New York Riesling Diary: Day 4 – Announcing the World Premiere of ‘WATCH YOUR BACK – The Riesling Movie (Part 1)’ Sunday Evening at the Bijou by The Bay during CITY OF RIESLING in Traverse City/MI

In the interests of International Security I can neither confirm nor deny that the image above is a still from my recently completed film WATCH YOUR BACK – The Riesling Movie (Part 1) which has it world premiere at Michael Moore’s Bijou By the Bay movie theatre in Traverse City on the evening of Sunday, July 27th as part of the City of Riesling festival (scroll down to previous posting for more details). However, that is definitely me in the picture and as you can see I’m watching my back. Why? You’ll have to see the movie to get the full answer to that question. However, it has to do with the fact that there are although there are “only” about 12,500 acres of Riesling planted in the US (now the second largest area in the world after Germany) compared with more than 8 times as much Chardonnay, a group of industrially sized Chardonnay produces clearly feel threatened by Riesling’s coolness and the increasingly wide acclaim for it as a “democratic” (i.e. fairly-priced) wine and it’s food friendliness. There is a backlash, and yes, I have felt it. For that reason I recommend any of you who have literally been vocal about Riesling, or actively talking about it in the social media, to watch your backs too.

I only got to see the finished film myself for the first time last night in New York Wine City (NYWC), because my producer, cutter, editor and additional cameraman Klaus Lüttmer had a horrible accident while working in one of his vineyards in the Unstrut Valley a couple of hours drive south of Berlin. This threw him back a couple of days when there were only a few days left, and robbed me of the chance for a final round of corrections. Sure, there are a couple of things that I will tighten up or change, but we are talking about details. Just as I hoped, there are many steep climbs and falls, a few jolts and abrupt changes of direction, some ugly moments and much strange beauty during the movie’s coast-to-coast journey across the US of Riesling. That and the erratic quality of picture and sound, much of it shot and recorded by me with low-budget equipment surely qualify it as a “Gonzo B-movie”, the category I placed the project in before I began shooting here in NYWC back in July 2012. You may well hate it, and possibly with good reason, but I promise you that it isn’t going to leave you cold whatever your taste in movies is.

I look forward to seeing you in Traverse City and don’t forget, WATCH YOUR BACK!


New York Riesling Diary: Day 2 – (Traverse) City of Riesling Welcomes You to Planet Riesling, July 26th thru 28th NOW WITH A COMMENT BY SEAN O’KEEFE

Obviously, I’m not shy, but normally I’m cautious about putting images of myself up here, because sometimes I blow my own trumpet too much in the texts that appear here anyway. However, this image based on a photo by Bettina Keller is so amazing I felt I had to show to to you. Thank you Andy McFarlane for creating this amazing image of me with Planet Riesling (the US of Riesling is clearly visible if you look carefully) behind me. It is part of the promotional material for the City of Riesling event in Traverse City/MI on Saturday, July 26th, Sunday, July 27th and Monday, July 28th. Here is rough outline of the proceedings for what must be the most ambitious US Riesling event this year:

On Saturday, July 26th all the action takes place at a string of wineries on the Leelanau & Old Mission Peninsulas, that is the places where I researched the Michigan section of my book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story. Then you can taste for yourself why I devoted pages 53 – 60 to the Rieslings of this beautiful region which many Americans are not even aware produces wine at all!

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 27th Chef Michael Peterson of Siren Hall represents the Riesling Oyster Riot at Traverse City’s popular food truck mecca, The Little Fleet. As many of you already know dry Riesling loves Oysters and this promises to be simply delicious! For those of you who never tried this combination it will be like taking your first steps on another planet of taste.

Sunday evening features the “world premiere” screening of my Gonzo B movie WATCH YOUR BACK – The Riesling Movie (Part 1) at Michael Moore’s Bijou By the Bay followed by the Night of 100 Rieslings (with wines from all over Planet Riesling) served at a pop-up bar staffed by winemakers and somms plus live music and a farm to table dinner. Please note that I come in peace for all mankind and my movie is a non-profitmaking venture, which means I am not receiving any payment for this or subsequent screenings. And no, I won’t be wearing that red coat pictured above (thanks to Neodandi in Seattle for creating it for me), because it is far too warm for the warm summer weather in Traverse City. You should be able to spot me easily enough though.

