A Changing Wine Culture In The Finger Lakes

Over the past few days, I traveled around the Finger Lakes in the company of various wine directors and retail managers from across NYC. I had never been, though I’d enjoyed several wines from Eminence Road and Bloomer Creek, both small and artisanal producers working naturally. The trip was educational in surprising ways, and it affirmed what I’ve already begun to understand over the course of travels through the wine countries of Oregon, Napa, and Burgundy: that wine is a product of culture and political economy, and every bottle tells a story.

Around Keuka Lake
Around Keuka Lake

Up until the Farm Winery Act of 1976, grape growers in the Finger Lakes (FLX) and other parts of New York turned their crop over to large corporations like Taylor and Constellation. The ’76 Act allowed people to start small winery businesses, and as a result the region now has a robust and diverse wine production economy.

Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, spearheaded the '76 legislation
Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, spearheaded the ’76 legislation

Cornell University also played a huge role in the region’s development. Not only did Cornell (the East Coast version of UC Davis) create cold-hardy clones of various vinifera grapes, but students and researchers there relentlessly study every aspect of viticulture, from the soil to the vine health to new technologies, and disseminate that information. As one winemaker, Marti Masinski of Standing Stone, said to our group during the visit: “We don’t have hundreds of years of experience, so we have to read about [wine] all the time; it’s the fast track. We can’t talk about what our grandfathers did.”

Marti showing us how to prune the Gewurtzaminer vines
Marti showing us how to prune the Gewurtzaminer vines

That period of diversification is now, as we saw, opening up to a tide of experimentation. And it’s exciting. People are making orange wine, playing around with yeast strains (alas, wild yeast fermentation is considered “impossible” in the minds of many wine makers we met there, due, they said, to the cold, although Eminence Road and Bloomer Creek sure do wild yeast fermentation quite nicely). Winemakers are looking for ways to make something new and different. As Jeff, the 38-year-old winemaker of Johnson Estate, told me: “My generation and younger than us, we’re not traditional anymore, it’s, hey, that looks cool, let’s try it.”

One amazing thing we did: the sparkling wine maker at Dr. Frank, one of the oldest wineries in the FLX, gave us a disgorgement demo. It was really instructive to see the methode champenoise production up close, step by step. They dose their vintage wines with previous vintages, and make vintage Blanc de Blanc, vintage Blanc de Noir, and a sparkling Riesling.

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There were a lot of culinary highlights of the trip, and in particular I enjoyed the cooking of a young chef named Tony Banks, who normally works at a place called the Stone Cat, but prepared a special meal for us at the Red Newt Winery. While we tasted wines, we nibbled at a plate of amazing local pâté and cheeses, including some of the best blue cheese I’ve had in my life. Nearly every ingredient in Tony’s three course meal was local, save for the olive oil, a few spices, and black pepper. It was all creatively constructed, perfectly cooked, and artfully plated. With every bite, it was obvious that there was serious passion in this cooking.

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But I cannot forget to mention what, for me, was probably the highlight of the trip: a visit to NY Distilling Company, where McKenzie whiskey is made. We were greeted by the distiller, Thomas Earl McKenzie (coincidence that the last name is same as company name), a surly man from Alabama who told us, in the most endearing way possible, that he felt sorry for us city folk. Thomas has his own opinions about whiskey making and they are rather, er, strong. He’s a proponent of the old-school Kentucky method, which for him means no automation, no tasting, continuous distilling rather than a copper pot.

The one and only Thomas Early McKenzie
The one and only Thomas Earl McKenzie

He designed most if not all of the distillery at McKenzie. We had a great time letting him show us around and listening to him diss other whiskey styles as “buuuullsheeeet.”

Another culinary highlight: bratwursts with endless house-made toppings at the FLX Wienery. Go. And rummage around in that “secret wine fridge” for some gems.

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After visiting so many wineries rapid-fire, and tasting Riesling after Riesling (and some Pinot Noir and Cab Franc, plus a really great Saperavi at Standing Stone), I was ready for a break from Finger Lakes wines. But the people I met, the winemakers and chefs and artisans, were totally captivating, and I think the region tells an amazing story of economic renewal. If I could make a wishful prediction: perhaps, twenty years from now, more and more people will have found through experimentation that it’s it is actually possible to produce organically farmed, naturally fermented, terroir-driven wine in the Finger Lakes. Wouldn’t it be great to enjoy sustainably-farmed Upstate meats, vegetables, and cheeses, alongside complimentary natural wines? I have no doubt that it’s on the way.

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