The plan seemed easy enough: head out before dawn and bang out the 4.5-hour drive up to the Finger Lakes. Then start on the northwest side of Seneca Lake and work around it in a horseshoe shape to the other side, checking out what’s going on in the vineyards and wineries in the midst of harvest. But then there is this thing called nature …
[Note: For more on the Finger Lakes, you can reference my past blogs on visits to the area in October 2008, June 2009 and November 2009.]
Gray, rainy weather accompanied me all the way up from New York City, intensifying as I drove through Elmira and into Watkins Glen, at the southern edge of Seneca Lake. I made a few calls and everyone I planned to visit had called off picking for the day because of the weather. And since the gloomy weather had been in the area for a few days, wineries had little to press or sort as no grapes had come in. Suddenly I'd gone from the fun of hanging out in vineyards during harvest to perhaps getting recruited to hose off the press deck if I actually showed up anywhere.
My last call, to Morten Hallgren of Ravines, netted a pleasant surprise however—Sam Argetsinger was in his vineyard and picking Riesling. It threw off my carefully laid plan, but I headed over, driving up the dirt road from Route 414 to this little gem of a spot, which has become the source for one of the region’s top dry Riesling bottlings in the last few vintages.
I stepped out of my car, promptly muddying my shoes. Donning an extra sweatshirt to ward off the cold, Sam Argetsinger himself pulled up on his tractor, with the permanent smile he wears reaching from ear to ear.
“Thanks for the nice weather, again,” he said dryly, referring to the last time I was in his vineyard, when a biting wind was blowing. It wasn’t long before I was up in the tractor with him, rumbling through his rows of Riesling, pulling a trailer behind us with two vineyard workers throwing out harvest boxes for the pickers. Argetsinger pulls a Riesling bunch off the vine as we move along and I popped a few of the grapes into my mouth, like little acidity caviar balls (and aimed squarely for human consumption, rather than wild boar) delivering mouthwatering quince and chamomile notes.
“This spot is always a little early [to ripen],” said Argetsinger. "You can see now how beautiful the grapes are and there’s just a touch of botrytis. I’ve seen the fruit here just dissolve in front of my eyes if we don’t move fast, so it’s time to pick. I hope Morten won’t get too angry with me that we’re doing it in the rain.”
Bringing in water-coated grapes can lead to dilution, so most folks choose to avoid picking in the rain. In Argetsinger’s vineyard, it’s just spritzing at most though, and the harvest boxes are small and well aerated, so Hallgren, who joins us after a few passes through the vineyard in the tractor, agrees that it won’t be an issue as the grapes get trucked up to his new facility about an hour away. (See the accompanying video for a chat with Hallgren in the vineyard.)
2010 marks the first vintage that Hallgren will take all of Argetsinger’s Riesling—only 10 tons from just over 4 acres of vines—and he’s also moved into a new facility used by White Springs Farms, located up near Geneva (Hallgren had been making his wines at Steve Shaw’s facility but had outgrown that space).
“it’s been kind of a strange year,” said Hallgren of the 2010 season. “Hot and dry for most of it, to the point where we got to the brink of heat stress. But then we escaped that and now it’s cold and wet.”
The Riesling in Argetsinger’s vineyard is showing a little botrytis development now, less than 5 percent. Since Hallgren prefers drier-styled wines, he agrees with Argetsinger on the timing and wants to get the fruit in now. In addition to botrytis, turkey are also taking a few berries for themselves, stripping off the lowest hanging bunches.
“When you get one this time of year, their throats are just full of grapes,” said Argetsinger of the turkeys, his eyes glinting. “You don’t even need to baste them.”
From there, I drove all the way up to my originally desired starting point, Anthony Road Winery, where winemaker Johannes Reinhardt has been a leader for the region in the last few years, pushing the idea of reduced yields as well as proper grape variety choice for the region’s cool climate (more Lemberger, less Cabernet Sauvignon, for example). Reinhardt has also taken on the task of individual bunch and berry sorting for his late-harvest wines, made in the beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese styles of his homeland, Germany. Reinhardt's 2008 dessert Rieslings are among the best wines the region has ever produced.
Reinhardt comes off initially as very serious, but he has a dry wit. As I walked up, he too points out every time I show up at his place it’s either raining or snowing. I'm getting a bad rep in the area it seems …
He’s also naturally pessimistic (he never wants to tout quality until the wine is in the bottle), but you can feel he always has hope simmering just below. He’s technically proficient, as evidenced by the late-harvest wines he’s shown a prowess for (they are not easy to make) but also has soul and passion for his work. [On a side note, the German émigré’s continuing failure to win permanent citizenship here is a point of worry for many in the industry. Reinhardt has pushed the Finger Lakes far in a short time and it would be a blow for the region if he were forced to eventually leave the U.S. But it’s a subject he chooses not to discuss, as he’d rather focus on wine.]