On Monday, July 28th the action will move to The Franklin in Downtown Traverse City for ‘Salon Riesling’ a series of four seminar tastings. They begin at 11am and continue to around 5pm, the subjects being (in running order), ‘US of Riesling’, ‘The Eagle has Landed’ with wines from my cellar in Berlin (from Hungary, Italy, the Mosel and Nahe, vintages range from 2009 to 1990), ‘Almost Famous’ featuring the Rieslings of Northern Michigan and finally ‘Riesling Time Machine’ with vertical tastings of Rieslings from Smith Madrone in Napa/CA and Cave Spring in Niagara/Canada.

For more information go to:

This weekend promises to be something else and unforgettable. The only problem facing it – also facing the wine industry of Northern Michigan on a day-to-day level – is that almost nobody in American knows where Traverse City is, much less has an idea of the quality of Riesling  (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, sometimes also Cabernet Franc, Lemberger and more rarely Pinot Noir) produced on the Leelanau Peninsula (LEEP) and Old Mission Peninsula (OMP)I’ve been following developments there since 2000 from a distance and first visited in October 2005. Since then not only has the area planted with Riesling increased by fully 180% – the fastest growth rate anywhere in the US of Riesling! – but the quality of the wines has leapt into a much higher orbit. There is now a very solid group of producers who don’t need to fear comparisons between their wines and those produced anywhere else on Planet Riesling. They are now approaching Earth orbit escape velocity and are about to set course for the Outer Planets and beyond, just like Voyager 1 and 2 did back in the 1970s.

Sean O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse – “we don’t have a chateau and it’s not very grand, but we love Riesling” – was the Mission Developer for the ‘City of Riesling’ event amongst the region’s winemakers, but without the software and hardware of Mission Controller Amanda Danielson of Trattoria Stella and The Franklin it might never have achieved lift-off. Of course, there are also the astronaut winemakers and many ground staff, not least Michael Albaugh of Nu Art Signs who designed the logo which tells you where Traverse City is. My movie would never have got this far if it wasn’t for Klaus Lüttmer, my producer, editor, cutter and extra cameraman in Berlin. Thanks to everyone who believed in this Mission and God’s Speed to us all this coming weekend!


The following comment was received from Sean O’Keefe of Chateau Grand Traverse, regarding the “chateau”. That quote of his above is indeed old, dating back almost a decade. I feel Sean’s comment below deserves a reply:

Of course it’s grand! ( I am not that self deprecating to not recognize that).  No chateau yet though, just give us a century or two to quarry the rocks!

Sure, even ignoring the question of its architectural merit, Chateau Grand Traverse is “grand”, because it’s the largest Riesling producer east of the Rockies. I thought that would be one of the big Finger Lakes wineries, but no. Personally, I’m not a fan of fancy winery architecture always tasting according to the motto, “what do I want to drink, a great wine or a beautiful chateau?” In this case I found the beautiful scenery way more distracting than the winery architecture.

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Oregon Riesling Diary: Day 4 – Faces of the Riesling Invasion

“I used to be a normal person, then I found Riesling!” Barnaby Tuttle of the Tuetonic Wine Co., one of the most high profile winemakers in the Riesling Invasion Force of Oregon. As you can see from his eyes, this Mosel-inspired West Coast winemaker is not someone who does anything by halves, and along with the quality of his medium-sweet Riesling this has put his wines on the lists of some very cool New York Wine City (NYWC) restaurants. This was just one of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind that about 300 paying guests and I had yesterday afternoon at the second and decisive Riesling Invasion staged in this state. Although what I tasted didn’t want me to turn the text about Oregon in my book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story (#BWWOE) upside down, several producers who I had praise there have been able to push the quality of their Rieslings up another couple of notches since the last time I encountered their wines, most notably Trisaetum and Anam Cara; congratulations to the teams of both wineries on their excellent 2013s!

More importantly I found some very interesting new producers who look ripe for inclusion in a future edition of #BWWOE. Maybe the Rieslings of Oregon look like a crapshoot to some of my colleagues and Riesling-sceptics in the state’s wine industry, but to me the situation is much better described as creative chaos. Stuart Pigott’s Law of Winemaking Creative Chaos says that create chaos times time divided by self-criticism equals exciting new wines. The Rieslings that Kelly Kidneight (see above) has made at Mad Violets are a perfect example of this phenomenon. As good as her 2011 Riesling is she felt it was lacking excitement, “so in 2012 I went native!” she told me, meaning that she did a eco-called “native fermentation” with ambient yeasts instead of adding powdered yeast from the packet. This might have been a dangerous path if she was making dry wines, because native fermentations can stop by themselves long before all the grape sugars have been converted into alcohol (and various fermentation bi-products). However, for her medium-sweet style that was not a problem and the 2012 has an interplay of racy acidity with aromatic sweetness with Hitchcock-like suspense.

