As you drive out from Watkins Glen and up the east side of Seneca past the scenic Hector Falls, you start to run along a stretch of some of the region’s best-known wineries in an area known as 'the banana belt' for it's riper-styled wines – Standing Stone, Atwater Estate, Red Newt.
Tucked in amongst them, located right next door to the popular Stone Cat Café, is Bloomer Creek. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it winery owned by Kim Engle and Debra Birmingham. Married 25 years, the couple actually attended the same high school, but didn’t meet until later on in life.
On the road up the east side of Seneca lake, Hector Falls is worth pausing for.
“I was graduating [high school] and he was still playing in the sand box,” says Birmingham, 55.
“And I still am playing in the sand box,” says Engle, 50.
Engle is an area lifer, having studied agriculture at Cornell before there was even a viticulture program.
“They were teaching us to grow apples and milk cows,” he says with a laugh and a wry smile peering out from underneath his bushy moustache.
Wanting something else, he took a leave from school and started working in a vineyard where he caught his first whiff of the wine bug. Engle then went to Fresno for a semester of viticulture studies and then headed off with a friend to Italy for a bohemian vacation.
“We went from house to house and drank. There was nothing else to do since I didn’t speak Italian,” he says.
Following his overseas wine epiphany, Engle returned to the area and bought a farm, starting with seven acres of raspberries to have a cash crop while he planted vines and waited for them to mature.
“Deb was making a living for us both in the beginning,” says Engle.
“The artist supporting the farmer,” chimes in Birmingham, whose has bright eyes and shiny, long, curly platinum blond hair.
Engle was working as a vineyard manager at Sheldrake Point during the day, tending to his own vineyards in his spare time. As the vineyards came on line, the couple started by selling the grapes off to local wineries, including Standing Stone and Red Newt.
“I figured if they wanted my grapes, then I could be on to something, so why not try it myself?” says Engle, who then bottled his own wine for the first time in 1999.
But while working on Bloomer Creek, Engle and Birmingham got involved in other projects along the way. They bought a landmark fruit stand on Seneca Lake in 1996 with some other partners, who eventually bowed out, leaving them saddled with the operation. They also opened Stone Cat Café in 2000, which quickly became one of the area’s most popular restaurants. It wasn’t long before the couple realized they had too much going on.
“We would be pouring our wines and people would ask us if we were new, even though we had been making wine for a few years,” says Engle, 50. “That’s when I realized I needed to focus my full attention on Bloomer Creek.”
So they sold their interest in Stone Cat in 2005 and began to deal full time with the winery. Engle now has 10 acres of Riesling, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer, the latter of which might just be the winery’s best wine right now – both of the Bloomer Creek’s ’07 Gewürztraminers earned very good scores when I reviewed them back in January, showing solid varietal character and more depth and richness than most other Finger Lakes Gewürztraminers.
In a rarity for the area, Engle hand harvests everything – a tank sample of the Gewürztraminer Finger Lakes 2008 shows nice bitter orange and lychee notes with a good cut on the finish.
A tank sample of the Riesling Finger Lakes Semi-Dry 2008 has been filtered and is due to be bottled soon. It shows the fresh lime and Pippin apple profile of the vintage, and while clearly off-dry, it maintains a nice snappy edge through the finish.
Engle is particularly enthused about Gewürztraminer though, so much so that he plans to bump up his acreage of it, while also trying some other aromatic whites including Pinot Gris and Auxerrois. That spirit of experimentation runs through everything Engle does – he ferments in small, 55-gallon plastic barrels with no temperature control, and has been trying some native yeast ferments on his Riesling.
“I have so little wine, I don’t like the idea of having it all in one big stainless steel tank,” he says regarding his piecemeal approach. “I’m still fooling around, and I like to do everything in single barrels to try different things with each one.”
As for the wild yeast experimentation, it’s part of Engle’s relatively hands-off approach to winemaking.
“In our industry, we have an inclination to control, so natural yeast is against the grain,” he says. “I’ve spoken to guys who do more to their wine before they even ferment than I do before I put it into the bottle. Additives for mouthfeel and whatnot. I would’ve thought mouthfeel comes just from the grapes.”
I prefer the whites to the reds here – not unusual for Finger Lakes wineries. But Engle’s red wine style has evolved – he does prefer slightly mature, wood spice notes, which he thinks he picked up from his early days of drinking traditional styled Italian reds. Engle is doing more lees contact, using more stems and letting the wine spend a longer time in oak, but no new oak.