“It was looking really good up through mid-August,” said Reinhardt of the 2010 growing season. “Then 3 inches of rain fell at the end of the month, and then that rainstorm that just came through last week. So now we’ll have to wait and see.”
Reinhardt has harvested most of his fruit already, including some Riesling blocks for his dry wine. But there’s 19 tons of Riesling still hanging as well as some Cabernet Franc. With 15 to 20 percent botrytis on his remaining Riesling, Reinhardt is slightly nervous—he prefers not to rely on botrytis for his semi-dry wines, looking for more purity and balance instead.
“So far there’s no cracking [in the berry skins] or gray rot on the remaining Riesling, so we’ll start bringing it in after this rain passes,” he said.
He does have some lots already pressed off though. We tasted through samples of the dry and semi-dry Rieslings that show a stark difference in color, as you might imagine. But in this case, it’s a surprising flip-flop, as the semi-dry is markedly lighter and clearer, with the dry showing more of an apricot tone. (See the accompanying video for a chat with Reinhardt.)
“I used an enzyme that’s designed to break down sticky solids to clarify the semi-dry lot. I don’t like using enzymatic help normally, but in this case there was a little too much botrytis for balance,” he said.
Both samples burst with flavor; the dry lot sneaks up on you with its acidity at the very end, while the semi-dry is flattering and unctuous, with juicy quince and pear flavors but staying pure and well-defined too.
We also taste through a few fermenting bins of Lemberger, a grape Reinhardt is increasingly committed to. The winery now has almost 4 acres of the grape, which is usually blended in with Cabernet Franc, though Reinhardt is pondering a varietal bottling soon. The samples show vibrant purple color and lip-smacking plum and loganberry flavors with racy, fresh finishes. Other Finger Lakes wineries have shown success with the grape (also called Blaufränkisch), including Heron Hill, Fox Run and Red Tail Ridge, so Reinhardt may be on to something here.
From there, I drove around the northern end of Seneca Lake and down to Standing Stone, located in the town of Hector. The always-bubbly Marti Macinski was up on a ladder, drawing a sample from a fermenting tank of Chardonnay when I walked in.
“Tom doesn’t believe it’s still fermenting, so I have to keep checking it. And of course it is,” she laughed, referring to her husband.
Macinski decided to use a Rhône yeast on her Chardonnay this year, to highlight the peach and melon notes in the wine that are more typical of Marsanne and Roussanne.
“We have a lot of Chard and I can’t bring myself to tear out 35-year-old vines,” said Macinski about her quandary with the grape. “We need to come up with something to help push it. It may be the world’s most consumed grape, but up here it’s our toughest sell.”
Macinski remarks on the warmth of the 2010 season by noting that she brought in her Pinot Noir in mid-September, a grape that she hasn’t ever harvested before Oct. 3.
“Mid September—that’s still summer!” she said animatedly.
The fermentation is finished and the tank sample shows crisp but fresh, racy currant and cherry pit fruit. Like most red varietals in the Finger Lakes, Pinot Noir is still a work in progress though.
As we went outside to walk the vineyard a bit, Macinski took me to a few rows of Saperavi, a variety that originated in Georgia, but hasn’t gained TTB-approval here in the U.S. yet.
The grape caught her eye though when it survived the bitter winter of ’04, a season that killed off 98 percent of her Merlot by comparison. (See the accompanying video for a chat with Macinski n the vineyard.)
“It all lived, and up here that means something,” said Macinski. “So we let it go one year, no pruning, and it got to 5 tons an acre and 24 Brix—pretty darn good for a red wine up here.”
2005 was the first vintage, which produced a whopping 36 cases, but she’s added vines every year since then and now has over an acre of Saperavi, enough for about 200 cases. Macinski describes the resulting wine as a cross between Merlot and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and it does offer soft, plummy fruit with more rustic tobacco and pepper notes. It delivers a tannic punch too though, clamping down a bit on the finish. For that reason, Macinski wants to start holding back the wine before releasing it, though it’s already become a popular seller in the tasting room despite the somewhat lofty (for the Finger Lakes) $36 price tag.
We also walked some rows of Merlot that were seemingly decimated by that winter of 2004 but have managed to come back nonetheless.
“We had almost total bud kill that winter, but we never got around to tearing the vines out,” said Macinski. “And then a couple of years later they began to push out again. It surprised us, the folks at Cornell and everyone we told.”
