The Year Ends. As Does the Blog.

I have for a long time wanted to write a book, and during my life went down the road a few times on various subjects. Moving here in 2006 and not seeing any books about wines in the Finger Lakes, I saw an opportunity and promised myself to get started as soon as I retired from my software job (2013). My approach was going to be something like “What Were They Thinking?” Which is to say, a narrative about winery owners who had the courage or the requisite degree of obliviousness to disregard prevailing wisdom that it couldn’t be done here.

Keuka Lake sunset.

Keuka Lake sunset.

Then in 2012 Summer in a Glass by Evan Dawson came out, did astonishingly well, and won an award for best book on wine. My first read made my head spin. After all, it was simply a collection of stories about various people who are well known here. There was scant technical information, not much of a common thread, and I wondered what the fuss was about. My second and subsequent readings cleared up the mystery, which is that people love stories and one can hardly ask for a better storyteller than Evan, who is a journalism and broadcasting professional and heck of a nice guy to boot.

Nonetheless, I thought that perhaps with a shift in focus there would be room for a second book, and I decided to approach it from the perspective of a year in the growing season. As I was discussing this with friends, someone (don’t remember who) suggested that I do a blog and see what happens. Researching the how-tos, I got an excellent steer from Alder Yarrow, author of the fabulous Vinography blog, who put me onto WordPress. Over the year, I wrote what will now be 87 articles, or one every 4 or 5 days.

Unlike Julie Powell, who wrote the blog that became Julie and Julia, the thousands of followers and a movie with Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci did not appear. Nor did invitations to speak about Finger Lakes wines in California, Europe, or other destinations. Nonetheless, I learned things about winemaking that I would not otherwise have learned, formed some friendships with people I did not know, wound up writing a few articles for a local magazine, and may do some writing in the future. Most importantly, doing this was fun, and at least the blog saw the (somewhat dim) light of day, as opposed to an electronically discarded book manuscript.

The story still to be told is about the people who decided to set up shop here. Some, like Bob McGregor of McGregor Wineyards and Len Wiltberger of Keuka Spring, gave up careers with Kodak. Amy Hoffman of Rooster Hill Vineyards gave of a career in technology sales. So did Bruce Murray of Boundary Breaks who, before 2005 didn’t even know what Finger Lakes Riesling was. Kelby Russell, who could have gone any number of places after graduating from Harvard in 2009, decided to follow his passion and make wine in the Finger Lakes. Johannes Reinhardt took a chance investing in the area before he was even guaranteed permanent residency here.

All of them risked a lot to play a game where you are not always dealt a great hand (as in 2014), and after working insanely hard the rewards are often more in pride and satisfaction than money, at least judging by the lack of yachts on Keuka Lake. All of these people and so many other I could have mentioned are my heroes, and to live among them in one of the most beautiful places anywhere is a treasure.

Santé.

Posted in Enjoying | 3 Comments

Last Barrel of 2014

Our final event of the year was the annual red barrel tasting at McGregor Vineyard. Our wines were the reds of 2013, and we were able to sample:

  • Two different Pinot Noirs – one a single clone and the other a blend;
  • Sangiovese;
  • McGregor’s three Bordeaux grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc – as well as the blend McGregor labels a Rob Roy, and;
  • The Black Russian.
The lineup.

The lineup.

As John McGregor explained, 2013 was a challenging year for red wines due to a late start and a damp summer that delayed ripening and created quite a bit of disease pressure. Nonetheless, thanks to good work in the vineyard, terrific fall weather, and more good work in the cellar, McGregor eeked out a wonderful selection of wines.

Guests ready to sample wines at the barrel tasting.

Guests ready to sample wines at the barrel tasting.

We thought the two Pinots – labeled “A” and “B” for the time being – were among the best Pinots to come out of McGregor. The single clone “A” was more fruit forward while the “B” blend was a bit darker, but both were terrific examples of what the Finger Lakes can do with this finicky grape. Asked which we preferred, the group was split right down the middle, with our coming in on the “A” side.

The delightfully funky candles help make the barrel tasting special.

The delightfully funky candles help make the barrel tasting special.

McGregor has only a small plot of Sangiovese that does not bear sufficient fruit every year to make a varietal, but it did well in 2013. We enjoyed the sample, but seem to recall preferring the warmer vintages for this wine. There will be no Sangiovese in 2014 due to the polar vortex, and we are hoping the vines will recover and resume production. Time will tell.

