@CityofRiesling Diary: Last Day – Underground Rock Star Riesling Winemakers of America unite!

An event like @CityofRiesling in Traverse City is a great opportunity to experience a bunch of wines that you otherwise wouldn’t have tasted, but far more important are the people behind the wines. As Brad Bickle, who’s business is mergers and acquisitions told me, “it was a great opportunity to actually talk with the winemakers as you tasted their wines.”In Brad’s case the revelation at the Night of 100 Rieslings were the powerful and vivid dry wines from Brooks in Oregon which winemaker Chris Williams presented, which were a world of flavor he hadn’t associated with the grape before. By the way, Chris Williams jet skied across Grand Traverse Bay to reach the Night of 100 Rieslings, which confirmed his status as an underground rock star wine guy!

In my case, the taste of the wines from Galen Glen in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania was familiar, but it was no less an important experience for me to talk with winemaker Sarah Troxell, pictured above, about them for the first time. Galen Glen planted back in 1999, but has been under the wine media and wine scene radar, because of their “wrong” location (wine from PA isn’t supposed to be good), their focus on the “wrong” grape varieties (Riesling and Grüner Veltliner aren’t supposed to be growing in PA), and the fact that they sell most of their production through their own tasting room (for the wine scene what doesn’t make it to NYC and SF/LA doesn’t really exist). However, none of that alters the fact that these are white wines of purity and elegance with a lot of subtlety, and for me these are great wines and she is an underground rock star wine chick. Over the two days of the event I learnt from her how a lot of precise hand work lies behind all this, which makes a lot of sense. Wines like this are never accidents.

Salon Riesling on the second day was composed of a series of four tastings hosted by panels and some really great discussion took place. Of course, Riesling’s difficulties in the marketplace were discussed and the session that compared Riesling with Sauvignon Blanc (SB is my favorite grape’s main competitor) was very illuminating. SB is one-paced and often simplistic, not least because the vines are often over-cropped and the wines are rushed into the bottle as a result of the same imperative for profit maximization. The consumer isn’t aware of this though, because they are focused on the narrow range of aromas and predictable taste profile of the wines. It is exactly this predictability that attracts them, because it means they have the comforting feeling of knowing exactly what they’re getting. That’s why it accounts for more than 7% of all wine sales in the US compared with Riesling’s 1% share of the market.

Of course, compared with SB Riesling is seriously individual, and has a staggering range of aromas and tastes. As I wrote in BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH it spans the entire range from bone dry to honey sweet, from featherlight to ton heavy. As Nicolas Quille of Pacific Rim in the Columbia Valley of Washington State pointed out, “the beauty of Riesling is its limitation in the marketplace.” This is a painful truth and although the introduction of the IRF taste profile indicating the sweetness level of (many but sadly not all) Rieslings is a big step forward it is not a complete solution to that problem. He has done a great job of improving the balance of all the Pacific Rim Rieslings in recent years, to which all the 2014s are still on the full lees; a daring move for a winery of this size Meanwhile the 2013s from Pacific Rim prove that quality and quantity can be combined in modestly-priced Rieslings that have a rather mainstream appeal. That’s quite an achievement!

I brought a vertical tasting of Scharzhofberger Riesling Auslese from Egon Müller-Schrzhof with me to Traverse City and they were served at a lunch on the final day. It was great to find that the oldest of these wines, the 1983 Auslese, was still in great shape, because this was one of the first wines I put in my cellar exactly 30 years ago. Other high points were the enormously concentrated 2001 Auslese Gold Cap – all the honey, dried figs and mango you could ever want! – and the 2005 Auslese, which seemed to expand directly from my mouth into the deepest corners of my nervous system. These would be very expensive wines to buy ($500 – $1,000) per bottle, but the great thing about Riesling is how they peacefully co-exist with startling original, modestly priced wines like the 2014 Stone Cellar from Galen Glen. In the Cabernet world more modestly priced wines rarely get taken seriously except as cheaper alternatives to the “right” stuff, even if they’re as beautiful as the 2012 from Smith Madrone in Napa, California.

Events like this wouldn’t happen without people like Amanda Danielson of The Franklin and Trattoria Stella (two of Traverse City’s best restaurants) and Sean O’Keefe of Mari Vineyards, pictured right. Organizational talent, determination and hard work aren’t enough to pull off something like this year’s @CityofRiesling. For that, you need all those things plus a vision of what the wines make possible in terms of human interaction (the subject of today’s blog posting). Discussion at the seminar tastings was so exciting, and raised so many important questions and issues, because the panel members were chosen on the basis of what they would have to say, not on their fame. Often those who are almost famous have way more to say for themselves than those who’s fame and egos are as big as zeppelins. In Traverse City the panelists enabled me to learn not only what is happening with Riesling in the US, but also how that fits into the broader picture including the stuff that is supposed not to happen (for example the illegal kick-backs used to buy into restaurant wine lists and onto store shelves in some states).  However, the most important revelations all were the startling new Rieslings of exceptional quality are being produced in the US. For example, the 2014 “239″ Dry Riesling from Bruce Murray’s Boundary Breaks estate in the Finger Lakes of New York isn’t released yet. Wines like this will make waves when they reach the market shortly.

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@CityofRiesling Diary: Day 4 – Tonight’s the Night (of 100 Rieslings in Traverse City, Michigan)

Other wines have their annual day and Riesling used (in theory) to own the summer, but actually most people enjoy wine as part of a great night out, and I’m not arguing with that. It may be a simple observation, but if Riesling is the Best White Wine on Earth (the title of my book on the subject published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang), then it could well be the best wine to drink tonight. And this will be particularly true here in Traverse City, Michigan, because tonight the second @CityofRiesling festival kicks off with the Night of 100 Rieslings downtown close to the shore of Lake Michigan. Normally I don’t kick off a posting with a landscape image, but this picture shot from the deck of a boat on the lake last night was so spectacular I wanted to give you an idea of what the backdrop will be tonight. If you are unable to join us tonight, I suggest you scroll up to this shot and open a bottle of Riesling, or maybe two or three.