While the Merlot vines have recovered to produce almost normal yields once again, Macinski has had to deal with a new problem: birds. Starlings and grackles have been helping themselves to the Merlot, as well as the Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer, forcing her to tediously install netting on the rows, which then only seem to work occasionally
“They can peck right through it sometimes. Of course, they only like the thin-skinned and most expensive grapes,” she said, still managing to laugh at it.
Luckily the birds don’t seem to like Riesling, the area’s best grape and one that Standing Stone produces in a riper, richer style, thanks to the relatively warm spot on the eastern side of Seneca where they are located. Curiously though, Macinski feels that’s not her strong suit.
“I actually consider us more of a Gewürztraminer winery these days. The problem was, we lost so many vines after the winter of ’04 that we didn’t have the production level we wanted. Now we’re getting back to where we want to be.”
I found the dry Gewürztraminer here a little awkward in ’05 and ’06, but it's been improving since then. Macinski also produces an ice wine-styled bottling of the grape, which earned a 91-point mark in the ’08 vintage.
Standing Stone remains relatively small in scale—just 10,000 cases annually (“That’s enough so that Tom and I can still touch everything,” said Macinski) and that production is spread over more than a handful of different wines. The result is a bit of a hodgepodge of offerings, but choose well and you’ll be rewarded, both in quality and value.
My last stop of the dwindling day was at Red Newt Cellars, just five minutes down the road from Standing Stone. Wife Deb Whiting handles the bistro, one of the most popular eating spots in the area, while husband Dave handles the wine.
Whiting is in the minority following the warm, early growing season of 2010—most of his grapes still hanging. He’s shrugged off the recent rain, pointing to the sunny forecast down the road and has plans to bring in the bulk of his Riesling, as well as Merlot, next week, before finishing with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon thereafter.
Whiting has been one of the few to push the envelope in the Finger Lakes, both with quality and price. He’s continuing to expand his portfolio of single-vineyard wines that head north of $30, an area that many Finger Lakes wineries dare not tread. But Whiting backs it up with quality, thanks to his in-depth local knowledge of the best vineyard spots and his willingness to work closely with growers to keep yields low and develop new areas.
That development is being done in part by "contract planting." Whiting finds a spot he likes and then works with a grower to plant the vineyard, fronting much of the cost himself. Then he has exclusivity to the fruit for an extended period of time while helping to direct the viticulture. Whiting is afraid of growing—he’d like to get to 100 acres of Riesling, producing 25,000 cases annually (he's at around 35 acres now, producing 5,000 cases), all without sacrificing quality. Hence the hunt for more vineyard sources that he can help develop.
We tasted through the not-yet-released lineup of 2009 single-vineyard Rieslings, surprising latecomers to the portfolio which debuted with other varieties—Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc and Merlot—in the 2007 vintage. Perhaps Whiting was saving his best for last?
The lineup offers outstanding potential, led first by the Riesling Finger Lakes Sawmill Creek Vineyards 2009, a steely, pure, slate-driven offering that has some serious spine and cuts like a rapier, thanks in part to its meager 1 percent residual sugar. The Riesling Finger Lakes Lahoma Vineyards 2009 is sourced from across the lake, on the west side of Seneca, from a vineyard contract planted in 2007 and 2009. The vineyard features the area’s more common Lansing soils, a silt/loam/gravel mix, along with more uncommon Dunkirk soils, which feature more sand.
“When I saw those soils, I thought, OK, this could be something pretty interesting. You don’t really see that mix around here,” said Whiting.
The wine carries 4.5 percent residual sugar, but it's fresh and driven, with kiwi, green apple and slate notes that are more flattering but just as precise as the Sawmill Creek bottling.
Leading the trio for me though is the Riesling Finger Lakes Davis Farms Vineyard 2009, from a spot just south of the winery and located behind the old Damiani tasting room and owned by Phil Davis (a partner in Damiani). The wine has a snappy slate frame with a core of green apple, watermelon and jasmine notes backed by great minerality. It’s still youthfully tight but already shows impressive length. The wines are to be released in January.
Whiting is forward-looking when it comes to more than wine. Unlike most wineries, Whiting makes excellent use of the back labels on his wine, with detailed information and a sweetness scale for his Rieslings that should help demystify the wines for folks. He’s also coded them with QR codes, a small square of black and white geometric patterns that works much like a UPC bar code. Just point your iPhone camera at it while using an RD code reading app and suddenly you’ve got a full tech sheet on the wine on your phone. Meanwhile, Whiting gets a report on where the code was scanned, so he can get a rough idea of where his inventory is being consumed.
Whiting continues to push out of the usual upstate New York market area too. His recent foray into Massachusetts resulted in him selling 800 cases of Riesling this year already, rivaling what he already sells in-state. It’s exactly that more aggressive open-mindedness that the Finger Lakes needs if it wants to break out of its current cottage-industry status.
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.]