A top wine destination
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Fall is the busiest time in the Finger Lakes. Visitors peak along with the autumn leaves, and it is harvest time for grape growers.
For regular visitors to the area, it may appear that not much changes each year. The scenic landscape of long, narrow lakes surrounded by hills remains unchanged since the glaciers created it. Hills are planted with grapevines, as they have been for decades. New wineries pop up here and there, but many remain the same.
In reality, it’s an exciting, transformative time for Finger Lakes wine — and, by extension, for people who appreciate high-quality wines.
The Finger Lakes region recently surpassed the milestone of its 100th winery, according to New York State Liquor Authority records. Since 2011, 31 new wineries have opened in the region.
In 2016, sommeliers ranked the Finger Lakes the top wine destination to visit in America on Thrillist and this year, the region seems to pop up in big-city and national press on a regular basis.
“The Fresh Allure of New York’s Finger Lakes” trumpeted a headline of a July piece in Conde Nast Traveler. “Vibrancy of Finger Lakes wines” was a headline in the Chicago Tribune. Finger Lakes establishments have appeared on a list of the best winery restaurants in America in Food & Wine magazine for two years running.
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And the tradition of European immigrants like Charles Fournier, Dr. Konstantin Frank and Hermann J. Wiemer, all of whom made indelible marks on the region, continues today. A contemporary group of European natives have brought with them Old World knowhow. Morten Hallgren, co-owner of Ravines Wine Cellars, was raised in the Provence region in southern France. Johannes Reinhardt, owner of Kemmeter Wines, came from Germany, where his family had a wine business that dates to the 1400s. Sébastien LeSeurre of Domaine LeSeurre is a native of Champagne, France, and the sixth generation of grape growers and winemakers in his family. And French winemaker-grower Louis Barruol divides his time between Château de Saint Cosme in Gigondas, France, and Forge Cellars in Burdett.
Encouraged by advancements over the past 10 years or so, people in the region are looking to renowned wine regions — Napa and Sonoma in California, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, New Zealand’s Central Otago region — and seriously discussing how to take the Finger Lakes to the next level.
Richard Rainey and his partners at Forge Cellars are reclaiming old farm land to expand dry Riesling and cool climate Pinot Noir in the Finger Lakes. Max Schulte
Vineyard practices raise quality
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Reinhardt arrived in the Finger Lakes in 1999 to work for Dr. Konstantin Frank Wine Cellars, followed by Anthony Road Wine Co. The biggest change he has seen since then has been the improvement in wine quality, particularly in the past 10 years. He credits much of those improvements to professional vineyard management.
Reinhart is now owner of Kemmeter Wines, a small winery in Penn Yan. He describes his six-acre vineyard, a few years old, as similar to teenagers — having an excess of energy and vigor that needs to be guided. The vines are meticulously tied to facilitate air flow around the grapes, with a small amount of leaves shielding the grapes from sunburn. Once those grapes are harvested, Reinhart says his job as winemaker is to enable the grapes to reach their potential, but not reach too far.
Kemmeter is one of a handful of newer wineries that keep their operations small so that their owners can continue the dual roles of managing the vineyard and making the wines.
Another example is Tom Higgins, co-owner of Heart & Hands Wine Company and a Finger Lakes native. The winery is on the east side of Cayuga Lake, its site carefully chosen for its limestone, which provides a pH level beneficial to the 3.6-acre vineyard.
“Most people would say that 80 percent of quality comes from the vineyard itself — if not more,” said Higgins. “Growing up here, we saw a winemaker renaissance in the late ’90s and early 2000s as far as people coming in with a deeper pedigree of places that they’ve worked, more worldly experience in making wine.
“I think the next step for the region as a whole will probably be one in which it’s much more grower focused on the actual production of grapes in the vineyard, versus being dependent on the winemaker to have to fix problems.”
This focus is evident in larger operations as well.