Turning to the Bordeaux grapes, both the Merlot and Cabernet Franc were fruity, nicely balanced, and ready to drink now, with the Merlot showing quite a bit more tannin. It was harder to get a fix on the Cabernet Sauvignon, and John agreed this one would take some time. The Rob Roy blend was 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, and seems to have great promise. Finally, the Black Russian was simply wonderful. We will probably have a chance to revisit this wine in the spring when McGregor has its annual Black Russian Bash weekend and dinner. Between now and then, it will be cold and white.

Posted in Enjoying | Tagged | 1 Comment

Holiday Festivities

With the intense crush period over, wineries have an opportunity to celebrate, thank their regular customers/wine club members, and even unload a few last cases for the year. The past two weekends, we were able to attend two holiday parties and one barrel tasting. All were fun, and all were quite different.

First up was a holiday party and library tasting at Billsboro where, with the help of talented chef Samantha Buyskes, owners Vinny and Kim Aliperti went hog wild. “Sam” is an incredible presence on the local scene. She has run restaurants, taught classes, gone on field trips to Italy, competed on the Food Network’s “Chopped” program, and even trained as a butcher and worked in a high end locovore shop called “The Piggery” near Ithaca. She prepared an assortment of appetizers in two courses, each of which was paired with two Billsboro wines. One appetizer was a braised and seared pork belly paired with 2011 Cabernet Franc and 2013 Pinot Gris that was simply heaven.

Pairing at the Billsboro library tasting.

Pairing at the Billsboro library tasting.

The next event at Rooster Hill Vineyards was more of the classic holiday party genre with tastings of current releases and some library wines along with appetizer grazing and ingling. Winemaker Barry Tortolon made available a 2007 Cabernet Franc and a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. Every experience with the 2007 vintage elevates it another notch in our view. Although 2010 and 2012 were similar to 2007 weather-wise, it is hard to believe they will ever measure up to what 2007 has become.

Library wines at the Rooster Hill holiday party.

Library wines at the Rooster Hill holiday party.

Last up was the annual barrel tasting at Keuka Spring Vineyards, where winemaker August Deimel continues to innovate with both the format and the wines. This year featured four flights consisting of:

  • a 2014 barrel sample of Cabernet Franc/Lemberger Rosé;
  • 2014 barrel samples of Gewürztaminer – one single vineyard and one blend – and a semi-dry Riesling;
  • The traditional make-your-own Bordeaux blend exercise with 2014 Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, and;
  • A comparison of released 2013 Vignoles with the 2014 barrel.

 

A surprising Rosé at Keuka Spring

A surprising Rosé at Keuka Spring

As can be seen above, surprises started from the very beginning with the Rosé. As with last year, it was a field blend of Cabernet Franc and Lemberger, but instead of using skin contact to color the white juice, August and Meg Tipton drew off juice from successive pressings of the grapes until the juice started to pick up color. They then segregated the slightly colored juice and barrel fermented it, and as the process continues they will blend back in some of the clearer juice and arrive at what we imagine will be a quite pale finished wine. You may “color” us quite intrigued and excited about the result.

The second flight brought up a discussion of winter damage, as the Preemption Vineyard that has been a substantial portion of the Keuka Spring Gewürztaminer produced almost no fruit this year. This created a challenge for August and Meg, because working with the same fruit from year to year gives them a better sense of what to expect. Using a new source required them to be nimble, but in the long run they may find something they really like. We sure did! And the semi-dry Riesling in a somewhat difficult Riesling year was simply classic.

Overdressed and irrepressible.

Overdressed and irrepressible.

Meg led us through the red blend exercise, and what really stood out for the first time was how distinct and different the components were, Cabernet Franc being a cherry bomb, Merlot being rich in chocolate, and the Cabernet Sauvignon showing a darker plum. Meg explained the recent switch to délestage that we reported on earlier, whereby on a daily basis red juice is pumped out of bins and then showered over the grape skins. This might have explained the bright fruit we tasted.

Curiously, where our favored formula in years past has been Cab Franc forward, after a few trials we arrived at a 60/30/10 Cab Sauv/Merlot/Cab Franc blend. Of course, as Meg explained the exercise was somewhat artificial since the wines were still not through secondary (malolactic) fermentation. Nonetheless, we will be interested to compare our hunch with August’s and Meg’s professional judgment in a few months.

