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Day 1 in the Finger Lakes: The Long Drive to Keuka

It's time for another round of visits in New York's Finger Lakes region
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 7, 2011 2:42pm ET

I made the drive up to the Finger Lakes yesterday morning, heading all the way over to Keuka Lake's west side for a stop at Keuka Lake Vineyards.

My timing was perfect, as I pulled into the town of Hammondsport just after noon and grabbed a quick lunch at the Village Tavern Restaurant & Inn first. The restaurant features model planes hanging from the ceiling and other bric-a-brac that give it a clubhouse feel. A steady stream of locals and vacationers traipse in wearing t-shirts and shorts for a decidedly casual feel.

The wine list is long and you won't find a more dramatic locapour experience than here, with vintage depth and lots of Rieslings from the region's wineries. It's a scattered mix as opposed to solid verticals though, so I order a 2004 Keuka Spring Vineyards Riesling just to see if they actually have it. It took a while but they did come up with a bottle; it's a soft, apple and pear wine that is managing to hang on, if a bit past peak. But at $25 it's an easy flyer (and many of the wines on the list are modestly priced). An arugula salad had a nice bitter edge, offset by a light-handed balsamic vinaigrette and crunchy pecans. The peppered lox BLT was the perfect long-drive decompression sandwich.

With big portions, modest prices and an eat-drink-and-be-merry vibe (there's a lengthy beer list to accompany the wine list) it's not surprising this is one of the popular spots in the area. It was a Wednesday lunch and both the inside and outside seating areas were full.

Keuka Lake Vineyards

The wine industry is full of people who came to it from other walks of life, drawn by a passion that gets kindled in various ways.

For Ian Barry, it was while studying for an English degree at SUNY New Paltz, when he took a job at Adair Winery. For Mel Goldman, it came while college shopping for his kids and a visit to the Finger Lakes area to see the Cornell campus. Now, Barry, 36, is the winemaker and Goldman (who will only say he's north of 60) is the owner and defacto vineyard manager at Keuka Lake Vineyards.

Housed in an early 19th century farmhouse on the road up from Hammondsport that runs along the west side of Keuka, the winery is tiny, producing just 2,100 cases annually for now, with a goal of 5,000 cases at some point.

"We'll get there, but we want to go slowly, bit by bit," said Goldman as we headed out into the vineyards behind the winery. "And we'd love for half the production to be Riesling."

Keuka Lake Vineyards currently farms 53 acres of vines spread over both sides of Keuka. Goldman uses only 20 acres for his own wines, selling the rest off (of those 20 acres, 16 are Vitis vinifera). The winery is making a statement with its single-vineyard Riesling bottlings sourced from small vineyard parcels right behind the tasting room and winery.

Planted in 1998, the 2-acre Goldman vineyard is at the top of the slope. Just below it, but falling off quickly into a steep drop, is the 1-acre Falling Man Vineyard, planted in 2001. Just to the north, bordered by evergreens, is the 2-acre Evergeen Lek parcel, which was planted in '99 (the latter part of the name coming from the Nepalese spelling of "lake"; Goldman met his eventual wife in Nepal).

The three parcels are the result of Goldman quickly realizing that Riesling harbored the best potential for the area. He bought the property in '93 from the former president of the defunct Taylor Wine Co., which originally had Catawba and other native and hybrid grapes planted on it. Those were torn out though before Goldman took over and began planting his own vines.

"I was lucky because the land had been fallow for a while, so it was a perfect start for planting," said Goldman. "I was making the wines too, with the help of Morten Hallgren," said Goldman, who was tinkering with winemaking by 2002, though the winery's first commercial release was 2005. "I learned quickly how much hard work goes into this. The original plan of working vineyards and doing some wine with a weekend commute didn't quite work out. We lost a lot that way, so I was demoted to just the vineyards," he laughed.

After the first few vintages, winemaker Staci Nugent joined in '08 and Goldman said she was the one who really pushed for the individual bottlings.

"We're standing here in the middle of Falling Man and the other two parcels are right there. They're not far apart, but as we began vinifying them we realized they were different. And they were different every year. Really different."

Goldman described the Evergreen Lek as the most minerally of the three, likely due to the extra cool air that's trapped by the wall of pine trees. The Goldman parcel at the top is the more fruit-driven, while the dramatically steep Falling Man, where the occasional tractor has slid away, delivers a combination of minerality and fruit.

"Falling Man is usually the one that really makes people stand up and take notice," said Goldman with a beaming smile.

Barry joined KLV in 2010 and will vinify the '11 vintage himself, following Nugent's departure after the 2010 harvest.

"I'm really excited to start making wine with these grapes," said the tall and broad yet soft-spoken Barry.

It's been a long road already for Barry, who parlayed a part-time job at Adair into additional internships, including one at Oregon's Torii Mor winery. After returning to the area, he took a few winemaking classes at a local community college to give him the technical background he needed while giving him the freedom to learn more via on-the-job work.