Boundary Breaks is attracting national attention for its Rieslings, such as in a recent Wall Street Journal article on dry Rieslings. Its owner is Bruce Murray, who, after years “in the rough and tumble of the business world,” embarked on his third career of owning a winery in the Finger Lakes. His long-term strategy: to sell in relatively high volumes through distributors at a retail price of $14 to $15.
Before he broke ground, he spent 18 months consulting with Finger Lakes veterans, who are known for their cooperative nature. The recommendations started with how to plant vines.
“A good wine is made in the vineyard, meaning if you manage your vineyard to the best possible extent, then the fruit coming off your vines will be as good as it could be,” he said. “If you can deliver good fruit to a winemaker, the winemaker’s job is to just not get in the way.”
His price point will be achieved by technology, such as the GPS-guided equipment that was used to plant vines in perfectly straight rows. The straight rows enable some vineyard tasks to be automated.
“If you want to buy a great bottle of wine for less than $15, that’s what’s behind the curtain,” Murray said.
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Many wineries purchase all or part of their grapes from growers. To get the quality grapes they want, some are changing these purchase arrangements. When Morten Hallgren of Ravines wanted to get top quality grapes for his Pinot noir in 2005, he paid by the acre rather than the ton. This enabled him to request that the grower remove some grapes from the vine in order to get better grapes. While most grapes are still sold by the ton, acreage contracts are no longer unheard of.
Winemaking has made advances as well.
At Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, for example, the winemakers separate the juice from the harvest into smaller batches. Some grapes are picked earlier for their acidity, some later for rounder, richer flavors and higher sugar levels. As the grapes are pressed, different kinds of juice are separated. When Hermann Wiemer made wines, he had nine different tanks of Riesling to work with. Oskar Bynke and Fred Merwarth purchased the winery in 2007 and the current generation uses almost 30 smaller tanks.
“We capture the nuances and keep them isolated in a completely different way,” Bynke said. “With that comes the option to be a little more accurate in the blending and make balanced wines.”
Oskar Bynke and Fred Merwarth share a new vision for a historic Finger Lakes winery at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard. Max Schulte
Increasing focus on distribution
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The Finger Lakes wine industry as we know it had its foundation in the New York Farm Winery Act, which allowed wineries to sell directly to consumers. The law enabled wineries to keep the revenue from each bottle of wine sold at their tasting rooms, rather than to discount their wines to sell through distributors.
Many Finger Lakes wineries still sell primarily through their tasting rooms, but some are feeling the squeeze as the number of wineries, breweries and distilleries outpace the growth of tourism. That’s one reason why some wineries are focusing on distributing their wines in other cities, and even internationally. This may come as good news for fans of Finger Lakes wines: If you enjoy a wine at a tasting room, you may have a better chance of finding it at a store.
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Forge Cellars is only in its fifth year of making wine, but it is sold in 25 states and 24 countries. Co-owner Rick Rainey estimates that 85 percent of the winery’s sales comes from national distribution and export. Forge’s strategy is made possible in part by the pedigree, skills and connections of French winemaker-grower Louis Barruol, one of its three co-owners, who comes from a 14-generation winemaking tradition.
Boundary Breaks, which released its first vintage in 2011, is now sold in 25 states and plans to grow mostly through distributors.
“When you sell a bottle of wine from your tasting room, the full value of that wine goes into your cash register so that’s really attractive,” Murray said. “However, the number of people that you’re able to reach in a tasting room is limited. There are so many people coming to the region and there are so many wineries that are sharing that audience. To us, there’s a huge world out there and that’s the bigger audience we’re trying to reach.”
Boundary Breaks is one of 34 member wineries of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, an organization that has the goal of increasing the visibility and reputation of the Finger Lakes area. Much of its efforts have focused on Riesling, a cool climate vinifera grape.
In addition, many wineries are focusing on direct-to-consumer sales through the internet and their own wine clubs. Ravines started a wine club eight years ago, and it has grown to 2,500 members, who are offered discounts and special bottles and also are invited to events. Other examples include McGregor Vineyard, which has one of the oldest area wine clubs in its Clan Club, as well as the Kabinett Membership at Wiemer and the Claddagh Club at Heart & Hands.
