Johannes Reinhardt, 41, traces his family roots back to the 15th century. Winemaking has always been in the family for Reinhardt, who was born in Germany and grew up in the town of Würzburg, known as the capital of the Franconia wine region. During the 1980s Reinhardt went through formal training and worked with cold-climate grapes such as Riesling, Müller Thurgau and Lemberger at wineries in Germany and Bavaria.
By the late 1990s, Reinhardt was looking for a new challenge, and in 1999 he answered a magazine ad, and wound up as an intern at Dr. Konstantin Frank, located on Keuka Lake in New York's Finger Lakes region. Following that internship, Reinhardt returned to Germany for a year before deciding to make his mark in the Finger Lakes. In 2000 he was hired as head winemaker at Anthony Road (owned by John and Ann Martini), which today is considered one of the top wineries in this still unheralded region.
Wine Spectator: What got you interested in being a winemaker?
Johannes Reinhardt: It is easy to develop a passion for wine when you grow up right in the "center" of it. But with a long tradition like ours back in Germany, you would be expected to do what all the previous generations had done.
WS: And you found this a little stifling?
JR: In general this [tradition] has not been bad because I always enjoyed nature's creations and wine in particular. The big question [for me] is the "how?" The fact that there has been so little flexibility and creativity in trying to go new ways—we obviously can't really learn unless we take risks which promise to improve our product and life. … [At] some point in my career I felt [I no longer had] the chance to create the wines I wanted. Too much tradition can inhibit rather than encourage our own unique way of working and living.
WS: What is it about working in the Finger Lakes that you like?
JR: In my career, I have yet to explore a region where people have been more humble, down to earth and willing to work together. It is very rewarding and exciting to grow with the industry here. We do have this very rare chance of creating wines which will be not measured against other already established places in the wine world. We will create our very own identity and reputation.
WS: And what do you wish you could change in or about the Finger Lakes?
JR: We have to stop thinking "more is better" in terms of growing our fruit. There are already some growers and wineries who do a fantastic job. But there is still a lot of work to be done. A vineyard needs to be in balance. We need to understand that we have no chance to compete based on volume in an international market. Quality is what we can create a name for. We have to start thinking long-term rather than short-term.
Also, there are more possibilities than growing just Riesling. Even though Riesling will stay, in my opinion, the flagship variety [for the Finger Lakes], we do have chances to grow good Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer and other international varieties.
WS: What's tougher to manage your vineyards through: The variable weather you might get during harvest time, being in such a cool, northerly climate? Or the harsh winters, that can cut short a vine's lifespan?
JR: I would not point out one of those times being more challenging than the other. One example would be the vintage of 2006. We did have a great growing season, but then the rain came in late August, leaving us with nearly 13 inches of rain through late October. On the other hand, there was the trouble with the fall of 2002, where the temperature in early November dropped from the high-40s down to around 10 degrees just within a day. This was a real killer for many vines, since they hadn't been prepared for the winter yet.
WS: How do you manage around such drastic weather variations?
JR: In my experience, damage or winter kill is happening the most in the vineyards which are stressed or compromised in the years before [a tough winter]. I like to compare a vineyard's life to the life of a human being. The first 10 years are the most important to create a strong, lasting foundation. If we learn to understand that a vineyard is not just a money-making tool, but it is the source and the foundation for a lasting and successful business, then we will have far fewer problems with winter kill, disease and many other challenges.
WS: What are your favorite food pairings with a dry Riesling and with an off-dry Riesling?
JR: I admit I don't want to settle for a favorite dish with any wine, simply because I wouldn't want to stop exploring possibilities. But you can catch me having a nice, crisp semi-dry Riesling with something as simple as a fresh garden salad with grilled salmon and a good Italian dressing. Or enjoying this wine with scallops, risotto and a creamy mushroom sauce. On the other end, I do enjoy the drier styles of Riesling with my wife's great dumplings, filled with shrimp, ground beef, green onions and mushrooms. Or an oven-baked chicken with basil and baked potatoes.
WS: What is your favorite wine, other than one of your own?
JR: There is not really a favorite wine I want to lift up here because, like with food-and-wine pairing, I want to give myself the chance to keep looking out for great wines. But I do have some favorite producers, such as the organic winery I used to work for in Germany, or the Trimbach wines in Alsace. I do love the Rieslings from Gunderloch. They are to me simply pure and fantastic. Many of the great red Burgundies strike me because they make us remember what a true Pinot Noir should be all about.
WS: Who have been your biggest influences as a winemaker?
JR: First, my dad. Because of teaching me the foundation of life—to respect, to work hard and to go the extra mile for something I believe in. Also, my former boss at the organic Schlossgut Hohenbeilstein winery in Beilstein/Württemberg, for reminding me of the importance to focus on details to create different wines, and that shortcuts in trying to create those wines will compromise the result. Ann and John Martini [owners of Anthony Road], for trusting me and letting me express the grapes in the best possible natural way, captured as great liquid in a glass. And finally, a 65-year-old man I met on a backpack trip in '94 in Nepal. After talking just a few times with him I learned to take a step at a time to follow, and don't let anyone tell you "you can't" or "you are too old for a change."