She’s not the only winemaker in this part of the United States of Riesling to have decided that the medium-sweet, but bright and crystal-clear style of wines is better-suited to the acid-rich fruit that the climate here leads to. Brian McCormick (above) is based a short distance over the border in Lyle/Washington State and his 2013 “Idiot’s Grace” from the Columbia Gorge is at once succulent and vibrant, packed with the aromas of flowers and leaves dripping after summer rain (I kid not!) That’s a remarkable achievement considering that his first Riesling vintage was only 2009. I wish I could drive straight out to see his high-altitude vineyards where the Mediterranean red Grenache grape and Riesling are picked within a week of each other. That’s seriously crazy and against all the textbook rules; there’s no Grenache in the European Riesling regions, because it simply wouldn’t ripen properly there. However, I have to head back to NYWC on Monday, so this is sadly impossible.

Maybe it could sound as if John House of Ovum (above) is pushing an all too fashionable envelope with his 2013 Riesling that was fermented in concrete eggs and neutral oak (dear winemakers of the world, I humbly suggest that no vessel is truly neutral). However, this richly textural wine with a hint of floral honey and pronounced salty-mineral finale is far removed from contemporary winemaking cliches. For me the inspiration of Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace (see the Alsace chapter of my book for more details) is clearly apparent here, and why not. Inspiration is what the Oregon wine industry needs, not another boatload of glibly-fruity, sweet-tasting Pinot Noir reds and Pinot Gris/Grigio whites. There’s already too much of that kind of stuff being pumped into the market place alongside the many well-made, more or less elegant, dry wines that the state is rightly renowned for. The Oregon wine industry really needs to watch out, because that glibly-fruity, sweet-tasting stuff made from grapes best turned into dry wines could ruin their very good name.

Yesterday at the Riesling Invasion, a group of Willamette Valley winemaker-musicians provided it in the form of some seriously original reinterpretations of jazz classics that sounded as good as I believe Oregon’s wine future will taste when the Riesling Invaders have grabbed a larger share of the vineyard territory and kicked their creative chaos process a lot further down the road. This is a story I intend to follow closely during the months and years to come, so WATCH THIS SPACE for further reports of the Invasion Force that is creeping into the Willamette Valley.


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Oregon Riesling Diary: Day 1 – The Riesling Invasion begins Saturday, July 19th (in Portland/Oregon)




















Normally I don’t ever quote press releases, much less reprint entire texts, but what Jess Pierce of Brooks Wines in Oregon has written about the impending Riesling Invasion that begins on Saturday, July 19th in Portland/Oregon is so good here it is in full:

HG Wells (or even Orson Welles) couldn’t have planned so stealthy an invasion, but after years of groundwork, Riesling has broken out of the Willamette Valley and is coming to claim Portland! As part of the annual Summer of Riesling celebration, Portland will be invaded by 39 wineries pouring 100 different Rieslings.

The Riesling Invasion takes place on Saturday, July 19th from 4-8 PM at the Olympic Mills Building, 107 SE Washington Street, Portland. Tickets for the public are $30 in advance (purchase them online at ) or $35 at the door. A complete list of the winery participants can be found on the same website.

“Riesling Invasion is great example of the sense of community shared by Riesling producers all over the world” says Jani Brooks, of Brooks Winery in Amity.  “RI gives us an opportunity to gather and celebrate Riesling, to change stereotypes associated with Riesling, and to connect with other Riesling fanatics looking for the next level of acidity. What an extraordinary – and fun — event!”

Adding to the festivities, Vin Halen, an all-winemaker band from the Willamette Valley will be performing during the event. There will also be food available ( but not included in price of admission) via a cluster of food vendors: Olympic Provisions will be there with their hot/brat dog cart, Andrea Slonecker’s Pretzel stand (the go-to pairing for Riesling!), and Xico for Mexican style grilled corn. Legendary Portland cheesemonger Steve Jones is also slated to attend with a selection of cheese that will be perfect with the range of Rieslings being poured.