Engle also sees the area as being a generation behind in terms of exploring vineyard sites and learning the area’s terroir.
“But that’s the fun part right now. It’s an exciting time in the area and I just love growing grapes,” he says.
Lamoreaux Landing is a few miles up the road from Bloomer Creek. The winery’s Greek revival architecture makes it one of the area’s showpiece buildings. Owner Mark Wagner is another area lifer – his father was a grape grower who sold off the family grapes until Wagner took over and began bottling the production himself in 1990.
Wagner, 53, is tall and lean, and his Rieslings are typically made in a similarly tight, precise style. Winemaker Paul Brock joined in time for the 2008 harvest, which marked some of Lamoreaux Landing’s best wines to date. General Manager Josh Wig, 33, joined the operation in 2007 (he's also married to Wagner's niece). Wig was born and raised on a family farm in northwestern Pennsylvania that has shrunk from 300 acres to just 50.
“If you don’t have the value-added product at the end, farming in this country is really tough,” he says.
Wig took a 10 year break from agriculture to spend time in the military as a nuclear engineer on a submarine. So, does grape growing seem easy in comparison?
“People say it’s not rocket science, but I’m always amazed how much science you need to do it,” he says. “And then you have to combine that with the art of it, which is what makes it so fascinating.”
Wagner and his team are starting to really carve out the details in their vineyards. A recent expansion of plantings has been done with a distinct focus on terroir – three new sites now bring Lamoreaux Landing's Riesling acreage to 24.5, with Chardonnay next at 17 acres. The winery has 105 acres of vines in total (70 vinifera) and currently produces 12,000 cases annually, with plans to ultimately get to 20,000 cases.
The new Riesling focus is a bit of a shift for Wagner, who was prodded into it following the harsh winter of 2004.
“After that winter, Riesling was the one variety that came through and still delivered some good fruit,” he says. “That’s mother nature’s way of telling you something.”
One of those new sites for Wagner is his Red Oak vineyard, planted in 2006. This four-acre parcel is on a fairly fertile spot, which means Wagner has to work with two fruit zones to offset the vigorous canopy, rather than cut back the canopy, since the area’s shorter growing season requires a vine to have a much photosynthesis as possible (in the accompanying video he talks about this Scott Henry trellis system).
As Wagner brings his new parcels on line, he and Brock vinify them separately to learn their profiles, with an eye towards possible single vineyard bottlings – an emerging trend in the area.
“To us, blending makes a lot of sense. You can really increase quality and complexity,” says Wagner. “But when and if a single vineyard makes some sense and is interesting, we’ll bottle it that way, too. It’s a balancing act.”
Planted on predominantly Honeoye silt loam, with a gentle slope, the Red Oak Riesling shows precocious ripeness and weight, but still comes off as dry in style, with nice drive and definition to its slate and green apple flavors. The recently released 2008 earned its own bottling in its debut vintage, paying immediate dividends on the site which Wagner had long had his eye on before finally purchasing it. His experience in the region is paying off in terms of site selection.
“The guessing game here is the same as it was in Europe years ago,” he says about his new sites. “You plant the vines and then hope you got it right.”
Just above the Red Oak parcel is the Round Rock parcel, planted in 2007. This 5.5-acre vineyard is almost entirely Riesling, along with a half-acre of Grüner Veltliner to experiment with. The soil shifts to Lansing gravelly silt loam and Wagner will get his first taste of any differences between it and the Red Oak parcel below after he harvests his first grapes from it this year.
Wagner and his team do machine harvest a lot of their fruit – vineyard labor can be hard to come by in the area. Showing there are two sides to every issue, Wagner makes a compelling argument for machine harvesting (which is generally considered to be too rough on the fruit and too indiscriminate a method, pulling in other material to the crusher).
“You can have the grapes as juice in the crusher in two hours,” he says. “As long as you’re careful to only get grapes in there and not material other than grape. In that way it’s not any worse than hand-harvesting, and possibly better because of the speed factor.”
The last of Wagner’s new sites is the Yellow Dog vineyard, just a few minutes up the road from Red Oak and Round Rock. The two-acre spot features similar Honeoye silt loam as Red Oak, but at a slightly higher elevation and slightly steeper grade that results in a lower vigor site. As with Round Rock, it will get a chance to display its potential in its first harvest this year.
