This is Kelby James Russell, the KJR in the title of my new e-book on Kindle, and one the FLX (Finger Lakes) Rock Star Winemakers the title refers to. The unlikely hero of my new work is pictured in the lab of Red Newt Cellars, the wines of which he’s only been fully responsible for since the 2013 vintage. In that short time Red Newt has gone from being an extremely reliable producer of elegant and charming Rieslings, mostly in the medium-sweet style to a daring innovator in the field of dry and medium-dry Rieslings. KJR is also responsible for making most of the wines for Bruce Murray’s small, but very ambitious Boundary Breaks winery, for the Empire Estate dry Riesling brand launched with the 2014, and for his own Kelby James Russell label. Taken together these wines have already exerted a significant impact on the perception of FLX wines in the Northeast of the US, and this effect will increase significantly during the next few years. The situation just a few years ago in which Hermann J. Wiemer was (rightly in my view) regarded as the sole star producer in the region has changed for this reason, but also others that I will go into over the next days. Given that Kelby is only 28 years old and gained his first experience of winemaking at Fox Run Vineyards on the other side of Seneca lake from Red Newt in the fall of 2009 this is an extraordinary achievement. This is the main reason that I chose him for the cover and title of my in-depth study of the new generation of FLX winemakers.
Those of you who follow me on Facebook will have already read the quote from Clarke Smith (the author of Postmodern Winemaking) that follows, but it’s so important I think that you should read it again along with everyone else: “The revolutions in winemaking are not the work of scientists, but of lunatic heroes who try stuff which orthodox thinking says never should be tried.” Clarke then added some further explanation that makes it clear he doesn’t regard this as being something specific to winemaking, but a much more general phenomenon: “Any paradigm shift is caused by such people. But the Scientific Method does not generate new hypotheses, rather merely tests them – a mopping up activity that constitutes the bulk of scientific enterprise. Revolutions are risky behavior for which you have to be a little bit nuts.” Although he doesn’t scream and shout about it, as you can see from the above photo of KJR he’s on the same page as Clark Smith. He certainly isn’t the only one of the new generation of winemakers in the FLX to see things that way, but he struck me as the right figurehead for this movement that might well be the Second Great Wine Awakening in New York State.
No revolution was ever the work of one woman or one man alone, and in this case the owner of Red Newt Cellars must take a very substantial amount of credit for recognizing KJR’s talent, seeing that this represented a great opportunity rather than a ton of complications, and giving him all the support he needed to realize his ideas. The results speak for themselves and would have had a great success in the marketplace even if I had written nothing whatsoever about them. However, maybe “success” is way too simple a word for the myriad reactions to the new wines from Red Newt Cellars. I have already noted much astonishment on the faces of leading Riesling winemakers like Cornelius Dönnhoff of the Dönnhoff estate in the Nahe, Germany, critics like Stephan Reinhardt of the Wine Advocate, and experts like Lisa Granik MW in NYWC (New York Wine City). As the wines get tasted by more and more people some critical voices are bound to become loud, because wines with this kind of dramatic personality are polarizing. I like the way that both KJR and Dave Whiting have a relaxed “so what?” attitude to this, because it’s inevitable and by no means will it always be bad publicity for them.
Great wines are impossible without excellent quality grapes, and with Riesling there’s very little possibility to hide inadequate fruit quality with winemaking bells and whistles. What you see (when the grapes come into the cellar) is what you get (in the bottle) when it comes to quality. The rise of KJR and Red Newt wouldn’t have been possible without the man pictured on the left in the above photograph, Harlan Fulkerson, a.k.a. The Big H, of the Lahoma Vineyard on the western bank of Seneca Lake. They are standing in a block of the vineyard that KJR christened The Knoll, because although the vineyard has several knolls this is the one planted with Riesling. From the 2013 vintage Red Newt have produced a very special dry Riesling under the name The Knoll, and that first vintage is just coming into its own. Soon to follow from Red Newt is a new top medium-dry Riesling called The Big H. from another block in the Lahoma Vineyard. The praise for these wines will be a vindication of Harlan’s precise vineyard cultivation no less than of KJR’s winemaking. Harlan also gets a big splash in my e-book, but a larger than life personality like his is incapable of making a small splash!
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