Of Mad Englishmen: Windham Vineyard and Winery
In the northern Catskills, a few miles up from Hunter Mountain, there lives a 40-ish Englishman whose love of wine borders on obsession… And a few weeks ago, I went to meet him.
Yes, I’m not the only British œnophile round these parts: James Bateman, who hails from Derbyshire, met his American wife in Florida and, like myself, ended up living in the beautiful mountains north of New York City, has taken his love of the grape game even further than yours truly and opened his own winery. That of itself is not unique: boutique wineries are flowering across America at a pace matched only by the boom in boutique wine stores. The shock is in Bateman’s location: by planting vineyards in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, this mad Englishman has, literally, leaped straight to the peak of East Coast wine production: with a mean average of 2000 feet in altitude, his Windham Vineyard and Winery boasts the highest elevation vineyard in the North East.
This is not necessarily something to be proud of. As anyone who has come to Hunter or Windham Mountains during ski season will be all too aware, the winters up here are frigid, with whole weeks spent in sub-zero temperatures. It’s the type of weather that freezes water pipes, reduces male genitals to the size of small peas – and kills off many a plant, including most grape vines.
And so it was reassuring, upon using my mother’s recent trip to finally visit Windham Vineyard and Winery, to see Bateman’s business flourishing. In fact, I barely had chance to talk with him between the constant flow of customers beating a similarly off-road path to his doors. Still, during the hour or more we hung around and tasted through his wines, many of his other visitors brought with them the same instinctive question, readily asked even in the basking heat of a sunny August Saturday: aren’t the winters here too savage for grape-growing?
Bateman insists not. Having planted the first of his three vineyards back in 2000 (he opened the winery itself only last year), Bateman has seen them survive six winters already, including a couple of the coldest on record. He prefers to focus our attention away from the winters to the growing season, which, his primitive web site claims, have “the breezes of Frances Rhone Valley, the bright sun of northern Italy and the cool evenings of Germanys Mosel Valley.”
There is, of course, a caveat to all these comparison with European grape-growing conditions. Windham Vineyard is planted not with the “noble” vinifera grapes like Syrah, Viognier, Sangiovese and Riesling such as flourish in the Rhône, Tuscany and Mosel, but with hybrid grapes like St. Pepin, Frontenac, Leon Millot, Sabrevois and La Crescent, such as were designed in laboratories to survive winters like those in the Catskills. And while yes, that is a Chardonnay on Windham’s wine list, the grapes are brought in from the Finger Lakes, where the lower altitudes and warming effects of the lakes usually (but even then, not always) preserve vinifera vines in winter.
Bateman’s story is a good one. He’s been making wine since he was a kid, helping out his dad with the home fermentation kit back in Derbyshire. When he found himself living in Windham, he instinctively planted hardy hybrid grapes in his garden and made wine from the harvest. Impressed by the results, and blessed with the zeal of the born entrepreneur (a planned career as a commercial pilot had failed to take off), he bought a few acres of land up on the hills above Windham town, and planted a proper vineyard. Knowing perfectly well that the banking business would categorize this as “folly”, he bypassed the usual process of raising capital and instead built his impressively simple winery and tasting room entirely by hand. Bateman reckons he’s already put 20,000 man hours into his business (six years worth of 70-hour weeks), and appears to have less than no regrets. His goals, he insists, are relatively modest: to make good wine and provide an income for himself and his wife Valerie. Declaring no desire to become a major player or to have an extensive pay roll, Bateman seems perfectly content growing some grapes, buying in others, making wine in the one half of his building and pouring it for customers in the other. It’s not quite ‘Man In The Corner Shop‘, but nor is it far off.
And so, onto the wines. (At the winery, you get 6 reasonable pours for a rather hefty $8; buy a bottle, though, and the price comes down to just $2.) Unfortunately, it’s immediately and crushingly obvious why hybrid grapes have a bum rap compared to their noble cousins. Bateman’s Estate-grown 2005 Mount Zoar White, for example, made from St. Pepin, La Crescent and Frontenac Gris, has the ‘foxy’ flavor one often associates with hybrid grapes – and that’s ‘foxy’ as in an unpleasant smell, not ‘foxy’ as in the pretty girl across the room. Similarly, his everyday 2004 Elm Ridge White, which includes some Niagara in the mix, tastes too much like grape jelly to pass for wine; its steeliness is almost unpleasant.
