In Defense of the Finger Lakes

In its February 2013 edition, Wine Spectator published a feature on the Finger Lakes, praising the “emergent” region for “gaining experience quickly”. This somewhat patronizing characterization may or may not have gone over like gangbusters with upstate New York winemakers, given the fact that the Finger Lakes region has been producing wine for more than 150 years.

The first bonded Finger Lakes winery was Pleasant Valley, which began commercial production of wine in 1860. In fact, the Finger Lakes produced wine of national and international renown all the way up until the early 20th century, when Prohibition wiped out its industry. After repeal, the region began re-building. While upstate New York has been overshadowed by California’s meteoric rise to popularity and continued dominance in the market, that has very little to do with the quality of the wine being produced, and a lot more to do with branding, marketing, and the hesitance of consumers to experiment with non-Californian domestics.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the article also fails to mention one of the region’s pre-eminent wine heroes, Dr. Konstantin Frank.

After Prohibition ended, winemakers struggled to grow and market native and hybrid grapes. Fortunately for all of us, two experienced, forward-thinking winemakers would change that. As the first to successfully introduce European (Vitis vinifera or V. vinifera) varietals into the region, rogue agent Dr. Frank, together with another local winemaker, Charles Fournier, forever transformed the Finger Lakes landscape.

As the story goes, Frank held a Ph.D. in viticulture and offered expertise growing V. vinifera grapes in brutally cold climates. He was abrasive, idealistic to a fault, and had a poor command of English. Fournier, a Frenchman, had extensive experience as Champagne master for Veuve-Cliquot. He was reportedly a bit of a loaner, but more or less had a good command of the interpersonal skills that Frank lacked. Fournier had achieved moderate success producing non-V. vinifera wines, but, not having the pedigree of their European counterparts, they were not taken particularly seriously.

In 1953, Fournier hired Frank. Together, they were the first to successfully grow European-style grapes in the Finger Lakes. As a point of reference, Fournier/Frank wines began drawing acclaim in the mid-fifties. The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 (commonly referred to as the Judgment of Paris), arguably the catalyst for California’s success, would not occur until more than 20 years later.

Leading white V. vinifera varietals include Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, and the star of the upstate New York portfolio: Riesling.

Riesling is widely planted in the Finger Lakes because of its relatively high cold hardiness and excellent quality. Not only does the region produce excellent Riesling, several are considered to be superior to any bottle available in the marketplace today, perhaps excepting those produced in the grape’s “homeland”, Germany.

Why is Riesling such a special grape, you ask? It’s special because of its flexibility and unique capacity to absorb terrior. Riesling is a varietal that truly reflects the place where it’s been grown, and very few other varietals can be crafted to express so many different characteristics. Riesling can range from bone dry to dessert sweet.

If Frank and Fournier are the founding fathers of contemporary New York State wine, Hermann J. Wiemer is the first son, largely credited with pioneering the region’s move to single-vineyard Riesling. Producing a single-vineyard, single-varietal wine presents a winemaking challenge that should not be underestimated. By definition, the winemaker loses his or her ability to blend to enhance the final wine. Wiemer was a believer, and today his operation produces wines that are consistently ranked as the top in the nation.

When I tasted in the Finger Lakes back in August, I drank a lot of wine in the tasting rooms of many, many different producers. The stand-outs, to my palette, were three Riesling, bottled at exactly the same time, from three different Lamoreaux Landing vineyards. The 2011 Red Oak Vineyard Riesling had notes of honeysuckle and pear, while the 2011 Round Rock Vineyard Riesling had fantastic minerality with a note of smoke. My favorite, the 2011 Yellow Dog Vineyard Riesling, smacked of intensely aromatic and flavorful grapefruit. It was very clear to me that each vineyard has unique qualities, and that these qualities were successfully captured in the fruit and expressed in each wine.

Amongst others, Wine Spectator recommends Anthony Road, Sheldrake Point, Forge, Keuka Lake, Silver Thread, and Standing Stone. I recommend these as well, but would first drink Lamoreaux Landing, Lucas Vineyards, Tierce Dry Riesling (see * below), Claiborne & Churchill, Red Newt Cellars, and, of course, the wine produced by wine heros Dr. Konstantin Frank and Hermann J. Wiemer.

Finger Lakes VineyardRiesling Grapes

I also recommend producing your own vintage, of course. Riesling is a wine that can be made many different ways – pick a style that suits your preferences and palate. There’s really no wrong way to approach it stylistically. Be forewarned: more so than other varietals, the quality of a good Riesling is largely dependent on the quality of your grapes. If you’d like to make your own Riesling at home, focus your efforts on finding a grape or juice producer who will let you taste the product before you buy it.

Like any white, the challenges for a small-scale home winemaker include oxidation and timely removal of yeast to prevent the loss of fresh fruit aromas. Depending on the style you choose, carefully monitor fermentation. You will want to stop fermentation at your desired residual sugar level.

In closing, it’s worth mentioning that the 2010 Tierce Dry Riesling* was poured at the 2013 Inaugural Luncheon. Tierce is a collaboration of the winemakers from Fox Run, Anthony Road, and Red Newt. The wine was paired with lobster tails and New England clam chowder. For you upstate New York enthusiasts, you’ll be pleased to know that dessert was Hudson Valley apple pie with New York maple syrup-caramel sauce, accompanied by New York’s finest cheeses and honey.

When consumer palettes and buying preferences catch up, the Finger Lakes wine industry will flourish nationally.

2 Comments

  1. Benjamin Kirk says:

    I live and work in the middle of the Finger Lakes region, and have a part-time job at one of the wineries mentioned in your article (Lucas Vineyards), so I’m always thrilled to see us get some press. Thank you for a wonderful article!

    • Caitlin Kearns says:

      Benjamin, we love Lucas Vineyards. We came home from our trip in August with two bottles of your Reserve Riesling and a bottle of the Reserve Cabernet Franc. We had a great tasting. The entire staff was welcoming and knowledgable. We look forward to returning the next time we are upstate.

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