Finger Lakes Wine Report Part 5
Final (Overdue) Notes From Our Summer Vacation….
(Read Part 4, also from August 2006, here
Read Part 3, also from August 2006, here
Read Part 2, from our visit in October 2005, here
Read Part 1, from October 2005, here
Sample the Best Case Scenario from our October 2005 visit, here)
As noted in my previous reports from the Finger Lakes, while many of the region’s wineries are opening cafés on their premises, there remains a clear dearth of quality restaurants (and hotels) for the discerning overnight visitor. Yet that could be changing, as proven by our third and final evening in the Finger Lakes last August, when we drove up the west side of Geneva Lake to the delightful Madder Lake Café for dinner.
Open barely a year by the time of our visit, the Madder Lake offers exactly my kind of ambiance, menu and wine list. Chef Scott Snyder cut his chops out in California wine country, manager and sommelier Laura Kudler is a marathon runner and modern art enthusiast, and their stated goal is admirable: “to marry … American Regional cuisines with the best quality raw materials Western and Central New York State has to offer” in the hope that “MadderLake will prove to have made at least a small contribution to the development of a distinctive, wine friendly Finger Lakes cuisine.”
To this end, the restaurant is brightly painted, super-modern in a cheerfully artistic manner; the wine list, while short on red Finger Lakes wines by the glass, is fairly priced and reasonably varied; and the food is suitably eclectic, imaginative and healthy. We enjoyed a delectable cold gazpacho with jalapeno and tomatoes, a salad of goat cheese with nectarines, and a vegetarian risotto of which I would rave but for the fact that this is about the one dish I can cook well myself. We also got to taste the fantastic Anthony Road Pinot Gris 2005 that was sold out at the winery (it’s reviewed in Part 3), and a pleasant Prejean Semi-Dry Riesling 2005 (“lovely full fruit on palate, redolent nose, distinctly Riesling”). And then there was the extremely impressive Rooster Hill Chardonnay 2005, which offered some citrus notes, then opened up on the palate with lively acidity and then just a hint of butter, cream and apple, even some hazlenut. The oak is clearly there but it’s subtle.” We bought a bottle the next day and, opened weeks later, it proved no less satisfying for its dexterous balance of body, oak and fruit – not an easy combination in the Finger Lakes.
The night we were at Madder Lake Café, it was almost eerily quiet, so much so that we were wined, dined and out of there in an hour. Madder Lake may, unfortunately, find that there’s a tradeoff between its easily accessible location, on Route 14, and its front window view of the passing traffic. Neither of our two other evening meals out on this visit piqued my taste buds in the same manner, nor provided as personable or modern an atmosphere, but the lakeside views at Glenora and Sarassin’s had guaranteed those places a crowd. Here’s hoping Madder Lake meets with the success it deserves.
The following lunch-time found us back in the familiar tourist position, eating al fresco, overlooking Seneca Lake again, at an even more modern venture, Ventosa Vineyards’ Café Toscana. If you detect some Italian there, you’re not mistaken: Ventosa promises “A Taste of Tuscany In the Finger Lakes” to which end its owner, a successful builder with a business in Florida, has erected an opulent Tuscan villa overlooking new vineyards at the north-eastern edge of Seneca Lake.
It’s an incongruous building, completely out of character with the Finger Lakes’ typically modest, family-based wineries that have grown in size only gradually, if indeed at all. And while our August visit coincided with some lovely late-summer weather, one could hardly confuse the rather chilly, hilly cornfields of the Finger Lakes – where Amish farmers still ride horse-driven carriages to town – with the Tuscan climate and lifestyle.
Still, Ventosa is here now, and judging by its recent plantings, vast tasting room, even bigger conference facilities, busy little café and future B&B, it’s not going away any time soon. So I’m pleased to report that everyone at the winery was friendly to a fault, and that as we sat outside, overlooking the vineyards, sharing a glass with our lunch-time pizza, the chef not only came by to ask our opinions, but seemed happy to hear our suggestions. A bottle of Cabernet Franc marked at two different prices several dollars apart was sold to us at the lower price without question, the same sales staff readily responded to my question about the adjacent vineyard by scurrying off to find (without success) a map that plots out the grapes (as they didn’t know for themselves); and the female pourer in the tasting room readily varied from the listed ‘flights’ to accommodate my own tastes, admitting that it was her first day on the job and she had yet to learn anything about the bottles at hand.
All this cheerful ignorance and confusion raised a rather obvious question: is anyone actually making wine at Ventosa and if so, do they know what they’re doing? I had been initially excited to read of the winery’s Sangiovese and Tocai Friuliano plantings – “Italian grapes not typically found in the Finger Lakes region” – and was then quickly disappointed to discover that these plantings are so new that neither is yet available as a single varietal. Similarly, I inferred from the three red wines branded as “100% Estate Fruit” that the grapes for the other wines must have been bought in. Indeed, the Merlot and Chardonnay are anonymously labeled ‘New York State,’ and the various blends of Vidal Blanc and Riesling that made up the other three white wines – all of which I should stress that I enjoyed – were grown elsewhere in the Finger Lakes.