It’s the increased attention to site selection and vineyard development that may be helping Lamoreaux pull away from the pack. The wines here have always been among the region's most competent, but the 2008 Riesling lineup is a noticeable step up. And with his new vineyards and narrowing focus on Riesling, the generally laid-back Wagner is showing some obvious enthusiasm.
“You can play with yeasts and stuff, but once the fermentation burns off, what’s left is what was from the vineyard. It boils down to the grape and the soil it was in. And we’re seeing bigger differences in site rather than clones,” says Wagner. “So it’s really exciting to have these new vineyards coming on line.”
Tom Higgins is going back to his roots. Though born in Colorado, the 33-year-old Higgins grew up on Seneca Lake and worked in the area for the well-known Hazlitt family for a short spell. But he quickly left the agriculture end of things to head off to business school and start a career in the IT end of things, implementing web architecture for large corporations. He's now cashed that in to start his own winery. Before taking the plunge, Higgins spent a few years working in wine retail and then got some on-the-job training at wineries in Bordeaux (La Lagune) and California (Calera) in 2005. Higgins and his wife Susan started Heart & Hands Wine Company, debuting in the 2006 vintage. Higgins' goal? To make the best Pinot Noir in the area. Pinot Noir?
If you're tired of city traffic, things are a little different in the Finger Lakes.
"I love Pinot. So why not?" he retorts when pressed on his choice. “I think it’s going to be the red of this area.”
To prove that he's on to something others in the area aren't, he's marked out a spot that runs along a vein of limestone, relatively rare in the area. Higgins picked the spot for its soils and 17 percent grade. He's cleared a patch of terraced property behind the small winery building, located on the eastern side of Cayuga Lake in the town of Union Springs. ‘By hand’ is the name of the game here – from harvesting and sorting down to bottling and labeling. Because of that, Higgins’ production in the 2008 vintage was a mere 800 cases and plans are to keep it boutique - 2,000 cases max.
Until his own vineyards are up to speed, Higgins is currently buying fruit from Jim Hazlitt's Sawmill Creek vineyard on the eastern shore of Seneca and will augment that with fruit from the Hobbit Hollow vineyard on the western side of Skaneateles Lake (owned by the Falcone family and managed by Paul Wellington) starting in the 2009 vintage.
Higgins has been picky about his vineyard sources – he’s turned down fruit from growers who wouldn’t hand-harvest to his specifications. Along with Ravines’ Morten Hallgren and Red Newt’s Dave Whiting, Higgins is buying fruit on per-acre contracts that allow him to decide on the viticulture and yields, while insulating the grower price-wise. It’s a paradigm shift for the Finger Lakes, which has a long history of quantity-first production.
“There’s more risk in terms of expense, but then we can control quality,” he says.
Though only 15 miles as the crow flies from the Lodi/Hector area on Seneca, you have to drive an hour up and around Cayuga to get to Heart & Hands. Nonetheless, Higgins has frequent visitors to the tasting room on weekends.
From there, it’s then another 30 minutes over to the Hobbit Hollow vineyard on Skaneateles Lake (skinny-at-liss), a 25-acre vineyard planted ten years ago that has proven to produce good enough fruit for the likes of Dr. Konstantin Frank, Heron Hill and Ravines. The lake itself isn’t as large or as deep as Seneca or Cayuga, so the vineyard gets as much influence from Lake Ontario to the north as it does Skaneateles. The Pinot Noir Higgins is buying is sourced from Dijon clones, rather than the lighter-bodied and lighter-colored champagne clones that still dominate in the area. The 2007 Pinot Noir Finger Lakes Barrel Reserve showed a good fleshy core of plum fruit that was a step up from typical Finger Lakes Pinots, though a hefty dose of oak lent a noticeable toast, spice and raisin profile that could be toned down a bit. There's a small amount of Brut Rosé made from Pinot Noir as well.
While Higgins is focusing on Pinot Noir, he isn’t going all in on the grape. 10 percent of the production at Heart & Hands is Riesling and both of the recently released ‘08s (dry and Late Harvest bottlings) are very good.
Still, it’s a more-than-unique tack to start up in the Finger Lakes with a Pinot Noir bent. That makes Higgins a bit of a pioneer. He's also young, passionate and putting most parts of his life on hold to focus on the winery. That means he’s got a chance to make it work.