
May 55.4 56.4 3.19 4.44
June 64.6 65.1 3.99 5.14
July 68.8 67.8 3.85 3.83
August 3.63 2.66*

More troubling has been severe storms we have experienced, including several bouts of hail and one spate of tornadoes.

Hail on a deck near Ithaca, courtesy Finger Lakes Weather and Sharon Heller.

Hail on a deck near Ithaca, courtesy Finger Lakes Weather and Sharon Heller.

While no farmer ever wants to see hail, this type of precipitation is particularly tough on grapes. The photo below is probably of a native American varietal, as indicated by the loose clusters. Vinifera tends to be more tightly clustered, and a puncture in the skin of a grape on the outside of the cluster allows juice to stream inside where, with nowhere to go, it produces rot. The juice from compromised clusters is decidedly, in the words of Alton Brown, “not good eats,” and they must be discarded or the grapes  sorted before pressing – an arduous and expensive process for which there is little time during harvest.

Hail damaged grapes, courtesy Finger Lakes Grape Program.

Hail damaged grapes, courtesy Finger Lakes Grape Program.

At this point in the season, the grapes have all the water they need. Some stretches of sunshine and low humidity would be most helpful.

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Merlot Strikes Back

As some have already guessed, the subject here is a reference to the movie Sideways, in which the Miles character disses Merlot in favor of Pinot Noir and, as a result, the movie producers unwittingly cost Merlot producers millions of dollars due to lost sales. The setting for this unplanned payback was this weekend’s annual Merlot and Mignon vertical at Keuka Spring Vineyards (KSV). As with their Shrimp and Chardonnay and the recently added Going Gewürtz events, it is a fun opportunity to see how recent vintages compare and are holding up, and to share food and friendship.

Menu with tasting notes.

Menu with tasting notes.

Our emcee and Keuka Spring winemaker is August Deimel, a fairly recent graduate from the Cornell graduate program, an incandescent ball of energy, and a bellyful of laughs per minute. August introduces the program by asking the question, “why Merlot?” and answers it by stating that in his experience making KSV wine with KSV fruit, Merlot has proved both consistent and flexible. It makes a consistently good varietal, and is also included in KSV’s two red blends – Miller’s Cove Red and Epic. Before returning to Pinot Noir, a brief review of the program.

Vertical awaiting enjoyment.

Vertical awaiting enjoyment.

All of us were delighted with the bounty, which included Merlot from 2007 and each succeeding year through 2012. The wines were served in two flights, with the younger three (2010, 2011, and 2012) served first. They were accompanied by a plate of food, the pièce de resistance of which was co-owner Len Wiltberger’s famous Filet Mignon slider. Len has been making this recipe for years, bonds with it as a mother hen does with her chicks, and may be as proud of the sliders as he is of the successful business he and wife Judy built with their daughter Jeanne and son Mark.

Of the first flight, 2010 and 2012 were fairly similar, since they came from fairly similar hot and dry seasons. Both had nice cherry noses, were well balanced, and exhibited a nice finish. The 2011 was the product of an odd wet-at-the-end year that caused growers fits, and it had a decidedly earthy nose. Surprisingly, it seemed to be more complex, and it kept kicking around in the finish doing all sorts of interesting things. As to why, August said (2011 was his first vintage) that sometimes it is better to be lucky than good considering the challenges of that season, but he was certainly happy.

Turning to the second flight, I tried the 2009 first. The year was pretty bad for reds since it was so cool, but I have been really surprised sometimes. Today was not one of them, as the wine to my taste was just OK. The 2008 was quite good, and the 2007, which I have had several times, is one of a kind. It is still deep garnet, still has amazing fruit and tannin, and is simply the complete package.

At the end of the event, the conversation returned to a remark August had made at the outset, when he talked about the history of KSV and expressed gratitude to Len and Judy for allowing him to drop Pinot Noir. One of the guests asked why, and this turned into the best Pinot Noir rant ever. Two minutes into it, I was kicking myself for not recording it, but the highlights included:

  • Pinot Noir is a genetically damaged grape.
  • It is falling apart in the vineyard due to genetics, and once you make it, it can fall apart in the barrel.
  • Some people like to chase Moby Dick, and some like to sleep at night.
  • And so on.

It was a devilish rant that had all of us in stitches, but it actually begs a serious and controversial question, which is: of the grapes we are growing in the Finger Lakes, which should we drop?

The answers vary dramatically between winemakers. Whereas August thinks Merlot is consistent, others view it as finicky. Whereas Pinot Noir certainly is, others are totally committed to it. Some say we should lose Gewürtzraminer, because we have a tough time competing with Alsace and it’s less popular with customers. We also have varietals like Sangiovese that only do well in good seasons and are less winter hardy, so why do it? Bob Madill, who is a Finger Lakes luminary, was recently quoted wondering (paraphrase alert) if we should even be bothering with reds. And aside from plusses and minuses of particularly varietals, we are also prone to criticism from wine journalists that we are doing too much and don’t know what we want to be when we grow up.

These are tough questions for wineries, and they are tough questions for the Finger Lakes wine industry. Regardless of the outcome though, the journey is fascinating.

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