By Carlo DeVito
Pioneering winemakers from all over the worlds helped to shape the Finger Lakes into a modern region. The founding winemakers began growing vinifera and raised the quality of wine, and that in turn attracted a new generation of talented individuals, who continue to push the boundaries and carry on the pursuit of excellence in the Finger Lakes.
Nancy Irelan and Michael Schnelle established Red Tail Ridge in 2004. Michael has spent several years cultivating the vineyards while Nancy wound down her long career at Gallo. Red Tail Ridge began making wines in 2006, and the couple have been a dynamic team and influence on the region ever since. The wines are immensely successful for this medium-sized boutique winery which has catapulted to the front of the quality winemaking wave in the area.
“We picked vinifera varietals that had a track record of quality production under cool climate conditions, and we added a couple new varietals that we felt would do well here given their production history in other viticultural regions,” Ireland told the press. They have produced lovely Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Rose’. Their Pinot Noir is exceptional. Also outstanding are their sparkling wines and their “Obscure Red Varietal” series which includes incredible small bottlings of Dornfelder, Teroldego, Blaufrankish, and others that have imply amazed all.
Meanwhile, John McGregor is making incredibly solid wines at his family’s name-sake winery, McGregor Vineyards, where he collected many 90+ reviews from major wine journals. John’s delicate-styled Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Francs are classic in color, texture, and taste. But the “clan” members, the Scottish-styled wine club aficionados, are fans of the much more mysterious and famous Black Russian, a dark red wine made with obscure grapes like Saperavi and Sereksiya Charni.
Tom and Susan Higgins have created a small little oasis on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake. There, they produce some of the best Riesling and Pinot Noir in the state. Of course, that’s all they do. They are focused like a laser. Their Pinot Noir especially is an incredible wine, with bright cherry, vanilla, and black pepper like few others in the world can match. All done by hand, this small winery is freaky good, and has been turning wine writers’ heads since they opened.
Morten and Lisa Hallgren, owners of Ravines Wine Cellars near Hammondsport purchased vineyards and an old barn used for wine production on the west side of Seneca Lake. Morten, an enologist from southern France, is the winemaker, and Susan, a chef by trade, heads promotions and sales.
“People think that we don’t have a nice climate her for growing grapes but we do. It’s a combination of the cool climate where we are able to attain this beautiful acidity in all of our wines and it’s something that for the most part is lacking in American wines, great acidity. When it gets to your taste buds it makes your food taste better. We’re able to make these great food wines here,” Morten has said. Their whites are all crisp, clean, and on point, with delicate aromas and flavors, and are incredibly well crafted, as are the Pinot Noir and the Cabernet Franc.
Kelby Russel is the new winemaker at the venerable Red Newt Cellars. Dave and Debra Whiting founded the winery in Hector which gained an immediate reputation for fine wines and dining in the region. The Rieslings were of the highest caliber, with notes of lychee, honey, apricot and Diesel. And the series of single vineyard reserve wines, both whites and reds, are easily among the best on the east coast. While the whites are breathtaking, the reds are easily as awesome. Russell is among the new turks on the scene, and is part of the transition to the next generation of winemakers in the region. In 2014, Red Newt launched a new label under Kelby James Russell Wines which promises to be an exciting edition to the regions fine wines. “If wines are about the place they come from as much as the grapes, we have a great deal of natural beauty and raw power to work with here. “Winemaking on a knife’s edge” is how I once read the Saar described, and I think we fit that mold equally well. High risk, but incredible opportunity,” Russell said in an interview.
Peter Becraft is proving to be one of the region’s rising stars as well, and is making wonderful wines at regional stalwart Anthony Road Vineyards. Founded in 1991 by John and Ann Martini, Anthony Roads has long been a name synonymous with quality winemaking in the Finger Lakes. But Peter, who tinkered in obscurity for some time, is now known for his own brilliant vintages.
“When I was in art school, we learned that in general people look at a piece of art for 7 seconds, and then move on. As a winemaker I can use this passion and creativity and connect a lot deeper with people,” Becraft said. “With wine you become part of their meals, their lives, I get to make a bigger connection.”
His whites are incredible, nimble and light, with a concert pianist’s touch. His rose is nimble and delicious. And his recent reds such as his classy Pinot Noir and his Cabernet Franc/Lemberger have all been well received.
August Deimel at Keuka Spring Lake Vineyards is also sowing new fields at an established winery, has been making exceptional traditional wines like Chardonnay, single vineyard Riesling, and Cabernet Franc, but also knock outs in his R&D Series, such as barrel fermented Gerwurztraminer, a Cabernet Franc/Lemberger wild-yeast, field blend, and Omega, a Cabernet Franc ice wine.
“I’m all about incremental improvement. I have no preconceived notions of what I want my wines to be. Instead, I try a variety of techniques and as I see what works I incorporate or discard my tools as appropriate,” Deimel told The Cork report. “These days I’m obsessed with how one can manipulate texture in whites (particularly Gewurztraminer) and looking to find ways to bring out primary fruit in reds. I’m the only winemaker I know who is acquiring oak barrels for whites as fast as possible while selling off all of his red barrels.”
Young brothers Ian and Brian Barry founded Barry Family Cellars in Burdett, New York, along with help from their parents Ken and Hope Barry.
“I’m into the vibe of repurposing things,” Ian says. “The tanks, the press, this building – I guess this is more philosophical than I’m even aware of at times.”
The fun, funky vibe in their tasting room, an old general store, is hipster cool, along with their labels, but the wine is nothing short of amazing. The Rieslings are cool, clean, lean, and aromatic. And the Cabernet Franc and Rose’ are beautiful. But that doesn’t stop them from their occasional experiments like dry sparking reds! Super fun!
There is so much complexity and quality in the region, it is hard to know where to stop. But one thing is for sure, for the last three and four generations, the Finger Lakes region has been in good hands, and should be a hotbed of innovation and excitement for at least another generation to come.
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.