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On Harvest with … Scott Osborn and Peter Bell

A warm, dry summer meant ripe fruit in the Finger Lakes for Riesling producer Fox Run

Mitch Frank
Posted: October 22, 2007

During each year's harvest, Wine Spectator asks numerous winemakers to share their thoughts on the challenges of the season and the quality of the grapes they're picking. Since there are so many factors that can influence the timing and quality of the harvest, ranging from the region to the variety to even the experience or opinion of the individual winemaker, it's often difficult to get a true sense of what's happening in the vineyards. This year, Wine Spectator found winemakers who specialize in certain varieties to sound off on their individual, grape-specific experiences—right in the middle of harvest.

Scott Osborn fell in love with wine while living in California, but after six years in cellars out west he moved back to his native New York and found his way to the Finger Lakes. He and partner Andy Hale bought Fox Run Vineyards in 1993, and now grow 55 acres of Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Lemberger (aka Blaufrankisch), Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir on the northwestern shore of Seneca Lake. But Riesling has become the region's star—Osborn just planted some more after losing Pinot and Chardonnay vines to a tough winter two years ago. For two years he was general manager and winemaker, but in 1995 he hired winemaker Peter Bell, a Canadian who got his enological start in Australia and New Zealand. Both Osborn and Bell gave their thoughts on the season for Riesling in upstate New York.

The Grape: Riesling

The Geography: The Finger Lakes

California weather in upstate New York
Scott: "It was one of the latest starts we've ever had, because it's been so incredibly dry here. And the fruit has been so clean that we decided to let it hang a while. We held off for a while and started picking Riesling [on Oct. 13]. I've never seen anything like it. We've had a drought. From a weather standpoint this was the nicest summer I've spent in the Finger Lakes—it rained five times."

Peter: "There was a huge amount of drought stress. Vines don't photosynthesize when they can't pull water out of the soil. But it looks as if dry summers are here to stay—in the 1990s we had one, and so far this decade we have had four."

Scott: "We have sandy soil in certain spots and we have shale in other spots—broken shale that doesn't hold water real well, so when it doesn't rain, it really affects the size of the berry. Tonnages are all over the map. We're looking at 20 percent less than estimates in some plots because of the small berry size. But that bodes well for the flavor profile, and the sugars are right up there, so we haven't had to buy sugar, like we usually do. We don't really have a house style here. Every vintage is different."

Deciding when to pick
Peter: "Normally, in this cool climate, the weather—and accompanying disease pressure—calls the shots. Letting grapes stay on the vine beyond physiological ripeness is not an option here, thank goodness. In warm, dry years like this we pick as close to possible to the maximum sugar attainable. I don't worry about acid levels too much—they can be adjusted up or down. Once in a while we have to pick because the birds are taking too much fruit. This year, the whites are soft, lower in acid, and more fragrant. The Riesling might be a little broader in the mouth than in most years, but we have not finished fermenting them yet or adjusting the acid."

Man or machine?
Scott: "We did a lot of machine picking this year. We never machine picked before last year, and we're finding that when you have good, clean fruit it's the only way to go. It means lower labor costs—and the nice thing about a machine, [is] it picks in the rain. The technology has changed so much. These machines go through and they don't even take the leaves off."

Respect the Riesling
Peter: "Riesling is the best wine grape in existence and needs to be acknowledged as such. But it's not a finicky grape like Pinot, which tends to have a mind of its own. With Riesling, good winemaking comes down to phenolics control, yeast strain selection and not bottling too early, to let the wine tell you what it wants to be. We've found that yeast-strain selection has a profound and lasting effect on the aromatics and texture of the wine. As with the best Pinots, which are usually a blend of clones, we can optimize the quality of Riesling by fermenting—in separate tanks, of course—with several different yeast strains and then blending. One strain might bring fruit-salad aromatics and leave residual sugar, while another might bring a bracing, edgy character to the wine. With this vintage, the winemaking is a bit of a paradigm shift. We're probably acidifying rather than deacidifying. But overall, in good years like this the winemaking is a lot easier."

The long, hard days of harvest
Peter: "I get in around 6 a.m. and immediately check all the fermentations—temperature and degrees Brix as well as sensory. I get all the pumps, hoses and tanks set up. My staff gets here about an hour and a half later and I make them coffee and give them a list of things to do: racking, inoculating, setting up the crush pad, prepping barrels, etc. There is always a big cleanup at the end of a day, at least two hours' worth. Generally I don't stop for lunch, or I might eat a bite while answering messages from pesky wine writers. We might get out of here by 6 or 7 p.m., but often stay later. We all go around in rubber boots and tend to run, not walk. We listen to lots of good music."

Scott: "I put a lot of trust in Peter—he knows his stuff. I just go up and hover and try to stay out of his hair. The first couple of years it was hard to be hands-off, but now I almost feel useless. I feel like an intern. 'Can I wash the floors?'"

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