But wait, there’s more! Renowned author Stuart Pigott will be in attendance with his new book “Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story” and he will be selling and signing the book for attendees. Pigott has traveled the world documenting its top riesling regions and producers and this book delves into the history of these people and places. Says Pigott, “Finally, the Riesling Invasion has arrived in Oregon and is clearing out all that Pinot Noir fog! This invasion is actually innovation, giving Oregon its first great dry white wines.” And if that’s not enough, the folks from Summer of Riesling (sponsored by Ambonnay Champagne Bar) will be there with plenty of swag!

Follow us on Twitter- @RieslingInvader and Instagram- #rieslinginvasion. For further information, images, photos, quotes, or interviews, contact: Jess Pierce, Brooks Winery Phone: 225.328.0706

PS Don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten my promise! A text is in progress. 



California Riesling Diary: Day 7 – A Promise That I Will Keep

My couple of days in Monterey are about to come to an end. They seemed even shorter, because I had to spend one of them chained to my desk working on an urgent article for the German wine magazine FINE (that is the long article was in German). Never mind, yesterday I was able to head down the coast with my traveling companion Wolfram Eberhard from Berlin. Looking out over the Pacific all my work seemed about as far away as Asia is on the other side of that ocean and I felt close to the banks of fog climbing the coastal hills in the distance. Then over a sandwich and a beer at The Bakery in Big Sur a moment of inspiration gave me the opening words for my next book, and reminded me that for some time I’ve been meaning to write some kind of statement. I’m not talking about a “mission statement”, because I’m not working according to the instructions of the Commander in Chief, God or anyone else high up. And my statement will also be full of questions that I’m asking myself, and think might be worth you asking yourselves too. There will be no neat, round answers, because those things are like wet pebbles that slip through your fingers in a moment. Hard facts are more like jagged little rocks, but it’s hard work hunting them down, and this is something I’m still working on. Please don’t expect too many of them and please be patient, because this thing is going to take a few days if it is to be any good and I do believe in good. However, delivering this statement is a promise that I will keep.

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California Riesling Diary: Day 4 – The Smith Madrone Magic

Why do I do this job? Why am I more excited about it than ever before? Because of people like Stuart (left) and Charles Smith (right) of Smith Madrone estate on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley. Before I visited them yesterday I knew that they’re two of the unsung heroes of American Riesling, but since my visit I would say they’re also unsung heroes of American Chardonnay and American Cabernet Sauvignon. These are actually all world class wines, however I think it’s important to emphasize that although the Smith brothers are inspired by certain Western European wines, those which they produce are American thru and thru. What their wines never do, however, is neatly fit into any of the currently Fashion Wine stereotypes, American or global, because they all have genuine style by the bucket load. Of course, that means that certain critics, somms, collectors and wine fans don’t take them seriously, and maybe never will. The most refreshing thing of all about the Smith brothers is that – as I think you can clearly see from my picture – this situation doesn’t get Stuart and Charles down in the least, quite the opposite. Their quiet confidence derives from the conviction that they’re doing the right thing (also that they’ve considered all the other options and rejected them with good reason), and from the fact that there are more than enough wine drinkers out there who appreciate the Smith-Madrone wines for them to sell out at healthy prices.

At least part of the secret of this is their location on Spring Mountain where they’ve planted 35 acres of vineyards (9 acres of which are Riesling), an area of mixed forest (pictured above is a stand of redwoods) and some grassy hillsides, part of which they use as a shooting range. From up here they look down upon the floor of the Napa Valley where wine can be produced more cheaply and sold more easily the waves of well-to-do tourists who pass through at this time of year. Up on their section of Spring Mountain there are almost zero tourists and wine is far more arduous and expensive to produce. This has encouraged the development of a very different spirit and I think you can read that in their faces. When Stuart Smith said to me, “California goes over the top. That’s what Hollywood is all about,” he was defining the Smith Madrone position as one of opposition to that. That’s not a willful form of opposition though, but a very considered one. The Smith brothers have a position and that, no less than their special location, is what makes these wines so very different from the Napa and Californian norms.