Although the @CityofRiesling is all about celebrate the wines of my favorite grape it has a serious purpose as well and, hard as it may be to believe, the above picture illustrates that. It shows Sam Smith of Smith Madrone winery in Napa Valley, California relaxing in the waters of Grand Traverse Bay last night. He’s one of the many winemakers who travelled large distances to be here, to pour their wines and to exchange ideas. The dry 2014 Riesling from Smith Madrone has as much vitality and elegance as this winery’s better known Cabernet Sauvignon reds (the 2012 is a beautiful example of this), and likewise proves that even that region so associated with massive, opulent and sweetish tasting wines has a completely different side of which Riesling is a part. This proves that it wasn’t the Great God of Wine who ordained that Napa should produce Big Cabs, but men and women, consumers (who I regard as co-producers) no less than producers.

The most important thing about Riesling is that it is a seemingly endless source of surprises. I’ve been studying, tasting and drinking it for 30 years, but I still get a rush of excitement from realizing that I’ve just bumped into another new star in the Riesling firmament. Or would you expect to find that there’s a producer of high-end dry Riesling wines in Pennsylvania? Sarah Troxell of Galen Glen winery in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania is another participant of the @CityofRiesling and yesterday was the first time we’d met, so already the event has provided me with one very pleasant surprise.



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@CityofRiesling Diary: Day 2 – The Many Faces of the Future in Northern Michigan

Why beat about the bush? I may be up here in the Traverse City area for the @Cityof Riesling event on Sunday evening (July 26th) and Monday (July 27th), however, today I tasted some amazing red wines made by the man pictured above. Coenraad Stassen is the South African winemaker of Brys Estate on the Old Mission Peninsula (OMP) and although he makes some very good white and rosé wines his genius is crafting sophisticated red wines in this climate that at first glance (think sub-arctic conditions last winter and the one before) seems seriously unsuited to the production of good red wine. What makes this all the more remarkable is that Brys Estate is just celebrating it’s tenth anniversary and Coenraad hasn’t been the winemaker for all of those years. I wasn’t surprised that the wine he showed me that impressed me most, the 2012 Cabernet Franc, costs $50 in the tasting room. Not only is it impossible to produce such wines here in the years with less favorable weather patterns, but this wine has the most captivating fragrance and its considerable power is so well wrapped in ripe flavors that it only blossoms after you swallow the wine in a fireworks display of flavor. And there are more than 10,000 bottles of this wine! Even more imposing were the already sold out Artisan series reds from 2007 – a Merlot and a Cabernet Franc – but along with yet more concentration of flavor they also had more obvious oaky aromas. I preferred the frank fruit and joyful personality of that 2012 Cabernet Franc.

Cornel Olivier, pictured above, was the first winemaker of Brys Estate and is now half of the 2 Lads winery, where the lesson I had to learn about the red wines of Northern Michigan continued. Conrad is also a talented maker of red wines, and it was his Pinot Noirs which blew my mind, most importantly the Beatrice and Cuvée D bottlings from 2013, which blew my mind. The short and rather intense growing season of the OMP and the brutal winters hardly look like a combination ideal to persuade the delicate Pinot Noir grape to give it’s best. However, a great deal of detailed work in the vineyard has enabled Cornel to coax some amazing aromas and flavors out of this grape, even in the 2013 vintage that was far too wet to be ideal for red wine production. The 2013 Beatrice has some serious tannic power that leaves you in no doubt about its presence, but there’s enough ripe cherry fruit to prevent this from making the wine overly austere, while the 2013 Cuvée D is lush and seductive, its tannins sheathed in a kind of velvet that seems totally 21st century. Both wines weigh in at $44 per bottle in the tasting room. Then there are the 2 Lads Rieslings, in particular the very elegant dryish wine they make from their home vineyard and the great 2013 Late Harvest Riesling they made from the Fouch Vineyard that made me remember why I had travelled to the OMP from New York Wine City. It has one major advantage over those Pinot Noirs: it costs under $20!

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@CityofRiesling Diary: Day 1 – At the American Wine Edge

“What the fuck!” I almost blurted out as the tour of Mari Vineyards new winemaking facility on the Old Mission Peninsula (OMP) close to Traverse City in Northern Michigan approached it’s conclusion. Had I just experienced a Close Encounter of the Third Kind? No! What you see above is the spectacular central space of the deepest level of the Mari Vineyards cellars, from which the three arms of the barrel cellar radiate. This is just one of the features that make this dramatic structure put every other winery I’ve seen east of the rockies in the shade. The closest thing I’ve seen to this anywhere on the North American continent is the complex of Mission Hill in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia/Canada, a beautiful if slightly megalomaniac winery that made everything California has to offer look decidedly tentative in comparison.

In order to give you a better idea of what I’m talking about below is an exterior view of the construction site that gives a good general impression of the scale and style of the facades. And yes, although this winery will be producing a wide range of other wines including some Heavy Reds it will also be making many Rieslings. They, and a slew of other wines with a Germanic or cool climate personality, will be made by Sean O’Keefe (an ex-winermaker of Chateau Grand Traverse who remains a co-owner of that winery) and will appear under his Scriptorium brand. Don’t forget, you first saw the Riesling Future of Northern Michigan on this blog today!

Of course, all of this is at least slightly crazy and the architecture edges in the Xanadu direction, but if founder Marty Lagina can fill this over-sized frame with a great picture, that is wines which live up to the expectations it awakens, then why not? Unfortunately I’ve so far only tasted a couple of the Mari Vineyards wines and none of the Scriptorium wines, so please be a little patient as a report on them will follow very soon. I only just arrived in Traverse City, MI a few days in advance of the @CityofRiesling festival that begins with the Night of One Hundred Rieslings on Sunday. And just as I thought that I was beginning to orientate myself here after four weeks in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York this world of misfit wine toys has made my head spin.

