Finger Lakes Wine Report Part 2
Part 2 of Tony’s visit to the Finger Lakes wine region in upstate New York. Read the first part, complete with overview, here.
Following our morning visit to the Cayuga Lake Wineries Hosmer, Thirsty Owl and Sheldrake Point, we drove over to the west side of Seneca Lake, where we stopped for lunch at the Stone Cat Café, itself part of the Bloomer Creek Vineyard. I was immediately impressed by the environment (casual but classy), the menu (everything smoked, from tofu through fish to meat) and bar (a wide range of Finger Lakes wines, and several beers on tap too). I’d like to have been equally impressed by my day’s first full glass of wine, a Bloomer Creek 2002 Pinot Noir, but when it finally arrived after much reminding and cajoling … it was corked. Fortunately, and as you would hope at an actual winery, I was immediately served another glass from a fresh bottle, though I found this replacement somewhat flat and devoid of expression. My friend Joe seemed more satisfied with his glass of Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards’ Gewürztraminer, a grape that, like Riesling, is well-suited to the Finger Lakes climate – but it’s a seriously acquired taste, fully of oily ginger-lychee spice, and not one I desperately enjoy.
Still, lunch itself was reassuringly satisfying, and I’d recommend the Stone Cat as an ideal dining location – especially as the wine list extends well beyond Bloomer Creek’s own wines. Just as well. We stopped to sample the Bloomer Creek line on our way out, but they were sadly in short supply – something about building a new tasting room for next year. In particular, we were disappointed that the Gamay Noir was unavailable, but we readily tasted the 2002 Cabernet Franc, from which both Joe and myself picked up the kind of black cherry notes one would associate with Pinot Noir. It was also surprisingly fruity and unusually forward for a Cabernet Franc. What gives? We left, thoroughly confused.
Joe offered a choice of destinations as we drove down the Seneca Lake coast and I opted for Atwater over Château Lafayette for the simple reason that it’s more obscure. This proved to be a good call, at least once Joe, a sucker for punishment, got past the barrel-fermented Chardonnay. The 2003 Gewürztraminer was a better wine than many of its ilk, with ample fruit, the usual lychee flavors, some spicy oiliness on the back palate and yet a reasonable degree of restraint. The 2004 Semi-Dry Riesling offered equally pronounced fruit (lime and apricot and peach), good acidity, and a lightly honey-sugared finish. In short, everything you’d look for in such a wine. I was not surprised to see that it was their most decorated wine, and I happily purchased a bottle, subsequently opened at home and meeting with similarly impressive notes. The fact that Atwater offers the most attractively designed bottles of all the wineries we visited should not be worth the extra dollar or two the winery seems to demand, but it was clearly a selling point to visitors. Atwater obviously understands the importance of marketing.
As such, and with a total disregard for convention, Atwater offers a 2004 RieWürz, the contents of which should not need explaining. If you want to know why more producers don’t blend these two cool climate white wine grapes, be warned that the floral flavors and citrus notes led to a totally hollow mid-palate. Nice try, no cigar.
The 2004 Dry Rosé, on the other hand, was astonishing. A ballsy blend of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvigon, it was a seriously dark salmon pink color, with highly distinctive strawberry and raspberry flavors. There was little acidity, but enough spice to conjure up comparisons to a Tavel, and the full-bodied palate positively screamed of summer fruits. With balance and length in equal harmony, this was, perhaps, the surprise wine of the weekend. Atwater appears aware of as much, pricing it at $16 – more, even, than an aforementioned Tavel. Then again, there’s only 100 cases in existence. I wouldn’t mind owning one of them.
Inevitably, the reds were a disappointment by comparison. For sure, blame the vintage: even the company’s own tasting notes for the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon freely admit that “the rainy season made vinifying reds more challenging for winemaker Vinny Aliperti.” At 11% alcohol, the Cabernet Sauvignon was a weakling, light in color, with summery strawberry aromas rather than the dense blackcurrant for which the grape is famous. Still, it was no worse (or better) than the 2003 Meritage, your usual blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot buried in oak, retailing for $22 a bottle. You shouldn’t need me to remind you that you can get proper Bordeaux for less.
