DUNDEE, N.Y.—The Finger Lakes area is a young wine region at only 50 years old, but you could say that the forces that set in motion the geological composition of the area started about 2 million years ago.
That’s when glaciers carved out valleys and gorges and left behind a rich and complex geological makeup including shale and limestone.
You can see it clear as day when you visit Watkins Glen State Park, where the 19 waterfalls cascade, gush, and gurgle down a narrow canyon. On either side, the walls, worn down by erosion, reveal horizontal layers of rock, as if divine hands had been playing Jenga.
The region has 11 lakes, which have a moderating effect on the surrounding microclimates on the shores, the so-called banana belt, protecting the vines. Just over 100 wineries can be found in the area.
For a visitor, the beauty of the lakes, deep blue and narrow, are a natural draw; and sunrises and sunsets are events unto themselves.
While staying on the west coast of Seneca Lake at the Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars, I found myself waking around 5:30 a.m. every morning (not my normal habit, I assure you) just to catch the sun breaching over the hills. One morning, without a cloud in the sky, a thin red sliver quickly turned into an eye-searing golden white flash; the next, gentle strokes of honey and apricot painted the sky.
Once awake, though, you have to wait till 10 a.m. for the wine action to start. That’s when the wineries open, so it’s worth taking time for a leisurely breakfast.
Before my visit, I spoke with Thomas Pastuszak, wine director at The NoMad in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. The wine list there is as impressive as it is extensive, and currently features about 50 wines from the Finger Lakes region.
Pastuszak made it his personal mission when he started working in New York City restaurants five years ago to put Finger Lakes wines on the map.
Back then, “you’d have to look hard to find a restaurant that featured wine from the Finger Lakes, and today you can’t walk down Broadway without passing a restaurant on every block that has at least one or a few wines from the area,” he said.
Pastuszak lived in the region for eight years—while attending Cornell University he was a pre-medical student, but while working in restaurants in the area, fell in love with its wines.
He made it his own personal mission to represent what he thought were the best wines from the Finger Lakes and featured them alongside those from the Alsace and Mosel regions “to show that the area, in my opinion, was as serious and significant as these other regions that people knew and loved.”
Tasting was believing. “As soon as people tasted the best examples, they got very excited about it. They realized, wow, there is something really great here,” he said.
Because it is a young wine area, he said, it’s a region “that’s still discovering itself, and people are still learning what they want to do in the area. Everyone is experimenting and doing different things. There’s a very complex diversity of styles being made.”
There’s riesling, yes, but the styles range from very dry, to off-dry with a bit of sweetness, to sweet.
Pastuszak had wanted to bring his experience as a sommelier to winemaking, and is currently at work on two projects. One is a smaller boutique project with his wife, who is also a sommelier, called Terrassen Cellars. Sourcing from old-vine vineyards, grown on the east side of Seneca Lake, they only produced small quantities, and made rosé and cabernet franc in the style of Loire Valley producers they love. The wines will be released this fall.
The other is Empire Estate, a winemaking collaboration with The NoMad and Eleven Madison Park, meant to showcase the quality of Finger Lakes wineries to the world.
“We want to show that riesling can be delicious and dry, to plant the flag for dry riesling and to be as proud of it as a Napa Valley producer would be of their cabernet sauvignon,” he said. The 2014 Dry Riesling is sold out, but the 2015 will be released later this summer.
Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard
There’s an obsessive quality to the growing and selection of grapes at the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, resulting in elegant and complex wines. The renowned winery stopped spraying herbicides years ago, and it uses natural yeast fermentation—when many others rely on a commercial yeast catalyst.
“We’ve been operating an almost exclusively organic viticultural practice, which, 10 to 15 years ago in discussions with Hermann [Wiemer], we thought was virtually impossible,” said winemaker, vineyard manager and co-owner Fred Merwarth.
Merwarth, a longtime apprentice of Wiemer, took over the operation in 2007, with his business partner Oskar Bynke.
The two continue Wiemer’s legacy, with a strong emphasis on the quality of the vines and fruit. Wiemer’s father was responsible for replanting vines in the Mosel after World War II, and Wiemer understood the importance of grafting. The winery has a bustling nursery business, and last year alone grafted 540,000 plants, a laborious mechanical task that still requires precise hand-eye coordination.