Before this project even became the biggest heap of dirt I’ve seen in many years (during my previous visit to the region a year ago for the first @CityofRiesling) it struck me that Black Star Farms winery close to Downtown Traverse City was a pretty big operation for the OMP. Now what chief winemaker Lee Lutes and his assistant Vladimir Banov, pictured below, are doing looks distinctly cautious and positively modest in comparison. However, those words only apple to the scale and style of the operation. When it comes to the wine quality here nothing is modest. The three 2013 vintages Arcturos Rieslings from Black Star Farms are all seriously impressive wines not only in the OMP context, but also that of North America as a whole. Moderate in alcoholic content, but packed with fruit and herbal character (the licorice note typical of this region!), their acidity dancing on the palate rather than jabbing it with a spear or fading as quickly as a talentless Hollywood starlet. Even the 2013 Late Harvest Riesling – production of this wine sometimes pushes in the direction of 100,000 bottles per year – had terrific balance, the generous sweetness juicy and enticing, thanks to the wine’s great freshness.

I was also seriously impressed by Lee and Vladimir’s 2013 Pinot Gris and 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, both unusually elegant and subtle wines for grapes which are all too often used to make showy and sweetish wines with little real character, but fancy price tags. Then there were the red wines, which is not exactly a wine type that there big wide wine world associates with this northerly location at the America Wine Edge. I say those words not to be dramatic or melodramatic, but because during the last winter the vineyards of the OMP suffered some very serious frost damage and this year there will consequently be little crop. And that comes hot on the heels of the 2014 vintage, which was also way down due to the previous winter also being really harsh.

I almost instantly forgot that climatic disaster movie when we tasted the new red wines from Black Star Farms. I really liked the silky texture and delicate cherry aroma of the 2012 Pinot Noir, of which around 35,000 bottles were produced. The 2012 Cabernet Franc, which had a discrete roasted artichoke and herbal character and some well-judged dry tannins, struck me as being every bit as good. They reminded me of tastings during my previous visits to the region which had convinced me of the fact that the Cabernet Franc grape has excellent potential for both rosé and red wines here. In contrast, you and I could endlessly discuss if it makes sense in the long-term in a region as cool as this to make powerful red wines like the 2011 Leonie Vineyard, a blend of 71% Merlot and 29% Cabernet Franc from  a great site almost in the suburbs of Traverse City. Does the world need another high-end Merlot? No, but this wine has a lot of power and quite some richness, while remaining well balanced and retaining some subtlety. So, a little reluctantly, I concede that even Merlot may have a place here alongside Riesling at some vineyard locations on the ribbon of sand the size of Manhattan that is the OMP.

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FLXtra: FIFTEENTH EDITION! – The Riesling & Co. Wrap

Since this is the last time FLXtra is appearing this season it’s time to do a Riesling & Co. Wrap, and to report on all the important things that didn’t make it into the “paper” so far. This isn’t because they’re less worthy than the stories published so far, but there was a limited amount of time I had for writing and often one or two potential stories would slip by on a single day for no better reason than the complete lack of time to hammer them into the keyboard. As you’ll see though, each has something in its own way.

The tasting rooms of the FLX are an eye-popping and brain-rattling experience. Sometimes there’s a bizarre disconnect between the gaudy and raucous buzz out in a tasting room and the elegant, subtle wines. I even encountered a bit of this at Hermann J. Wiemer, the region’s established number one producer of high quality wines!  Nowhere was this disconnect more radical and disorientating than at Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards in Hector on the East side of Seneca Lake where Michael Reidy, pictured above, is the winemaker. This is actually two wineries in one, the larger of the pair being situated in over in Naples where a branded sweet red wine called Red Cat is produced in vast quantities. That’s the product drawing most of the let-it-all-hang-out crowd to this tasting room and pumping up the feeding-frenzy energy there to the point where you think that it can’t go any higher…but then it does! The small, but well-equipped wine behind this zoo is like an oasis of calm where Michael has been quietly crafting some excellent Rieslings since 2010.

The Hazlitt’s 2014 Dry Riesling and the candidate for the 2014 Dry Riesling Reserve are the best wines he’s made to date although the 2012s and ’13s were already very good. They’re quite substantial, ripe and creamy wines (the Reserve is more powerful and has more extravagant grapefruit and pineapple aromas), but at the finish the characteristic driving acidity of the region comes through. There’s also a 2014 Semi-Dry Riesling with a Mosel-like vibrancy and aromatic charm. After tasting these, and the impressive 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (it has some paprika and passionfruit, but is no NZ-SB-clone thanks to the ripe melon aroma and moderate acidity) it was hard to believe that Michael started in just such a tasting room back in 2004. Later he went to Cornell University to learn the science of winemaking and on graduation he decided to stay in the region, “because you could see that we were in the knee of the curve.” He’s now one of the winemakers responsible for pushing the FLX up the steep section of the curve it’s now on, also with the Hazlitt dry reds for a description of which there’s sadly not adequate space here.

Although it is a big jump in terms of personalities and winemakers from him to August Deimel of Keuka Springs, pictured above at a Fourth of July party in Geneva, it makes sense, because he too is Cornell trained and a master of the science of wine in more sense than one. When I finally got to talk with him at some length I quickly began to wonder if his years at St. John’s College in Santa Fe didn’t have a far more fundamental influence on his thinking. As he put it, “four years without a single lecture!” but endless discussions. This reminded me somewhat of my time at the Royal College of Art in the Mid-1980s, which in retrospect shaped my thinking in an entirely comparable way.

When August arrived at Keuka Springs in May 2012 he immediately put his mind to cracking Gewürztraminer as a dry wine, one of the most horrible challenges in all of winemaking. Few young winemakers anywhere in the world are interested in pursuing this white whale, and to my serious amazement with his 2014 he has already nailed it! The most remarkable of these wines is the barrel-fermented, bone dry 2014 Dynamite Vineyard Gewürztraminer that is discretely aromatic for this grape (turkish delight rather than full-throttle lychee), but has a stunning textural complexity of a kind I usually associate with elegant high-end Chardonnay. I had no idea this was even possible with the thick-skinned, bitter and low acidity Gewürztraminer grape! Although August’s regular 2014 Gewüztraminer is a somewhat more conventional wine it manages to be pretty dry, beautifully balanced and not have too big a build, that is within the heavyweight champion of the world context of this grape. I also really liked the Keuka Springs 2013 Humphreys Vineyard Dry Riesling, a wine that manages to be strong and delicate at the same time and can’t wait to taste the 2014. At the other end of the white wine spectrum is the full-throttle, super-succulent 2014 Vignoles, a witches brew of pineapple, citrus and darker more mysterious flavors; the best wine I ever tasted from this hybrid grape!

