Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Rediscovering New York Wine

I first went to New York state to look at wine in the mid 1970s. I was in Colorado then drinking California wine, and when I could afford it, the odd French and German wine.  In those days, California was flexing its wine muscle and hardly anyone was paying attention to New York wine. 

Fact is, I had been to the Finger Lakes in an earlier life. In the fall of 1953, I spent twelve weeks, at the invitation of the U.S. Air Force, to attend basic training at Sampson AFB, on Seneca Lake, the largest of the 11-lake chain. I never imagined then, as I stood in formation, freezing in the dark, waiting to enter the chow hall and breakfast, that there were wineries across the lake that I would visit thirty years later.

The problem in the 1970s with New York wine was image - isn't it always. For years, the New York wine industry, mainly scattered along a few of the Finger Lakes, was based on native Vitis labrusca grapes, while slowly building interest in French-American hybrids. A few hopefuls like Konstantin Frank and Charles Fournier worked to hold off the harsh winters on the lakes, by burying their Vitis vinifera vines before the first freeze, but the experiment was labor intensive and not cost effective.  

The New York wine industry in the seventies was fragmented: Long Island vintners were fighting off birds in vineyards that had been reclaimed from potato fields; a string of small wineries were trying to attract day-trippers from New York City to the Hudson River Valley; Finger Lakes vineyards were expanding along Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga and to a lesser extent Canandaigua lake.

Image result for free Cayuga Lake photos
Cayuga Lake
Nearly fifty years later, I returned to the Finger Lakes with my wife, this time to spend a week with friends who had rented a summer house on Cayuga Lake. 

Most of the time during my wine trip in the 1970s was spent around Hammondsport on Keuka Lake. The wine scene was concentrated then, with small family-owned wineries scattered along a few of the larger lakes. Within a mile or two of Hammondsport were the large wine companies: Taylor, Pleasant Valley (Great Western) and Urbana Wine Co (Gold Seal). On Canandaigua, to the west, on Canandaigua lake, was Canandaigua Industries, then the second largest Finger Lakes winery and Widmer Wine Cellars. Today, there are more than 100 wineries in the Finger Lakes. 

In the late 1930s, a young French champagne maker named Charles Fournier, was looking for new challenges, so he left Champagne Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin to make sparkling wine at Urbana Wine Co., that became Gold Seal in 1953. 

Imagine the shock Fournier must have had when he first tasted the base wine for New York champagne, made from the native Catawba (and occasionally Concord) grape. The unusual earthy flavors of Catawba were nothing like the delicate varietal flavors of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that was used to. 

Catawba, Delaware, Concord, Isabella and other native grapes were the backbone of Finger Lakes wine in the 1970s. French-American hybrids, especially white Seyval-Blanc and red Baco Noir, were just gaining interest. What appealed to growers about hybrids was the winter-hardiness of the American stock and the flavor and finesse of the French grapes.

Charles Fournier discovered Philip Wagner had planted hybrid grapes, in of all places, Baltimore, and Fournier was off on another challenge. He brought some of Wagner's hybrids to Finger Lakes' vineyards, hoping to offer Gold Seal customers an alternative to the labrusca taste.  

A sip of Welch's Concord grape juice is close to what wines made from Native North American grapes taste like. Certain compounds in native grapes give the resulting wine a feral or wild aroma and flavor. The pejorative term "foxy" was once used to describe these wines, but advances in wine making and aging has mostly eliminated that objectionable character. 

And that reminds me...As a child, I drank a lot of Welch's, but it didn't prepare me for my first sip of New York wines made from Vitis labrusca. As an adult, living in California, the delicate fruity flavors of Chardonnay resonated with me, but the feral white Niagara was a new taste experience and I had the same sensory shock with my first taste of the red Isabella. 

When I returned to the Finger Lakes in 2019, a must visit was to Bully Hill, a winery I had visited on my visit to Keuka lake in the late 1970s. Bully Hill, and its then owner,  Walter S. Taylor, has a long and storied history. The short version is that Walter S., the son of Greyton Taylor and grandson of the founder of the Taylor Wine Co., worked with his father at the Taylor Wine Company. But Walter raised so much hell at Taylor, that he was forced to resign. So, he moved up to Bull Hill and founded Bully Hill winery. 

But that wasn't the end of it. Walter fought with everybody in the Finger Lakes wine business and eventually the federal government. The Taylor Wine Co. won a court judgement forbidding Walter S. from using the Taylor name. So, he designed a new label, featuring his pet goat and a slogan: "They have taken away my heritage, but they didn't get my goat.


Walter  S.Taylor died in 2001, but Bully Hill thrives today under the management of his wife and a dedicated crew that make the wine and staff the museum and the excellent restaurant. 

Bully Hill is worth a visit and for the opportunity to taste a range of representative (fruit, native varieties, hybrids, vinifera) Finger Lakes wines, such as Sweet Walter Apple Sangria, Baco Noir, Meat Market Red, Cabernet Franc and Love My Goat Red wine. Most of the Bully Hill wines I tasted were pleasant and refreshing accompaniments to the luncheon dishes I had in the restaurant.

Before the Walter S. brouhaha was taking shape, Charles Fournier, and his friend and colleague, the gregarious Russian-born Konstantin Frank, were busy experimenting with vinifera grapes. Not only did the pair meet with resistance from locals opposed to planting vinifera, but Fournier's colleagues in Champagne were dismissive of him working with native North American grapes and calling his Gold Seal sparkling wine champagne.

Konstantin Frank's enthusiastic work with vinifera, especially Riesling, convinced many Finger Lakes growers and winemakers that vinifera grapes could survive the area's severe winters. Eventually he and Fournier succeeded with small plots of Riesling and Chardonnay which Fournier sold out of the Gold Seal tasting room. Frank became known for Riesling, the flagship wine from the winery that bears his name: Dr. Konstantin Frank.

New York's Finger Lakes region is a great place for a vacation. There are numerous wineries to visit: Bully Hill, Konstantin Frank, Heron Hill, all on Keuka lake; Cayuga Ridge Estate (Cayuga); Wagner Vineyards, Fox Run, Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars, Glenora, on Seneca lake. 

If you get wined out, there is the charming city of Ithaca and Cornell University and  the must-see Cornell Lab of Ornithology Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary, Watkins Glen, the endlessly amazing Glass Museum in nearby Corning and, of course, swimming and boating. 


Next Blog: The Demise of a Unique Wine 

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