New York Wine Report 1: Silver Stream & Premium

On Sunday September 27, I attended the Hunter Mountain Microbrew and Wine Fest for the first time in a few years. As ever, the Microbrews were the stronger draw – and the better drinks, most likely: it’s much easier to make good beer in the Hudson Valley from purchased hops and barley than it is to grow vinifera grapes to their fullest potential. (Windham Vineyards, the only winery in the Catskills north of Sullivan County, just announced a complete fruit loss for 2009.) But the wine tasting was all the better for the presence of a couple of new faces, for representation from the Finger Lakes and Long Island as well as the Hudson Valley, and for the generous pours and enjoyable conversations with the wine-makers and their salespeople.

I started with what was, for me, a new winery, the Hudson Valley’s own SILVER STREAM. As I examined the bottles on display, my initial reaction was, “What the…?” The bottles had cheap paper labels, with poorly designed logos. The type was askew; the color off. In addition, the wines had names like Franky Say Relax and Buckethead. The overall impression was of rank amateurism. Nervously, I got talking to winemaker Kenneth Lifshitz, who poured me a blend called WAPITI made up of Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Cayuga, only some of it grown on his Hudson Valley Estate. It was about as good as any wine including Cayuga can ever be. (That’s not a compliment, btw.) So we moved on to the 2006 CHARDONNAY (a combination of Finger Lakes and his own grapes), which spent two years in stainless steel and one in oak. I commented that was a fairly lengthy maturation for a small winery and Ken was alarmingly frank in his response, telling me that the wine had been such a disaster upon initial bottling that he’d de-bottled it and put it in back in oak for a year. It was big and fat. I wasn’t sure what else to make of it.

IMG_3366 Silver Stream’s labels are the wine equivalent of the golden era of DIY singles.

But once we switched to reds, everything changed. We started with the CABERNET FRANC 2007, the one sub-titled “FRANKY SAY RELAX.” Mainly from Finger Lakes grapes, this one had a nice purple color, peppery nose, and I found it very true to Cabernet Franc on the palate, with solid tobacco flavors, lively pepper and a healthy coating of dusty tannins. I subsequently bought a bottle (it’s priced at $19), and at home it performed even better. Tasted blind, you’d surely have considered it the product of one of the Finger Lakes’ better, more established wineries.

Warming now to the man, I asked Ken about the label: did he have a dog named Franky? (As you’ll see from the label, a dog appears somewhat incongruously on the label.)

“I’m an ex-musician,” said the winemaker. “I like musical references. I’m just having some fun.”

“Well,” I said in return, “I was involved in music myself when Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” was number 1 in the UK for what seemed like months. I remember the period well.” And then it hit me. Silver Stream’s labels were amateur, yes, but deliberately so. They were the wine-making equivalent of all those DIY 7” singles from the glorious days of the post-punk boom of the late 70s and early 80s, the ones that were printed on paper, sometimes hand-typed, sometimes hand-colored, often Xeroxed. It was an era when both the music and the artwork that accompanied was gloriously lo-fi and yet they were some of the greatest records ever made. I mentioned all this, and Ken’s face lit up. “You’re one of the only people who’s got it!” he said.

We got into a conversation now about Frankie Goes To Hollywood. (As it happens, they were the least DIY group of their time; if anything, their Trevor Horn—produced singles rewrote the rule book for modern music.) Was it Franky Say Relax, per his label, or Frankie Says Relax, per my memory? Some google image searches to call up the old t-shirts suggest that it was a combination of both: Frankie Say Relax. I haven’t yet asked Ken whether his decision to misspell the band name is a deliberate way to avoid perceived copyright infringements, or an example of willful amateurism. But we have engaged in a lively online discussion now that we know we share roots in punk, in writing and of course, nowadays, in wine, too. (You can read one of my very first iJamming! posts, “Wine and Music: The Connection” here.)