The problem with August’s story is that to tell it properly I would really need to give him an entire full-length blog posting. Because that won’t work this time I’m forced to scratch the surface and to try tease you by saying that I think he’s a winemaker with a genuinely revolutionary vision for the FLX that will surely lead to many more surprising wines like those just described during the coming years. Dear Somms of New York Wine City (NYWC), please wake up to this guy NOW, rather than several years too late. Many of these wines are screaming to be on the tables in your restaurant NOW!

The reason that the Somms of NYWC will have to wait at least another year in order to get the chance to be excited about what Nathan Kendall, the new winemaker at Villa Bellangelo on the West side of Seneca Lake is doing is that the first of his daring new Rieslings won’t be released for more than a full year. I managed to taste them blind at a tasting of 2013 and 2014 dry and medium-dry FLX Rieslings (maximum 20 grams per litre / 2% unfermented sweetness) staged at Villa Bellangelo on the afternoon of Fourth of July. In this context, both the 2014 Dry Riesling and the medium-dry 2014 Bellangelo Riesling tasted crazy young with a funky yeasty aroma (technical term reduction), but had a serious textural quality as well as lemon-lime freshness, and ended on a salty mineral note. The yeasty funk was controversial amongst the dozen or so winemakers who joined me at this tasting, but I feel confident that in another year this will have waned substantially, and these Rieslings will make many people talk and some swoon. Nathan’s gained the reputation of the gift of the gab, but as you can see from this picture above he’s also a very thoughtful guy; another complex personality I sadly cannot fully explore here.

At least equally controversial at the Fourth of July FLX Riesling tasting were the wines from Bloomer Creek on the East side of Seneca Lake. Here the thing which ticked some of the tasters off was the fact that these wines had spent a long time on the deposit of dead yeast left by the fermentation (technical term gross lees) without much sulfites to protect them from oxidation. However, after seeing how stylistically consistent the three 2013 Rieslings from Bloomer Creek were even the naysayers had to admit that the wines have a totally distinctive style and pack a lot of flavor for only 11.5% alcohol. I love the notes of dried pear and peach, the hint of floral honey and the richness of wines like Bloomer Creek’s 2013 Morehouse Road Dry Riesling have, and I applaud the fact that they taste like nothing else in the region. The photograph below shows Debra Bermingham (also a talented painter who deserves a blog posting for her work) and Kim Engle of Bloomer Creek with a dog I’m nicknaming the Third Man, not least because this scene looks like something out of a movie!

There were a number of individual wines at that Fourth of July tasting that deserve a mention. Of the 2014 Dry Rieslings those from Lucas (pretty), the 3 Generations from Lakewood (succulent and elegant), the KV Estate from Knapp (ripe and crisp with intense herbal notes), the wine from new-old kid on the Cayuga Lake block Randolph O’Neil (very cool both literally and metaphorically), the STV Vineyard from Silver Thread (ethereal and mineral) and Caywood East Vineyard from Wagner (a daring wine for such a big producer with notes of mushroom and lime) all impressed. I also like the 2014 Dry Riesling from Glenora (intense aroma of basil and super-fresh style), but it is mislabeled as “dry” with almost the maximum sweetness that was allowed for this tasting.

Because we focused so much attention on the 2014s that day – all the winemakers shared my curiosity about how these (often just bottled) young wines would show – that meant some of the best 2013s were acknowledged, but got a bit forgotten due to the 2014 beauty contest that followed them. I’m thinking particularly of the three medium-dry single vineyard wines made by Mark Wagner of Lamoreaux Landing in Lodi on the East side of Seneca lake. When they were a year younger I’d been slightly disappointed by them, but all have developed beautifully and they now have more power and length than most of their contemporaries along with great harmony. That, together with the track record of this producer over the previous years adds up to the fulfillment of the conditions I demand for wines to qualify as “classics”.

When I visited Mark, pictured above, on the Third of July I was able to taste his 2014s and this time I wasn’t disappointed in any way with the still embryonic wines. Of them the 2014 Dry Riesling is by far the most forthcoming, in fact it was as effusively and enticingly floral as the gardens of the FLX were at the same time. Of the three 2014 single-vineyard wines the Yellow Dog had quite an austere personality in spite of a lot of substance, and needs some months or years of aging to give its best. The touch of blackcurrant is already very distinctive though. The Round Rock was as closed up as a ship with all the hatches battened down bracing for a storm, but is built to take even a hurricane in its stride and has an uplifting freshness at the finale. The unquestionable star of the trio is the Red Oak, with a bouquet of peach, blackcurrant and hibiscus that is much more forthcoming than those of its siblings. There’s a great concentration of ripe fruit here, but after starting lush the wine slowly turns drier and drier, more mineral and more mineral as it extends in the direction of the Event Horizon of FLX Riesling…

To be continued!


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FLXtra: FOURTEENTH EDITION! – Winemaker Julia Hoyle and the Future FLX

IMP. NOTE: I only ever accept hospitality from wine producers on the basis that I will offer them equally generous hospitality at some point in return. I stayed with Julia Hoyle from June 20th thru July 16th and the most valuable thing she gave me during this time was her thoughts. This was definitely a piece of Gonzo research during which I got much closer to her than I do to the winemakers I only sit across the table from for a couple of hours, and without that the following wouldn’t have been possible.

