The Finger Lakes, Day 1: The Established and the New

Lakewood Vineyards and Rooster Hill show the contrast between established and new wineries in the Finger Lakes
Nov 19, 2009

The drive upstate couldn’t have been easier. Three cds, one stop for gas, and 4 hours and 20 minutes later I was dropping my bag in my hotel room.

From there it was off to my first visit, just a short drive up the west side of Seneca Lake from Watkins Glen to Lakewood Vineyards, where brothers Dave and Chris Stamp (along with Chris’ wife, Liz) are the third generation to run this property.

Frank Stamp (Chris and Dave’s grandfather) was a dentist in the military, who gave up that practice and chose to become a gentleman farmer. He bought the well-situated property in 1951, and for the first several years grew tomatoes, grains and the like. But as the demand for grapes grew through the '60s and '70s, his son Monty moved the farm in that direction, planting a mix of mostly hybrid and native grape varieties that were, at the time, eagerly bought up by the Taylor Wine Company.

In the 1980s, as the Taylor Wine Company began to fall apart, the Stamp family saw the writing on the wall.

“We were hustling grapes to whoever said they would pay for them, whether the check was good or not,” laughed the gregarious Dave, who handles the vineyards.

By 1988, the Stamps had several acres of vinifera in the ground (they began to shift to vinifera in 1981) and they were vinifying their own wine. Dave, 44, and Chris, 49, (who handles the winemaking) have been running tractors and working the farm since they were high school students. Both have the requisite degrees for plant science and winemaking, but Dave said there’s more on the job training than formal schooling at work.

“We just keep trying things and sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t,” he said, as we took a short ride around the vineyards, located around the winery itself.

Today, Lakewood represents the prototypical Finger Lakes winery—75 acres of vines with 14 different varieties, and trending toward vinifera. They still grow some Concord and Niagara grapes for Welch’s, but there are now 6 acres of Riesling, with 3 more coming on line next harvest and another 6-plus acres planned for planting soon.

The winery currently produces around 35,000 cases annually, up from the modest 1,800 in 1988. One-third of the production is vinifera, with Riesling leading the way. Though that’s still the minority, the Stamps are growing increasingly committed to vinifera and are pulling out some Catawba to make way for new plantings of Riesling.

“The Catawba is on a nice spot, so why waste that on Catawba when you can go buy Catawba from anywhere? Let’s have some control over the vinifera we’re using (the winery currently buys in half its grapes) and put it on one of the best spots we have on the property,” said Dave.

As with most growers in the area, 2009 was a difficult year, with excess moisture and cool temperatures allowing weed growth to take off almost out of control in the vineyards. An early frost and winter weather threw more curveballs.

“We had an inch and a half of snow on the press pad, which had to get cleared off, right in the middle of harvest,” said Chris. “I’m still trying to figure out what 2009 brings to the table in terms of reds. But it is going to be really nice for whites.”

Being a prototypical Finger Lakes winery means Lakewood is still reliant on hybrid and native grapes for much of its production, and yields are still an issue. But the Stamps are aware of the issues, pro and con. In regard to reducing yields and changing the culture of the region from one of quantity to quality, the Stamps see it happening, slowly.

“Well, if you’re willing to pay a fair price, then a grower will drop crop for you, to get his foot in the door. But it’s a relationship that has to be worked on,” said Dave.

Could the winery ever go totally vinifera?

“No," said Chris flatly. “Because we know which side our bread is buttered on. I’d love to say ‘yes’ to that question. But we’re an anchor winery for the trail, one of the first wineries people see as they drive up from Watkins Glen. We get a lot of traffic in here and I can’t educate every single person who comes in to taste. Plus, we don’t charge for tastings, so if people come in, taste, and don’t buy anything, we lose money. There are a lot of people who are just starting to taste wine, and they need or want something a little sweet. That’s why we offer two different tastings, two different lineups. One is the hybrids or natives, the other dry vinifera bottlings.”

“Now hopefully, we can get a bottle of Chardonnay or Riesling in their hands and bring them along,” said Dave.

The Stamps have seen a shift in their customers though, including among those who have come for years and made the switch to vinifera bottlings. In addition, Liz noted, "We’ve also seen more folks in recent years who have traveled around the world to visit other wine regions, and then finally come here for the first time even though they’ve lived within driving distance all along."

It’s probably no surprise that among the many offerings here, I find the Riesling to be clearly in the lead. Despite their location on the western side of Seneca, which typically produces Rieslngs in a leaner style, the Lakewood bottlings tend to be plump, round and friendly, more like their east side of Seneca cousins in the "banana belt."

The winery has also quietly put together a nice track record of ageability. When I tasted some older Finger Lakes wines last year to see how they aged, the 1990 Lakewood Riesling was one of the standout whites. Today, a bottle of the Lakewood Riesling Finger Lakes 2002 showed delightful apple, quince and piecrust notes, with a still-juicy finish that had just a hint of lanolin peeking in, the qualitative equivalent of a Mosel spätlese of similar age (and sadly, the last bottle the Stamps had, as library wines are not commonly kept by area wineries). The good news is that the winery’s 2008 Riesling lineup has just been released and they should age nicely as well, thanks to the vintage’s fresh acidity. As always, formal reviews based on samples tasted blind at my office will appear in the near future.

