The Finger Lakes, Day 2: From the Dark Side to the Banana Belt

Oct 31, 2008

I continued my tour of New York's Finger Lakes vineyards and wineries by working down the western shore of Seneca Lake, the most prominent of the Finger Lakes. (Cliff Clavin trivia alert: Seneca Lake is the deepest in the region, at over 600 feet. It’s 38 miles long but only averages 2 miles wide).

The western shore tends to produce wines that are more elegantly styled, with bonier structures and a tangy edge as its vineyards don’t get as much late-day sun during the growing season as those on the eastern shore. The locals refer to the western shore as the "Dark Side" and the warmer, sunnier stretch on the eastern side as the "Banana Belt."

One of the wineries on the Dark Side is Anthony Road, located 10 miles south of Fox Run. Owners John and Ann Martini transplanted from New Jersey in 1973 and have been growing grapes in the area ever since. During the 1970s and '80s they typically sold their crop of hybrids and natives to the Taylor Wine Company, but then those large companies went bankrupt, leaving growers holding the bag. The Martinis were prescient enough to see that they needed to change, and so today they farm 72 acres, of which only six still contain hybrid vines (Vignoles), the rest having been converted to vinifera grapes.

If you look at the glass as half empty, you could say that the reliance on hybrids and local grapes has set the Finger Lakes back a generation. As they now shift to more vinifera plantings, it will likely take another generation or two to figure out which grapes perform best on which sites. Or, you can look at the glass as half full, like John Martini does. "We’re doing some great work for our grandchildren," he said with a friendly chuckle. "They’ll be the ones who really know what the Finger Lakes can do."

Martini started his own winery in the 1989 vintage, and with his weekly trips down to New York to set up a stall at the Union Square Green market, he’s built a loyal following for his wines while growing production to 19,000 cases annually. It helps that his wines are among the region’s best, due in no small part to the efforts of winemaker Johannes Reinhardt, a tall, solidly built man of German descent who simply decided to start a life in the region a decade ago by answering an ad for a winemaker in the back of a trade publication. Reinhardt started first at Dr. Konstantin Frank before joining Anthony Road in 2000, and while his family back home counts a winemaking tradition that goes back to the 15th century, he too prefers to look ahead.

"What I appreciate about this country is that you can just decide to start something new, even if you’re 30, 35 or 40 years old," said Reinhardt, comparing how his path crossed with Martini’s at Anthony Road. "Back in Germany, you can only get hired if you have certificates and diplomas. Here it’s different."

During his first few years at Anthony Road, Reinhardt set about getting the vineyards in shape, dropping yields and trying to find a balance while aiming for better quality. Starting with the 2004 and 2005 vintage, Reinhardt began to see the wines respond to the improvements in the vineyards, and he’s now convinced the region can produce some ageworthy bottlings

“There is very good potential here, but we still have a lot of work to do on the foundation. You can’t talk about terroir without doing your homework. Without getting the vineyards to a good level, you won’t know what the terroir is,” said Reinhardt, before adding “And you can’t just change things. You need to know what to change.”

"It’s going to be this second wave of vinifera plantings that helps us sort out the terroir," said Martini, picking up on Reinhardt’s theme. "That’s why we’ve got Cab Franc, Pinot Gris, Merlot and so on in the same vineyard. We know Riesling does well. Now we need to know what else does well, and why. Maybe this isn’t the right trellis,” he said, gesturing at a row of vines dusted with a touch of snow. “What is the right crop load? The right rootstock? We don’t know these things … yet."

Reinhardt then seamlessly continues Martini’s thought, noting, "In the Old World, I feel there can be too much focus on the vineyards, and here there is too much focus on the making part," said Reinhardt. “When we find the balance between the two, that’s when we’ll make excellent wines."

Anthony Road is on the right track: Their Rieslings are consistently earning very good ratings in my blind tastings, and their reds, including a Cabernet Franc-Lemberger blend, are also ahead of the pack.

While Anthony Road might be considered one of the bigger names in the region, Shaw Vineyard (see my recent Tasting Highlights) is at the other end of the spectrum. Owned and run by Steve Shaw, the facility is also located right on Route 14, on the western Seneca wine trail, but takes on a decidedly low-tech look with its green shack and rustic exposed beam and wooden plank-floored tasting room.

Shaw, 51, is a local boy. Born and raised in Hammondsport, he caught the wine bug at an early age, bought a vineyard property on Keuka Lake in 1980 and has been growing grapes ever since, selling his production to Glenora, Hermann J. Wiemer and Dr. Konstantin Frank. In 2002 he began his own eponymous winery with the help of his good friend, Ravines winemaker Morten Hallgren (they share the same facility for their respective wines).

Shaw owns 12 acres of vinifera vines and is currently producing just 2,500 cases annually, with a goal to stretch to 5,000 cases. While Riesling dominates the region’s wines qualitatively, Shaw is focusing on reds, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular.

“It’s more interesting to me to try and break a little new ground with the reds,” he said.

