In most wine regions, the older generation is typically the one holding on to tradition while the younger generation employs new ideas or techniques. In the Finger Lakes, though, the older generation is just as apt to be the one pushing as the younger one—since the older generation is basically the first one to break from the old Finger Lakes model of growing large quantities of hybrids and natives by reducing yields and growing vinifera.
“You’re right,” reflected Kim Engle of Bloomer Creek. “We are only just a generation removed from Taylor Wine Company and that era. It’s still just a bunch of farmers making wine in their garages, and we’re the ones who are pushing progress now.”
I worked up along the east side of Seneca Lake today, starting first at Damiani, which moved into a new, larger tasting room on the high side of Route 414 this past October.
Pitched on the lawn in front of the tasting room is a sign protesting the possible construction of a liquid petroleum storage facility in Watkins Glen. When I make note of the sign, both that and the recent furor over fracking for natural gas gets Lou Damiani talking quickly.
“You know, with water the issue that it is out west and elsewhere, in 10 or 20 years this area could really be a food basket for the country,” he said. “And I’d like to pass that down to my kids in good shape.”
Damiani, who partners with grower Phil Davis, still focuses his winery on red wines, putting him in the minority of Finger lakes wineries which typically focus on Riesling and other whites. Yet Damiani continues to find success as he fashions full-bodied, nicely ripe, grippy Cabernets, Syrah and more. And of course, Pinot Noir is his quest.
“It’s easy to get obsessed with Pinot. We spend so much time on blending trials and clones and different sites,” said Damiani. “It really is the holy grail.”
Damiani is one of the old timers who keeps trying new things, and his quest for Pinot Noir now seems to be his main task. At “the barn” as he calls it, the small, cramped winery down a side road off Route 414, Damiani draws tank samples of different Pinots. He’s particularly fond of the results from Dijon clone 115 and he vinifies those parcels separately from the parcels that contain other Dijon clones (such as 777 and 667). From one block, the 115 is firm and silky at the same time, with pretty dark fruit flavors, while the mix of other clones, picked 10 days earlier, though in the same vineyard, is lighter, softer and more perfumy.
“Pinot goes through so many phases as it ages. Some of these taste different than they did last week. You can really get obsessed with it,” he said, staring into the glass holding one tank sample.
Damiani is leaning toward three different bottlings of Pinot in 2010, all vineyard-based, with each one a mix of different clonal material, though relying mostly on 115.
“I do believe terroir always trumps clonal selection,” said Damiani. “But, if you can get the right site with the right clone, then that’s the perfect combination. I really like the 115 for its richer flavors, and it really helps pull up the others when they’re blended together.”
Heading out to the vineyards, we stopped by one of the prime Pinot Noir parcels, a lower-lying block with fairly steep exposition that is neatly pruned. Damiani’s son Gabe came out to meet us and had a quick conversation with Lou about Japanese beetles that have started to munch on some young Syrah plantings. Damiani’s phone rang—it was his partner Davis on the other end and another quick conversation ensued. Damiani always seems to sign off with, “let’s have a meeting on that and get that sorted out.”
With 40 acres of vines under his control (25 are estate, 15 are under contract), Damiani probably winds up having a lot of meetings.
For 2010, Damiani said the season reminds him of 2007 so far, which also had a wet start followed by warm and sunny weather, which led to ripe, big wines (for the region).
“It’s early, but so far I like it,” said Damiani. “I’d rather have a wet spring than a wet harvest.”
While Damiani likes a full-bodied red, he doesn’t want to overoak his wines.
“I like tannins, not oak,” he said. “You do need to ameliorate tannins with oak, but it’s very easy to overoak a wine. Especially here in the Finger Lakes.”
This low-lying block of Pinot Noir vines is used by Damiani, a winery that focuses on reds in the cool-climate Finger Lakes region.
To that end, the 2010 Syrah sees no more than 25 percent new oak, a figure that Damiani thinks is "considerable." The wine is dark and spicy with lots of white pepper and snappy black cherry fruit and a nice, lightly grippy cherry pit edge on the finish. A sample of 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Mason Road vineyard is big and chewy, with surprisingly dark cassis and currant notes. The lot usually goes into the Barrel Select bottling as well as the Meritage. Splitting lots is part of what Damiani likes to do.