This is the inevitable by-product of opening a vast winery as a tourist attraction before your grapes have reached fruition; you have to sell wine, regardless of whether it’s really your own, and you certainly need some Chardonnay and Merlot for those who know nothing else. Fortunately, the winery’s “Estate Fruit” wines were very good and bode well for the venture’s future. The pure Ventosa Pinot Noir was already sold out (the Sideways effect has reached the Finger lakes, too) but I was especially taken by the Ventosa 2003 Vino Rosso, an unusual but highly viable blend of Pinot Noir (53%) and Cabernet Franc (43%), with a smattering of the winery’s young Sangiovese grapes to round out the flavor. A good garnet color, it had a lively cherry nose that gave away its Pinot content, some lovely berry flavors on the palate, and some cedar on the back that emphasized the Cabernet Franc as well as the spicy touches of good Pinot Noir. There was, overseeing all this, an easy-going aura that very much echoed the modest Italian food wine. At $17 a bottle, it seemed fairly priced and I put one in my case.
The Ventosa 2003 Cabernet Franc – priced at both $18 a bottle and $23 a bottle – is also recommended (at the lower price) for its blueberry typicity, its plumminess in the mouth, and its deft touch with oak. It’s a relatively light Cab Franc, indicative of that year’s wet summer. And rounding out the reds is the Ventossa 2003 Saggio, which the winery notes is “a classic Bordeaux blend.” But wait a minute, isn’t Ventosa here to provide ”a taste of Tuscany?” And if so, does that not mean it’s suffering something of an identity crisis. The answers: yes and yes. The Saggio is the same mix of grapes (Cabs Sauvignon and Franc, plus Merlot) you’ll find at most ambitious wineries across America that have yet to discover and promote their own “terroir.” But again, to be fair to Ventosa’s winemaker, the oaky nose and chocolate flavors made for a surprisingly smooth delivery on the palate – all the more so given the vintage. I’m not going to buy such a bottle on a Finger Lakes tour, especially at $24, but those who do could fare much worse.
We departed Ventosa, sated by their food and wine and happy with the service if rather confused by the venture’s soulessness, and as we we pointed the car south towards home and one more winery, we asked ourselves again: who actually made these wines?
That question was answered thirty minutes and almost as many miles back down the east side of Seneca Lake, at Shalestone Vineyards, where the sign proudly proclaims “red is all we do.” I’d hoped to taste at Shalestone on my visit the previous autumn, but the doors had been closed that day. Perhaps fate knew what it was doing, for Shalestone proprietor Rob Thomas not only personally and exlusively pours for customers in his tasting room, but he also doubles up as winemaker for Ventosa’s Estate wines.
His dual roles enabled us to compare raw material with raw talent. Thomas, a born host and deadpan comedian whose winery is worth visiting purely to enjoy a gentle ribbing, has performed a sterling job on Ventosa’s young grapes. (He accepts the compliments modestly; I was left thinking that his contract with the wealthy faux-Italianates up the road may be drawing to a close.) His Shalestone wines, made mostly with his own grapes, better express his ambition and attitude and individuality, but don’t all come together in the glass as well as Ventosa’s.
The Shalestone 2004 Harmony – an equal blend of Cab Franc and Merlot – was smooth on the front end and peppery on the back, but it is no Cheval Blanc. (Nor, of course, is it priced as such!) The Shalestone 2004 Merlot was very very smooth, but when I learned that these were Long Island grapes I quickly asked to move on. The Shalestone 2004 Cabernet Franc had classic blueberry flavors to it and a truly gorgeous, smooth finish, any oak kept admirably in check. At $18, it was my take home wine.
On, then, to the signature wines. The Shalestone 2003 Synergy is an ambitious blend of Syrah and Merlot which, Rob writes on his tasting sheet, “comes from ingredients like a great attitude, focus and the right amount of humor.” I asked as I tasted why Thomas didn’t produce a single varietal Syrah and he replied that while he felt he could do so, he had too much fun blending. He was, he said, not the kind of wine-maker who could exist in France under that country’s famously bureaucratic appellation system. He also admitted that the Synergy was still in a state of flux and experimentation, and he was right: it was quite a tannic beast, very big on the palate and not yet balanced, and in need of some ageing to soften its edges. As with the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Synergy sees 18 months in mostly old French oak Shalestone brings in in from California.
Ah, Cabernet Sauvignon. I was initially surprised that such an idiosyncratic producer as Thomas would opt for this most familiar grape as a single varietal, but then it’s also a mark of his deliberate contrariness that, just as the Finger Lakes producers decide, almost en masse, that their cool climate can’t support the King of Red Grapes, Mr. Shalestone concludes that the problem is not weather and soil but over-cropping, and bottles it all the same. Yet you should always allow an artist to follow his instincts: the Shalestone 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, while currently austere as any young Bordeaux would be, revealed just the right amount of fruit, tannin and oak. Recalling what a wet summer 2003 had been, I expressed my admiration; I also decided that if I was to buy a bottle of Shalestone Cabernet Sauvignon (or Synergy), it would be from a better vintage that would reward some short-term cellaring. Thomas is unleashing a Pinot Noir in the ‘07 and promises a blend of Syrah and Cabernet Franc – my two favorite single varietals – for his next vintage, and I, for one, can hardly wait.
I left Shalestone with just the one bottle of wine (to accompany two of Thomas’s productions from Ventosa), but with the warm glow of contentment that comes from meeting a solo winemaker in his own domain. As with Harold Watts at Ternhaven on Long Island’s North Fork, and James Bateman at Windham Vineyard and Winery, Rob Thomas is farmer of land, tender of soil, steward of grapes, producer of wine, distributor of product and individual retailer to boot. What you get in the bottle comes direct from him and his hands, with the absolute minimum of middle men and their marketing. Such industrious, independent, individual producers do not always make the best wine in their regions, but they can usually be counted on to be the most interesting, both in the glass and in person. As long as their likes remain in the Finger Lakes, I’ll continue to visit.