By Carlo DeVito
It is impossible to begin to talk about the current winemaking scene in the Finger Lakes without covering its immensely important influence on the national winemaking scene. The Finger Lakes is not the oldest winegrowing region in the state, that distinction belongs to the Hudson Valley, but it is the largest, and arguably the best-known region in New York state. There are more than 100 wineries between the five major lakes. The Finger Lakes are five large lakes carved out by the withdrawal of the Wisconsin ice sheet. They formed deep gouges creating Scandinavian fjord-like lakes, with deep bottoms. This kind of depth offers an important temperature moderating influence that acts as a buffer from the cold northern winds and weather flowing down from Canada. This is commonly called Lake Effect.
“The lakes are the great moderators, storing the cold of the winter to prolong bud break in the spring and then accumulating the warmth of the summer to ward off the potential of early frosts in the fall,” Anthony Road winemaker Peter Becraft told Terroirist.
The region has become known for world class Riesling, gaining notoriety for a large swath of high quality, collectible, and cellarable wines that have won praise the world over, and which were celebrated in Evan Dawson’s highly-acclaimed book SUMMER IN A GLASS. However, despite the large shadow this varietal wine has cast over the region, there are many other delightful quality wines being made in the Finger Lakes, which include many lovely reds as well.
For many years, dating back to the mid to late 1800s, the region was known for sweet wines and sparkling wine (made by the highly regarded Charles Fournier at Gold Seal, and the ubiquitous Great Western). This profile continued for many years until recently. Most notable among other things, is that the Finger Lakes has drawn a large international community. The winemakers have come from Russia, Australia, Germany, and as well as California and other places. These winemakers have brought with them a wealth of experience and knowledge, which then helped to shape the modern region and beyond.
The name most often associated with the Finger Lakes is Dr. Konstantin Frank Wine Cellars which was established in 1962. Frank was a Soviet era scientist and viticultural expert. He had proven through a series of methods, that vinifera (Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, etc.) wine grapes could be grown in colder climates. He had done so in Russia. He immigrated here, and moved to the Finger Lakes. He had little success in convincing Cornell’s extension experts of his theories, so he later set up his own vineyards and winery. Up until that time, only hybrids and native grapes were grown commercially in the region. Dr. Frank’s theories proved correct, and his wines were an immediate hit.
Frank was named one of the 40 most influential people in the wine industry by Wine Spectator, who wrote of him, “To grapegrowers in the Finger Lakes of the 1950s, Konstantin Frank probably seemed foolish. The conventional wisdom was that New York was suited for American varieties and hybrids; Europe’s great vine types could not survive the cold. Frank planted them anyway, and proved they could thrive.”
“His fiery advocacy of vinifera and its wines led many growers in the east to follow his example,” wrote famed wine writer Hudson Cattell of Frank.
Frank’s son Willy in turn proved to be a better wine maker, promoter, and salesman extending the winery’s reach and reputation. Willy’s son Fred has proven an ample steward of the name and quality, bringing in a long line of award winning international winemakers each taking a turn at the helm of the one of the east coasts preeminent wineries. Dr. Frank was the Prometheus of eastern wine. Many in the Finger Lakes winemaking community soon followed, and his gift of vinifera eventually changed the face of winemaking up and down the eastern seaboard. The Riesling, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wines at the winery are of considerable note and have gained a reputation worldwide.
If Frank lit the fire, and gave it to his Finger Lakes brethren, it was Herman Weimer who spread that fire. Hermann J. Weimer founded his winery in the late 1970s. The German viticulturalist was then the head winemaker at the large commercial Bully Hill Winery. But when Hermann’s wines became too famous, winning accolades in 1981, Walter Taylor, Bully Hill’s owner, infamously sent a wire on Christmas Eve in 1981 firing Weimer via telegram. But what made Weimer and his own winery and nursery important, was that he, like Frank, Weimer was growing classic vinifera, and making world class quality wines that were instantly popular. The nursery that he established sold his cold hardy vinifera varieties to other wineries all throughout the east coast, changing the face of the wine industry there. Weimer’s Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noirs are highly drinkable!
No Finger Lakes report can be made without mentioning Fox Run Vineyards. Fox Run’s best wines include Rieslings, as well as Pinot Noir and their wonderful Cabernet Franc Reserve. Their aged ports are outstanding. Fox Run’s wines can be found almost throughout the eastern seaboard. Owner Scott Osborn has been a force in helping turn a fledgling region into a national powerhouse. And most notable is Peter Bell, the longtime winemaker at Fox Run. Not only is Peter known for making some wonderful wines but he has proven over the years to be a sounding board, a teacher, advisor, and confidant to a whole generation of winemakers. Few young winemakers in the region do not have a story about the affable and always helpful Bell.
Another incredibly talented winemaker is Vincent (Vinny) Aliperti. Along with owner Ted Marks, Vinny is the winemaker at Atwater Estate Vineyards, where he has consistently produced a long line of high quality wines across a broad range that can be found on wine lists in New York City as well as on store shelves in more than 20 states. The Atwater Gewurztraminers and Rieslings dazzle, and the Atwater Big Blend is a revelation for red drinkers. On the other hand, Aliperti and his wife Kim own a small boutique winery as well, known as Billsboro Winery. Their small slate lined cellar located under a red barn offers incredible small bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Pinot Noir that are coveted by wine writers throughout North America.
Dave Breeden winemaker at Sheldrake Point has been making wines there for many years. His whites and reds regularly see rave reviews in the national media, and his reds, in specific, have been a revelation as to what reds can be made well in the region. His Gamay Noir is an absolute thrill and so is his Gewurztraminer.
“Over the past 15 years, the main thing that’s changed and improved is viticulture. We just do a way better job of growing grapes. The other thing that’s distinctive about the Finger Lakes is the community,” says Breeden.
Another Finger Lakes veteran is Barry Tortolon at Heron Hill. He’s been making wines on and off for forty years in the region, though his roguish sense of humor belies a personality much, much younger. His line of Ingle Vineyard series, especially their reserve selections, have produced incredibly lovely wines over the last five or six years that belong in any wine region. The Rieslings, Chardonnays, and Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir have been impressive.
“A lot has changed for the better, but each year is different. I was a teacher before settling on winemaking. Each class is different and so is each vintage,” said Tortolon.
These are profiles of just a few of the founding fathers of quality wine in the Finger Lakes. They have proven that quality and long term commitment to excellent are not only possible in the northeast, but why the Finger Lakes has the reputation it enjoys today as a major wine region. It is the world of these people, in part, who have helped make this region what it is today.
- Lamoreaux Landing
- Chateau Lafayette
- Knapp Vineyards
- Standing Stone
- Lakewood Vineyards
- Damiani Vineyards
Continue Reading: Finger Lakes In Pursuit of Excellence: The New Generation
This article is just one of our exclusive “In Pursuit of Excellence” series that highlights the champions of wine quality in Eastern U.S. wine industry who are impacting the reputation of the entire region. In Pursuit of Excellence is also the theme for the 2018 U.S. Wine & Beverage Exposition & Conference scheduled for February 21st & 22nd in Washington, D.C.