THIS STORY is about a woman winemaker called Julia Hoyle of Geneva, FLX, but it is and is also not a story about women winemakers. Julia was in full agreement what I did when a couple of years back I turned down a well paid commission to write a story about women winemakers in Germany, saying to the editor of the magazine, “it’s not a story any more.” “Yes,” she said, “that’s how it should be. I’m a winemaker who happens to be a woman.” I’d written my first story on that subject almost 20 years earlier and after I’d done a handful of them I realized that a seriously large number of the best winemakers in Germany were women, and the situation was moving steadily in the direction of female/male parity.

It was a shock for me to discover that in the FLX and the US of Wine the position of women winemakers isn’t nearly as positive as in Europe, and I have quite often experienced openly sexist attitudes towards them that shocked me. However, while I as in the FLX this time I slowly realized how many women winemakers there were. The most notable of them is Nancy Irelan who founded Red Tail Ridge together with her husband Mike, but she is solely responsible for the winemaking. The across the board excellence of her wines certainly puts her in the first league of American winemakers. Slowly, the wine scene outside the region is waking up to the scale of her achievements and that she did all this from scratch in just 10 years.  During that time there’s been a big change for women winemakers in the FLX and Julia is part of that. The remarkable thing about this is that she is a native of Philadelphia, PA and comes from a family who had nothing to do with wine. She didn’t study winemaking and only got into it “accidentally”.

We were heading to a wine tasting in her car when she tole me that  she graduated from William Smith College in Geneva with a BA in Women’s Studies and French & Francophone Studies in 2011. “By that time I was already really interested in winemaking.” That radical change of course began with working part-time in the tasting room of Fox Run winery on the west bank of Seneca Lake from the fall of 2009. This situation lead to contact with Fox Run winemaker Peter Bell and his assistants, including Kelby Russell who she married in June 2014. Through talking and tasting with them wine got a hold of her on many levels.

“I just gently slid into it. My first harvest was 2012 at Fox Run. I’d just got back from my second long stay in Senegal in Western Africa and a few weeks in France on the way back. I worked a solid half of that harvest. Then in 2013 I worked the entire harvest at Atwater on the other side of Seneca Lake, and from December 2013 I began working some days for Dave Breeden, the winemaker at Sheldrake Point. That slowly turned into my current position as assistant winemaker there.”

Senegal might seem like an incidental aspect of this story, but her two long stays there made a deep impression on Julia and she talked at length about how very different the Senegalese culture is to mainstream America – “the spirits of the dead are so much more present there than they are here” – and the way French became her second language often and at length. My gut doesn’t lie, though it may sometimes accords certain things an exaggerated importance, but I don’t think that’s happening when I say that these experiences of another culture made it easier for her to step into the special society of winemakers and grape growers that is now a kind of home for her.

Dave Breeden has the reputation of being a complex guy, and it was no surprise the other day that when he told me about a tasting of the FLX winemakers group at which his tasting note for a particularly ugly Riesling read, “die, die, die!” It reminded me of how a quarter of century ago at a wine show I described another ugly wine as, “Rocky Horror Riesling Show!” Julia seems to take this side of his character in her stride, as few people do, the two of them have clearly become a really creative team and the wines of Sheldrake Point were never better than they are now as a result. Julia made the winery’s 2014 Pinot Noir Reserve alone and the result is a rather daring reinvention of one of the FLX’s few cult Pinots. I love the bold, but not aggressive dry tannins in this wine and the combination of ripe cherry fruit and earthy notes. Sure, the dry 2014 Muscat she made is a bit less exciting, but that wine is 100% Muscat Ottonel, and that is seriously challenging grape to make a varietal wine from due to it’s full muscat type aromas, but lowish acidity. I don’t know any exciting varietal wines from this grape either in FLX or on Planet Wine!

“The things that interest me are inherently challenging. I was really interested in figuring out how to describe wine. I’m also really interested in hands-on work, and love the fact that it’s never the same.” Without any evidence to support it some people in the FLX wine industry have suggested to me that Julia has ridden on her husband’s coattails, but all I heard and saw suggested this is people jumping to the old bullshit chauvinistic assumptions. That also makes me feel angry, because the fundamental issues of equality – regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, creed, etc – should all have been dealt with long ago. How did America fall back after the great progress achieved in those struggles during the 1960s and ’70s? There’s no time now to delve into that mire though.

“Every time we open a bottle of wine Kelby and I bounce ideas off each other. It doesn’t feel like work,” she told me and that’s also how it was when I watched her tasting wines with colleagues or she was tasting wine with me. She never hesitate to adopt a position that was contrary to mine or anyone, everyone else in the room. Or would you call describing the aromas of a sweet Riesling as being, “curry and chocolate” conventional? Even more importantly, she argues her case lucidly and confidently, but always has her antenna out to pick up things she didn’t spot or understand fully from colleagues.

For someone who never studied winemaking formally and came to it from right out of field left that’s quite something. Considering the fact that she’s only been in the FLX wine industry a few short years this is more remarkable. No wonder her talents are beginning to be recognized by the bright people in the region even though she is “only” an assistant winemaker. This all convinces me you will be hearing a lot more about Julia Hoyle during the coming years, and this will make hers an example that others will follow: other women, other young people with a non-wine background and non-wine education. It is they, no less than the locally born and formally trained winemakers, who will shape the Future FLX!

PS: The first photograph of Julia accompanying this posting was her own choice.



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FLXtra: THIRTEENTH EDITION! – The New York Metamorphosis of Peter Becraft

One version of the Peter Becraft story says that he’s been the chief winemaker of the Anthony Road winery on the West side of Seneca since 2013 and has done a good job of following in the over-sized footsteps of his predecessor Johannes Reinhardt, a German immigrant now concentrating upon his own Kemmeter winery just across the road. All of this is true and that story has been written quite a few times by the wine and food press. There’s nothing you can say against, except that it barely scratches the surface of the full story of Peter Becraft’s metamorphosis. The magazine Edible Brooklyn went a step further and talked about hold how when he first moved up to the FLX in Upstate New York, just for the 2006 wine harvest, his accommodation was an Airsteam trailer he brought up with him from New York City. This comes quite a bit closer to the full story, as does his concise bio on the Anthony Road website, but even these versions only hint at the full, unexpurgated truth. For this reason, I took the time for a long talk with Peter the other morning during which he did almost all the talking and I did listened…

“My wife and lived in New York City where she was working in the restaurant industry, as the pastry chef at River Café, and I was the casting assistant to a fashion photographer. 9/11 happened as we were walking to work. It unfolded in front of us. That was the impetus to follow our passion. I started working in a wine shop in the Financial District as well as for the photographer: Tuesday thru Friday lunchtime in the studio, then the rest of Friday and Saturday in the wine store. That’s where I got introduced to really good wines. We started vacationing in wine regions. My wife started her own chocolate company CaryMo.”

