the good, the bad and the ugly



This last weekend, I attended Hunter Mountain's 6th Annual Microbrew, Wine and Fine Food Festival. From a connoisseur's point of view, it was better to be a beer drinker than a wine lover or gourmet; there were 15 breweries represented and the few offerings I tasted were sensational. The gold medal winner Mother's Milk from new-comer Keegan Ales in Kingston, for example, was about as aptly named as you could expect from a pint of creamy stout. I also gravitated towards the Davidson Brothers stall, who just happened to be complete Anglophiles: every piece of their brewing equipment was custom made in England, their barley hails from Munton's in Stowmarket, England, and their yeast was patented at Ringwood Brewery in England. Their Golden Ale and Smoked Porter could hold up against any of the local British brewies – and were certainly preferable to the continental European lager my countrymen inexplicably prefer to drink.

The Wine aspect of the Festival appears to be a work in progress. Just five wineries showed, all but one hailing from the Hudson Valley itself, and three of those were staffed by small family wineries still learning their chops. (The region's one respected producer, Millbrook, was notable by its absence.) Still, I approached the event all with an open mind and an eager palate; I didn’t expect to taste world class wines, just wanted to see that local producers were growing the right grapes for the climate and making wines that were true to the region.

I started with the white wines from Brotherhood Winery; which I'd seen listed in my Hugh Johnson Wine Atlas the previous night: with commercial transactions dating back to 1839, it is America's oldest continuously active winery. Brotherhood survived prohibition by producing sacramental wine, and since 1987, has been in the hands of Chilean Cesar Baeza, who buys in from outside growers rather than raise his own grapes.

This makes for a strange combination of serious wines and tourist attractions, and I had to ignore such offerings as a Blush Chablis, a non-alcohol May, a Rosario, a White Zinfandel and a Ginseng red (!) to get to anything I thought would whet my palate. Unfortunately the 2002 Chardonnay wasn't a good start. Barrel-fermented – that means OAK! - it had butter aromas but no fruit. Actually, it was nasty. The 2002 Johannisberg Riesling was much more attractive, with bright acidity, enticing pear flavors and a rounded palate. Less sweet than its semi-dry label would suggest, it offered a deceptively beefy 12% alcohol and though it was lacking depth, I found it exuberant and friendly, a cute puppy of a wine. I ended up buying a bottle.

Vowing to come back for Brotherhood's reds, I gravitated to Wagner, the one Finger Lakes winery on hand. Wagner is also a micro-brewery, so it makes perfect sense for them to represent at this Festival, but they hadn't accurately anticipated consumer demand and had more off-dry wines than dry ones. All the same, I enjoyed talking with Laura Wagner as she generously poured everything on offer. (The $15 tasting fee bought six tickets for 6-ounce beer pours, but the wine pours came unlimited with the accompanying wristband. My kind of event!) Wagner produce four Chardonnays, but the one they brought with them happened to be the one with some Residual Sugar, i.e. a touch of sweetness. The Non-Vintage Estate Bottled Vintner's Chardonnay (with just 1.0% RS) was better than Brotherhood's, but that's not saying much. I was more than happy to try the 1999 Estate Bottled Cabernet Franc, which had seen a year's aging in wood, and smelled like it too – though it emitted some trademark tobacco/pencil shaving flavors too. There were still some tannins present which indicate Wagner's intention to make wines for the long haul; I found it somewhat light in fruit and overly wooded, given how well Cabernet Franc can perform in New York State, but come the end of the day, I was gasping for more. By which point they'd sold out. Make of that what you will.

The 1999 Meritage (45% Cab Franc, 39% Cab Sauvignon, 16% Merlot) was ripe and well-balanced, with plenty of plum, cherry and black-currant, and sufficient smoke and cedar spice to also indicate its oak ageing. I haven't been blown away by Finger Lakes Bordeaux blends, and this is merely a B to B+ wine, but I was pleasantly surprised. Then again, it didn't have much competition on the day.

Ice wines come in tall, thin half bottles. They don't tend to come cheap.

Like Brotherhood, Wagner appears to make more wines than makes sense – their product sheet listed 34 of them! – but at least they're all drawn from just a dozen or so appropriate grapes. A 2002 semi-dry Gewürtztraminer (1.7% RS) had a soft entry, some orange spice on the palate and just a touch of sweetness. The 2002 semi-dry Riesling appeared very very light on the palate, but opened up with true pear/melon flavors and finished with a mere touch of sweetness (2.4% RS). Very easy and uncomplicated, I was surprised to see it still packed 11.5% alcohol. As for the 2002 semi-dry Johannisberg Riesling, this one offered low acidity but pronounced fruit, including apricots and citrus flavors. With the sweetness level now up to 3.5%, I ear-marked it as a good accompaniment to some spicy foods.