Bruce Murray, owner of Boundary Breaks Vineyard, bets on Riesling wine for growth in the Finger Lakes. Max Schulte
Shift from sweet to dry
The Finger Lakes wine industry stemmed from grape growers who primarily grew labrusca grapes, a species of grapes native to eastern North America. Wines made from these grapes often are made with added sweeteners, which results in grapey, fruity flavors. Wine aficionados generally consider these wines to be inferior to those made from vinifera grapes, a species that includes Riesling, Chardonnay and others.
“The day of the labrusca grape is over,” Frank J. Prial, wine writer for the New York Times, wrote back in 1984. More than 30 years later, that is far from the case in the Finger Lakes. Just over half of the of the 9,000 acres of grapes grown in the Finger Lakes are native grapes, according to 2011 National Agricultural Statistics Survey data analyzed by Timothy Martinson, senior extension associate for Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The rest are divided equally between hybrids and vinifera grapes.
A large portion of native grapes are sold to be made into grape juice, but a significant part is still used for wine. Hazlitt’s Red Cat Cellars makes the phenomenally popular Hazlitt Red Cat wine from mostly native Catawba grapes. The winery sells more than 200,000 cases of the sweet red wine each year, according to Doug Hazlitt, co-owner of Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards; it is said to be the top-selling wine in New York state. Another is the popular Growers Red from Bully Hill Vineyards on Keuka Lake.
These wines are so popular that winery owners who set out with the strategy of producing only dry wines are known to succumb to the temptation of producing what is sometimes called a bill-paying wine. (Not all sweet wines fall into this category. Some, such as ice wines, are widely respected.)
But as the region matures wineries are increasingly focusing on dry styles made with vinifera grapes. These are the wines — dry Rieslings in particular — getting attention on a national level.
Cornell’s Martinson regularly interacts with grape growers in New York in his work with the statewide viticulture extension programs. While the National Agricultural Statistics Survey no longer breaks down grapes by variety, Martinson has noticed more grape growers planting the vinifera varieties. His best guess is that since 2011, the amount of native grapes is down by 5 percent, while vinifera is up by an equal percentage.
Getting to the point where dry wines were appreciated in the Finger Lakes was a challenge. When Morten and Lisa Hallgren opened the Ravines tasting room on Keuka Lake in 2003, they only made dry wines, including the driest Riesling that had been made in the Finger Lakes. The response from visitors was not encouraging.
“It didn’t take me long to realize that these wines weren’t what they were looking for here,” Lisa Hallgren said. Making a sweet wine was not an option for them, as they were committed to making what they saw as the best expression of a vineyard site.
So Lisa Hallgren, who proudly calls herself a brazen Texas girl, hit the road and headed for the big cities, confident that she’d find the people that would appreciate their wines. She delivered the wines from Buffalo to Brooklyn, piling their three children in her Chevrolet Suburban, in which she could squeeze 45 cases of wine around the children.
Now, Lisa Hallgren’s direct distribution is no longer in service. Ravines wines are being distributed nationally by The Winebow Group. And as visitors to the Finger Lakes have become more interested in dry wines, the winery now sells roughly half of its wine through its two tasting rooms, and half through distributors.
Some in the Finger Lakes think that the widespread availability of sweet wines presents a confusing message to the more sophisticated visitors.
“When we think of great wine regions around the world, we think of Burgundy, we think of Napa, we think of Chianti — they’re not known for sweet wines,” Murray of Boundary Breaks said. “They’re known for the grape that grows best in that area, and for elevating that grape to make exceptional wines. That’s what we’re trying to do.
“We have the opportunity with Riesling. It’s a shame, if you’re given that opportunity, not to chase it. Not every region has what we have in terms of the raw conditions and the grape variety to make the region as well known around the world as Napa or as Sonoma or as Burgundy or as Chianti.”
Tom and Susan Higgins focus on dry wines at Heart & Hands Wine Company on Cayuga Lake. Tom Higgins, whose interest in wines was piqued when he worked for Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards in high school, is adamant that sweet wines are a part of Finger Lakes history and still have a role in the region.