The first wine Peter poured me during our talk was his 2014 Cabernet Franc Rosé, which at 13.1% is quite a powerful rosé in the FLX context with plenty of redcurrant type fruit and some dry tannin in the finish. That should make it very good not just with light summer food, but also more robust dishes. As good as this wine is, the 2014 Unoaked Chardonnay tops it with it’s bright white and citrus fruit aromas, ripe juicy fruit and some tannin that is beautifully married to the fresh acidity at the energizing finish. If all regular Chardonnays were as refreshing and characterful as this I’d drink lots of Chardonnay.

“When we first came up to the FLX in May 2006 we’d been in New York City for about a decade. We were living well, but just getting by. I knew Anthony Road from the Green Market on Union Square and it was the last stop we made. Actually, it wasn’t the Riesling which did it for me, it was the 2005 Pinot Gris. Then we got talking to Johannes, he asked back into the cellar and we tasted a  wines from the barrel for one and half hours. Finally,  he said, “you know I’m looking for someone to help with harvest. So in early September the Airsteam and I came up to Anthony Road, and we’re both still there.”

It was amazing to think that eight years before the 2014 harvest Peter had no experience of winemaking at all, then to taste his 2014 Skin Ferment Chardonnay. This is the first vintage of a daring piece of experimental winemaking, since the wine was fermented on the grape skins as if it were a red. That’s how a lot of so-called “Orange Wines” are made, but they often end up more or less oxidized (hence the color), more or less disharmonious and more or less faulty. This wine may not be fruity like the regular Chardonnay, but it has a lot of freshness alongside some serious tannins that are reminiscent of red wines, complex savory notes and a saline character like Fino Sherry. “I’m not looking for funk in my wines,” Peter explained, “I like that in my music.”

“Everything I learned, I learned here. For the first two years after I moved up in the spring of 2007 I worked half in the vineyard and half in the cellar. I went to the school of Johannes Reinhardt where they play classical music in the cellar.” As he spoke in the background rock music pumped out of a speaker, and for some reason that prompted me to ask Peter one of those kid’s questions, like “Why is the sky blue?” How did you do it, I mean go from being a photographer’s assistant to being the winemaker of a rather high profile winery? “Passion and hard work. In this country is quite easy to change paths. I don’t think it’s like that in Europe.”

Anyone who finds Peter’s Skin Ferment Chardonnay too fruitless and tannic for their palate, but wants a dry wine will surely like the 2014 Pinot Gris, a dry white that’s bursting with an entire fruit salad of aromas (including plenty of melon), is juicy and generous, but still has a great freshness and clocks in at just 12.8% alcohol. In comparison to the highly successful Pinot Gris of Oregon this is lighter, crisper and drier, and most Italian Pinot Grigio tastes wishy-washy in comparison. This is definitely not what the FLX are famous for!

The other day Peter’s explanation of how he got where he is today was a little skeletal, but a couple of other meetings with him – once at a July Fourth garden party then a few days later at a very serious Riesling tasting with a small group of colleagues – filled in some of the blank spaces. Peter is a thinker who picks up ideas that people around him throw out, then chews them over in his mind. Often he’s very quick and nimble at this, other times it’s like the long slow burning of a fuse during which it seems like nothing’s happening, then suddenly a startling new idea pops out of his mouth. That’s surely how Peter absorbed both the off-hand comments and long explanations that Johannes Reinhardt supplied him with during the years that they worked together, finding his own way through the maze that is winemaking. Maybe that sounds rather obvious, but I promise you doing it for as humbly and receptively for the length of time Peter did it – and he still does it! – is not typical in  the wine industry. Here, as in all other fields of human endeavor, ego is a monster lurking in the shadows or blurting out BS and frothing at the mouth front of stage.

Of course, Anthony Road is best known for Riesling, and as well as making their own dry Riesling Anthony Road also make one for the New York Yankees. Their 2014 Dry Riesling is a remarkable wine that’s a perfect example of the new dry FLX Riesling style. With it’s ripe pear and floral aromas plus some yeastiness due to it’s youth and the care taken not to manhandle it in the cellar (the yeastiness will fade over the next few months) this an effusive wine that bowls right up to you. On the palate it has a pronounced herbal and saline mineral character, but whereas those things make some of the new dry FLX Rieslings rather challenging, here they’re wrapped in juicy fruit that makes the wine as appealing as it is expressive. And that is clearly Peter Becraft’s aim as a winemaker: to entice and fascinate, to please and startle. The Metamorphosis is complete!


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FLXtra: TWELTH EDITION! – Paul Hobbs & Johannes Selbach at the Riesling Edge

Or are the rumors that they’ve gone clear over the edge true?

This is the sight that greeted me at 8am this morning at the beginning of my tour of the new vineyard that California-based flying winemaker Paul Hobbs and Mosel winemaker Johannes Selbach of Selbach-Oster are in the painful process of establishing close to Watkins Glen on the east bank of Seneca Lake in the FLX. The lake was hidden behind a bank of fog and that’s just one of the pack of mechanical diggers that the team has been used to clear this hillside, dig an extensive drainage system and prepare the ground for the planting of tens of thousands of Riesling vines. The first reason this process has been painful is the massive recent rainfalls here – again last night as I made my way to the site – that repeatedly interrupted planting. That means it’s now a major challenge for the team headed by Paul Hobb’s brother David, the project manager (left in the picture below), to get all the Riesling vines into the ground early enough that by fall they will be hardy enough to survive the first frosts. Johannes Selbach (right in the picture below) has done all he can, but because of his commitments in Germany and elsewhere around the world he con only be here for relatively short periods, one of which ended this morning.