Of course, the mere fact of growing Riesling in Napa Valley (the vineyard is pictured above) seems like a revolutionary act to some people in the California wine industry, but the wines I tasted ranging from 2013 back to 1994 were not only of consistently high quality, they were also also utterly distinctive. “I think the reason we’ve done so well with Riesling is that the concept of balance is fundamental to what we do. We’re in a different and warmer region than Riesling’s homeland in Germany, so we’ve been able to make the wines with less sweetness,” Stuart Smith explained. In fact, recent vintages have been properly dry and wonderfully expressive (see the hit list of the best 20 dry wines on Planet Riesling in my book BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH). The aromas range from white peach and lemon to dried flowers and herbs, the acidity is bright and enormously refreshing without a hint of sharpness. With age a note that reminds me of quince jelly develops. If you want a “dry” white that tastes lush and creamy, sweet and heavy like the Rombauer Chardonnay, then run for cover! This is not the wine for you! However, if you want to feel fully alive and you aren’t afraid of acidity, then you could find this wine seriously exciting.

It was interesting to taste how when the wines are young the Chardonnay and the Riesling from Smith Madrone share some aromas,  and the Rieslings and Cabernet Sauvignons share something vital in a less direct way; dry elegance and brightness. That says to me how strongly the personality of this site asserts itself. More words are not necessary to convey the essentials of these wines, except perhaps to mention that the Smith Brothers 1996 Riesling was one of the best mature American Rieslings I ever tasted. Which other American Rieslings can match its vitality and uniqueness of flavor? The current vintage costs just $27, making it one of the great dry white wine bargains.

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California Riesling Diary: Day 3 – B(ring) Y(our) O(wn) R(iesling) at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the publication of #BWWOE than with the BYOR event yesterday evening at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco/CA. The most extraordinary mix of people (including someone who came from New York Wine City to be with us!) gathered at an over-sized table in this great restaurant, each bringing at least one bottle of Riesling with them which we then drank blind. Of course, when you let people decide for themselves – the democratic Riesling Spirit! – then you don’t know what’s coming, but we had an amazing global selection of Rieslings ranging from the super-elegant, peachy, but bone-dry 2000 ‘Cuvée Frédéric Emile’ from Trimbach in Alsace/France to the succulent and citric 2013 Bendigo Riesling (Spätlese-style) from Auburn in Central Otago/New Zealand. All of this was received with great openness, also several Mosel Rieslings from the 2003 vintage, which was panned by the US wine press when it came (oh, how well the best of these wines have aged!)

For me it was also the first experience of State Bird Provisions acclaimed cuisine. It made sense that Alice Waters of Chez Panise in Berkeley/CA was sitting at the next table, because this cuisine would have been impossible without what Alice did several decades ago to convince diners that ingredient quality and distinctiveness is more important than fancy Haute Cuisine preparations. It’s impossible for me to pick out a single dish, because all the almost 20 dishes which came to the table dim-sum-style were spot on. Sure, there were Mexican and Italian elements, but the way it was all done was totally Californian Melting Pot. As I’ve written before, the Melting Pot is also a cooking pot, and the Global Riesling Network is the perfect partner for this culinary cross-cultural pollination.

Sadly, I know have to leave San Francisco, but next stop is the Smith Madrone winery on Spring Mountain high above Napa Valley, and they make one of the best dry Rieslings in America. WATCH THIS SPACE!

PS Many thanks to Dade and Petra Thieriot and the team of Dee Vine Wines for the enormous effort they put into my three events here in the city! And a special thank you to Johannes Scheid of Dee Vine for being the MC of yesterday’s complex tasting.

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California Riesling Diary: Day 2 – Let’s be Frank, California Dreaming is also Riesling Dreaming (and Riesling Loves Dogs)

San Francisco and its hedonistic food and wine culture have fascinated me since I first travelled here from London back in the summer of 1986, so it seemed appropriate that I should come here to present BEST WHITE WINE ONE EARTH – The Riesling Story. I’ve known Dade and Petra Thieriot of Dee Vine wines, an importer of high-end German wines (mostly Riesling with a strong emphasis on the Mosel, from where Petra originates) for many years and when they suggested we do this together it immediately made a lot of sense. The initially tentative plans rapidly developed into three separate events, of which yesterday’s tasting for consumers at Wine Bank in Palo Alto  (a wine storage facility where anyone can rent space – scroll down for an image) was the first.

My experience is that when you put together the right combination of people, wine (Riesling is really good at this!) and location things start happening that you could never have planned. When I walked in through the door the first person I saw was my colleague John Haeger who’s currently writing a book about dry Riesling. He was of invaluable assistance, rattling off spot-on descriptions of the German Rieslings we tasted that left me to concentrate on giving the packed tasting room of Wine Bank an idea of how Riesling ticks and the kind of things they will find out when they read my book.

