With the drive back to the city staring me in the face (though luckily the day was looking bright and clear), I only had time to squeeze in two more appointments, and I stayed in the Banana Belt for both.
I dropped in first at Red Newt Cellars, where the husband-and-wife team of Dave and Debra Whiting run both a winery as well as one of the best eating spots in the area (Red Newt Bistro). The Whitings initially thought they would purchase vineyards and slowly build up an estate, but have since decided to forgo that plan in favor of working closely with select growers—all production here is from contracted fruit. There are 15,000 cases produced annually (up from 8,000 in 2002) and the current facility could handle 20,000 without having to be renovated.
"I don't have the expertise to run a vineyard," said Dave matter-of-factly. "And it would be a huge investment for us. So instead we're cementing our relationships with a handful of growers."
Whiting is among the quality-oriented producers who are trying to move to per-acre contracts (along with the likes of Morten Hallgren at Ravines). With a per-acre contract, the producer buys fruit from a vineyard at a set price, regardless of the crop size. This allows the producer to lower yields and raise quality, while the individual grower gets the comfort of a fair market price despite a reduced crop load. While it seems like a win-win situation for both parties, it's proving to be a slow process to change the way the Finger Lakes wine industry does business, as it's historically been an area that produced grapes based on quantity, rather than quality.
"There's still a little hesitancy to change," said Whiting. "There was such a comfort level in the '70s with the big companies and then 'boom,' a very rough period [when the large companies went bankrupt]. Growers remember that, so they tend to be a little more conservative in how they do business."
With the weather a little more tolerable than the previous two days, we headed out for a tour of some of Whiting's top vineyards, the first called Curry Creek, which is owned and farmed by John Santos and located just above Route 414, to the north of the winery. Here a range of white varieties have been planted, including both Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. It seems a natural extension following Riesling's quality success in the region to move into other white varieties, but so far results from other grapes have been spotty.
"They are more difficult," said Whiting of some of the other varieties he's working with, namely Gewürztraminer. "Their flavor development comes late in the season, which is obviously the risk here."
So why bother tinkering with other varieties if producers know that Riesling works?
"It took us 20 years to figure out Riesling," said Whiting. "It's going to be a flagship for us, but we're not going to give up on other grapes. We should find out if any of the others work."
We then headed a short jog south along Route 414 and dropped down below the road, toward the lake, to check on the Glacier Ridge Vineyard, owned and farmed by Tony Damiani (Damiani's brother Lou runs a separate winery facility under the family name which sources fruit from half of the vineyard while Tony does contract growing from the other half). As you drop below Route 414, the elevation drops quickly as well, from 800 feet above sea level to 600 feet or lower. The terrain also moves from wider, gently sloped swaths of land to more undulating and slightly steeper slopes that offer intriguing terroir, but are challenging to decipher due to myriad soil types within close proximity to each other. In the accompanying video, Whiting explains how some of these more narrow strips of land can differ widely.
"There have been outside winemakers coming to the region lately," noted Whiting, referring to Ravines' Morten Hallgren and Johannes Reinhardt at Anthony Road. "But what we're lacking is that outside expertise and attention at the viticultural level. We need to plant the idea that wine comes from the vineyard and spur competition among the growers."
Following our stop in Glacier Ridge it's another short ride south to get to the Sawmill Creek Vineyard, an ambitious 40-acre parcel farmed by Jim Hazlitt, a venerable name in the Finger Lakes wine industry (the extended Hazlitt family runs the separate Hazlitt 1852 winery, known for its rather cloying but immensely popular Red Cat bottling made from Catawba and Baco Noir, along with some more serious vinifera bottlings).
A longtime grower, Hazlitt is among those whose family ran a fully sustainable farm (dairy, beef, etc.) in the 1950s, then slowly shifted toward hybrid grapes as their profitability boomed through the 1970s, but then had to quickly retool to vinifera grapes when the bottom fell out of the hybrid grape market. At 72, Hazlitt has hardly slowed down. Standing at the bottom of the vineyard, just a stone's throw from the lakeshore, Hazlitt points back up the slope to rows of Sangiovese, Albariño, Sauvignon Blanc and more. The seemingly scattershot approach is driven by a simple mantra: Hazlitt just plants the grapes for the wines he likes to drink.
"I went to New Zealand and drank some Sauvignon Blancs, so I thought, ‘Why not'? I'm thinking maybe some Grüner Veltliner next," said Hazlitt.
Hazlitt, who sells to Whiting's Red Newt and a dozen more wineries, looks at his vineyard as a laboratory for the region—a large-scale experiment to find out what grapes can possibly join Riesling at the top of the pecking order (he's betting on Grüner and Pinot Blanc himself).
