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New York: Riesling Comes of Age In The Finger Lakes

Dr. Konstantin Frank at Vinifera Wine Cellars.
Dr. Konstantin Frank at Vinifera Wine Cellars.

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

Riesling hasn't had it easy in America. Up until the last few years it's suffered against a stigma of being sweet—a quality that many Americans reared on wine coolers and White Zinfandel now consider definably lowbrow. As a result, the grape was ostracized for many years, shoved into a social corner, like the high school drama geek of white wines. But over the last half-decade Riesling from all over the world has seen double-digit market growth here in the U.S., making its rise in popularity one of the most notable trends in the country's wine consumption.

As a result, New York's Finger Lakes region—the grape's largest production area in America—is finally seeing their adamant allegiance to the geek grape pay off.

The Finger Lakes AVA as we know it today stretches across 11,000 acres and 11 glacial lakes in Upstate New York, just south of Lake Ontario. It's New York's largest wine region, despite the fact that winegrowing here is nothing short of an exercise in catastrophe control. Though the 11 lakes run deep, hoarding heat that helps moderate the temperature during the winter, the grapes often fall victim to frost, rot, and disease. Even with the technology and knowledge winegrowers are privy to today, it's still a region whose seasons challenge the intestinal fortitude of its growers. And that's with Cornell University's fancy viticulture and enology buffs just down the road. One can only imagine what it was like playing chicken with the atmosphere back in the mid 1800s, when ploughs were still cutting edge.

Native Roots

Like most 19th Century American wine ventures, the Finger Lakes built its reputation on native grapes.

The first record of winemaking in the region dates back to 1829, when yet another religious type—William Warner Bostwick—planted native vines for sacramental purposes. But commercial winemaking would not begin until the establishment of the Pleasant Valley Company in 1860.

As New York State's bonded winery number 1, Pleasant Valley Wine Company (also known as the Great Western Winery, the bottler of the famed Great Western "Champagne") made a name for itself working with Catawba and Isabella. The former is an American hybrid grape whose exact parentage is unknown and the latter is a native Vitis Labrusca grape, which was discovered in 1816 by Isabella Gibbs in South Carolina. The sweet and sparkling wines made from both grapes—no doubt inspired by Nicholas Longworth's successes with bubbly Catawba in Ohio—won acclaim and inspired a few dozen additional winemakers to break ground in Northern New York.

By Prohibition there were roughly 40 wineries working with native and hybrid grapes in the Finger Lakes; after its repeal only six remained, four of which—Pleasant Valley Wine Company, Taylor Wine Company, Gold Seal, and Widmer—would dominate the region's production until the late 1960s.

It wasn't until Gold Seal lassoed Charles Fournier, a French immigrant from Champagne (where he served as cellar master for Veuve-Clicquot), that the region began to gaze across the pond for inspiration. When Fournier took over at Gold Seal it was still believed that planting Vinifera varieties in the Finger Lakes was about as good an idea as planting bananas in Buffalo, but he knew that by continuing to make sparkling wines from native varieties, his bottlings would never win international acclaim.

The Doctor Is In

Call it fate. Just as Fournier was toiling over how to remedy his American hybrid problem, Dr. Konstantin Frank—an import from the Ukraine with a doctorate in viticulture and the will to grow cold-climate Vinifera varieties—arrived in the Finger Lakes to take a position at Cornell University's Geneva Experiment Station.

Frank convinced Fournier that he could cultivate European varieties for Gold Seal and give Fournier the opportunity to actualize his dream. In 1953, Fournier threw his eggs in Frank's basket and accepted the offer.

In 1960, Fournier and Frank released the first Gold Seal wines produced from Vinifera grapes and would forge a new relationship between the Eastern U.S. and these varieties—wiping up past tears from more than a century of failures.

Just two years after their first release, Dr. Frank would establish Vinifera Wine Cellars, further sowing the seeds of revolution. Acclaim came quickly to both Fournier and Frank, but it would be awhile before the grape growers in the area—mostly farmers who had little interest in making wine—would say: "Stop ... hey, what's that sound?"

The tide turned in 1976 when the state of New York enacted the Farm Winery Act, which allowed farmers to make wine and sell directly to consumers, restaurants, and retailers—making the winemaking process a more economically viable endeavor. For the first time farmers saw a reason not to pawn their grapes off to bulk producers like Taylor and Constellation.

The Rise of Riesling

As more and more producers took an interest in making their own wines, Fournier, Frank and, by 1979, the German import Hermann J. Wiemer, became increasingly influential.

Wiemer, whose family had over 300 years of winegrowing history in Germany's Mosel region—the spiritual home of the Riesling grape—came to the Finger Lakes in the 1960s as a child.

By the late 1970s Wiemer had grafted and planted Riesling cuttings from Germany's Dr. Thanisch estate, which his father had originally imported. He never looked back.

Forty years after Wiemer's first harvest, and more than fifty after Fournier and Frank's first foray, Riesling has become the most widely planted Vinifera variety in the region. Now, with the grape's popularity on the rise, the Finger Lakes AVA is faced with its first real opportunity to carve out a larger market share in the U.S.

Cure For Nearsightedness

According to Morgen McLaughlin, President of Finger Lakes Wine Country, a company that advocates the region's wines, many of the growers in the region have a provincial attitude when it comes to marketing their wines. Their budgets are small and legs must be tugged to convince them that there is a benefit to selling their wines outside of their respective tasting rooms. At present nearly 90% of all Finger Lakes wines are sold via the tasting rooms of individual wineries

But, with the increasing success of the Wiemer and Frank wines and newer producers like Ravines, and Anthony Road finding nationwide success, the myopia of many of the growers is fixing for a prescription.

But there is still a wealth of other challenges the region and its growers are still figuring out how to tango with.

Disease, Sustainability

The disease pressure in the Finger Lakes has caused many to use herbicides and pesticides to protect their vines, instead of seeking more organic, sustainable methods. In addition, the lack of funding has kept winemakers from experimenting for fear of producing an inconsistent, and thus—at least in the minds of many producers—unmarketable product.

This carries over to the cellar, where most winemakers are working with synthetic yeasts and many are still back-sweetening their wines, de-acidifying, or simply working with varieties—like, say, Merlot—that don't perform well in the climate, simply by virtue of their recognition. Working with the wrong grapes in a cold climate often leads to adding things like sugar and color in order to put out a product that consumers will recognize.

But Evan Dawson—managing editor of the New York Cork Report (the preeminent blog about New York wine) and author of the forthcoming Summer In A Glass, a book about Finger Lakes wine—says that things are moving in the right direction as the region gains the confidence to be itself. Part of coming of age means growing grapes and making wines that reflect growing conditions and soil type, irregardless of fashion.

Coming Of Age

Producers like Shalestone, Bloomer Creek, and Damiani—to name a few—are taking risks to produce the right wines in a more conscientious fashion, and there's reason to believe that this trend will continue as the region's visibility increases.

Surely the region may still have a few strict curves to navigate, but there's no doubt that the Finger Lakes AVA is coming of age. For Wiemer, Frank, and Fournier, it's a moment all three visionaries would surely raise a little Riesling to.

Wineries of Note:
The Hermann J. Wiemer estate and Dr. Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars still remain the region's two finest wineries, producing world-class, age-worthy wines. The wines can be found nationwide.

· Ravines
· Shalestone
· Bloomer Creek
· Damiani

Further reading:

· Carlo DeVito's East Coast Wineries Blog
· The New York Cork Report

-Talia Baiocchi

Talia Baiocchi is the founding editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her former life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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