During the flurry of book signing at the end I turned around and suddenly there was Sue Moore of Let’s be Frank, the gourmet hotdog company who I’d met in LA back in 2012 (pictured above). Those of you who already have my book will know that on the inside of the back cover is a list of food and wine pairings, and that one of those is hotdogs with medium-dry or medium-sweet Riesling.  On paper the 2008 Riesling Kabinett from Prinz in Hallgarten/Rheingau is at the upper end of that sweetness range, but bottle-ageing makes all wines taste drier, and this wine has dried out to the point it tastes medium-dry in an elegantly sexy way that no young wine can ever do. No wonder Sue Moore loved it and placed an order. I have to warn you that she wasn’t the only one, and by the time you read this that wine may be sold out. No wonder! $22,50 for a mature wine of this beauty is not very much.

There was also a wine from Fred Prinz in the dry section of the tasting and I think these were the wines that most surprised the group. Dry Riesling is still seriously under-appreciated in the Bay Area, although one of America’s finest dry Rieslings, that from Smith Madrone (more on that producer in a few days time) of Spring Mountain/Napa Valley grows a short drive from San Francisco. On top of this, the great fish and seafood you get in this part of California scream out for dry Riesling. The group seemed to have no problem at all with the acid in these wines, which is often supposed to be dangerously high by those unfamiliar with them, and they were amazed by the richness of aroma and texture in the wines from Keller of Flörsheim-Dalsheim/Rheinhessen and Clemens Busch of Pünderich/Mosel. That reminded me of the quantum leap in quality dry German Riesling has made since the turn of the century, one important theme of my book.

Here in America there’s still a tendency amongst somms and other wine professionals to believe that the sweet Kabinett and Spätlese wines are the real German Rieslings, the timeless classics, rather than just the style they’re most familiar with. In fact, it’s the other way around with those sweet wines only existing in roughly their present form since the early 1970s. By then the production of dry Riesling in Germany, which had dwindled ever further through the 1960s had almost ceased. This lead to all kinds of assumptions being made and German Riesling being pushed into a box. The truth is that also in Germany Riesling is a wine that spans the entire range from bone dry to honey sweet and from featherlight to ton-heavy. This and all the variations resulting from terroir (location) and winemaker (style) is what makes Riesling endlessly fascinating.

Various vertical tastings in recent years have driven home to me that the new dry German Rieslings are actually a reinvention of earlier extinct wine styles. This neatly fits Northern California’s broader culture, which is ceaselessly reinventing itself. Dry Riesling belongs on dining tables in this state next to the Dungeness crab, the lobster, salmon and uni. Welcome to the United States of Riesling!


Finger Lakes Riesling Diary: Day 7 – It’s the People, Stupid!

At the end of my week in the Finger Lakes (FLX) in Upstate New York I’m in no doubt that this region on the cusp of gaining recognition as one of the most important winegrowing regions in North America, and not just for Riesling. I’m also sure that this recognition will come both because of long-established (i.e. already in the second or third generation) wineries like Hermann J. Wiemer on the eastern side of Seneca Lake and Dr. Konstantin Frank on Keuka Lake, and because of new winemakers who are pushing various envelopes further than seemed possible  just a few years ago. Together they’re dramatically increasing the amount and diversity of good and great wine produced in the FLX, and at the same time consumers outside the region – not only in New York Wine City (NYWC) – are picking up on the quality revolution here.

BEWARE: SUDDEN CHANGE OF TACK – Please bear with me for a moment! There are a bunch of theories of wine, of which terroir (authenticity through a sense of place) and so-called natural wine (authenticity through the minimal use of technology) are the most important contemporary ones. My experiences during the last days made me think about how if either of those theories is pushed to the limit it ends in a deterministic dogma that all but excludes the role of human decision-making and action, aka wine growing and winemaking. And this is precisely what the Young Turks of FLX winemaking are not.

Probably the terroir and matural wine fanatics are already flipping out and accusing me of not understanding the importance of their pet theories, or not hesitating and calling me a heretic straight out. However, I am not rejecting their ideas nor are FLX winemakers like Kris Matthewson of Bellwether on the western side of Cayuga Lake, pictured above. He’s really interested in terroir, producing several single-vineyard dry Rieslings that are very distinctive, and he also has a couple of wines that definitely fall into the “natural wine” category, one of which is a 2013 Riesling Petillant Naturel. This is a sparkling wine which finished it’s second fermentation in the bottle after release onto the market. It couldn’t have done that if it contained a significant quantity of sulfites or was sterile-filtered, and is therefore what I’d call a low-sulfur, unfiltered wine.