If Wagner has a real reputation, it's for its late harvest/ice wines, and we gratefully tasted one of each. The 1999 Late Harvest Vignoles offered gorgeous aromas of apricots, lychees and pears, an addictively creamy palate and a lingering finish. Relatively high in RS (at 11.0%) the Vingnoles was nonetheless bludgeoned by the 1999 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine's 15.4% RS, which predictably made for more of a sticky sensation (as the Aussies would put it), and more pronounced pineapple flavors too. This Vidal (which purists may want to note is made grapes picked fresh and then frozen, as opposed to being actually picked during a mid-winter freeze) seemed better suited as a food a ccompaniment; the Vignoles, being comparatively more subdued, seems it could do better on its own. But both were excellent wines deserving of their reputations, not least because they're fairly priced at $18 and $20 a 375 ml bottle respectively. (Ice wines from Ontario can run five times that price!) We took one of each home with us.

Unfortunately, that was it for Wagner. Laura promised to return next year with a more even supply. I hope so; given the winery's focus on climate-friendly grapes, and its willingness to drop a vintage when nature doesn't co-operate, I would have happily tasted its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir, as well as its productions from the hybrid grapes Seyval Blanc and de Chaunac.

Traditionally, areas like the mid-Hudson Valley were planted with (mainly French) "hybrid" grapes that withstand damp, cool and otherwise difficult climates. Though not considered "noble" grapes and therefore relegated to second-tier status, they have their fans. Brimstone Hill makes an acceptable Vin Rouge blend.

Brimstone Hill Vineyard was represented by the winemaker's daughter and son-in-law, neither of whom seemed desperately excited to be there. When I returned to their table at the end of the day to pick up a bottle of their 2001 Vin Rouge, they'd already packed up and gone home. A shame, because this blend of 'Bach Noir, Chancellor, Foch, Chambourcin etc.' – all of them hybrid grapes that grow well in New York – was warm and spicy, yet with a bitter attack that was rather Italian in substance, and with a surprisingly dark chocolate finish. At $11 (and 12% alcohol), it seemed a perfectly good representation of popular local hybrids and I'd have been happy to open it at home with a rustic pasta. Oh well. Brimstone's 2002 Chardonnay was quite impressive for the day, its heavily oaked butter taste augmented by a nutty finish and good balance. The 2001 Pinot Noir was passable, with a light cherry nose and a spicy finish, but I didn't observe enough fruit or overall complexity. I may stop in at Brimstone one day to try their Cabernet Franc, Vidal, Seyval Blanc and Riesling; I got the impression that dad is trying hard and warrants more support than he's getting from his offspring!

Baldwin Wines offered a Mist di Greco, a 50-50 Chardonnay-Seyval Blanc blend that was very light, bright and simple, an inoffensive picnic wine. The 2000 Merlot was masked in wood; hard to define as anything other than an oaky red. Baldwin seemed most popular for its Strawberry Wine, which has received rave reviews from those who critique such things. I didn't taste it. But there you have the Hudson Balley conundrum in a nut shell – presuming conundrums fit in nut shells. And if they don't, well that's my point: some wineries do well with vinifera, some with hybrids, and some with sweet fruit wines. But beware the winery that makes them all.

Seyval Blanc makes a clean, fruity wine; it's suited to cooler climates like New York - and England.

Finally, I enjoyed the four offerings from Cascade Mountain, which resides on the east of the Hudson not far from Millbrook. Their 2002 Seyval Blanc (with 20% Chardonnay), aged in stainless steel (hoorah!) was bright, clean and attractive, with a touch of citrus and a note of the green apple and pear that typifies Hudson Valley Orchards. At 11.5% alcohol, it suggested itself as a perfectly pleasant, subtly addictive aperitif and food wine, and I was happy to pick up a bottle. Cascade's Summertide is a semi-dry blend of Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc, with what was rightly called a "snap" on the palate. The definition of a picnic wine, fortunately, that's all Cascade promotes it as.

Cascade's Couer de Lion 2001 is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Foch in there; made in what they call 'a Beaujolais style', it's lean and light, and would appear to confirm why Cabernet Sauvignon shouldn't be grown in the Hudson. But then I tried the Vintage Private Reserve Red 2000, about 80% Cab Sauvignon with 20% Foch, and I was impressed: there was some stuffing to this wine, solid berry fruit that showed itself beyond the evident oak ageing, and enough tannin to suggest it won't die in infancy. I bought a bottle for $16 in the absence of Baldwin's Vin Rouge. Time will demonstrate the wisdom of my decision.

