With all the buzz going on on here on WineSpectator.com right now with that other pending announcement, I thought I’d sneak away for some (relative) peace and quiet. Time to do a little field work in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
This will be my third visit to the area in about 12 months, following visits I made in October of last year and June of this year. I’ve been poking around up here more often lately as quality has been on the upswing. In general, the best Finger Lakes wines offer terrific value and there's growing diversity. I just reviewed the Ravines Riesling Finger Lakes Argetsinger Vineyard 2008 (91, $25), making it the first non-dessert wine from the area to earn back-to-back outstanding ratings, while other tastings this year also showed solid results (more selected 2008 Finger Lakes wines can be found here and here, as well as in our online database).
While there have been highlights recently, it’s still not what I would consider a major groundswell. The region has a ways to go both in terms of quality and in catching the trendy fire of, say, Argentine Malbec. But the number of New York wineries has grown markedly this decade: 127 of the current 240 Finger Lakes wineries didn't exist before 2000. Statewide, there were 180 million bottles of wine produced in 2008, and Finger Lakes wineries represent the bulk of that growth.
The Finger Lakes wine industry is one born initially from growing hybrid and native American grape varieties and growing them to big yields to feed the jug-wine production of large companies. Those days are pretty much gone (though Wild Irish Rose still sells 2 million cases annually, if you can believe it). Today the Finger Lakes wine industry is increasingly reliant on vinifera grape varieties such as Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. These grapes require low yields to produce good quality, particularly with the cool climate and short growing season of the Finger Lakes, where achieving ripeness is a different paradigm than in warm climates like Napa Valley. In addition to the rigors of the short growing season, growers no longer have a host of large companies to buy up their production. Instead, they must bottle the wines themselves and lure customers in through their own individual efforts.
For a while, Finger Lakes wineries were more than content to sell their wares directly through their tasting rooms to mostly local customers. But as the numbers of wineries has increased, the economic pie has shrunk. Finger Lakes wineries now need to get their wines to cities like New York and beyond. They’ll need to draw in a new group of wine consumers if they want to survive. The "locavore" foodie movement of seeking out local foods and wines helps a little, as does an increasing percentage of wine consumers who are looking for bright, acid-driven, unoaked wine. But ultimately, quality is the engine that will pull the region forward.
That might seem easy—just make better wine, right? Quality is one issue; desire and vision is another. There’s a cultural hold on the region, left over from the days of comfortably growing high-yielding, low-quality grapes and getting away with it. The concepts of low yields, vinifera, and high quality mean selling wines at a higher price and, frankly, that scares some wineries up here, who feel as if they’ll never get consumers to pay for a Finger Lakes wine north of $15 or so. At that price point, reducing yields to 4 tons per acre or less is not a viable option, so therein lies the rub.
Despite this cultural stumbling block, a few vintners are trying to push the envelope by focusing on vinifera (Riesling in particular), while homing in on specific sites that yield exceptional quality.
You can get caught up on who some of the region’s major players are here: my October 2008 visit saw me stop in at Ravines and Fox Run Vineyards, then Anthony Road Winery, Shaw Vineyard and Standing Stone followed by Red Newt Cellars and Atwater Estate.
In June, I toured the vineyards and talked to the winemakers at Hermann J. Wiemer and Red Tail Ridge, then Heron Hill and Dr. Konstantin Frank before finishing up with Bloomer Creek, Lamoreaux Landing and Heart & Hands.
During this current visit I’ll stop in at more new places and report here via this blog, so check back over the next few days.
In the meantime if you’re looking for a getaway to wine country, now is a nice time. The leaves are gone and temperatures can be chilly, but the summer and leaf-peeper crowds have faded away, so you’ll get a less congested experience in most of the tasting rooms. As always though, plan ahead: As the region moves from fall to winter, some tasting rooms reduce hours and local restaurants also cut back on weekday service (you can reference some of my notes on local eateries here, with more to come during this trip as well).
James J Sherma — hershey, PA — November 19, 2009 1:55pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 19, 2009 4:30pm ET
Michael Kazmierczak — Ithaca, NY — November 20, 2009 12:16pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 20, 2009 5:01pm ET
Michael Kazmierczak — Ithaca, NY — November 20, 2009 5:59pm ET
John C Moore — Potomac, MD — December 4, 2009 6:02pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — December 4, 2009 9:10pm ET
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