This is not to knock Bateman’s wine-making skills, merely to comment on the inevitable consequences of making wine from young hybrid vines grown in a cold-winter climate. That Bateman is actually on to a winner is proven by many of his other wines. The 2004 South Mountain White, dominated by the Vidal Blanc hybrid (which grows so well on the east coast it occasionally passes for noble stock), is light and crisp and pleasant, the type of wine many another East Coast producer would happily sell as its everyday picnic bottle. The 2005 Tower Mountain White, from those Finger Lakes Chardonnay grapes, is unoaked, pure and crisp, with a steely apple resolve. The 2005 semi-dry North Mountain White, produced from Seyval Blanc (a French-designed grape that produces England’s finest white wines) and Cayuga, has lightly tropical aromas of pineapple and peaches and is superbly balanced, easily justifying its $11 price tag. And the 2002 Kaaterskill Reserve White is a dessert wine made from late harvested Finger Lakes Vignoles grown at Keuka Lake. Full of the peach/apricot flavors that distinguish this top flight hybrid grape, it’s not quite in the class of the great ice wines, but nor is the price: at $16 for a half-bottle, it indicates Bateman’s natural touch given the right ingredients.
You would expect the success story to begin and end with the whites. Not so. Leaving aside the 2005 Red Falls Reserve, a semi-sweet wine made partly from blackberries and designed for those people (of which there are many in America) who don’t like wine but like visiting wineries, Bateman has produced two enjoyable reds. The 2005 Winjolais Nouveau is an unoaked “café red” made from Leon Millot, Chancellor and a touch of Chardonnay. A play on Beaujolais Nouveau, its aroma is more gamey than it is Gamay, but that’s OK: there are some solid berry flavors in there too, and a healthy modicum of spice for such an unpretentious wine, one well worth its $11. The 2005 Pinnacle Ridge Red, meanwhile, is Bateman’s attempt at a Bordeaux blend – albeit it from hybrid grapes like Frontenac, Chancellor and Leon Millot. While the cedar notes from its oak ageing somewhat overwhelmed my palate, I enjoyed the gamey flavors (a calling card of hybrid red grapes), and was quite taken by the wine’s considerable body. At $14, it’s certainly not better value than a Côtes du Rhône blend of noble grapes from the south of France, but it’s a good example of the hybrid family’s potential and well worth bringing to a dinner both as a decent bottle of wine and as a conversation piece.
James and I got to talking of the Rhône and he let on that he’s produced a Beaumes-de-Venise style wine from home-grown Muscat grapes. I must have raised my eyebrows, because, all prior insistence to visiting customers about comfortable Catskills winters put aside, he confessed that he was using the least heralded member of the Muscat family, the only one that could withstand the winters. His supply is so small it’s currently only for personal consumption, but his claim of success with even a maligned Muscat grape is surely a good indication for the future.
On which note, the Windham Vineyard and Winery is soon to be joined by a friendly competitor just a mile down the road, one that will be employing Bateman to produce and bottle its wine and whose appearance on the map, while not yet indicative of a “wine trail,” will nonetheless surely convince more people to take the long drive up the Windham back roads… People like the hip young couple who rushed in just a few minutes before Bateman’s 5pm closing time the Saturday I was there, and begged him to stay open a little longer, given that they’d just driven up especially from New York City. I looked at the couple, and remembered how life was for Posie and myself in our twenties: lounging in bed until lunchtime at weekends before embarking on some crazy adventure – like a three-hour trip to somewhere obscure that would be closing in three hours and fifteen minutes. Then I looked at Bateman, who was eagerly recommending the couple a local B&B for the night as he set them up with glasses, and was reminded just how many initially crazy adventures have led to profitable long-term careers. The Windham Vineyard and Winery is not yet producing award-winning wines, but Bateman’s contagious enthusiasm may yet put the Catskills on the wine map. And just in case you catch Bateman’s disease, be warned: he’s in the business of selling vines, too. Now, if I can just clear some land on the mountain out back of our house….