“There’s a place for them,” he said. “I don’t think it takes anything away. For me, they are gateway wines from beer.”
One thing seems clear: Today’s winery owners and winemakers have enormous respect for the industry’s pioneers, who paved the way for the region’s accelerating success. Running a vineyard or a winery is not for the timid, and the industry seems to attract people who are determined, strong minded and individualistic — and not inclined to easily come to a consensus on the best way to move the region forward.
Still, there’s a sense that exciting things are happening in the Finger Lakes.
“Never in your life will you get to see a wine region of this caliber being birthed — in front of your eyes, literally in front of your eyes,” said Rainey. “We’re living this thing that’s happening right now at such a great level.
“It’s going. It’s happening. Every time you turn around there’s something else really exciting happening. I think to be a part of that is brilliant.”
Plan your visit
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Want to visit the wineries in this story? Here is visitor information, including fall hours; hours may change beginning in November.
Anthony Road Wine Company
1020 Anthony Rd, Penn Yan, on Seneca Lake
Tasting room open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Reservations required for groups of 10 or more
1568 Porter Covert Rd, Lodi, overlooking Seneca Lake
Tasting room open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Reservations required for groups of eight or more.
Bully Hill Vineyards
8843 Greyton H. Taylor Memorial Dr., Hammondsport, overlooking Keuka Lake
Tours start every hour, on the hour, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tastings run on a 20-minute schedule. Call ahead for groups of eight or more.
Domaine LeSeurre Winery
13920 State Route 54, Hammondsport, on Keuka Lake
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; call ahead in inclement weather. The tasting room is not handicap accessible during construction. Reservations required for groups of eight or more.
Dr. Konstantin Frank
9749 Middle Road, Hammondsport, on Keuka Lake
Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Advance reservations required for groups of 12 or more. “1886” Reserve Tasting Room is open July through October for those with a deeper interest; advance reservation required.
3775 Mathews Rd, Burdett, above Seneca Lake
Offers tastings, by reservation only, in its production facility.
Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards
5712 New York Route 414, Hector, on Seneca Lake
Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Hazlitt Red Cat Cellars
1 Lake Niagara Ln, Naples, south of Canandaigua Lake
Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Reservations required for groups of eight or more.
Heart & Hands Wine Company
4162 Route 90, Union Springs, on Cayuga Lake
Open noon to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Weekday tastings available by reservation. Call about groups, as it is a small tasting room.
Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard
3962 Route 14, Dundee, on Seneca Lake
Open 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Call ahead for group tastings.
1030 Larzelere Rd, Penn Yan, above Seneca Lake
Tastings available by appointment only from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Maximum group size is six people; no limos or bus groups.
5503 Dutch St, Dundee, above Keuka Lake
Tasting room open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Reservation required for groups of 10 or more.
Ravines Wine Cellars
400 Barracks Rd, Geneva, on Seneca Lake. 607-292-7007
14630 State Route 54, Hammondsport, on Keuka Lake. 315-781-7007
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday. An advanced reservation is required for a group of eight or more.
Food & Wine Experience
What: The Democrat and Chronicle Food & Wine Experience will feature Duff Goldman as well as Martha Stewart’s culinary expert, Chef Thomas Joseph. The area’s restaurants, wineries and breweries will be on hand offering samples of food, wine and beer. Food and drink reporter Tracy Schuhmacher will be master of ceremonies.
When: 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23.
Where: Parcel 5 downtown at Cortland and Elm streets.
Tickets: Tickets range from $85 to $195. Purchase tickets online at foodandwine.democratandchronicle.com.
Special offer: As part of the D&C’s Insider program, subscribers receive $20 off the upgrade to “Grand Tasting” or $30 off the “VIP Grand Tasting” ticket.
Behind the scenes: The D&C Digital Food & Wine Experience is being organized by R Entertainment, a national marketing and business development company, as part of the 10-city USA Today Network food-and-wine event series. The Democrat and Chronicle is part of the USA Today Network.