The other reason that the process has been painful is the serious steepness of many parts of the site. It was that very thing and the stony slate soil here that attracted Hobbs and Selbach to this project, this combination reminding both of them of the Mosel Valley; Paul Hobbs loves the Mosel and the off-dry Riesling wines of the region. Slate isn’t rare in the FLX of Upstate New York, but the team’s determination to plant on slate with this kind of grade and to plant the vines in rows going straight down the hillside (i.e. perpendicular to the contour lines) pushes FLX vine growing practices right to the edge. Or, in the view of some local winemakers, that pushes it clear over the edge, because of the danger of topsoil erosion it creates. Of course, the only way you can figure out where the edge really lies, rather than is reputed to lie, is by getting up real close to it, but not tipping over it (in which case you couldn’t come back to tell the tale). And that’s what this unusual team is in the process of doing right now. After the biblical deluge on June 14th large amounts of topsoil had to be picked up by mechanical diggers, then transported back up to the top of the section of the slope they’d just prepared to plant, i.e. back to square one. Understandably, for Johannes, “this is my last project. After this I’ll be ripe for a desert island. Every week we have to reckon that the weather will prevent any work for at least two days! However, I’m sure that we can make world-class Riesling here.”

The above picture shows the 2.5 acre initial planting established last year, and gives a good idea of how the finished vineyard will look, however please bear in mind that this is the upper section of the site where it is least steep. This scene also remind me of the Mosel, but there are some crucial differences between the two, the FLX having a shorter and more intense vegetation period, followed by a longer and much harder winter than the Mosel ever experiences. Johannes was here in February, (just a few weeks before I was last here in early March), so experienced the worst cold of the worst winter here in a long time. As he said to me, “if I learnt anything it’s that the time window for doing everything in the vineyard here is narrower than back home, and we have no choice but to use that narrow window.” David has been thinking up some radical ideas to optimize the shortest of harvesting windows, but before these have been tested in the vineyard I can’t reveal them. However, even if this kind of innovation works out making exciting Riesling wines here will still be a high-risk venture that will make the hearts of those involved race during the crucial hours of the harvest.

However, the pressing thing now is the task of getting thousands of just planted Riesling vines like the one pictured above to grow in a soil that is anything but rich and fertile. The only advantage of the recent weather is that watering of the young vines will be unnecessary for some time, in spite of stoniness and shallowness of the soil (which means it has a low water-holding capacity). The downside of the rains and the relatively warm temperatures is that this is optimal for the growth of all kinds of fungi, including that which is most destructive to the vine, downy mildew (which destroys the foliage and if the vines are of fruit-bearing age also the grapes themselves). Every daring and innovative wine growing project went through a stage like this when the challenges seemed to only multiply and if anyone can make this project that pushes FLX Riesling to the edge work, then it is a team like Paul and David Hobbs working together with someone with decades of specialized Riesling experience like Johannes Selbach. As he told me. “I wouldn’t have managed this alone, in fact I wouldn’t have started it alone!”

Because this is a story that is unfolding as I write these lines further episodes will follow. They will stretch over several years, because according to the current plan only the northern end of the site will be almost fully planted this year, but the southern end will have to wait until 2017 before it can be planted. Then there will be a total area of 50 acres, entirely devoted to Riesling. Anyone doubting the arduousness of this endeavor is recommended to study the above picture, showing the manual planting of vines in the steepest section of the site. I’ve done this work myself (back in May 2013 close to Berlin), but that was on a much more gentle slope and I was shattered at the end of the day. GOVERNMENT HEALTH WARNING: DON’T ATTEMPT THIS PROCEDURE IN YOUR BACK GARDEN!

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FLXtra: ELEVENTH EDITION! – Heart & Hands for Riesling (and the Truth about Bald Eagles)

The small Heart & Hands winery just outside Union Springs on Cayuga Lake that was established by Tom and Susan Higgins, pictured above, in 2008 rightly has a serious reputation for Pinot Noir red wines. They have elegant dry tannins that far too many FLX Pinots are sorely lacking). However, Heart & Hands is still far too little known for the winery’s excellent dry and medium-dry Rieslings. Even I fell into that trap, and was seriously surprised when I was finally confronted with those wines. This made the almost three hour cycle ride from Geneva to Heart & Hands essential, but that also introduced me to a stretch of FLX country I’d never seen before including the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge at the northern end of Cayuga Lake. But more about that in just a moment.

The Higgins’ Estate Vineyard lies only a few hundred feet from the eastern bank of Cayuga Lake and is one of the most beautiful vineyards I’ve seen in the FLX. This beauty isn’t only optical, the product of its considerable grade and the way the slope has been partially terraced, but also the result of the precision with which it is being cultivated according to principals very different from FLX mainstream vine growing. The most important aspects of this are the fact that the canopy hasn’t been hedged yet although the vine shoots are already several feet above the top wire, and the planting cover crop of clover between the rows, but I could list many other things. Although only about 8% of the vines that the Higgins planted here in 2010 are Riesling (the rest are Pinot Noir), with the first vintage the wine from them has established itself as one of the high points of their Riesling range. The Heart & Hands 2013 Estate Riesling has intense floral aromas that are unusual in this region, is juicy and vibrant, and though technically medium-dry is a great food wine. Can I taste the Onondaga limestone soil (in the background of the photo below) that dominates in this site, or the shale outcrop in part of the Riesling parcel in the upper block of the vineyard? Maybe, but mineral character isn’t something I expect from the first vintage of a new planting.

