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Winemaker Talk: Peter Bell of Fox Run

One of the top winemakers in New York's consistently improving Finger Lakes talks about the challenges of winter and the region's spirit of cooperation

James Molesworth
Posted: January 16, 2009

Fox Run winemaker Peter Bell, 52, is a busy guy. In addition to making wines at Fox Run in New York's Finger Lakes region, he also helps at other area wineries, including Miles Wine Cellars and Red Tail Ridge. In addition, he holds an adjunct faculty position at Cornell University teaching wine-related material in the Department of Food Science and has consulted and lectured in Australia, China, Spain, Serbia, France, Hungary, Canada and throughout the United States.

Like many people in the industry, Bell born in Boston to Canadian parents, came to his current position indirectly. After high school, he bounced around in Europe for a year, taking odd jobs before heading to college in Canada, where he studied anthropology at Trent University for two years before once again taking time off.

During this period, in the early 1980s, Bell became interested in wine, starting with a stint as a picker in the vineyards of Château d'Angludet, located in Bordeaux's Margaux appellation. Upon returning to Canada, Bell decided to make a go of it somehow in the wine industry. He wound up attending school in Australia and in 1990 accepted a job as assistant winemaker at a winery in New Zealand's Marlborough region. In 1995, Bell was contacted by Fox Run owner Scott Osborn, who had purchased the property just a few years before and was looking for a winemaker. Now, over a decade's worth of vintages later, Bell is one of the Finger Lakes' most respected and experienced winemakers.

Wine Spectator: Who have been your biggest influences as a winemaker?
Peter Bell: Probably a bunch of musicians, oddly enough. I am not one for metaphorical hyperbole, so I would never call a wine a "symphony in a glass" or anything that puerile, but I tend to see well-balanced, delicious wines as analogous to exquisitely composed pieces of music. My description of the role of oak in wine is that of Ringo Starr in the Beatles: never flashy, always there to get inside the fruit and make it taste better.

Aside from that, I would nominate my friend Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling, formerly of Cornell University, for enhancing my understanding of the microbiological aspects of wine, and Andrew Birks, an Australian teacher who made me see the point of dry sherry and thus delicate wines in general.

WS: Most winemakers would probably say that bad weather during harvest is the biggest obstacle they might face. But in the Finger Lakes, the winter weather might be the region's biggest challenge for keeping vineyards healthy. Would you agree?
PB: Certainly from an economics point of view, the steady loss of vines through winter injury and related problems is a big issue. Striving for uniformity from vine to vine is an almost impossible task here. Having said that, I have been in vineyards in many other parts of the world, and can say that exquisitely manicured, or otherwise visually impressive vines don't necessarily translate into wonderful wines. We have to work hard to control disease here during the growing season, but so do most places where racy, balanced wines are made.

I recall reading many years ago a little maxim that "the best wines are made from a cool climate, in a warm year." That thinking has been largely out of favor over the last few decades, what with the emphasis on alcoholic, jammy monsters, but I still believe it's true. That being the case, our challenge here in the Finger Lakes is to rack up a lot of warm years!

WS: What is it about working in the Finger Lakes that you like?
PB: Easy, the spirit of cooperation that exists among winemakers here. That and Riesling.

WS: And what do you wish you could change about the Finger Lakes?
PB: A little more economic prosperity would go a long way. One has to be careful what one asks for, though. I would hate to see subdivisions springing up with cutesy names like Vineyard Estates. And it probably wouldn't be a good idea to have wineries owned by dot-com millionaires.

WS: You make or help make wines for a number of different labels in the region, including your own Tierce joint venture (with winemakers Dave Whiting of Red Newt Cellars and Johannes Rheinhardt of Anthony Road), as well as the wines from Miles Wine Cellars and Red Tail Ridge. How do you ensure that all of these wines remain distinct, without putting too much of a personal stamp on them?
PB: To some extent, the grapes themselves have enough individual expression that I don't have to try and push them in a unique direction. Miles Riesling, for example, is made virtually identically to my own Rieslings [at Fox Run], but it always ends up with aromatic and textural elements that make it a sui generis wine. In other cases, I talk with the owners and feel them out on what kind of style they're after. We might vary yeast strain, residual sugar, type of oak, lees contact, or any number of other things.

WS: What are your favorite food pairings with Finger Lakes Riesling?
PB: I have a rather fugitive appetite, despite being a serious cook and lover of tasty food. I tend to shy away from heavy foods of any sort—sausage, slabs of meat, rich sauces, etc.—so classic German and Alsatian food with Riesling are out. I grow a lot of my own food. It's hard to beat something made with slightly bitter greens tossed with garlic, good pasta and some Pecorino. It seems to me that wine almost always tastes best drunk while one is preparing dinner.

WS: What is your favorite wine, other than one of your own?
PB: Good fresh fino Sherry. Unoaked Hunter Valley Sémillon with some bottle age. Champagne.

WS: If you could be one other person in the wine industry for one day, who would it be, and why?
PB: Either a winemaker in Champagne, France or Jerez, Spain, so I could learn more about the art of blending delicate, understated wines. Blending blocky monsters is a cinch in comparison.

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