Discovering New York’s Finger Lakes

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register (January 29, 2016)

As snow blankets the East Coast, I have been reminiscing about my trip this past summer to the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. As a Californian, the idea that wine, let alone good wine, is made on the East Coast was not something I thought much about. But, after spending a week exploring the region, not only can we can say “This is really good for New York wine” but we can say “This is really good wine.”

Finger Lakes

There are more than 100 varieties of grapes grown in the Finger Lakes. There are native and hybrid grapes aplenty, but riesling is one of the key grapes in the region. With about 135 wineries in the Finger Lakes AVA, the majority of the wineries produce 5,000 cases or less, and there are only five producers that produce larger quantities between 30,000 and 70,000. Many winemakers have come to the area as they saw the possibility of the region and three wineries really stood out as demonstrating the potential of the wines from the Finger Lakes.

Hermann J Wiemer, Seneca Lake

Hermann J Weimer

Hermann J Wiemer, considered the one of the top wineries in the world by Wine and Spirits Magazine, is one of the most famous wineries in the Finger Lakes. Wiemer was one of the first people to identify that riesling had a home in New York when he came to the Finger Lakes in the 1960s from the Mosel region of Germany.

Wiemer identified the clone and rootstocks and tailored plantings to specific sites. He instituted health in the vineyard, making the vineyards do the work instead of setting up defenses. Today, there are 76 acres planted, of which 49 are riesling. Current owners Fred Merwarth and Oskar Bynke, who studied together at Cornell University, took over in 2007 when Wiemer retired. They use indigenous yeasts and all grapes are handpicked. Wiemer produces 17,000 cases of wine, three quarters of which are riesling.

Red Tail Ridge, Seneca Lake

Red Tail Ridge Owner and Winemaker Nancy Irelan

Red Tail Ridge was opened by winemaker and owner Nancy Irelan in 2007. With a Bachelor of Science degree in organic chemistry and a Ph.D. in grape genetics, Irelan studied under Carol Meredith at UC Davis. She worked for Gallo for 12 years, developing the R&D program and traveled around the world, assessing what was happening in vineyards internationally. Her work brought her to the Finger Lakes every couple of years and she saw its potential.

Irelan bought the land in 2004 at a time when the region was just gaining viticultural confidence. The land was a wooded area that was logged off and the trees were milled into boards that were used in the winery and tasting room. Red Tail Ridge is the only LEEDS (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified winery in the state of New York, as well as sustainable (the region is too wet to be organic). They recycle all winery waste and do not use any hazardous materials. The winery is named after the Red Tail Hawks that fly above and eat the critters.

In 2005, Irelan planted pinot noir and today has seven clones of pinot noir on three acres of land. Riesling was planted in 2007 and in 2012, she added five rows of dornfelder, teroldego, chardonnay and blaufrankisch. In total, Irelan has 21 acres planted, thirteen of which are Riesling. The vineyard consists of calcareous and silt soils, big round rocks and shale stone. The wines are distinctive with great minerality, ranging from pinot noir that has aromas of warm leather and grippy dark fruit, a blaufrankish with notes of cherry and pepper and a teroldego that if tasted blind, you would think it came from Italy. Irelan is also experimenting and producing an orange wine and a natural yeast fermented riesling.

Hearts and Hands, Cayuga Lake

Heart & Hand Owners Susan and Tom Higgins

Husband-and-wife team Tom and Susan Higgins bought the property for Hearts and Hands in 2007. I first met them at World of Pinot Noir last year where I was impressed by their wine. Tom and Susan had been working in New York City, he in technology and she as a consultant. But Tom, who is originally from the east side of Seneca Lake, had a love of wine and went to work in Bordeaux, France and at Calera Wine Company in Hollister, Calif.

The 3.6 acres that the Higginses purchased is located in quarry country. After looking at geological maps, they found that the area was originally limestone that was used to provide the curbstone for Wall Street. The limestone allows access to soil nutrients and increased acid. Despite having to deal with rain, Japanese beetles and weeds, the Higginses are part of a grower-driven, self-assessed sustainability movement. They harvest by hand and have the only vibrating sorter in the region. The care that is taken in the vineyard is reflected in their wine.

While riesling is the darling of the Finger Lakes, pinot noir is something close to Tom’s heart, and at Hearts and Hand, they work exclusively with these two grapes. They are one of the few wineries in the region to only focus on two grapes, versus multiple varieties. With only 200 acres of pinot noir planted in the entire state of New York, Hearts and Hands has 3.5 acres planted to 5,000 vines of pinot noir. Their remaining one-tenth of an acre is where the 400 vines of riesling are planted.

The Higginses also buy fruit from local growers but they expect the same levels of quality that they find in their own vineyard. At Hearts and Hands, they recognize and honor the hard work and dedication of the growers they work. They were the first winery to put the growers’ names on the back of the wine labels. Hearts and Hands produces a total of 2000 cases of wine, including 100 cases of brut rose and 100 cases of blanc de noir.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.