James Molesworth: So, you've got a new boss, sort of … any changes to be expected? (Fox Run's longtime owner Scott Osborn recently bought out his business partner and then sold an ownership share to some of his relatives.)
Peter Bell: Yes, sort of [laughing]. We are closer to being a family-owned business though and there are attractive aspects to that. But there are no major changes planned for how the winery operates. What is new is that Fox Run wines have been picked up by Wegman's, which will open markets in Virginia and Massachusetts for us, so we're happy about that.
JM: I notice you're starting to take Lemberger seriously. How has that progressed?
PB: Lemberger is now our second-best moving wine. We have 5 acres planted which gives us 500 to 600 cases of a straight bottling, plus we blend it into other wines. The grape seems to do well in the Finger Lakes, and it's distinctive, with lots of black pepper, some blue fruit and fine tannins. And it loves American oak, which is great, because we only have $12,000 a year to spend on barrels and French oak is pricey. But we'll hold there in terms of plantings, with the 5 acres. Any extra vineyard space we have will go to Riesling. We'd be crazy not to just plant Riesling at this point.
JM: Riesling really seems to be taking hold in the Finger Lakes. Are you happy with what the future holds for Finger Lakes Riesling?
PB: I really do think we're finally getting somewhere with Riesling. It's the confluence of a number of different things. The quality is finally there and a number of road shows have helped spread the word as wineries finally move into other markets outside of just New York state. There's also probably a little ennui in the market with oaky wines which is driving people to aromatic whites like Riesling.
And the IRF scale on the back labels has really helped to demystify Riesling for the everyday drinker. We had no idea how intimidating the sugar thing is for wine drinkers. The most common thing you hear from non-Riesling drinkers is they're worried the wine will be too sweet, or too dry.
JM: How does the scale work?
PB: The scale combines residual sugar, total acidity and pH and then calculates what the perception of the wine will be. A wine with high sugar, but high acidity, won't be as sweet as a high sugar, low acid wine, and the scale makes that clear.
JM: How much Riesling are you making now and how has your production changed over the years?
PB: We're up to 2,200 cases of Riesling now, up from maybe 1,800 five years ago. We stopped purchasing Riesling eight or 10 years ago, but not because we didn't want it. The supply dried up as competition increased. So seeing that at the time, we started to plant our own vineyards and those have come on line in recent years. So for Riesling, we are all estate grown.
JM: You make several different Riesling bottlings. Would you call them vineyard, or terroir selection? Or do you have a different approach?
PB: I don't buy straight into the terroir thing. Yes, we do have different soils on our site, and we all acknowledge "minerality" in a wine. But we know that minerals aren't being sucked up out of the ground and put into the wine. I can't say gravel soils make a more mineral wine while loam soils make a richer wine. But, well-drained soils behave differently from poorly drained soils. And since we don't irrigate, we have to take what we can get. So in that regard, I think terroir for us is more hydrology than simply soil type. We have eight different blocks of Riesling but I can't point to one and say that's my best block every year. I never have an a priori idea about what will constitute my best Riesling.
JM: So how do you manage that? What's the key?
PB: The key is to have lots of small tanks to have a more precise vinification. If I had a blank check, I buy more and more tanks of varying sizes.
JM: In addition to Fox Run, you also work with Anthony Road and Red Newt to make a Riesling called Tierce. The new '09 is about to be released. Explain the project.
PB: Tierce is a collaboration among Anthony Road, Red Newt and Fox Run. The first vintage was 2004 and we've made it every year except 2007. It's a one-third each blend of lots from each winery. It's all done by a series of punishing tastings where we do lots of trial blends, mostly based on hunches. Such as, what will this smoky-scented lot do to the wine in differing percentages? And ultimately we're looking for an austere style. We talk about minerality, electricity and tension. Can you quantify them? No, but we know what we're looking for.
JM: I notice Tierce is under screw cap, but Fox Run wines aren't. Would you like to go to screw cap for everything?
PB: Yes, with Tierce under screw cap, despite its price point ($30), means it is a statement on what we think all aromatic white wines should be—under screw cap. But we'd have to retrofit our bottling line at Fox Run, which wouldn't be easy. We borrow a small screw cap bottler and do it for Tierce at Fox Run, but there's only 200 cases of that.
JM: And how was the '09 vintage?
PB: 2009 was pretty much ideal. Warm but not hot. Rain but not too much rain. It was an easy wine to make and we got that tension that we wanted. We didn't have to muck around with it. I'm not a non-interventionist winemaker, but in this case, we didn't have to do much.
JM: So you're willing to manipulate a wine to get the style you want? That would mean you're not a natural winemaker …
PB: No, I'm not a natural winemaker, but only because I hate that term. All wines are natural. Yeast in a can is "natural." You have to be involved in the process and manipulate or intervene at some point. Or do you want brett, for example, to take hold? Winemaking is a natural process, even with differing levels of manipulation, so the term doesn't work.
But I do agree that there are levels of intervention that can take a sense of place out of the wine, and then that would be industrial winemaking. I don't dismiss the idea that the best wines transmit a sense of place. And Riesling is a great grape for that because there's no oak and no malolactic fermentation, which are things that can obscure a sense of place.
Robert Lapolla — san diego, CA USA — February 23, 2012 1:12am ET
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