Discussions on other topics made the time fly by, with one of the most interesting being KSV’s deeper involvement with Flextanks as a oak aging alternative. August explained that the role oak plays in red wine is one of the hottest topics in oenology research these days. Although the important of oak has been assumed for centuries, another way of looking at it is that oak was simply 16th Century Tupperware, and if there are more sustainable alternatives, then we need to consider what we are doing and why.

Posted in Enjoying, Producing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bedding Down

Monday morning two days ago saw skies overcast with temperatures a balmy 40 degrees. Monday also coincided with the arrival of six carloads of migrant workers who were here to spend two or three days pruning vines in preparation for their winter sleep. Our small plot of Chardonnay was left untouched, since it is easy enough to do ourselves and also gives us an opportunity to see how the winter goes and adjust pruning accordingly as was (fortunately) done last year. However, “hilling” is always a good thing to do in these parts to give the root systems some extra protection.

Freshly hilled Chardonnay vines.

Freshly hilled Chardonnay vines.

Reflecting on this year’s winter, we looked back at temperature records. Last December 14 (7 days from now back a year) saw a low of 9 degrees, with minus 2 reached only 2 days later. Then right after the new year, we dropped to minus 11. I suppose that first cold spike was a harbinger of things to come, but who knew? Who knew?

As we reported earlier, despite a lot of anxiety things turned out pretty well in 2014. Not true for our wine growing friends in Michigan and Ohio who could use a mild winter to start recovering. Southern California was also blessed this week with a healthy storm, and we can only hope that things across the country will return to what used to be considered normal.

Posted in Growing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Harvest 2014: The Experts Weigh In

The 2014 recap from Cornell’s Veraison to Harvest arrived today, and while the overall theme was consistent with what we had previously reported, there were some interesting new observations. Yes, things looked pretty dismal coming out of winter, and going through the early summer the crop really seemed to be significantly and historically behind the curve. However, as the chart below shows, there was an astonishing catchup that continued through the last month. Berry weights were also on the high side, which compensated for winter bud loss.

Riesling maturity measured by Brix throughout the 2014 growing season.

Riesling maturity measured by Brix throughout the 2014 growing season, Veraison to Harvest, Nov 21, 2014.

Most importantly, while wineries were allowed to purchase out-of-state grapes pursuant to an emergency declaration, it appears that at most five wineries may have needed the additional fruit. Our local grower was caught up in the end-of-season scramble and sold everything. Hopefully, gorwers throughout the area made out well, and this will be another thing to be thankful for in two days.

Posted in Growing | Leave a comment

Le Beaujolais Noveau Est Arrivé

While some might view upstate New York as isolated, some of the best international destinations in the wine world are easily accessible via a short drive to the Microclimate wine bar in Geneva. This was the site of a third annual Beaujolais Nouveau party on Thursday evening, November 20.

Festivities ramping up.

Festivities ramping up.

The Nouveau (“New”) used to be a favorite of ours and a Thanksgiving meal tradition. As the name implies, it is in fact new wine that is released on the third Thursday in November of each year and is available on the same date all over the world. In France, there is also a traditional road race (The Beaujolais Run), where people vie to be the first to get their wines to Paris.

We say “used to be a favorite,” because the Nouveau typically found in wine stores from large commercial wine companies is pretty much grape juice with a buzz and had little variation from year to year. Simply put, it got boring. Certainly, Beaujolais Nouveau will never be a deep wine; it is produced in a fruity style meant to be drunk young (the lack of tannins reduces its shelf life to less than a year). However, we were convinced that: 1) there had to be more interesting Nouveau than we had found before we gave up, and; 2) Stephanie Mira de Orduna was just the right person to come up with really terrific selections. And she did.

She selected two different Nouveau bottles, one from Domaine Depeuble and the other from Christophe Pacalet. The Depeuble was interesting, in that while fruit forward it lacked the jammy characteristic we were expecting, seeming more like aged Beaujolais. It was flavorful, smooth, and a very nice wine all around. The Pacalet, on the other hand, exhibited the more typical fruitiness at first, but it continued to develop with a surprisingly long finish into a delightful wine. It was by far the best Nouveau we had ever tasted. To illustrate the potential of the Gamay from the region, Stephanie also selected a 2013 Cru Beaujolais from Fleurie. This was absolutely stunning, and perfectly illustrated the pure velvet experience the AOC is known for.

