The Finger Lakes, Day 2: The Old Guard Learns New Tricks

Some of the Finger Lakes' most seasoned veterans are also on the cutting edge
Nov 23, 2009

While the three places I visited today were all located near each other along the eastern side of Seneca Lake, I didn't realize how interwoven they are, both to each other as well as to the fabric of the Finger Lakes wine industry itself. Phil Davis, 57, and Lou Damiani, 52, are lifelong friends, each with 30-plus years experience in Finger Lakes agriculture. Their respective family farms now supply the grapes for Damiani Wine Cellars.

Rob Thomas, 54, considers Davis his mentor, even though his own tenure in the area also dates back to the early 1980s, when he ran a farm for the Taylor Wine Company before moving on to Rolling Vineyards (the winery that pre-dated Atwater Estate) followed by Chateau Lafayette Reneau and then helping to start Lamoreaux Landing in the early 1990s. All the while, Thomas was squirreling away enough money to get his own place. He now owns and runs Shalestone, an all-red wine winery producing just 1,500 cases a year.

And then there's Sam Argetsinger, 58, an Iroquois-speaking local who spent 40 years in the woods as a logger before realizing he was destined to extend the grapegrowing tradition on his family farm, a property that has grown grapes since the late 19th century.

All are members of the generation that could be excused from joining the quality push, having come of age in the Finger Lakes when quantity reigned over quality. Yet all have seen the future that vinifera brings. And rather than shy away from vinifera's related qualitative requirement of low yields, they've embraced it.

Davis, Damiani, Thomas and Argetsinger are a treasure trove of experience and information. A quartet of 50-plus-year-olds, this group has plenty of new tricks to teach others. Quietly, they're helping to bridge the gap that has existed here between grower and winemaker, pushing winemakers to produce better wines while pulling growers to farm better grapes.

Atwater Estate has Vinny from Queens. Damiani Wine Cellars has Lou from Brooklyn. Lou Damiani moved to the area as a young child with his family in the early 1960s, and has been in the fruit and grapegrowing business since the 1970s. Winemaking was a natural extension.

"It's pretty much developed into an obsessive passion," said Damiani, whose first commercial vintage with his own label was 2003. Located in a small two-story white house right on Route 414, just south of Tichenor Road, Damiani and his lifelong friend and fellow grapegrower Phil Davis are focusing primarily on reds, a decision that puts them in the minority in the Finger Lakes, where Riesling has risen to prominence.

"Because that's our palate and we're two pretty stubborn guys," said Lou, who talks in an almost perpetual half laugh. "We want to prove we can make reds up here. I like Riesling, but I think it's been pushed too much, frankly, in terms of the other grapes that are grown here."

"You've got to have an ideal spot for reds though," said Davis, who mostly plays the straight man to Damiani's constantly bubbling persona, though he has a quick, dry wit that flashes at times. "We're so on the edge climate-wise for reds, it's got to be the right spot," he said.

Both talk fondly of the Finger Lakes' pastoral history, when grapegrowing was easy as the big wine companies provided a pressure-free selling environment. But both have embraced the new challenge of growing and making wines themselves, with an emphasis on quality. Davis talks about nearby fields that were particularly good for sledding as a child, before they were eventually planted to orchards, grapes or other crops.

Today, Damiani's 10 acres and Davis' 6 acres of vines form the backbone for the winery's 4,500-case production, which focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, along with Pinot Noir, a new Syrah as well as small amounts of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc. But the duo still buy in grapes for about half the production, a fairly common practice in the area, which is still developing its vineyard base.

"The glacial till has left so many pockets of differing soils, so there are certain sites that produce stuff you just can't get from your own estate," said Davis, as we walk down the steep slopes of one of their parcels. (See the accompanying video.)

But to ensure quality, Davis and Damiani try to dictate as much of the viticulture as they can with their growers, sometimes buying by the acre rather than ton. It's an approach that's in the minority, but growing, as the amount of vinifera grapes has risen steadily, forcing growers to compete on quality as demand only inches up.

"Plus, we're still young in terms of the business, so it's taken a while for us to establish credibility with the growers," said Davis. "But growers are definitely starting to understand it's a way to establish a relationship with someone that will be there year in and year out."

As with other small, vinifera-focused wineries in the region, Damiani is seeing a new customer base coming through the tasting room.

"Our customers are generally young people who seem to really care about what they're eating and drinking and where it comes from," said Damiani.

Though there's the occasional hiccup, the lineup at Damiani is more consistent than not, with the reds showing nice dark fruit flavors and good tannic spines, without being overly leafy or crisp, as many Finger Lake reds are. The Riesling, sourced from Argetsinger fruit, is dry and nervy in style. A new Syrah (just 20 cases to start) is Damiani's and Davis' new pride and joy. It's peppery and lively, though lacking the flesh and depth of the Bordeaux varietals produced here. But it's part of the fun mix at Damiani, where experimentation is actually being fueled (rather than stifled) by experience.