More important for me is what Kris’s decision to go down this path has done for the wine, which strikes me as being significantly more harmonious than the same wine made by more conventional methods, the 2013 Tuller Vineyard Dry Riesling. I prefer the steely, but expressive (white currant, elderflower) 2013 A & D Vineyard that spent almost 9 months in a tank under carbon dioxide pressure in order to delay adding sulfites to it. The result is a wine with way more mineral character than is the norm in this region. More conventional, but also more supple and immediately appealing is the juicy and elegant dry Riesling from the Sawmill Creek winery. Here it is important to remember that before Kris made his 2011 Pinot Noir here Bellwether was dedicated entirely to hard cider. Grape wine is that new for this producer!     

That can’t be said for Red Newt in the so-called Banana Belt (so-called, because it’s the warmest part of the region) on the eastern side of Seneca Lake where Dave Whiting has been producing good Rieslings ranging from harmoniously dry to succulently sweet since many years before my first to the FLX a decade ago. What’s new here is winemaker Kelby Russel, pictured above, a graduate of Harvard in social sciences (they don’t offer wine as a subject, at least not yet). It was jut 5 years ago that Kelby stumbled into winemaking at Fox Run on the western side of the same lake. Fox Run’s Peter Bell has not only been one of the most consistent winemakers in the region over the last decade, the cellar he presides over has also been an incubator for new talent in the region.

Obviously, from the 2013 vintage Rieslings I tasted at Red Newt – just his second vintage there – Kelby learnt very fast. Of the 11 wines I tasted all were very good and there were 2 stars, the dry Tango Oaks Vineyard, the medium-dry ‘The Knoll’   and the frankly sweet ‘The Harlan’ (both from Lahoma Vineyard on the opposite shore of Seneca Lake). Kelby hasn’t changed the style of the Red Newt wines, which were always very bright and charming, but the best of them now have a “dark side” that creates a terrific tension with the fruit and floral aromas. Maybe this isn’t conventional winetasting vocabulary and would result in certain failure in the Master Sommelier exam, but it strikes me as exactly the right metaphor of how the best new Red Newt Rieslings taste. I can’t wait to taste them when they get into the bottle.

I tasted Kelby’s most remarkable wine to date at nearby Boundary Breaks Vineyard with owner Bruce Murray, pictured above. I was lucky to meet him here, because he spends the great majority of his time in NYWC where he works in market research. The wine I’m talking about is the 2011 “No. 198 Reserve”, a sweet Spätlese type wine that has the same kind of aromatic richness, finely-nuanced flavor, weightless feel and enormous freshness as the best German Rieslings of this type. It’s the first time I’ve come across a wine of this type and quality in the FLX, or anywhere on the eastern side of North America for that matter. The number refers to the Geisenheim Riesling clone GM 198, from which the wine was made by picking very late and putting the grapes straight into the press uncrushed (technical term: whole cluster pressing). There was also a very exciting Riesling here which Kelby also made, the as yet unnamed dry 2013 No. 198. It struck me as being one of the first dry Rieslings from the FLX which fit in the mold of the German ‘Grosses Gewächs’ (GG), but that wine needs maybe a year or even two in the bottle to show it’s best, just like the GGs. There were also some other very good wines made by Peter Bell and Dave Breeden of Sheldrake Point, the other members of the Boundary Breaks winemaking team.

A special mention has to go to a non-winemaker, Boundary Breaks vineyard manager Kees Stapel. This property wasn’t planted until 2008, but already the vines looked better than any others I saw in the entire region. It may take this producer to achieve the stylistic and quality consistency to put it in the region’s first rank, but it is clearly moving fast in that direction.

The only disappointing thing about all this for me is that while I picked up on Kris Matthewson’s new wines early enough to get him BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story and Red Newt earned a good place there too, I latched onto Kelby Russel’s talents too late to acknowledge his role at that producer. Bruce Murray was more unlucky, because I bumped into a couple of his less successful – i.e. merely good – bottlings while I was researching and though, “yes, but…” Space was tight and Boundary Breaks didn’t quite make it. If I’d realized that his office was just around the corner from where I stay in NYWC, then all of that might have been different…BUT THE FLX STORY CONTINUES and continues to surprise me!

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Finger Lakes Riesling Diary: Day 3 – Riesling & Co. at Hermann J. Wiemer & Co.