“The knowhow and the culture we draw from is other parts of the world, where the winemaking is exceptional,” said Bynke. “That’s because there’s not yet a culture here. However we are not trying to make German or Austrian rieslings. We are trying to establish the culture that should be in place, winemaking skills and knowhow to make fantastic wines from this place.”
Since the beginning, Wiemer marched to the beat of his own drum, opting to plant vinifera varietals when the area was mostly planted with native and hybid varietals with an eye to quantity only.
Today, the winery is experimenting with biodynamic practices, with a field under cultivation for three years. If they bear fruit in 2017, they will look to move to a larger acreage.
“We’ve heard so many people talk just about the winemaking,” Merwarth said. “We make wine, yes, but here’s the fruit that we use, and here’s exactly where it’s from, the flavors we’re getting. Rarely does the conversation center on the vineyards.”
A Visit to Ravines Wine Cellars
Carolyn Kruk poured me a glass of riesling. From her necklace hung a golden pendant in the shape of Keuka Lake, in the Finger Lakes, wishbone-like, with a diamond at the very southern tip to mark where she lives.
Behind her a tall, wide window gave straight onto the hill and the deep blue, sparkling Keuka Lake. It was one of the most beautiful views I’ve seen from a wine tasting room.
Kruk doesn’t have much of a chance to turn around, but given as I was taking my own sweet time and we were talking about the lake, she turned sideways and gazed outward, taking it all in. I was not sure who was loving the view more, she or I.
Kruk was a high school teacher in her past life and is now one of the tasting room staff at Ravines Wine Cellars on Keuka Lake. She loves their wines so much that at one point during my visit, she even gave one of the bottles a little hug—a 2013 Pinot Noir that earned excellent reviews and whose relatively high levels of resveratrol antioxidants give it something of a youthful, “elixir of life” aura.
The signature, though, is the 2014 Dry Riesling, which has a delightful balance between notes of pear, stone fruit, and white flower, with crisp acidity and minerality. It had complexity but at the same time possessed a light-as-a cloud ethereal quality.
It’s actually a skillful blend of rieslings from two different vineyards, and she then had me taste both—one redolent of citrus and stone fruit, and the other a more mineral, drier riesling.
For a completely different experience, Kruk paired the 2014 Cabernet Franc, with its fruit notes of black and red fruits and spice, with a chocolate medallion flavored with cranberry and orange zest. It was a tremendous pairing, a marriage of dark chocolate with the wine’s complex notes, racing to—boom!—an explosive cherry finish at the end.
Nearby, another staff member attended to a group of women on a bachelorette outing, all dressed in matching purple shirts, except for the bride-to-be in white. The name of the gentleman pouring their wines is Seery Chamberlain.
“Siri!” one woman called out to him, “I talk to you all the time on my phone!”
There were smiles and conversation all around, and no one was rushed. The staff was beautifully adept at making you feel at home.
I found a friendliness to the people in the Finger Lakes area that was just irresistible, and I kept meeting people who had moved there for that very reason.
One of of them was chef Michael Murphy, who divides his time between the Finger Lakes, where he caters and operates a B&B called SugarHill, and New York City.
“We’re in a beautiful setting to begin with. Life is a little slower but we get to enjoy it. How many people did you see in the lake?” he asked me. Not very many, I responded.
Murphy, who is originally from San Jose, California, said the region reminds him of what Sonoma used to be 15 to 20 years ago.
“One of the joys of the Finger Lakes is how approachable everyone is—extremely friendly. They don’t have an air of ‘I’m the owner’ and you’re just as likely to walk in catching them cleaning the floor,” he said.
Murphy told of potlucks with winemakers: “They’ll bring their own bottles, but they’ll drink beer.”
From a chef’s perspective, “the Finger Lakes is basically the breadbasket of New York state,” he said. He buys his produce from Mennonite farmers. “They don’t even call their food organic, it’s just produce for sale.”
At the stands where he gets the produce, the farmers aren’t even there. There’s just a small can where people can leave money. The same goes with the flowers he gets from “the flower lady” just outside Geneva.
“To me it wouldn’t be the Finger Lakes if it weren’t for the community,” he said.
For more information on the Finger Lakes wine region, see FingerLakesWineCountry.com