I ended the day back where I started, at Brotherhood's table, this time trying through their reds. The Pinot Noir was tough and tannic; the Cabernet Sauvignon had more fruit and some tannins, better than I'd anticipated; it probably warranted another taste. The Winery seemed particularly proud of Mariage, an unusual Non Vintage combination of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Chardonnay. Apparently, when winemaker Cesar Baeza took over Brotherhood, he discovered some unbottled chardonnay which he thought was good enough to use for this blend - though presumably either not good enough to bottle on its own or not labeled accurately enough to be allowed into a vintage wine. I was told that he's since had to buy back a bottle of his first lot for $800 from Sotheby's which, if nothing else, suggests that Brotherhood is turning a profit. The Mariage is certainly an interesting wine, with curious flavors of strawberry, black berries and creamy chocolate, and I'd like to have a glass of it some time for a better analysis. But for all the salesmanship, and Sotheby's interest notwithstanding, I simply wasn't going to spend $25 on a NV Cabernet Sauvignon from the Hudson Valley.

And that was it for the day. Though standards were poor on an international scale, there were some keen efforts fighting their way out of the typical chardonnay/merlot/fruit wine malaise. Wagner proved again the Finger Lakes' amenable climate, especially with its dessert wines; Cascade offered interesting blends of vinifera and hybrids; and Brimstone had at least one instantly interesting hybrid blend. Even Brotherhood had good wine if you could just find it amongst the distractions. I hope in future years more wineries attend and that the organizers allow the smaller producers to pour more than four wines. In the meantime, I had a good time. And isn't that the point of a festival?



(Yes, starting the week with a wine post. That's partly the point of this site.)

When my English friends came to visit the other week, I wanted to show them that New York can make great wine. 'Can' proved to be the operative word.

Riesling excels in the Finger Lakes' cool climate. The Wiemer Johannisberg Dry 2001 is exemplary - and great value too


Fortunately, the first taste was the sweetest. On a wet Saturday night in the Catskills, after their flight over and a long drive in the rain, we celebrated their arrival with a Hermann J. Wiemer Johannisberg Riesling Dry Finger Lakes 2001. I started to explain how Riesling is well suited to the Finger Lakes' cool climate, blah blah blah, but the wine quickly sold itself. A light yellow green in the class, it had a crisply aromatic nose of green apple and pear, which continued in the palate accompanied by exuberant acidity and some bright lemon and lime flavors, before heading into a pronounced, bright finish with mineral, wet stone overtones. Refreshing, mouthwatering, packed with friendly flavors, it was the perfect pick-up and seemed to echo, in its own unpretentious manner, the summer rain pounding outside. I've noticed that Finger Lakes Rieslings are beginning to receive serious attention from the international wine critics, and rightly so. In the meantime, prices remain good: $14 for this exemplary offering. If we're in the mood to give grades – and I am – the Wiemer gets an A-.


I was tempted to open a German Riesling sitting chilled in the fridge, to compare the Wiemer to the 'real thing,' but our guests, following the old 'when in Rome' adage, preferred to stay local, so we moved closer to the Catskills with a Millbrook Tocai Friulano 2002 from the Hudson Valley. Of course, to some degree, we were indeed heading off to the land of the Romans with this unusual choice of grape for the east coast. In fact, I'd felt slightly guilty picking this wine up the previous day, given that my local store (more of which later) was pouring a perfectly fine Friuli from its Italian homeland while I was there. But I looked at this way: after a free taste of the Italian Friuli, I knew roughly what the Italian-minded Millbrook (who also produces Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay) should be aiming for. And they've done a good job. The nose seemed to continue the crisp citrus, apple and pear flavors of the upstate Riesling, but with some of that delicate perfumed honeysuckle I associate with my favorite white, Viognier. In the mouth, there was more of that Viognier flavor – peaches and apricots – but an acidity you'd never get from the Rhône grape. I also noted a hint of orange such as I sometimes get from Marsanne, and maybe even some tropical kiwi/pineapple. All in all, an attractive wine, and given the generally hefty New York prices, well worth its $12.50 tag. I'm not sure it was the right wine to accompany the grilled vegetables that hit our plate around the same time, and it couldn't hold a candle to the Wiemer Riesling, but I'll go back to it another day – maybe with an Italian Friuli alongside. B-.


