The Finger Lakes, Day 1: Neither Snow, Nor Sleet, Nor Rain

Oct 30, 2008

Leading with the weather is a cliché. But you all know about my travel jinx, so how else could I get waylaid on the way to the Finger Lakes? Since I wasn’t flying, the usual travel delay couldn’t get me. Instead, I hopped in the car to make the 4.5-hour drive from New York. Despite some moderate rain as I headed out, I figured it would be easy enough. That was until the driving rainstorm instantly turned to snow as I turned north through the Delaware Water Gap onto I-81. Nothing like creeping along at 25 mph while staying in the wake of a 16-wheeler to turn a nice scenic drive into a 6-hour white-knuckled crawl.

And then by the time I pulled into Watkins Glen, the town at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, I was met with sideways rain. Driving over to Keuka Lake for my first visit, some more snow, then a quick blast of sleet, finally followed by a precipitation-free patch that brought with it a knifing wind that just wouldn’t quit.

Despite all this I saw some vineyards that still had grapes on the vine, and red grapes to boot, despite the vines not having any leaves left. Probably not the best idea …

The weather made for a very short tour of Morten Hallgren’s vineyard, which worked out fine since he just planted his first 6 acres and has only a few sprigs of vines poking up through the ground. In the warmth of his Ravines Wine Cellars tasting room, located on the eastern side of Keuka Lake (right at the neck of the "Y" the lake forms), Hallgren and his wife, Lisa, represent the new breed of winery in the region—small (7,500 cases annually), quality-oriented and committed to vinifera grapes.

“Anywhere else in the world, that’s probably not too original,” said the mild-mannered Hallgren about his decision to focus on vinifera. “But around here it is.”

While many young winemakers like to rattle off in rapid succession a list of big name wineries they’ve apprenticed at, Hallgren takes a more modest, low-key approach, as he relates a tale of working first for his family’s former winery, Castel Roubine in Provence, before earning his stripes at Cordier Estates in Texas and Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

Hallgren, 45, then got his start in the Finger Lakes working at Dr. Konstantin Frank for a few vintages (1999 to 2005). During that time, he set up Ravines (first commercial vintage 2002) and is now fully on his own.

While Hallgren waits for his estate vineyard to come on line, he’s working with a handful of different growers that he met during his time at Dr. Frank. Hallgren has also taken the novel approach (for the Finger Lakes) of paying for fruit by the acre, rather than ton. One of Hallgren’s top grape suppliers is Sam Argetsinger, whose name goes on Ravines’ top Riesling bottling, which in ’07 is a dry, taut, tangy version that typifies the house style here.

While Riesling is the headliner at Ravines, Hallgren is still committed to making Pinot Noir, despite the grape’s struggles in the region—the ’02 bottling is very light, but still fresh with the spice, earth and dried cherry notes typical of a mature bottling. There are 900 cases of the ’08 Pinot in the works, a hefty percentage of the winery’s production considering the grape is still fighting for acceptance in the region, but Hallgren is high on the just-completed harvest.

“We didn’t have the usual drought we have in August, which typically stresses both Riesling and Pinot,” said Hallgren. “They were able to keep going through September and they both show really nice concentration and balance.”

Despite being tucked over on Keuka Lake, away from the bigger name wineries around Seneca Lake, this is a winery to watch.

With his salt and pepper hair and graying moustache, Scott Osborn, 60, ranks as one of the region’s veterans. But his down to earth approach, energy and infectious laugh belie his age. He’s experienced, but knows there’s still so much more to learn. Osborn bounced around the wine industry in various forms before taking the plunge and buying a piece of property on the northwestern side of Seneca Lake in 1993 to start his own operation. At the time, there were just 14 wineries on the lake.

Today, Fox Run produces around 18,000 cases annually, and along with the studious winemaker Peter Bell (one of the many winemakers in the area to come from a stint at Dr. Frank’s winery) is one of the Finger Lakes’ leading wineries. And there are now over 50 wineries around Seneca Lake.

“Paleo deltas,” said Osborn, as we take a quick tour of some of his vineyards. “That’s my buzz word this year.”

Osborn is referring to the wide swathes of terraced land that slowly descend down to the lakeshore. Each "step" or "paleo delta" represents a different stage in the retreat of the glacier which eventually formed Seneca Lake, and each ensuing terrace has differing soils, typically sandy but with differing amounts of red or blue clay or slate underneath.

“These shallow, better drained sites are ideal for offsetting the humidity we have,” said Osborn. Humidity breeds vine diseases, the main pressure in the region to quality grapegrowing.

It’s part of a growing trend of attention to detail in the region—detail in the vineyards. With a history of growing hybrid and native varieties for large-production wines, the Finger Lakes never thought much about terroir until now. As vinifera grapes increase, growers are now scrambling to understand just what they have when it comes to terroir. The result is a sudden flurry of new plantings (or replantings), with a vineyard typically having Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and more, which will require another generation of observation to sort out what grapes do best on what sites.

“And it’s not just terroir,” said Osborn. “It’s also the water in the soil and how it’s either invigorating the vines or not. There’s so much we’re still trying to figure out.”

Fox Run offers a full range of vinifera bottlings, both red and white. The winery’s Rieslings are typically among the more austere in the region, including both the dry and off-dry bottlings.

“About three-quarters of the way through the fermentations we start to taste every lot,” explained Bell about how they choose which lots will go toward the dry, semi-dry or reserve bottlings. “Those that show more linear focus go toward the dry. Those that are fuller or more forward go to the off-dry.”

We taste through three tanks of 2008 Rieslings, their fermentations completed but their juice still cloudy as they’ve yet to settle. One is clearly taut and tangy and seems destined for the dry bottling; the second shows more peach and floral notes and might be earmarked for a semi-dry. The third combines the best of both, with a long, minerally spine stretching out the ripe stone fruit flavors, and it’s no surprise it’s earmarked for the winery’s reserve bottling.

In addition to the Fox Run wines, readers should also try and track down some of Bell’s pet project, Tierce, a joint venture with winemakers Johannes Reinhardt (of Anthony Road) and Dave Whiting (of Red Newt). There are just 200 cases made of this Riesling, which combines equal amounts of fruit from the three wineries. Bottled under screw cap, both the '04 and '05 vintages are still fresh and pure, while the '06 combines both a bony spine and plumper anise notes, and should age nicely in the short term.

I'll continue down the western shore of Seneca tomorrow, before crossing over to the other side of the lake.

New York City United States New York

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