Finally I tasted his GALA 50 MERITAGE, a straight up New York State blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc with a 5% smidgeon of Frontenac thrown in. “Quite plummy and plump, this is a good wine,” I wrote. I’d like to retaste it for a stronger opinion. Certainly, Ken’s a likeable guy. He’s hampered by the growing conditions in his part of the Hudson Valley, but he’s undaunted. He makes interesting wines, he makes fun wines, and he makes a couple of very good red wines. He also writes a great blog. Visit him at

The other new winery – and these bottles were but two months old, most of them – could not have been more different. PREMIUM WINES is an established company on Long Island that offers custom-production and custom-crush services, and whose founder, Russell Hearn, has also been Pellegrini’s winemaker since 1991. Hearn has finally decided to get in the business of bottling his own wines, under the label names PUMPHOUSE and SUHRU (the latter an odd combination of first and last names, a little like, now that I’m on the subject, those independent record labels of the 50s and 60s… If you can figure out how Sire was a combination of Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer you’re probably great at crossword puzzles too).

IMG_3367 The brand new Suhru imprint’s labels, from Premium Wines, are the equivalent of a major label’s expensive CD covers. Don’t hold it against the wines!

All Premium’s wines had beautiful, sleek labels, and were accompanied by gracefully designed production notes, the exact opposite of Silver Stream. But let’s not hold that against them. The 2008 PUMPHOUSE WHITE is a blend of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, all but 10% of it from Long Island. This, like the other whites (and the rosé) was served far too cold; the pourer could have done with letting them sit out of the ice bucket for a while. As such, it was hard to taste the fruit in this wine, even though I’m convinced it existed. It was not so difficult to appreciate the acidity.

The 2008 SUHRU RIESLING, primarily Finger Lakes and with 6% Long Island Gewurztraminer, was extremely dry and quite sharp. Again, aggressive chilling had robbed it of its flavors. There was a little more flavor poking out of the 2008 SUHRU PINOT GRIGIO, this one with a touch of Riesling. (Are you starting to see a patten forming here?) Just the right amount of minerality balanced its pear and apple flavors nicely; clearly a good wine if allowed to take its coat off.

Typically I dislike calling Syrah Shiraz in the States, but given that winemaker Hearn is Australian by birth, we’ll cut him a break. And a Syrah rosé is an interesting concept by any name. The pourer espoused his personal enthusiasm for this wine, but when I ran into similar problems of temperature over the 2008 SUHRU SHIRAZ ROSÉ, he agreed with me, opened a bottle sitting out on the table, and we blended a glass. That was more like it: now I could get aromas of raspberry and cherry and what, when I bought a bottle and later opened it at home, my wife referred to accurately as cranberry flavors too. There’s absolutely some pink grapefruit going on here too. A distinctly different shade of pink than the southern French wines I’m used to – more delicate perhaps, prettier even – the wine is floral on the palate, with that pink grapefruit thing going on as well. As you’d expect, plenty acidity. A really lovely wine, and refreshingly atypical. 84% Shiraz, it also has some Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Chardonnay and 1% Petit Verdot.

Finally, the PUMPHOUSE RED (I didn’t seem to note whether it’s an ’08, like the others, or perhaps of an earlier vintage and aged), dominated by Merlot with a little Cab Sauvignon, and miniscule amounts of Cab Franc, Petit Verdot and Syrah, was plummy and dusty and with redolent red fruits. I’m not the world’s greatest Merlot fan, even though it works so well on Long Island, but this was excellent: Hearn is clearly making great wine all around. And it will be clearer still stll if I can taste those whites at something beyond freezer temperature.

While Silver Stream and Suhru would appear to have nothing wine-related in common other than their New York State locations and therefore some of their grapes, it should be noted that these were the only producers in the hall who resolutely refuse to make sweet wines. Or even off-dry wines. As such, and unfortunately this says far too much about America’s rural wine drinkers (or perhaps its beer drinkers given the Microbrewers’ prominence at this event), these may have been the least popular wineries at Hunter Mountain. Americans love their sweet wines. Silver Stream and Suhru love their dry ones. I’m happy to see Kenneth Lifshitz and Russell Hearns digging in their heels and sticking to their guns from opposite ends of the wine-making spectrum. Kudos to them both.

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1 Comment(s)

  1. 15 October, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Hey Tony,

    Thanks for stopping at the booth at Hunter, and for your honest comments, honesty is always a bonus for a winemaker, in vino veritas, (or should be)


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