It was at Atwater that a couple of bottle-blonde thirty-something sisters encouraged their mother – yes, their mother – to show the wine-pourer a chest mole near her nipple. We then realized they were wearing matching t-shirts with a photograph of said mole. I am not making this up. A quick check of the watch revealed that it was not yet 3pm, but clearly, with the rain coming down ever harder, the limo and coach “tours” had descended into full-bodied drunkenness. We made our excuses and departed.
We moved on rapidly to Standing Stone, one of the Finger Lakes’ more renowned wineries and a visit I was particularly anticipating as Joe had worked at the winery a few vintages back and, presumably, would be received warmly. Far from it: we found the winery totally swamped both by the rain and by fully sodden customers, and co-owner Marti Macinksi seemed too overwhelmed to afford Joe much more than the time of day. Oh well. We wandered the grounds a little, Joe pointing out where the winery’s Merlot crop had been completely destroyed by the 2004 cold snap (a blessing in disguise, some might say), and leading me into the cellars where we observed a variety of different barrels all hoarding their contents for future bottling. In fairness to Standing Stone, whose 1998 Cabernet Franc I recall being most impressed by back when I hosted the French-American taste-off, it was by now raining buckets and even confirmed vineyard enthusiasts like our good selves could not wait to get back inside. I’m writing these notes while looking at a beautiful blue-sky photo of Standing Stones’ outdoor tasting area (from the useful companion book Wine Tour of the Finger Lakes ) and will happily assume that, had the weather been more agreeable, the hordes of visitors would have spread their wings further than the enclosed tasting area, paused to take in the scenery and relax over a full glass of wine, and perhaps not descended on their pourers and pours with such gusto.
Still, we were stuck where we were – peak hours at a popular winery on a wet fall Saturday – and so headed back indoors and searched for a vacant tasting area, or at least an employee who would guide us to one. We finally made our way to an old lady who was so clearly overwhelmed by the whole experience that most visitors were avoiding her. Assuring her that we did not need much by way of explanation, we worked our way through the available wines.
The 2004 Gewürztraminer was light in color, offering up the usual tropical fruit aromas – but I found the spicy finish lean and a little mean. Then again, I’m not the grape’s biggest fan. We moved on to the 2004 Cabernet Franc – so new that the bottle was not yet labeled – which was light, pleasant, fruity and youthful, but not saying much. Bottle shock, suggested Joe. Revisit in several months. I am sure he’s right.
The 2002 Estate Bottled Merlot offered up plummy, oaky, gingerbread notes, with just enough astringency to suggest there’s stuffing in there that will need time to settle down. By comparison, the 2001 Estate Bottled Merlot, from a supposedly superior vintage, offered up more evidently woody-cedar notes, and felt distinctly drier, suggesting its fruit had already vanished, never to return. At $20 a pop, I couldn’t get excited.
The Standing Stone Pinnacle 2003 is, to all regulatory intents and purposes, a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon topped off with 10% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. It’s consistently considered Standing Stone’s benchmark and something of a flagship for the whole region but, and again we can blame the wet vintage if we so choose, it was thin and light, barely revealing even its measly 11.5% alcohol content. I was keen nonetheless to put down a dollar a piece to taste the 2001 and 1999 Pinnacles, trusting that those reputedly better vintages would reveal a markedly better wine – and also hoping for some proof that Finger Lakes reds can last more than five years in bottle. Sadly, and despite my polite persistence, our poor old pourer simply could not find the wines anywhere in her vicinity and I gave up on the opportunity of being properly impressed by a Standing Stone red.
We moved on to a couple more whites. The 2004 Riesling, which has some sweetness though it is not listed as a Semi-Dry, was similar to Atwater’s impressive offering and probably of equal quality. The 2004 Vidal Ice, made from refrigerated grapes (rather than grapes picked frozen), was full of sweet apricot and honey textures, an excellent dessert wine that further verifies the ability of Vidal and Vignoles, lesser “hybrid” grapes though they may be, to make Ice Wines of exceptional quality.
Since my visit to Standing Stone, the Wine Spectator has bestowed impressively high “scores” on the last two of the wines I tasted (90pts for the 2004 Vidal Ice, 88pts for the 2004 Riesling) and one that I did not (88pts for the Chardonnay Reserve, made from 30-year old vines), further confirming the winery’s position near the top of the Finger Lakes pecking order. Standing Stone is one of several popular Finger Lakes wineries (along with Silver Thread, Shalestone, Wagner and Lamoreaux Landing) situated along a thin strip of Seneca Lake’s eastern shores, in a microclimate known locally as the “Banana Belt.” Scoff all you want, but the waters reach some 650 feet in depth at this point just south of the town of Lodi, helping radiate temperatures nearby and allowing peach trees to grow far north of their usual habitat. Certainly, I don’t deny that there are good wines being made here; I just decry that we had to taste them in such dire circumstances.