Beaujolais – The Real Deal.

Beaujolais – The Real Deal.

Aside from enjoying the great wine selections and snacks (gourmet variations on a hot dog theme), we also enjoyed seeing a number of local winemakers for whom Microclimate is a great place to mingle and relax, especially as the frenetic pace of harvest dissipates. Thank you, Stephanie and James for such a lovely evening.

Posted in Enjoying | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Revisiting Saperavi

At the beginning of the growing season, we went on a tour and tasting at Standing Stone, where we first became aware (clearly a case of not paying attention) that they produce a varietal Saperavi, which is also part of the Black Russian blend at McGregor. Two months ago we received an invitation to attend a vertical tasting of this grape, and this was a terrific opportunity for more education and enjoyment.

Standing Stone tasting room.

Standing Stone tasting room.

The tasting was conducted by co-owner Marti Macinski, who began by tracing the history of the site and the winery (which started in 1991) back to the days of Great Western and the Taylor Wine Company. As part of the process of seeing what would work for Finger Lakes red, Standing Stone connected with the nursery at Dr. Konstantin Frank, and decided to try Saperavi. This was one of the Georgian grapes introduced by Dr. Frank, and it seems to have been used mostly in blends or as a teinturier, meaning a grape used to lend color to a wine.

The 2014 from the tank.

The 2014 from the tank, with deep purple clinging to the glass.

In fact, Standing Stone’s first use of Saperavi was to darken Pinot Noir (the picture above will give you an idea of the effect), which people were thinking would do well in the Finger Lakes due to the cooler climate. The problem was that Finger Lakes Pinot was and is light in color, and this caused a customer acceptance problem for those expecting a more violet color in the glass. While the introduction of Saperavi solved the color problem, it unfortunately added a flavor that even in small amounts that did not at all play well with Pinot Noir. Experiment #2 was blending the Saperavi in with Cabernet Franc, and this didn’t work well either. In the meantime, Standing Stone continued to experiment and finally hit upon using Saperavi as a varietal.

As Standing Stone achieved success with the wine, their next challenge was to be able to sell it commercially, and this required petitioning the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to get Saperavi accepted as a label. As a former attorney, Micki took this on as a personal challenge, and TTB approval was granted on December 31, 2013.

During the tasting, Marti presented two flights, the first of which consisted of 2005, 2007, a 2010 labeled “The Dark Red” (before TTB approval), and 2012. While the 2010 and 2012 were quite purple, the two older wines had lightened up to a beautiful violet. Both exhibited great bouquet, with the 2005 more subtle and the 2007 more intense. I preferred the 2005 nose, but although it tasted and finished well, its age may have been starting to show. The 2007, on the other hand, was a powerhouse and was actually quite reminiscent of the 2007 McGregor Black Russian we tasted at the vertical there. If McGregor and Standing Stone were able to arrange it, and side-by-side comparison would be fascinating, in part to compare the varietal to the more or less 50-50 Saperavi and Sereksiya blend.

Older, newer, and really new bottles.

Older, newer, and really new bottles.

The 2010 and 2012 were more fruity and less polished, but another variable had been introduced. Whereas the old wines were from the original vines, the newer wines were largely from young vines that Standing Stone added to increase capacity. Of the two, the 2012 seemed to have more potential, and time, of course, will tell.

The second flight consisted of two 2013 wines and a 2014 tank sample. Of the 2013s, one was from the new vines, while the other was from the old vines and will probably be released as a reserve wine or limited release of some other fanciful name. The 2014 was completely fermented and was racked, but it had not yet undergone malolactic fermentation. That, along with oak aging, was where it was headed next. However, it was quite luscious and did not exhibit any of the rough edges one might have expected. Tasting the 2013s side by side was a great way to see the difference vine age makes, the the new vines producing a wine that was more fruit forward and less complex.

Aside from experimenting with new and old vines, Standing Stone is also trying different oak treatments and generally doing everything they can to make this a signature grape. From the results they have achieved thus far, they are definitely onto something, and customers will be benefiting from their work for many vintages to come.

Posted in Enjoying | Tagged , | Leave a comment