Would I like to see Lakewood make a break from hybrid and natives to focus on vinifera, and Riesling in particular? Sure—if you can clearly do one thing well, why not do that all the time? But I realize the economic reality makes the hybrid Band-Aid a little painful to pull off in one quick motion. If customers keep gravitating to their vinifera bottlings however, and Riesling in particular, that shift might become easier. Some wineries pull, others need a push.

The Stamps are salt-of-the-earth, affable folks who have moved with the changing times. They represent the established version of a Finger Lakes winery. Driving over to Keuka Lake to visit Rooster Hill, I see the contrast between the history of the region and one of its new faces.

Rooster Hill, owned by Amy Hoffman, was founded in 2002, using purchased fruit for its first vintage. Hoffman, 49, along with her husband, Dave, had grown up around Buffalo, but moved to California to follow their careers in the computer industry. A desire to do something else brought them back to the Finger Lakes.

"I wanted to get into something agricultural, and this area was burgeoning," she said of the decision to move back east. "I love the idea of growing something right here and then making it right here," she said, gesturing to her vineyard and then the winery next door. "And then I have the world's biggest focus group right in the tasting room."

“I probably visited every winery in the area and asked a million questions,” said the businesslike Amy. After researching the area, she settled on a spot on the eastern side of Keuka, about 9 miles north of Ravines winery. The nicely sloped piece of land features limestone and shale soils and had historically grown grapes. A Latvian immigrant named Robert Baskis had grown Delaware and the such for years, but as the market for those grapes dried up, he became frustrated, eventually bulldozing his vineyards and letting the land fall into disrepair. He still lived across the street from the property when Amy made the initial overtures to buy it from him, though she laughed when she recounted how eventually she was requested by Baskis to send her husband down to finish the deal. It got done, and then the work began.

“The goldenrod was this high,” said Amy holding her hand head high. “And I had poison ivy for 10 months.”

As they cleared the overgrown land, Amy and Dave said they couldn’t even see where they were going half the time, the overgrowth had gotten so tangled. Occasionally they would run into old farm equipment left in the fields. And then there was the latrine they stumbled across—a double seater.

“Did they really need two seats?” asked Amy, laughing.

Eventually they got the 35-acre property under control and planted with 8 acres now under vine. During the first few vintages, Hoffman purchased some Long Island fruit to augment her production, but she stopped that practice (though they still buy in fruit for about half of their 4,000-case annual production).

“We want to elevate the Finger Lakes, so we’re 100 percent Finger Lakes fruit,” she said. There’s also a strong emphasis on vinifera here, with Riesling, Blaufränkisch (Lemberger), Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer leading the way, and just a little Traminette and Vidal Blanc.

Hoffman has named her vineyard parcels after her Italian ancestors—Savina, her great-grandmother who came over on the Lusitania, gets the bottom portion of the hill; the parcel named for her mother, Catherine, sits at the top.

Barry Tortolon, 47, a local who has "tinkered in the wine business for 40 years," is now the full-time winemaker. He’s worked off and on in the area’s wine industry, seeing time at Fox Run, Glenora and Fulkerson. Like everyone else in 2009, he had to wrestle with a wet, cool year in 2009, but feels he came through it relatively unscathed.

“We brought in really healthy fruit, and the vines even had leaves after that early frost, when most other places dropped theirs,” said Tortolon.

The penchant for lower yields at Rooster Hill—the Cabernet Franc is cropped to 2 tons per acre and the Riesling at 3 tons per acre, both reasonable levels that are still in the minority in the region—is an example of the new style of thinking in the area. In addition to better quality, by carrying less crop load and reducing the canopy throughout the year, Hoffman and Tortolon were able to ensure good airflow through the vineyard and even ripening, despite the tough growing conditions of the year. They also feel the reduced crop load from year to year helps the vines store up more energy for winter to ward off the dangers of below freezing temperatures.

“Absolutely," said Hoffman about seeing the benefits of lower crop loads, both in the wines, and in the vines during their dormancy. “It’s a little riskier here than over at Seneca since Keuka Lake is only 187 feet deep and it does sometimes freeze, so that’s something we’re always aware of.”

We tasted through a few of the still-fermenting 2009s, including three separate parcels of Riesling. The two separate parcels on the estate are being fermented entirely apart for just the second time by Tortolon, who in the past has blended the parcels a bit during fermentation, due to harvest times coinciding and the vagaries of available tank space. But now, in 2009, they're starting to see some drastic differences. The 2009 Riesling from the Savina parcel at the bottom of the hill (where there's less clay) is really racy, bright and focused. The 2009 Riesling from the Catherine portion at the top of the hill is very ripe, with lots of showy peach and quince flavors, and shows more obvious sweetness (though the ferment hasn't finished yet). Tortolon is considering bottling the two separately, which would fall in line with the growing trend to single-vineyard bottlings of Riesling in the region.