I’d been equally excited about visiting Red Newt, considered leaders among the Finger Lakes’ New Wave, and whose grounds house not just a winery and tasting room but a highly regarded bistro, too. Certainly, the environment was more relaxed and amenable than at Standing Stone, and, knowing this would be our last appointment of the day, we settled in to enjoy ourselves. A low-budget Salamander White made primarily from Chardonnay got us off to a mediocre start, after which we received a lesson in vintage. The 2003 Reserve Riesling was abrasively dry and quite nasty, in flagrant contrast to its $20 price tag, while the 2004 Semi-Dry Riesling, from a more reliable vintage, was much nicer, with good fresh forward fruit, some of that tangerine flavor I’ll now forever associate with the Finger Lakes, and 2% Residual Sugar adding just enough sweetness without becoming intrusive.
The reds were less satisfying. The 2003 Red Eft, a “left-overs” blend of about half Cabernet Franc, and half Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah and something else, was very acidic, “unusually and unpleasantly sharp” as I wrote at the time. Both the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2004 Cabernet Franc were so recently bottled that it was hard to get anything from them. The ’04 vintage appears to have been quite kind to the white wines we tasted, and I trust that it will ultimately reveal the qualities of some of these currently reticent reds. Sadly, Red Newt did not have on offer its Cabernet-Syrah, a blend it shares in common with the equally youthful Cayuga Lake winery Thirsty Owl, and clearly a mix that we’ll be seeing more of in the Finger Lakes.
That was it for our rain-soaked Saturday. We passed back through Trumansburg, stopping for coffee at Gimme Coffee, an intriguing visit to the T-Burg Record Store (to which I returned the next day and had to be dragged away, kicking and screaming and with various Rolling Stones vinyl clutched under my arm), and a chance to make a reservation at the Simply Red bistro. (See my Posting: Reasons To Love Trumansburg.)
The next day was meant to be a family day, but with the skies having cleared and with my notes fully legible, I could not resist a return visit to a couple of wineries to pick up what I thought had been the best offerings. As noted in my first Finger Lakes wine report, the lack of crowds was even more pronounced than the lack of rain, and it produced immediate rewards: at Hosmer, they somehow remembered my face and insisted I try the 2004 Cabernet Franc, which had only been brought out for tasting the previous lunchtime, while at Sheldrake Point, where the bar had been packed five deep the previous morning, I could now pick from my choice of pourers and enjoy complimentary tastings.
Suitably encouraged by this drastic change in environment, I convinced the family to make two fresh pit stops on the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail.
Some wineries just can’t get no respect. Lucas is celebrating its 25th Anniversary in 2005, which makes it a relative veteran in the region. The Lucas 2002 Reserve Cabernet Franc received the Wine Spectator’s highest ever rating (87pts) for a Finger Lakes Cab Franc. The grounds are attractive, the place is well-staffed with genuinely friendly young pourers, and there is no charge – repeat, no charge – to taste any and all the wines.
Yet somehow, Lucas is widely ignored by the cognoscenti, merits barely a page in my locally-published Guide Book, is clearly desperate for more visitors – and that award-winner 2002 Reserve Cabernet Franc is still widely available, which suggests either that people who visit the Finger Lakes don’t read the Wine Spectator or that, if they do, they don’t take it seriously.
After Posie and I somehow managed to drop a wine glass despite the lack of crowds or prior drinking, we got down to tasting. The 2004 Seyval Blanc, a hardy picnic-style hybrid that grows to excellence in our homeland Hudson Valley, was delightful. With a barely discernible whisp of RS, it was, so I wrote at the time, “lemony, crisp, simple and pure.” Encouraged by its $8 price tag, we brought a bottle home with us; opened after Thanksgiving as an easy-going midweek wine, we fell in love all over again (with the wine!), and I wrote the following eulogy: “so clear it almost looks like water, but citrus jumps from glass, lemon-grapefruit, Granny Smith, cross between Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.” Just as with us humans, some wines strive to be taken seriously, while some are content with how they were created – in which case this Seyval Blanc is akin to a perky fun companion completely without pretension.