"At a certain point in your life, it's tough to realize you should've chased a passion earlier," said Damiani, seeming to turn serious for a minute, before suddenly brightening again as he adds, "But, hey, better late than never!"

A few miles up the road, Rob Thomas is taking the red bent of Damiani Wine Cellars even further—he produces only red wine at his Shalestone Winery.

"I don't know what Finger Lakes red are," he said. "That's my life project."

Thomas, 54, has bright blond hair and a beard and mustache to match. He's got a softly weathered look, which matches his tone—soft but introspective as he talks about what he's seen in the region during his nearly 30-year tenure.

With an agronomy background, Thomas first ran a farm for the Taylor Wine Company in the early 1980s, before working at Rolling Vineyards (the previous incarnation of Atwater Estate). From there he moved to Lamoreaux Landing when it was created in 1991 by Mark Wagner, switching his role from primarily viticulture to winemaking. He stayed there through 1998.

All the while Thomas had been squirreling away his savings, working toward getting his own place. He bought a property that was an overgrown peach orchard with some Catawba grapes in 1980. While holding down his full-time jobs, he slowly began to renovate the property, building his own house, planting his first vinifera vines in 1986 and then vinifying his first vintage at Shalestone in 1995. After leaving Lamoreaux in '98 he was totally on his own, and he's pretty much kept it that way ever since.

"I've got a pretty tight crew," he said with half a smile. "My wife and son."

Production is a tiny 1,500 cases annually, of seven reds—four varietal bottlings (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir) along with three red blends. He's also begun to experiment with Italian varieties, as well as Blaufränkisch, lately. But everything is done on a small scale—he has just 6 acres of vines, plus buys in some fruit.

His vines sit in very shallow soils as opposed to the pockets of deep clay and gravel that ribbon along the side of Seneca Lake. Jagged pieces of shale stone jut up from the ground.

"Shalestone was the easiest winery name for anyone to ever come up with," he said.

While the vines cling to the rocky mix, the lack of deep topsoil leaves them exposed to the vagaries of damaging winter temperatures. It's a riskier spot than most in the area. The recent emergence of leaf roll virus in the area adds another headache, as Thomas replants vine by vine as necessary to keep his vineyard healthy and in full production. But he plans to keep things small and manageable for himself nonetheless.

"When you've got 20 or 30 acres, there's always a pressure to get things done. My business plan is simple though. Everything is paid for and I do everything myself, but the job doesn't consume me," he said.

"When you grow, you stop doing the things you were originally good at. You start becoming a manager, of people and resources, instead of a doer. So I prefer to stay small," he said without a whiff of regret or longing.

Thomas seems completely satisfied with his position. He's not going to rush out and bang a drum for the region, but he'll happily get on board with any team that pushes for quality.

"The sky is the limit here in the Finger Lakes," he said. "What I really like is that large commercial interests aren't here and likely won't ever come. To be large scale and successful, you have to eliminate risk and that's hard to do here. There's risk every growing season."

That risk comes in the form of difficult growing conditions, 2009 being a case in point, when wet and cool conditions made ripening red varieties a difficult task. Thomas has his work cut out for him in '09, to fashion wines that show their usual and unique polished feel with ripe, bright berry flavors, as opposed to the crisper, leafy profile of many Finger Lakes reds. The wines are usually forward and eminently drinkable too.

"If I taste a wine and it makes me have to think about a food to go with it, then it's probably not a wine for me. I really prefer a wine that can be drunk on its own first, as well as with food," he said.

Thomas takes a laid-back approach to everything he does, going against the grain of the image of the constantly busy winemaker.

"People ask me how I make nice wine. There's no secret to it. Bad energy really puts a stop to things, so I'm trying to be sensitive to the big picture. Don't force things along, just keep the energy positive," he said.

"I have a philosophy of productive laziness," he continued. "Society tells us that we have to be productive all the time, but that really isn't possible. My downtime is actually when I'm planning. That way, when it is time to do something, you can be productive. It works for me."

Despite the seemingly laissez-faire approach, Thomas is keen enough to see major changes coming to the region. Climate change is on everyone's minds, most feeling that a little global warming will actually help the area by lengthening and warming the growing season. Thomas isn't as open-armed for it.

"It's not warming that we're really seeing. It's more erratic seasons. That's something we have to worry about," he said.

Though Thomas' varietal bottlings headline the portfolio now, he is admittedly taking a greater interest in blends as he moves forward, not only grape blends, but also vintage blends as well.

"I think consistency is important. We should be delivering consistent quality every year to our customers," he said, noting that he sometimes blends the maximum allowable percentage of one vintage into another (5 percent).

I ask him if by doing that, does he lose the authenticity of terroir or vintage character?

"Vintage style—a hot or cool year—should still be there," he said. "But blending makes some wines more palatable, without losing the essence of a particular year. If to get a quality wine you have to bolster one year with a little bit of another, who's losing? No one. The customer is getting a quality product."

