The Finger Lakes, Day 1: The High-Rent District

Jun 23, 2009

Seneca Lake is the high-rent district of the Finger Lakes. Lining both its west and east shores are the highest percentage of the region’s wineries, as well as some of its best.

About half way up the western side of the 30-mile long lake from the town of Watkins Glen is Hermann J. Wiemer, where Fred Merwarth is now overseeing things (for more background on Merwarth, reference this previous blog post). This winery is arguably the best in the region. Founded in 1979, the winery now totals 64 acres of vines with another 10 to be planted soon. Production now stands at 13,000 cases annually.

Merwarth is among the new generation of winemakers in the area, which means he’s paying close attention to his vineyards. This may seem like a no brainer, but the Finger Lakes has a history of blotting out or ignoring its terroir due to a lack of attention and a historical reliance on native and hybrid grape types normally farmed for quantity rather than quality. The wineries focusing on vinifera varieties today (and Riesling in particular) are playing catch up in some respects, as they do the hard work of clonal, rootstock and site selection trials that many other regions did a generation or more ago.

Merwarth relies on three main vineyards—Josef, Magdalena and HJW—for his Riesling production. Both the Josef and Magdalena vineyards are located about 10 miles north of the winery and just a few hundred yards apart, but their similarities end there.

The Josef vineyard (18 acres total) is a bit of a rarity, as it contains 30-year-old vinifera vines. The parcel was bought by the winery’s founder and namesake, Hermann Wiemer, in 1996, a spot he’d long coveted and finally scooped up when its previous owner, the Taylor Wine Company, went bankrupt. The vineyard is in a particularly warm spot—its vines ducked frost damage during the severe winters of 1981 and 2003. Under its previous owner, the silt and loam soils had been sprayed with herbicides, a practice that Merwarth has stopped, along with mechanical pruning. Today the old vines produce a low yield of about 2 tons per acre, with softer acidity but a brighter minerality that forms the backbone of the winery’s dry Riesling bottling.

In contrast, the Magdalena vineyard (24.5 acres) features young vines. Planted in 1999 the vineyard is more tightly spaced than its Josef sibling and the soils contain more limestone, resulting in bigger fruit flavors and more upfront character. A select 7-acre block within the vineyard now merits its own vineyard-designated bottling that debuted in the 2007 vintage and earned a rare outstanding review (of the 900-plus Finger Lakes wines I've reviewed to date, only 14 have earned scores of 90 points or better).

As with many recently planted Riesling vineyards in the region, the Magdalena vineyard has several clones, which Merwarth vinifies separately to study their individual characteristics.

"The research tells you one thing, but experience is another," he said. "And it’s a long process to go through."

As a side business, Merwarth runs a vine nursery and he grafted an ample 200,000 vines last year. As he works with various clones and rootstocks, Merwarth is in a position to have quite an impact on the region’s new plantings.

Located behind the winery, just 10 miles south of the Josef and Magdalena vineyards, is the HJW vineyard. This 22-acre vineyard also boasts old vines, having been planted in 1977 entirely with vine material brought directly from Germany by Wiemer. The site features more gravelly shale soils as opposed to the silt and loam deposits of the Josef and Magdalena sites and the resulting wine is taut and nervy, with a pronounced slate character. It also sends some fruit to a new vineyard-designated bottling, while also providing the bulk of the fruit for the winery’s reserve Riesling.

It’s easy to think that terroir is the sole property of lofty wine regions such as the Rhône or Burgundy, but it exists in upstate New York as well. Thanks to Merwarth’s efforts, some of that terroir is finally being unearthed and exploited. The winery's Rieslings are pure, detailed and lengthy, with the staying power to develop in the cellar as well. Merwarth is setting the pace for the Finger Lakes.


About 15 miles north of Wiemer, along the west side of Seneca, is Red Tail Ridge, a newcomer to the area. Owned by the husband-and-wife team of Michael Schnelle and Nancy Ireland, Red Tail Ridge was founded in 2004 when the couple bought a 34-acre wooded property which they partially cleared and began planting vines (there are now 20 acres of Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Teroldego).

Irelan is from New Jersey, Schnelle from Minnesota. They met while attending college in Denver and had been living in California before making the move back east. That roundabout trip has given them extensive and broad experience which the couple now brings to their new winery.

Irelan, 48, has a doctorate in vine genetics from UC Davis and spent 12 years working for California’s large Gallo operation as vice president of vine research and development. Schnelle, 47, has done everything from run his own company to handle heavy machinery in the construction business to managing a commercial horse farm.

That combination of using hard science and gritty hands-on work has resulted in an immaculate vineyard property, replete with tightly spaced, laser-sighted rows that show pristine canopy management and feature drip irrigation, uncommon in the area. Extensive diversion ditches and drainage piping was also put into the vineyards, with the aim of achieving a uniformity of moisture levels throughout the property (humidity and moisture are common in the area).

"Here we’re trying to mitigate soil moisture, which is the opposite of what gets done on the West Coast," said Irelan in her matter-of-fact style.

It’s a level of precision and attention to detail that the area’s viticulture is generally lacking.

Dealing with soil moisture isn’t the only thing Irelan has found different from her tenure on the West Coast. Though her research work brought her to Cornell often and she was familiar enough with the area and its potential for producing quality Riesling, "It was still quite a chance for me to deal with cool climate fruit," said Irelan, who credits the help and advice of Fox Run winemaker Peter Bell, as well as Derek Wilbur, winemaker at White Springs Farm. For now, the wines are being made with Bell’s help via the custom crush end at neighboring Fox Run winery.

So far, the early returns are proving the couple has picked the right spot. The winery’s first commercial vintage was 2007, with the dry Riesling earning an impressive 88 points. A barrel fermented Chardonnay is also tasty—no new oak is used—producing a cleaner, fresher style.

"Our focus is vinifera and dry styles of wine," said Irelan. "Even the Pinot Noir rosé is dry."

While the winery will focus on Riesling, small amounts of Pinot (including some Swan clone) and Teroldego have been planted as part of the always-ongoing search in the area for a viable red variety.

"There are only so many risks you can take with a commercial vineyard though," said Irelan.

It’s a refreshing approach in a region where off-dry and frankly sweet wines are often still made to lure in customers and boost tasting room sales, rather than a narrow focus on dry, vinifera bottlings that require more of a push to get into the marketplace.

Until Red Tail Ridge’s estate vineyards are fully up to speed, Irelan and Schnelle are buying in some fruit, but bottling it separately. Production currently totals just 5,000 cases, with plans to go to 8,000.

"The reason we’re doing it that way is because we want to be responsible for the entire process," said Irelan.

The couple is also taking responsibility for the environment, taking a very "green" approach in the winery facility they’re currently building. Rocks from the property are being recycled and only local materials are being used, to reduce the carbon footprint. Geothermal heating and argon-filled glass window panes are being used to maximize energy efficiency. Construction is slated to be complete in time for this year’s harvest.

Irelan and Schnelle have high hopes for the region and see its enormous potential. With their more exacting and precise approach, they should help cast a new light on the region.


New York City White Wines United States New York Riesling

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