I found the 2003 Gewürztraminer to be hollow on the palate, but then I often find that of the grape, so I moved rapidly onto the 2004 Riesling (with 1% RS) which I noted as having an “apple nose” but “not much on the palate” and the 2004 Semi-Dry Riesling whose 3%RS failed to add much of distinction.
The 2003 Cabernet Franc had a varietally “correct” nose of earthy tobacco but was green on the palate (that damn wet summer of ’03!) and had an excess of oak as a compromise. Of the Spectator-beloved Reserve Cabernet Franc 2002, I noted an oaky, mocha-flavored nose, a smooth palate and a pleasant finish. Soft and far from abrasive, it seemed just a little too simple and easy-going – more like what the tourists would expect from a Merlot, which made its abundance on the winery shelves only more of a mystery. (Sorry to say, but most visitors to the Finger Lakes wineries are not experts.) I bought a bottle all the same, not so much because I’m influenced by the Wine Spectator as that I want to figure out if they might be right but wish to make up my own mind – and as a big fan of Cabernet Franc, will be happy to compare it to those I already know.
Lucas Vineyards’ evident image problem is surely of its own doing: it’s hard to take seriously a company that produces wines with names like Mistletoe Magic, Harbor Moon, Captain’s Bell, Tug Boat White, and Miss Behavin’. It was interesting therefore, on the way out, to hear that Lucas lost some of its Gewürztraminer and all of its Pinot Noir in the 2004 cold snap and that these grapes have been replanted with Syrah. As with Thirsty Owl and Red Newt, the Syrah is several years off proper production, so we will only be able to evaluate this decision a few years from now.
Our final destination for the weekend was a winery that knows it place and makes no complaints about it: Frontenac Point has been around since 1978, and its tasting room has the rustic feel of an old hunting lodge, in stark contrast to the hi-tech tasting rooms of Thirsty Owl, Red Newt and others. Frontenac’s list of wines is small, and I quickly worked my way through a 2004 Riesling, the nose of which seemed oxidized and which was unpleasantly heavy on the palate, a 2002 Cabernet Franc that was almost impossibly light, and a 2001 Proprietor’s Reserve that blended Pinot Noir, Chambourcin and Chelois to rather devastating burned-cherry effect.
Fortunately, Frontenac Point is known for having one diamond in the rough. The 2001 Chambourcin, that hardy hybrid grape of which I’ve previously enthused from other regions, revealed plummy, spicy, gamey flavors, with a zesty Zin-ful lip-smacking chewiness. It finished like a “proper” wine should, too. Hybrids generally get a bad rap – and it’s true that few ever reach the levels of complexity of even the most simple vinifera grape. But when made well, in the right hands and in the right growing region, they are often better buys than more lavishly-priced offerings. This wine, for example, with four years age on it, was retailing for $11, just half the price other wineries were demanding of barely palatable Cabernet Sauvignons and Reserve Rieslings. I picked up two bottles of the 2001 Chambourcin and the one since opened matched my winery notes perfectly. Given that Frontenac Point is still selling some Chambourcin from 1991, I could probably cellar my remaining 2001 wine for a while – and maybe I should.
Our Sunday morning was revealing. For all the influx of heavily-financed new wineries and their market-driven plantings of Syrah and Pinot Gris, two of the better wines I tasted all weekend – certainly two of the better bargains – were made from the unfashionable hybrid grapes with which the region first made its name. The Lucas Seyval Blanc and Frontenac Point Chambourcin may not have been desperately complex, but they were honest, pleasing, flavorful and value-packed. The best of the other wines were unanimously either Rieslings, Chardonnays or Cabernet Francs – again, the grapes for which this climate is best suited and most well known. Other grapes were either erratic or clearly not suited to the soil. As with the North Fork of Long Island, the region is still going through growing pains – learning what works amidst what’s fashionable. So while the wineries continue to experiment, we the drinkers should stick with what we know – and, for all my misgivings, I tasted enough that was both familiar and reliable to assure me that another trip in the Spring will not be wasted. Except that next time, I will be sure not to visit on a Saturday – and in turn, I trust the weather will cooperate.