"I've got to see a real difference before we would do that," said Tortolon, who admits the '09s are offering a rather stark contrast in profiles.

"He's the winemaker, so he gets to make that decision totally by himself," said Hoffman. "If I have to design another label, fine."

A third tank holds fruit from a purchased source; the 2009 Riesling from Mitchell Farm Vineyard 10 miles south of the winery offers almost bracing quinine, white pepper and lime notes. It's very taut and, according to Tortolon, usually makes up a major portion of the Dry bottling,

As Hoffman and her team have geared themselves toward vinifera bottlings, they've seen their customer base develop quickly. A growing base of young professionals from Rochester, Ithaca and Syracuse who are looking for dry, vinifera bottlngs first, as opposed to the sweet, easy introduction to wine that hybrid grapes or native bottlings provide, is fueling purchases. Hoffman is aiming high right away and seeing results.

"We want to demonstrate that this region can make very good wines," she said, matter-of-factly. "And to do that you need to use vinifera. And since we've done that, we don't have anyone coming in asking 'What do you have that's sweet?'"

While Hoffman brings an outsider's approach to Rooster Hill, focusing on vinifera, lowering yields, etc., she has been reluctant to push her wines into broader distribution, another general sticking point for the region.

"I'm a control freak," she admitted. "I can control my brand here. I can't control how distributors represent my brand elsewhere."

The day was running late, so it was just a brief visit at Hermann J. Wiemer, where Fred Merwarth is continuing the tradition of making the region’s top Rieslings. Ferments are under way on the 2009s and the vine nursery is also busy, bundling up new material for the influx of orders that start to come in early Spring.

I got caught up with Merwarth out on the press pad under fading light, where he was squeezing all he could out of his berry-selected late-harvest grapes, which came in mostly shriveled, as opposed to botrytis-affected in 2009.

“We had the moisture, but not the heat to get really good botrytis development in 2009,” said Merwarth, as just the smallest trickle of maple colored juice leaked into the pan below the press. “But amazingly, the grapes came in at 49 Brix, which is the highest we’ve ever seen here.”

The winery first produced a TBA-style dessert wine, labeled Late Harvest Bunch Select, in 1997, followed by 2003 and then 2006 through 2009.

If Lakewood represents the still-being-written history of the Finger Lakes, and Rooster Hill the new, outsider approach, then Hermann J. Wiemer encapsulates them both. The winery’s namesake founder championed vinifera, and Riesling in particular, but found few followers to his call during his tenure. Today, Merwarth ably carries on the tradition of quality, while also adding to it.

Merwarth has increased the percentage of hand harvesting—almost the entire crop in 2009 was hand picked—and he also added a sorting table in 2005, extending it to accommodate more sorters in 2007. While hand harvesting and a sorting table might be de rigueur elsewhere, they’re still seen as expensive propositions for perhaps minimal gain in the Finger Lakes.

I wanted to get a quick taste of Merwarth's '08 Rieslings, as they haven’t been released yet (the Dry Reserve and single vineyard bottlings will be released in the spring). The wines took an extremely long time to ferment, not finishing until April or June for some lots.

“It was painful to watch, but in the end, no complaints,” said Merwarth, who feels the long, slow ferments added complexity, aroma and mouthfeel to the wines. Merwarth thinks the ferments are particularly slow because he only uses a fraction of the recommended amount of yeast when he inoculates the fermentations, and he only does that after making one culture and then going bucket to bucket, rather than starting a new culture for each individual tank or lot.

As for the finished wines, the 2008 Riesling Finger Lakes Dry is piercing and pure, with lots of lime and quinine notes. It shows a little more weight than previous vintages, as Merwarth added more Josef vineyard fruit to the blend for the first time (the wine has historically relied more on HJW fruit, which lends a more minerally feel).

The 2008 Riesling Finger Lakes Dry Reserve draws almost two-thirds from the Magdalena vineyard and it’s very racy and tight now, with hints of the peach and pear profile that Magdalena offers. The 2008 Riesling Finger Lakes Dry HJW Vineyard is super tangy and driven, with mouthwatering slate, pippin apple and quinine notes that are very long and precise. It’s showing well today but will need some time to unwind fully. In contrast, the 2008 Riesling Finger Lakes Dry Magdalena Vineyard is super expressive, showing its telltale exuberant peach, floral and green melon notes with a long, almost rounded finish.

The entire lineup is clearly outstanding and could even improve upon the impressive 2007 bottlings. I wonder when the local competition will stop looking at Wiemer with a sense of befuddled wonderment and realize the steps being taken there, while sometimes difficult and adding to costs, have very tangible results.

[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at]

United States New York Finger Lakes White Wines Riesling 2009

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