Back at Whiting's winery, we taste through some not-yet-released 2007s that demonstrate Whiting's faith in his vineyard sources. There's a 2007 Pinot Gris from the Curry Creek vineyard, which shows clean, pure stone fruit flavors and a nice round finish. A step up are a pair of Gewürztraminers. One from Curry Creek shows ripe peach and apricot notes, with a warm, but nicely firm finish; another, from Hazlitt's Sawmill Creek, comes off as lighter and more elegant in style, with floral, anise and apricot notes that stay fresh through the finish. Both are significant improvements over the general quality of Gewürztraminer in the region, easily very good and flirting with outstanding in quality.
From the Damiani's Glacier Ridge vineyard, Whiting pours a Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The former is nicely plump, with dark cherry fruit and a fresh open finish, the latter shows soft, cherry cola and plum notes that stay focused on the finish. Both offer very good quality, and avoid the overt crisp, leafy aspect that plagues many of the region's reds. (The new 2007 single-vineyard lineup is set for release in a few more months; the prices have not yet been set and production is limited.)
From Red Newt it's just a quick drive down to Atwater Estate, where Vinny Aliperti, a Queens transplant who got his start at Long Island's Wölffer Estate in 1997, now heads up the winemaking. Aliperti moved to the Finger Lakes in 2000, working a harvest at Hermann J. Wiemer before moving to Atwater in 2001 (Atwater had been bought in 1999 by Ted Marks, a local businessman; the estate was previously known as Rolling Vineyards).
Atwater's vineyards were based on hybrid production when the estate changed hands, and since coming on board, Aliperti has helped oversee the shift in the estate's 50 acres of vines to vinifera grapes, including Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and more. Only a little bit of Vidal Blanc remains from the hybrid days.
Atwater produces some of the juiciest, ripest wines in the area, thanks to their location in the heart of the Banana Belt, and with vineyards that benefit from a southwestern exposure that maximizes the late-day sun. The winery has grown from 4,000 cases in 2005 to its present 7,500 case-production level, and while wineries in the area are growing, the recent rush to plant to vinifera varieties threatens to create a glut of grapes on the market. In the 2008 harvest, Cabernet Franc grapes are struggling to find a home.
"We are seeing [a glut] for the first time this year," said the affable Aliperti. "We're hoping it's just a hiccup. We can't just keep our head down and hope that people will keep coming to the tasting rooms. We're hungry as a region and we need to open some new avenues."
Aliperti picks his Riesling blocks at varying levels of ripeness and inoculates the fermentations with commercial yeasts (the standard operating procedure in the region). As the ferments move along, Aliperti tastes and decides which lots are balanced enough to stop the fermentation by dropping the temperature of the tank in question, resulting in a range of dry and off-dry bottlings.
As with most growers in the region, Aliperti is happy with the almost-completed 2008 harvest (he still has a few grapes to pick). With steady but light rains through the latter half of the season, the vineyards had enough moisture to continue photosynthesis and generate more polyphenols—that's the good part. But while the total rainfall was less than normal, because it was so steady, disease pressures were higher than normal in the vineyards, which meant more rigorous spray programs to fend off rot—that's the tough part. In the end though, an Indian summer led to clean, healthy grapes, and the few vats of 2008 Rieslings that we taste show really fresh flavors and bright, crunchy acidity.
Aliperti also has a side project, his own Billsboro label that he produces from fruit sourced around the town of Hector, including Hazlitt's Sawmill Creek vineyard.
"I really like the ripeness you can get in this area. It's the sweet spot," said Aliperti.
Though produced at the Atwater facility, his Billsboro wines are sold from a separate tasting room on the west side of Seneca Lake.
Aliperti has brought Awater along quickly in just a few short years, a testament to not only the latent potential of the region, but to the strides that a committed team—winemaker, vineyard manager and owner—can make. And people are obviously taking notice. Despite a relatively quiet week in general around the region (weekends are prime time as opposed to mid-week), more than a handful of people were walking out of the Atwater tasting room with their fair share of bottles.
Alas it was time to hit the road. I eschewed the I-81 to I-80 combo on the way back and chose to stick on Route 17 all the way down. Distancewise it's the same, but the two-lane road is superquiet, and meanders nicely through western New York's hilly and largely forgotten farm country. As I drove along, the remnants from Tuesday's snowstorm had not yet fully receded, leaving a dusting of white underneath the fall foliage that continues to hang on stubbornly.
Passing the occasional rundown farm or semi-deserted township, I couldn't help but think that this state has generally failed to exploit its tremendous agricultural resource. It's common for city restaurants to boast on their menus about the local ingredients they use, but these come mostly from spots on Long Island or in the Hudson Valley, as opposed to the western or northern parts of the state. And while I applaud them for sourcing local ingredients, I find myself agreeing with the Finger Lakes winemakers who bemoan those same restaurants for stopping short at just the produce, and not supporting local wines at the same time. Granted consistency and quality have a ways to go, but the Finger Lakes is far ahead of Long Island when it comes to quality wines. With a growing movement among consumers and sommeliers to favor lower alcohol, fresher-styled wines, the best Finger Lakes Rieslings seem ideally suited for placements on wine lists in New York City, and eventually further abroad. Their consistently modest price point is an added bonus. Here's hoping things keep moving in the right direction.