New York's Finger Lakes: The Next Great Wine Region in America?

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Prohibition pounded the region's grapegrowers, but small and medium-sized producers are finally starting to mount a serious comeback.

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At a time when the local food movement has inspired many consumers across the nation to, for the first time, consider the wines being made in their own backyards, no up-and-coming domestic region has received as much serious attention as the Finger Lakes of upstate New York. To be specific, it is the Rieslings of the Finger Lakes that have generated the most buzz.

Wine is produced in all 50 of the United States from Kentucky to Hawaii. California dominates the market with about 90 percent of production, followed by New York, Washington, and Oregon, respectively, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau's 2009 Statistical Report.

Considering that New York produces more wine than either Washington or Oregon, many American consumers are much more likely to have tried a Pinot Noir from Oregon or a Chardonnay from Washington than a Riesling from the Finger Lakes. Indeed, even in New York City, wines from both Washington and Oregon make fairly frequent appearances on some of the city's best, or at least most enlightened, wine lists.

So why is it that wines from these two far-flung states have managed to upstage the wines from just a few hours north?

"We don't aspire to be the biggest, but we do aspire to be the best and recognized as among the best."

According to Jim Trezise, the president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation (NYWGF), while New York State does make the second largest quantity of wine in the United States after California, about 80 percent or more of the state's total wine production is through Constellation Brands, and goes into products like Arbor Mist.

The rest of the state's wineries are small-to-medium sized producers who insist that the region's delayed blossoming is a direct consequence of a legislation-fueled game of catch up. There is a palpable sense that the winemakers of the region place much of the blame on the legislation of yesterday for putting them so far behind. They are quick to tell you how prohibition pounded the region's grapegrowers and winemakers into the ground and left only a handful of mega-producers in its wake.

"In general terms, prohibition slowed everything down and we're still working our way out of it," said Bob Madill, chair of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. "For example, New York is one of the few large producing and consuming states that doesn't allow the sale of wine in grocery stores and that is a historical vestige of the idea that sales of alcohol needs to be controlled."

Between the end of Prohibition in 1933 and the important passing of the Farm Winery Act in 1976, the state's legislature made it virtually impossible for anyone but producers of cheap bulk wine like Great Western, Gold Seal, and the Taylor Company to operate in the region.

"The Farm Winery Act ... came at a time when there was a crisis in the grape industry," Trezise explained. "Traditionally, there were hundreds of grape growers in the region who were all dependent on a handful of large corporate wineries buying their grapes."

In the 1960's, however, the grape market collapsed through a perfect storm of events, including various corporate takeovers that took many of those large companies out of the region.

The Farm Winery Act was introduced to allow the region's growers to open small wineries and made it legal to sell directly to consumers, said Trezise. After the passing of the Farm Winery Act, the number of wineries in the region went from 19 in 1975 to about 50 in 1985 and has continued to grow steadily since then, according to data supplied by the NYWGF.

Trezise and winemakers of the region are extremely proud of the region's swift growth over the past two decades, and especially because they've done it without any major outside investments. However, news of a big potential investment came in March of 2011, when the world-renowned winemaker Paul Hobbs, a native of Upstate New York, announced, on a Buffalo radio show, that he was interested in making wine in the Finger Lakes.

"Paul is indeed interested in winemaking in the region," Jennifer Freebairn, director of sales and marketing for Paul Hobbs Wines, wrote in an email exchange. "[Hobbs] is currently consulting to a winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and he has considered developing a project in the Finger Lakes, though nothing is set as of yet."

The announcement in March created a healthy bump in the region's credibility and showed that the winemakers of the Finger Lakes are not the only ones who believe that they are capable of producing world-class wines. While some winemakers confidently assert that they already are making top-notch wines, others concede that the only reason they're not is because it's a relatively new game and they're still learning the rules.

"We see the opportunity to position the Finger Lakes as North America's preeminent cold climate region," Madill said. "And what I mean by that is that the wines are true to an authentic regional style and perceived as being as interesting as any other wine."

While the region is quickly gaining recognition for its Rieslings in particular, some winemakers assert that there is still much work to be done -- especially when it comes to other varieties.

"The quality of winemaking has gone up a lot in the last decade and its only getting better," said Peter Becraft, assistant winemaker at Anthony Road Winery. "So what you'll find is that the quality of the reds will start to catch up and I think that certain varieties like Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Lemberger can really shine."