"The classes were basically all internships, so that's what I did," said Barry who then spent five vintages at Swedish Hill winery on Seneca Lake before moving over to KLV. As for the change from a large Seneca Lake winery to a small one on Keuka, Barry said the commute is the same, just 35 minutes by car from Watkins Glen. "But things are a little quieter over here. And the view is much better. I really do think Keuka is the prettiest lake."

Both Goldman and Barry are in step with their ideas on vineyard management, in particular their willingness to prune for low yields, a rarity in a region still battling to break free from a quantity-first culture.

"Canopy management is key and there are other factors, but you really need to cluster thin in the Finger Lakes to get truly ripe flavors," said Goldman.

 

"According to the growers and Cornell extension, as long as you balance prune the vine, yield doesn't matter. But of course it matters," said Barry. "There may not be a magic number, but lower yields definitely make a difference."

Aiming for 2 to 2.5-tons per acre, Goldman and Barry will drop half the clusters in Evergreen Lek soon. The vineyard looks a bit unkempt compared to the Falling Man parcel, which has been recently pruned. After a wet spring was followed by a warm, dry stretch of weather, the vines shot up, and Goldman and Barry are playing catch-up in the vineyards.

"You can never get ahead. You're always catching up," said Barry.

The two also choose not to spray herbicides or use chemical fertilizers, and they try to spray against rot as little as possible.

"I just don't believe in it," said Goldman flatly. "I'm a purist I guess."

Though he is a self-proclaimed purist (and Barry said he takes a "benign neglect" approach to winemaking), the semi-dry Riesling at KLV is fermented dry and then sweetened back, an approach that isn't exactly pure (as opposed to stopping the ferment and keeping residual sugar naturally).

"Good question," said Goldman when I pressed him on the deviation from the purist approach. "That is a discussion we're always having. [Sweetening back is] the safest way to do it and that is the culture of the region. But we do need to think about these things more."

As we move through the vineyards I don't see stark soil differences, but knowing such changes aren't always visible on the surface, I ask what sets the three parcels apart.

"Soils here change dramatically in short spaces, but not the way you would think. Glacial soils fan out like this," he said, spreading his fingers apart. Then in between the fingers you get some differences in clay, sand and so on. But it's basically impossible to plant a vineyard based on those little variations. So you have to take the average of what's in the vineyard."

"It's all fractured shale. Some areas have pieces like this," said Barry, reaching down to pick up a softball-sized piece. "Others have smaller fragments. Then there's drainage, exposure, that tree line," he added, pointing to the evergreens. "All of it has an influence. And we're still figuring it all out. That's what makes it so exciting to be here."

As we pass from the Falling Man parcel to the Evergeen Lek, there's a noticeable difference in the stage of pruning and soil work. Falling Man has been neatly trimmed, the soil pulled back from its winter mounding, and the weeds tilled under. Evergreen Lek is still carrying a hefty canopy and needs to be weeded. Buried under the canopy are numerous clusters. (See the accompanying video as Goldman and Barry talk about the vineyard work they're about to do in the Evergreen Lek parcel.)

"We'll be in here next, cutting this way back," said Goldman, ripping off a young, nascent cluster with his hands for dramatic effect. "We'll drop half the clusters."

Barry beamed as Goldman pulled a few clusters and fixed a training wire. It's not often a winemaker has an owner who actually wants to drop crop. It's even rarer in the Finger Lakes, where the winemaking side still wrestles with the grapegrowing side, as the economics of the region pose difficulties for wineries.

"The thing is, Riesling here is the best grape—we know that," said Goldman. "Even when the Riesling isn't great, it's still good. So, if you can carry twice the crop load and sell everything for $13 a bottle, what winery would be willing to cut their crop in half and then sell for $20 a bottle, even if it makes a better wine? Not many."

Heading back inside, Barry took me through the closet-sized winery, which houses just a few tanks and barrels. It's minimalist winemaking for sure, with cold well water for temperature control and cold stabilization done in winter simply by opening the doors.

Given a blank check, what would Goldman do to invest in his operation?

"Hmmm. Maybe a new tractor?" he asked, looking at Barry.

"A better cooling system and maybe some new tanks, but that's it," said Barry with a gentle shrug of his shoulders.

"There really isn't one dramatic thing we would do here," said Goldman. "It's just a lot of little things here and there. They add up of course. But even with a blank check, we would still grow slowly and try to improve bit by bit. That's what it takes to make good wines."

Mary Hack
Hudson, NY —  July 8, 2011 2:10pm ET
Lovely to read your travel blog. If you get over to the eastern shore of Seneca, make sure to go to Dano's. It's authentic, delicious, Viennese fare and Dano, the owner, is a gas! The wine list is almost entirely Finger Lakes wines with an extensive selection by the glass.

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