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.

Philosophy as Living Art: Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument

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In the five years I’ve been a New Yorker, I can count the times I’ve been to the Bronx: they’ve generally been work-related, as in the charter schools I worked in as a substitute teacher or the event I volunteered for at the Botanical Gardens. Though I’ve only been in the city for five years, I know from local folklore and literature like Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin about the days when “the Bronx was burning”–when the borough was rife with drug addiction, crime, gang violence, and prostitution, and fires spread through rioting neighborhoods. People without means lived in tall public housing projects, stacked atop each other and with no opportunities beckoning, no place to escape to or to deal with family and social problems.

All of which is to say that your average, middle-class New Yorkers probably don’t go often to the Bronx, although most know that it’s no longer burning and not quite as infamous, though having worked at schools there I can say that it is still mostly working-class.

This summer, however, German artist Thomas Hirschhorn gave New Yorkers reason to flock to their northern borough in droves, to have public seminars on various topics pertaining to contemporary philosophy, sip cocktails in the late afternoon sun, and behold a community-built and community-run monument to the 20th-century Italian Marxist thinker, and imprisoned Communist, Antonio Gramsci. Hirschhorn spent seven years preparing for this project, which is literally in the projects: the monument stands in the main courtyard of Forest Houses and in a strange way seems to fold into the environs so aptly you wouldn’t guess at first glance that an outsider designed it.

A visit to the monument this weekend, on a warm Saturday afternoon, found the monument alive with locals running operations and visitors taking in the scene: a mostly wooden, raised structure with several sections, including a library-museum, Internet cafe, bar, children’s workshop, newspaper press, seminar stage and more. It was decorated with graffitied or typed quotes by Gramsci and poems by Forest residents, as well as a beautiful spray-painted mural, basketball hoops with spray-painted slogans “love” and “politics.” It was living poetry, living philosophy.

Every Saturday afternoon there is a lecture by a prominent thinker, usually an academic of high-standing like Gayatri Spivak (who remembers reading “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in grad school, and hardly being able to speak about it?), but we arrived too late for that; instead we caught the daily 5pm talk by a German philosopher of the Italian Marxist strain associated most famously with Antonio Negri, named Marcus Steinweg. This was part of Steinweg’s ongoing lecture series at the monument; every single day he gives an hour-long talk. Looking around, most of the attendees would easily be seen on the street smoking a cigarette outside the new billion-dollar New School building in Lower Manhattan: they wore thick-framed glasses and torn jeans, held Moleskines and iPhones, and stroked their goatees thoughtfully as Steinweg offered eloquent observations on the concept of “the normal.” But there were also Forest residences in the audience–some who attend daily, and ask questions to get the most out of the sessions. Aside from the lectures, there are art workshops, radio broadcasts, children’s classes, and other activities that engage the local residents.

After the talk, we strolled around on the monument platforms. Teenage boys were engrossed in online game-world in the Internet cafe. A woman was selling jewelry on the sidewalk and another woman, standing nearby, was smoking a cigarette; from the platform one of the residents started telling her that she couldn’t smoke that close to the monument. Strong words Read more

Local food fail: NYC paves over a beloved foodie haven

imagesMy article in Grist on the controversy surrounding the Pier 17 development plan:

“But now, the New Amsterdam Market is likely facing its last summer at the Seaport. In its place, the Howard Hughes Corporation plans to build a complex of luxury hotels, high-rises, and a concert venue. The city council, which recently voted to approve the company’s plan for the Seaport, is calling the development a victory for local food, but while the Hughes Corp has plans for some kind of ‘food market’ that uses local and regional ingredients, the organizer of New Amsterdam will likely not be involved, and it is unclear if any of the current vendors will, either.”



Will New Amsterdam Market Survive & Flourish?

2013-03-14 06.32.08Yesterday I observed an incredible outpouring of support for the New Amsterdam Market, whose existence may be threatened by a plan to develop Lower Manhattan’s Pier 17. Read about it in my Green Rabbits blog post:

“LaValva spoke to the Council, revealing several points about the HHC plan: (1) it would ’cause the City’s existing Lease with Howard Hughes to be amended so that the City would no longer be obliged to maintain the two remaining, historic Fulton Fish Market buildings as a market at all’; (2) ‘only office uses will be permitted in the . . . Tin Building’; and (3) that ‘the EDC and Howard Hughes have a Letter of Intent to redevelop the Fulton Fish Market site as a luxury residential high rise, hotel and retail complex. The proposed rezoning therefore enables a development that has never been revealed to the public or reviewed by the Council.’

What would any city be without markets? British scholar Carolyn Steel writes in Hungry City that pre-industrial cities ‘all [had] markets at their hearts, with routes leading to them like so many arteries carrying in the city’s lifeblood.’ Cities were always nexuses for the transport of food, and markets were considered vital rather than accessories. The New Amsterdam Market’s proposal asks that it be allowed to continue serving its loyal customers and bringing business to the surrounding restaurants and bars, but it also positions itself to take New York City back to pre-industrial days when community mattered and cities were about exchange, not just consumption.”

Rubina Magazine Issue #2 is Out!

Check out the second issue of Rubina Magazine, where I edit and write articles about social enterprise, women’s empowerment, artisan work, and economic development.

In this issue, we have a dispatch from the recent Ethical Fashion Show in Paris, a memoir about visiting a school in the wake of the destructive Hurricane Alla, an interview with the founder of a girls’ school in Kenya, and an interview with a woman who ran for and won local office in Brooklyn about entering politics.

Thanks for reading! We are actively looking for contributors, so if you’ve got an idea let me know.

Announcing Nomadic Sojourns: “We are composed of movement”

Dear readers, I applaud my friend and fellow New School for Social Research alumnus, J.K. Fowler, for creating a very interesting and unique journal, Nomadic Sojourns, which takes the subject of movement as its inspiration and overall theme. The first issue came out in September and contains a memoir about my first foray into ethnographic research in Guyana as a 20-year-old college student, as well as pieces of nonfiction and fiction by writers of every shape and size. There will be readings (at which I suspect I will, at some point, read something from my piece), so stay tuned for those–but in the meantime, please take a look at the journal on McNally Jackson’s website, or walk right into their Prince Street shop and admire it on their shelves. Below is an excerpt from my piece, to tease you into shelling out the very nominal $17.99 for the beautifully-designed and one-of-a-kind journal.

“The next morning, the shaman was expecting me. Again his family joined Milton and me inside the hut. Malcolm performed the washcloth ritual once more, and then instructed me to return after lunch.

The same people were there when I came back. There were also a couple of tiny, scrappy puppies flailing about on the dirt floor, so young that they hadn’t even opened their eyes. Malcolm and Mavis were resting in hammocks, having a post-lunch nap. Malcolm’s daughter, who looked to be about five, appeared with a stick Read more

Announcing the Launch of Rubina Design: Empowering women through business and traditional crafts

I’ve been watching Kari Litzmann create a social enterprise from scratch over the past year-and-a-half. And now, it’s coming to life! Rubina Design is launching as a hub for beautiful, contemporary designed goods like clutches and scarves, made by rural artisans in India. But it has an overarching goal of supporting women’s empowerment through business development. More about our upcoming launch party soon…

Check out some of the content on Rubina Magazine, where I’m the editor:

  • On learning traditional textile techniques
  • On working with an artisan craft NGO as a young idealist
  • A photo essay of women who are pushing past cultural obstacles


Follow Rubina here.