Sure, I came up from New York Wine City (NYWC) to the Finger Lakes (FLX) for the Rieslings – I’m at least as interested in those wines as when I first came up here almost exactly 10 years ago – and they have indeed continued to develop and improve. 2013 is a much better vintage for FLX Riesling than I had dared to imagine, particularly where the winemaker gave the wines plenty of time in the cellar, rather than hurrying them into the bottle. Nobody pushed that envelope further than Oskar Bynke (left) and Frederick Merwarth (right) of Hermann J. Wiemer on Seneca Lake (pictured in front of their new vineyard mind-map) where so far only the “regular” Dry and Semi-Dry Rieslings have been bottles and a couple of tanks are still fermenting. Some of their wines are still pretty embryonic, but my gut tells me that in their (very different – the ’13s are a little lighter in body, more acidic and less lush in aroma) way they will be every bit as the great 2012s. The big surprise of my visit so far was some of the other, i.e. non-Riesling, wines.

Clearly some somms and wine lovers still wonder what I’m talking about when I say that Riesling never demands an exclusivity in the vineyard. Everywhere Riesling gives exciting wines other grape varieties grow successfully next to it. In Lower Austria Grüner Veltliner and Riesling are partners, in the Great Southern of Western Australia Shiraz (Syrah) and Riesling flourish next t one another. OK, the Rheingau is very Riesling-heavy, but even there Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) is an important grape and now gives some very impressive wines. The FLX winemakers have finally really got Riesling – the acreage went up by more then 50% during the 5 years! – in a big way. The question is now what the “partner” grape variety might be. Chardonnay is well established here, but produces many solid wines, some good ones, but rather exciting ones. For a long time a lot of Finger Lakes winemakers wanted their second string to be Pinot Noir, because that is also one of the “classic” cool climate grape varieties, and it is also a very cool grape in the other sense.  However, to date I have tasted just one completely convincing FLX Pinot Noir, the 2012 Reserve from Sheldrake Point on Cayuga Lake.  So, if it definitely isn’t Chardonnay, and doesn’t seem to be Pinot Noir what could it be?

My visit to Hermann J. Wiemer yesterday provided a completely different answer to that question. Their “regular” 2012 Cabernet Franc is already a delicious wine, at once generous (discrete dry tannins) and fresh (moderate acidity and bright black berry notes) with a beautiful violet aroma. It is already way better than a slew of Loire Cabernet Francs which NYWC somms worship for their “terroir” character (often actually just the green paprika aroma of pyazines and tart acidity). The 2012 ‘Magdalena Vineyard’ Cabernet Franc is a game-changing wine that proves the FLX can make great reds from this grape. I’m not talking about aromatic intensity or sheer concentration on the palate, rather breathtaking dry elegance (thanks to even finer dry tannins). Although the aromas of the wine are rather different and the balance different (most importantly less weight), it reminded me of the 2000 Château Cheval Blanc, perhaps the best young red wine I ever tasted from St. Emilion/Bordeaux. By the way, this is only the 6th crop from young vines and the prices seem friendly for red wines of this sophistication: $23 for the “regular” and (not yet fixed) about double that for the ‘Magdalena Vineyard’ bottling.

Sparkling wine ought to be a no-brainer for the FLX wine industry, but so far they have mostly just toyed with the style of wine which first made their reputation (then with native American grape varieties) back in the late 19th century. The above image shows Fred Frank of Dr. Konstantin Frank holding a bottle of the Château Frank ‘Célèbre’ Rosé, which is made from Pinot Meunier. This bottle has completed the second fermentation in the bottle and the deposit in it is the yeast from that second fermentation. This and the white Château Frank ‘Célèbre’, which is 100% Riesling, are great sparkling wines that are full of fresh fruit aromas and beautifully balanced. $20.99 is a very nice price for this quality. No wonder they’ve garnered a large pile of medals at wine competitions across America. However, for the American wine and gastronomic media they don’t count, because they’re not properly dry. Dr. Frank also produced dry sparkling wines in the Champagne mold from Chardonnay (the 2008 Blanc de Blancs is very elegant and still fresh) and Pinot Noir and I although they got more media attention I think they are still seriously underrated. Of course, setting up high-end sparkling wine production is an expensive business, because it takes several years before any product comes out. That is the simple reason that so few FLX producers have made a real commitment to it so far. However, based on the quality and success of these wines it is only a matter of time before sparkling wine becomes big in the FLX. The times they are a’ changing!


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