By now, thanks especially to the Riesling, our friends were revived from their flight and keen to keep going. We opened a Warwick Valley Chardonnay 2001, a Hudson Valley winery whose grapes for this particular wine hail from back up in the Finger Lakes; I'd bought this wine alongside the Millbrook based on its $11 tag and a verbal assurance it wasn't buried in oak. (This despite the label advertising "a long ageing process in oak barrels.") Buried might be too strong a word, but the fruit was still struggling to show itself beyond the oak's golden color and the telltale nose of butter and vanilla. Lurking somewhere underneath was a good, solid, ripe Chardonnay, unpretentious and unspectacular. Fine for the price, but I won't rush back for more. C+.

The New York wine regions: most wine of note comes from the Finger Lakes in the north-west, Long Island in the south-east, and the Hudson Valley in the middle. For a full report on some of the State's best red wines - Cabernet Franc - click here.


A couple of days later, with the sudden, belated appearance of summer weather in mid-September, we decided on a Brooklyn backyard barbeque, which understandably enough also afforded me the opportunity to open some New York reds. (The Millbrook New York State Cabernet Franc 2002 of which I'm already on record as loving; a Lenz Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 which was typical of the North Fork's 'high-end' style, very smoky and oaky, with lots of blackcurrant and mint and a long, lingering, chewy finish; and the basic Cline Zinfandel to show off 'America's grape.') But because the guest who lives in Sydney had been expressing her own enthusiasm for New Zealand Marlborough Valley Sauvignon Blancs, and because I share her passion for the grape, I had returned to the same Brooklyn store from which I'd bought the Millbrook and Warwick and shelled out $15 for an Osprey's Dominion Fumé Blanc 2001 from Long Island's North Fork. I'd previously passed over this wine based on that word Fumé and these words on the label: "fermented in oak barrels, 15% of which are new French oak". Oak and Chardonnay? Mais bien sur. But oak and Sauvignon Blanc? Only if you know what you're doing – and I've seen few American wine-makers that do.

But, and here I'm going on a mini-rant, the wine store owner, a former sommelier who takes great pride in his inventory, posting elaborate, highly detailed notes all over the shop and its front window, assured me that the oak was minimal and that the fruit shone through. (He'd said the same of the Warwick, so I should have been suspicious.) He also told me it was the best Sauvignon Blanc from Long Island, to which I retorted that, Macari's well-reviewed offering aside, that wasn't saying much. But still. You want to trust someone who professes to know what he talks about. And if Long Island has the climate for the Loire's premier red grape Cabernet Franc, it should also be able to raise the Loire's premier white grape, Sauvignon Blanc. Right?

Wrong! The color was the first giveaway. Golden. Chardonnay golden, as opposed to that lemony-green of a good SB. The nose continued along this path, giving up buttery melon and apple aromas. If it looks like a Chardonnay and smells like a Chardonnay, then chances are it will taste like a Chardonnay. And to our collective disappointment, there was none of that vibrant Sauvignon Blanc acidity, let alone (depending on hemisphere) those grassy, gooseberry, flint, tropical or even plain old citrus flavors. Just some very fat fruit obscured by dollops of oak. My wife, offering more succinct notes than yours truly, described it as "heavy and staid" and opened a bottle of Cider instead. My two visitors both insisted it was a mis-labeled Chardonnay – and a not very good one at that. I was embarrassed. I've yet to go back to the store and question the owner's taste, though I certainly will do in time. But before my guests departed, I visited, instead, the Korean-owned five-and-dime liquor store I used to frequent before the sommelier came to the Avenue, and picked up a Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fume 2002 for the same price, just to show that I do know decent Sauvignon Blanc from dreadful. Consider the Osprey's Dominion a D for Dud – and avoid it like the plague. (Read a review of a better Long Island white wine here.)

More finger-licking Finger Lakes wine: Dr. Frank's Salmon Run Chardonnay is a winner.


I've subsequently tucked into a bottle of Salmon Run Fingers Lakes Chardonnay 2001, the everyday label for the region's original vinifera champion, Dr. Konstantin Frank. (Read a review of Frank's excellent Gewurtztraminer here.) A yellow-green in the glass, it exudes apple, pear and melon flavors with just a hint of butterscotch. It's somewhat lean and grassy but after the Warwick and Osprey's Dominion experiences, I consider that a bonus: it just means the wine is displaying natural fruit. In fact, the more I taste it, the more the flavors open up; in its own simplistic manner, it's truer to an everyday Chablis than an over-oaked Cali. And that's also a good thing. The Salmon Run back labels are a little hokey, but these are seriously well-priced wines: at just $11, this Chardonnay again shows that the east coast can do it right, as long as the producers stick with the right grapes for the climate, and give them a simple enough treatment to let the fruit burst forth. All's well that ends well. B-.

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