If you want proof that FLX Riesling can have a pronounced mineral taste, then try the Heart & Hands 2013 “Paul’s Legacy” Riesling from the Hobbit Hollow Vineyard. Cool and delicate with tart peach and fresh herbal aromas it is sleek with a brilliant interplay of acidity and aromatic sweetness, from which an intense mineral freshness emerges like sun after rain. It’s also the first interesting wine I tasted from Skaneateles Lake to the east of Cayuga. From the opposite (i.e. western) bank of the Higgins home lake comes the equally impressive drier 2013 Patricia Verona Vineyard Riesling with enticing notes of blossoms and white fruits, is quite rich and positively textural with a long elegant finale that is also quite mineral. Slightly simpler in flavor, but even more powerful and generous in style is the 2013 Dry Riesling. At first I underestimated the Higgins 2013 Nutt Road Riesling from the western shore of Seneca Lake, but this wine also has a lot of character and some real elegance. Finally, the slightly sweeter Heart & Hands 2014 Riesling is a deliciously succulent and pristine wine that suggests this is also an outstanding vintage for my favorite grape at this winery. I can’t wait to taste their other 2014 Rieslings!

Tom kindly drove me back to Geneva after the tasting and as we set off he explained about the troubled relationship between some of the Native Americans of the Hauendosanee, or Iroquois Confederacy, and White America. Then he was on to how the local Onondaga limestone (named after one of the Five Nations of the Iroqouis Confederacy) over great distances by Native Americans as a material for arrowheads axes. White America was also excited by the special qualities of this stone and used it as a construction material in New York City and elsewhere. Then Tom was on to the native fauna and flora of the region, which I have been observing since I arrived here on June 20th, but often failing to identify because it is frequently very different to that in Europe.

Tom suggested a stop at the first lock of the Seneca-Cayuga Canal where he pointed out a bald eagle, the national bird of America and an important emblem of the US,  in a nest at the top of a disused electricity pylon. He explained that the bird guarding the young in the nest was a male and that it is the female bald eagle who does all the hunting. What would Tea Party supporters think if they found that out? That sight reminded me that on my ride through the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge I’d seen even bigger mega-nests on electricity pylons that looked like something right out of Jurassic World. Tom told me that often ospreys – another beautiful raptor – occupy abandoned bald eagle nests and as we passed those mega-nests he felt pretty sure that this was the case there. Tom and Susan Higgins used to live in New York City and were in computing so they are now also occupying a nest someone else had previously used. They are not strangers in this land which is still a bit strange to me though, rather their intense involvement with this land – involving their hearts and hands – has made them natives of it.

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FLXtra: TENTH EDITION! – The Chateau Frank Sparkling Wines Celebrate 30 Years and US Declares Independence from Champagne

Although the Dr. Frank winery on Kueka Lake celebrated the 30th anniversary of their Chateau Frank sparkling wines today, the 5th of July rather than the 4th, a rumor circulated at the celebration that the US had just declared independence from Champagne! More seriously, Fred Frank (right), the grandson of Dr. Frank founder Konstantin, announced that the Department of the Interior had added Chateau Frank to the National Register of Historic Places. Although the imposing house amongst the vineyards made of local stone acquired it’s present name back in 1985 when the first Chateau Frank sparkling wine was produced, it was built as a winery in 1886. On the left in the photo is Fred’s daughter Meaghan, the fourth generation of the Frank family to work in the winery. She has a strong feeling for the family’s rich traditions, but is determined to, “put my own spin on it.” Her very recent marriage was an additional reason to raise our glasses a few times, which we did in the pursuit of complete enjoyment of the beautiful day.

Dr. Frank was the first winery in the FLX (Finger Lakes) that I visited on my first visit to the region in October 2004 and the vertical tasting of dry Rieslings that Fred poured for me that day made a big impression upon me. Although we also tasted a couple of the Chateau Frank sparkling wines it was some years before I realized that they were some of the best products of this category in the region and the US, period. It’s easy with hindsight to say that the region was predestined to produce sparkling wines, because of the crisp, light and aromatic personality of the FLX wines, but if we turn the clock back more than 30 years this was not obvious to the region’s winemakers. It was a daring move by Willi Frank, Fred’s father and Konstantin’s son, to begin the production of Champagne style sparkling wines using the three vinifera grape varieties planted in that region: the white Chardonnay, and the red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Although we sadly couldn’t taste that first wine, the 1999 Brut was still in pretty good shape for a sparkling wine of 15 years age. However, I think the current vintages of the Blanc de Noir (Pinot Noir plus some Pinot Meunier), 2008 and 2009 are considerably superior to it and a genuine alternative to some elegant Champagnes costing up to double the price.

This is also the work Eric Bauman, the Chateau Frank winemaker since ten years to the day, pictured above in the historic cellars. His precision during a production process that stretches over several years is a no less important factor behind the quality of these wines than the excellent fruit the Dr. Frank vineyards give. Eric used to work for a major sparkling wine producer in Sonoma County, California and in that climate sparkling winemakers often have to add tartaric acidity (the most important of the natural grape acidities) to get suitable base wine. As Fred joked, “at his previous position Eric had to carry a lot of 50 pound sacks of acidity around winery. The cool climate here results in high natural acidity, so after he moved here Eric’s back recovered immediately. The acidity in the Chateau Frank sparkling wines is all natural.”

Although it is the largest production run at Chateau Frank and has won stacks of gold medals at major wine competitions, the Célébre sparkling Riesling is still not nearly well known enough. The reason for this is perhaps, that it is not “Brut”, that is it has more than 15 grams per liter / 1.5% unfermented sweetness, and the wine scene wants “Brut”, better still the even drier “Extra Brut”. The idea that the drier a sparkling wine is analytically the better it is  is one of the international wine scene’s deeply ingrained prejudices. The truth is that if a sparkling tastes as good as Célébre does (those juicy but delicate white fruit aromas and flavors!) then it does so because it has enough, but not too much, sweetness. The racy acidity of FLX Riesling demands more sweetness (and less aging on the yeast) than the sparkling wines made from the Champagne grape varieties do. It is extremely attractive in an entirely distinctive way, and this special balance is part of that. Another prejudice of the wine scene is that sparkling wines must imitate Champagne if they are to be any good. A glass of Célébre is the best argument I know against this prejudice!


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