As Thomas has developed Shalestone, over at Cornell, a new four-year winemaking program has taken shape after years of surprising neglect. New classes of students are filling the ranks of the degree program, spilling out to staff positions and taking internships at the area's wineries. In turn, they're spurring a new culture of wine consumption in the area, as opposed to just grapegrowing.

"That's one of the really big changes," said Thomas breaking into a full smile. "Before, we were grapegrowers but beer drinkers. The culture is really changing around here."

Standing maybe 5' 7", Sam Argetsinger I found swinging a pickaxe that seemed almost as big as he is. He seemed to twirl it with ease as he walked. Argetsinger is a weathered but still spry 58. As I approached, he greeted me in Iroquois. I recognized it not because I'm smart enough to know the Iroquois tongue when I hear it, but because his reputation for using it precedes him.

With a black knit wool cap, muddy boots and jeans, he looks very bit the woodsman he has been for 40 years, though today he finds himself more often in the vineyard rows on his family estate, which has been growing grapes of one sort or another since 1883. Argetsinger's vineyard just might be the best Riesling vineyard in the region, a function of its unique situation combined with Argetsinger's own attention. Argetsinger takes little credit for himself though.

"This farm has survived my learning curve," he said, his steely blue eyes lighting up as he laughs.

The Argetsinger vineyard is located up a winding gravel road, in between Hector Falls and Tug Hollow Gorge. These two drainage channels have spent years cutting into the earth, exposing the region's common fractured shale soils, water cascading over descending steps left by glacial retreat. Once connected, the two drainage channels split, diverting around Argetsinger's sloped, northern exposed vineyard. By doing so, they've left behind a rarity—thin, gravelly loam over limestone deposits left behind when the area was once under water in an earlier geological time period. That limestone adds the snap and minerally tang to Argetsinger's Riesling, which winemaker Morten Hallgren is bottling for his own Ravines winery (Argetsinger also sells some Riesling to Damiani Wine Cellars). The site's low vigor naturally crops to less than 3 tons an acre, which gives the grapes their concentration and depth. The vineyard's elevation, standing well above Route 414 when most vineyards lie below the road to huddle closer to the warming banks of Seneca Lake, results in earlier ripening, lending to brighter, racier acidity. The combination of all these factors gives the spot a special status in the wine world: It's real terroir.

The site has proven to be so good that Argetsinger is planning to graft over the old Delaware vines that are still taking up a 2.2-acre section of the vineyard. The Delaware vines, themselves grafted onto 3309 rootstock, are now 30 years old. It would be easier and cheaper to just rip them out entirely and plant all new vines and rootstock. But Argetsinger plans to regraft on the same rootstock, which has a life expectancy of over 100 years.

The benefit will be Riesling vines that immediately have a 30-year-old root system right away. They'll also be up and producing within two years, instead of five. In a region where old vinifera vines are rare and the difficult economics of small-scale production constantly hang over growers' heads, it's a double bonus that you would think other growers would do more often. Older native and hybrid varieties still abound in the region.

But regrafting is a painstaking vine-by-vine process that requires highly skilled labor, which doesn't come cheaply. Then you have to hope the grafts take and the surgically altered vines survive their first winter. It's enough to cause some people in the area to shake their heads when you tell them about Argetsinger's planned approach.

"If it were easy, everyone would do it," said Argetsinger with a laugh.

Since his great-grandparents owned it in the late 19th century, Argetsinger's farm has been in and out of his family's possession over the generations. During the '60s and '70s, Jim Hazlitt, one of the area's most important growers, owned it and planted vinifera grapes on it during his tenure. Eventually though, Hazlitt was forced to sell it himself, but he chose who he was going to sell it to.

"He didn't want houses up here and he knew I wouldn't let that happen," said Argetsinger. "But truth be told, I didn't know a thing about farming grapes. I said to him, 'You think some dumb wood worker can handle grapes?' He just said, 'Sam, come out of the woods and take care of the land.' He knew how to get to me."

Today, Argetsinger finds himself managing the 100-acre property (with 33 acres of vines) full time. Running the vineyard requires a level of dedication that surprised Argetsinger.

"I thought I'd do this when I wasn't in the woods. But a vineyard is all about timing. When something needs to be done, you better not miss it," he said. "You need to be here all the time."

"If I can grow grapes for a winemaker the way he wants them, not only is the business successful, but it's rewarding to," he said. "When the land gets into a bottle of wines and expresses itself, it's really special. It's a celebration of the land."

Argetsinger gives credit to his success to the land itself, as well as his approach to it. As a translator of Iroquois language, Argetsinger has spent a lot of time talking to current members of the Iroquois nation. That contact has led led him to adopt their approach to farming.

"The modern world just has kingdom, order, phylum, species. But the Iroquois has a much more intricate understanding of how the earth works. You have to talk to these plants, because they hear you, and you need to hear them."

I ask him if after coming out of the woods to reclaim his family land, and now seeing his name on the label of a bottle of wine, if it's all particularly rewarding. 

"Well, to be honest, it's not my name," said Argetsinger. "It's my ancestors' name. And they're proud to see that name on a label."

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

United States New York Finger Lakes Red Wines 2009

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