Will Ouweleen, the owner and winemaker at Eagle Crest Vineyards, and a self-professed wine snob who admits that 20 years ago he would not have deigned to try a New York wine, agrees that there's still some tinkering to do. "Burgundy didn't start with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and know that [those grapes] would bring them renown as a region -- they had to grow a lot of other stuff first and kind of agree that these were the wines that showed the best terroir, work and philosophy and I think the Finger Lakes are right there," he said.

Regardless, one of the most striking features of the region is the winemakers' commitment to cooperation and collaboration among themselves in the name of producing world-class wine. Much of this collaboration comes in the form of a large group of winemakers in the region who get together several times a year with brown-bagged bottles and a thick skin to taste blindly and discuss. One of the rules is that winemakers have to be willing to discuss exactly how they made each of their wines.

"We will taste either works-in-progress or commercial wines with Finger Lakes included to see how our wines stand up to others out there," Becraft said. "Every one is hyper critical in a very positive way to help if there are problems and discussing what's happened and how it can be fixed."

"I've never seen anything like this before in my life where people that are basically in competition with each other for a very small share of the market are all working together," Ouweleen said. "That's not the cover of the brochure -- that's the truth and we understand that our success will only help each other."

After the passing of the Farm Winery Act, the number of wineries in the region went from 19 in 1975 to about 50 in 1985 and has continued to grow steadily since.

Riesling and the rest of the region's vinifera varieties, or grapes of European origin, were introduced to the region in 1962 by a Ukranian immigrant named Dr. Konstantin Frank. Among the region's vinifera plantings, Riesling is the area's most-planted grape with an estimated total production of about 150,000 cases of wine a year, according to data collected by the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. The Finger Lakes Rieslings' star has risen quickly and many winemakers in the region are now able to recognize and identify a clear regional style.

It is, perhaps, serendipitous that of all the grapes, it is Riesling that shows best in the Finger Lakes. Riesling is a relatively popular and versatile grape so it bodes well as the calling card of this unfamiliar region.

"Riesling is known as a grape that's very transparent as opposed to, say, Chardonnay, which is known as 'the winemakers grape' because you can do almost anything with it," Ouweleen said. "Riesling is such a reflection of where it came from and that's exciting."

Especially when it comes to the region's dry Rieslings, there is an element to the wines that makes them extremely food friendly -- an attribute that the winemakers also like to stress. "They tend to be fresher," Madill said. "And what we're seeing that our climate and region produces wines that pair with food in a beautiful way -- that's our style."

As far as red wines are concerned, the leaders of the pack in terms of plantings, according to estimates by the Finger Lake Wine Alliance, are Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. The Austrian grape, Blaufrankisch, which goes by the more pronounceable Lemberger in the Finger Lakes, is on the rise and often used in concert with Cabernet Franc -- a blend that has potential to be a signature of the region.

However, the red wines of the Finger Lakes have been as much maligned as the region's Rieslings have been praised. "I think that with our reds we have more of a challenge because we don't get as many days of sunshine as warmer regions but I've had some really great ones," Ouweleen said. "It's beautiful and it keeps getting better -- so far [red wine production] hasn't plateaued yet."

"The wines are being made in a very technically correct fashion -- one may or may not like the particular style -- the jammy and confit fruit flavor? It's not going to happen with our wine because of our climate!" Madill said. "But it's very seldom that in a random sample of some of these varieties that you'll find technically incorrect wines. They're not flawed anymore."

Jim Trezise stressed the area's focus on quantity over quality. "We don't aspire to be the biggest, but we do aspire to be the best and recognized as among the best," he said.

Unlike many winemakers in other wine regions, like Napa, for example, a majority of the winemakers in the Finger Lakes are either self-taught or were trained at other wineries nearby. Many of the winemakers' past experience working as growers has informed their wines, too.

"So many of the winemakers up here are originally growers ... and it's a humble way of living but where they're always pursuing excellence," Ouweleen said. "If you work in a vineyard you know that you can always do better. It builds character, integrity, and honesty and that expresses itself in the wine."

Certainly when it comes to the red wines of the region, there's no question that they are getting better and that they've vastly improved over the last few years. There is genuine promise in the Cabernet Franc and Lemberger-based wines of the region, and many in the wine world are eager to see what the area can do with Pinot Noir.

However, at present, it is the dry Rieslings -- racy, bone dry, and often effusively aromatic -- that most deserve to be considered and recognized. Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer are the varieties to watch.

At the end of the day, the Finger Lakes is producing some truly inspired wine, and perhaps more remarkably, the winemakers there are doing it in a way that is rather inspiring.

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Caroline Helper is a New York City-based freelance journalist. She writes about wine at Forget Burgundy.

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