“That’s the art side of winemaking, the blend. We go through a lot of trials here trying to find the blends we want,” said Damiani, who plans to bottle his 2010 reds before the next harvest, a result of the pressure put on the limited space in the winery by the incoming 2011 crop.
“But still, I wouldn’t want to leave them in oak that much longer anyway,” said Damiani. “You can overoak a wine even if it’s not new oak, by just letting it dry out from being in oak too long.”
Though the emphasis is on reds here, there are whites. Damiani has increased production of his Sauvignon Blanc to 400 cases annually, a large commitment for a small winery. And there is of course a Riesling, which in 2010 is now sourced entirely from estate fruit (the Argetsinger vineyard is no longer a source). It’s dry and minerally with lots of nice snappy green apple and kiwi notes.
After stopping back at the tasting room, Damiani dashed off—to another meeting, no doubt.
From Damiani, it’s just a few miles up the road to Bloomer Creek, a small, dark wood building on the low side of Route 414. It’s seemingly a prime spot, located right next to the popular Stonecat Café. But Kim Engle and Deb Bermingham still feel a little out of the loop, and they like it that way.
“Oh, we’re way out there,” said Bermingham with a laugh.
The duo march to the beat of their own drum as they aren’t a member of the official wine trail (which means they don’t show up on the preprinted pocket maps) and their penchant for risky winemaking results in wines that stand apart from the pack. Kim manages his own vineyards and does most of the work himself, so he’s also not around the tasting room that often. (Try to call ahead for an appointment if you can.) The customers that come to Bloomer Creek come specifically for Bloomer Creek, according to Engle and Bermingham, rather than the meandering drop-in traffic of the wine trail.
As for the risks he takes—natural yeast fermentation as opposed to inoculated fermentation, for example—Engle shrugs them off.
“There’s no underlying theory as to why I do things the way I do,” he said. “I guess I just like seeing things turn out differently every time.”
Heading downstairs to the vinification room, Engle still has two barrels of 2010 Riesling fermenting, sourced from his Auten vineyard.
At Bloomer Creek, Kim Engle pushes the envelope of winemaking, with techniques that most of his colleagues won’t try.
“That’s typical, and it doesn’t seem to get any easier,” said Engle, with a smile, regarding the penchant for long, slow ferments at Bloomer Creek. “In the end, I think long fermentations make for more complex wines. You can’t do it this way if you have jittery nerves though, that’s for sure.”
“Stay the course!” said Bermingham.
The couple also admitted to liking more acidic wines as well as more mature notes, so they have a penchant to not rush things and typically release their wines later than their fellow wineries. A 2009 Pinot Noir is still in barrel, showing bright cherry fruit and elegant but lightly firm structure, as Engle is experimenting with whole cluster fermentation, which shows in the feel of the wine.
“I don’t mind a little edgy feel,” said Bermingham. “I’d rather have that than a brushed up, clean wine.”
While I think the reds here are still a work in progress, the whites are already established as some of the most interesting wines in the region. They can show ripe apricot and orange zest notes when young, but are developing a track record for aging.
“The Rieslings start out broad and yeasty but they tighten up and get more floral and minerally as they age in the bottle,” said Engle. “I think that’s a function of the longer ferment and more skin contact we do.”
Both of those winemaking tactics put Engle in the minority of the region’s winemakers, who often take a more cautious approach. The economic realities of winemaking in the Finger Lakes don’t allow much room for experimentation. A particular lot of wine lost to an experiment gone wrong can affect the bottom line too much.
“I certainly hear that from the younger winemakers in the area,” said Engle. “They want to try some things but their hands are tied by the owners they work for. Me, I’m lucky. I call the shots here so I get to try different things. They may not always work out, but when they do, that’s what’s exciting.”
“We didn’t grow up as wine kids, which is good and bad,“ said Bermingham. “We don’t have any preconceived ideas about how things are supposed to be or get done. But we’re also figuring out things as we go along.”
“There are too few people here trying to break from the cautious approach,” said Engle. “People are terrified of flaws in a wine. Stems? They won’t try that. Natural yeast? No way.”
“But just jiggling things around so that you get the same thing every year takes all the fun out of it,” said Bermingham.
“Exactly,” said Engle. “I just like exciting wine. So I guess that’s why I’m willing to try different things.”
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