Shaw doesn’t crush the berries prior to fermentation, preferring a whole-berry ferment instead for brighter, more forward fruit and a more gentle extraction (see the accompanying video for more). Shaw also prefers to hold his wines back prior to release—his 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon is his current offering and it shows gentle tannins and elegant, lingering cherry and tobacco notes, without the crisp, or overtly leafy profile of many of the region’s reds. Shaw’s Keuka Hill Reserve is a non-vintage blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc from the 2003 vintage along with Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2002 vintage, which also shows a gentle profile, with smoke, spice and cherry notes that mingle nicely.

While Shaw prefers to emphasize his red wine production, his whites are hardly an afterthought. The 2005 Dry Riesling (just 0.2 percent residual sugar) is really taut and focused, with almond and slate notes. It’s a tasty drink right now. Both of Shaw’s just-released 2006 Rieslings (a dry and just off-dry bottling) are very good, though production is limited at around 200 cases of each.

Small and unassuming, there’s a passion burning at Shaw Vineyard. Don’t let the simple, green roadside shack fool you.

From Shaw Vineyard, looking across Seneca Lake, the wineries on the eastern shore are tantalizingly close. But you still have to drive down the length of Seneca Lake, turn through Watkins Glen and then drive up the other side. Just a few miles as the crow flies can be a 30-minute drive. But as you drive up the eastern side, you can see why it earned its Banana Belt nickname. The fall foliage is still radiant, with yellow, orange and red in full blaze, as opposed to the rust, muted burgundy and burnt siena (remember that Crayola crayon?) hues that have taken over on the Dark Side.

It’s still cold here, with a knifing wind howling along, but it’s all forgotten when you’re greeted by Martha Macinski, easily the bubbliest personality I’ve ever met. Perpetually giggling but with a wealth of knowledge on the region and its wine history, Macinski is very serious about her wines. Along with her husband, Tom, the couple slowly decided to give up their day jobs (she was a former Binghamton laywer, Tom worked for IBM) to focus on Standing Stone, their 125-acre property that currently produces 7,500 cases a year (from 40 acres of vines).

Here you can see first hand the benefit of good vineyards. The Macinski’s lucked out when they bought their farm in 1991, as it contained some of the first vineyards planted in the area by Gold Seal in the early 1970s. In essence, it almost gives the Macinskis a 30-year head start over other wineries who are just now changing from hybrid to vinifera production. Standing Stone’s vines are planted on gently rolling land with a pronounced slope down toward the lake, as opposed to the broader, more stepped vineyards of the western side. As the sunlight bounces off the lake onto the vines on the eastern shore, it helps to produce richer, plumper-styled Rieslings marked by juicy apple, anise and fig notes.

Because of the ripeness she can achieve with her grapes, Macinski aims for more skin contact, drawing out the grape’s extra phenolics. The winery’s Riesling is perennially among the best in the region, showing a round, juicy mouthfilling feel. In addition, Standing Stone’s Vidal Finger Lakes ice wine is one of the few Finger Lakes wines to have earned an outstanding mark (90 points or better on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale), and at just $25 is a relative steal for its quality.

In the accompanying video, Marti takes me into the old Vidal Blanc vineyard that produces the wine—it may be odd to see plump bunches of grapes hanging on a vine with no leaves left, but the grape (a hybrid cross of Ugni Blanc and Rayon d’Or) produces such high acidities that it needs to be offset by a high sugar content, achieved by late harvesting and then a freezing of the grapes before fermentation. The end result is an intense wine with tangy green tea, fig, quince paste and maple flavors.

As for tomorrow, I’ve got a few more stops in the Banana Belt, before heading home.

New York City United States New York

You Might Also Like

Know When to Hold 'Em: Togni's Long-Lived Napa Cabernets Reward Patience

Know When to Hold 'Em: Togni's Long-Lived Napa Cabernets Reward Patience

Philip Togni and his daughter Lisa have created one of Napa's most distinct Cabernets. A …

Oct 13, 2022
Calera's California Pinot Noir Legacy Stays Strong

Calera's California Pinot Noir Legacy Stays Strong

Josh Jensen protégé Mike Waller keeps the founder's spirit alive at this pioneering Central …

Oct 6, 2022
Old School Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir Shines at Foxen

Old School Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir Shines at Foxen

Santa Barbara County wine pioneer Bill Wathen and homegrown winemaker David Whitehair are …

Sep 28, 2022
Wines Outside the Lines at Domaine de la Côte

Wines Outside the Lines at Domaine de la Côte

In California's Sta. Rita Hills, Sashi Moorman and Raj Parr pushed the limits of where …

Sep 23, 2022
You Are What You Make: Greg Brewer's Energetic Pinot Noirs

You Are What You Make: Greg Brewer's Energetic Pinot Noirs

In Santa Barbara County, Brewer-Clifton's founding winemaker has a distinct lineup of …

Sep 13, 2022
Vertical in the Heights: Lokoya's Spring Mountain Cabernets

Vertical in the Heights: Lokoya's Spring Mountain Cabernets

Winemaker Chris Carpenter shares 4 vintages of Lokoya's Spring Mountain bottling, back to …

Aug 26, 2022