Just as grapevines are deeply rooted in ancient soil,
new wineries bloom in the agricultural and economic foundations established by their predecessors.
I love these old maps... the kitschier, the better.
In late May of 1972 I was 13 years old and my little brother Andy was 8. With our father at the helm of our 18-foot Starcraft, we puttered around the deepest sections of Seneca Lake in search of trout… LAKE trout, as this was Day Two of the annual Seneca Lake Trout Derby. We had once again spotted a white deer at the old Seneca Army Depot on our way down Route 96 to the Sampson Park boat launch, something we had come to consider a good luck omen on our fishing trips.
The sign is faded, but my memory of the 1972 Derby remains sharp.
Yes, the white deer of the old Seneca Army Depot are a real thing.
Seth Green Rig, or “Pulling Copper?” Those were the two most common set-ups for catching lakers in the Finger Lakes. “Pulling Copper” was a lot of physical work, as it entailed constantly jigging bait up and down at the end of a long braided copper line for hours on end. We, however, were Seth Green devotees, slowly trolling the lakes with a set-up that included a 2-pound lead sinker and a 100-lb.-test main line connected to a Clorox bottle for a bobber. The 100-lb.-test line led back to a stiff trolling rod equipped with a Penn Senator reel, held fast in a sturdy brass rod rod-holder securely bolted to a solid mahogany base that our father had made himself and painstakingly preserved for posterity with layers of Great Lakes Marine Spar. Attached to each submerged main line were 5 leaders, 10 feet long each, pulling Sutton Flutter Spoons. We had lowered four such rigs into the water that morning in the pre-dawn mists— one about 30 feet off the stern, another about twice that far back, and one off each side with no bobbers... all set at different depths.
There were hundreds of other similarly-rigged boats scattered across Seneca's wide midsection that morning... making it a pretty dangerous day to be a hungry trout.
An hour drifted by as the sun gradually rose and illuminated the western shore from the hilltops on down to some lakeside vineyards. This type of fishing can be very boring, which is why, while pondering the acres of grapevines hugging Seneca’s shores, my overactive young mind began to consider a rather grown-up and sophisticated concept… that of regional affinity between food and wine. Though I hadn't yet tasted one single wine in my life, I vaguely understood from Bond movies and TV shows that certain wines went with specific foods. So wouldn’t it make some sort of sense, I figured, if the wines from those lakeside vineyards paired perfectly with the fish we hoisted from the nearby waters? (In 1972 I was more correct than I had imagined, because wild freshwater fish in the hands of an amateur cook can taste like a muddy boot... and with very few exceptions, the Finger Lakes wines of that era were similarly unpalatable.)
Our languor was shattered around mid-morning when one of our rods suddenly jumped and wiggled. A very big fish— hopefully a laker— had attacked one of our lures, and it was Game On!
My little brother Andy (1964-2016) with his lake trout.
Both his name and mine are on the scoreboard behind him.
Maybe it was the white deer sighting, because it was a great morning of fishing— Andy won second place in his age group, and I won first place in mine. (Catching lakers is a group effort, and it was tournament custom that each boat could enter fish where they would score the highest, irrespective of who actually reeled them in.) While we rode home with a pair of trophies that year, the wines from the vineyards rimming our region's lake shores in 1972 weren’t winning very much critical acclaim. However, the necessary components for significant change were about to align.
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The retreat of the glaciers after the last Ice Age deeply gouged what is now western New York State, leaving eleven lakes that, on a map, suggest stockings of various lengths dangling from a clothesline stretched from Syracuse to Rochester. The early European settlers found the soil and climate around the lakes conducive to agriculture; however, by 1776 it was well-known throughout the Colonies that European grapevines couldn't survive (as-is, anyway) in American soil… and that the native American grape species, impervious though they were to whatever was killing the European vines in their New World cradles, made pretty lousy wine.
In 1829 a newly-ordained Episcopal minister was assigned to Hammondsport (on Keuka Lake) and, upon establishing a church, needed a source of sacramental wine. He planted a small vineyard of Catawba and Isabella grapevines, accidental crossbreeds of hardy native vines and doomed European imports. These two varieties, of a category dubbed "American hybrids," could actually yield agreeable wine and, more importantly, survive from one harvest to the next. Reverend Bostwick thus demonstrated, if unwittingly, that commercial viticulture was possible in the vicinity of the Finger Lakes, and upon the dawn of the 1900's the original “Big Four” wineries of the region— Pleasant Valley, Urbana, and Taylor in Hammondsport; Widmer over in Naples— were in full operation.
By 1972 the Finger Lakes region had become well-known for large scale "champagne" production (#1 in America before prohibition) but not for wines that appealed to the discriminating connoisseur, with lone exception of Dr. Konstantin Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars. Most of the producers had made the rather short leap (with the aid of Cornell University plant scientists) from the American hybrids to "French hybrids," which are similarly crosses of American and European grapes but purpose-bred for improved flavor, especially among the reds. Like the natives, French hybrids are winter-hardy and resistant to what had finally been identified in the late 1800's as the phylloxera vine louse... the ravenous little bastard that had stealthily vexed the colonial-era vineyardists up to and including one Thomas Jefferson and then tore through most of Europe. While all this was going on, post-prohibition California was rapidly securing its place as the main source– in both quality and quantity– of noteworthy American wine.
But then new legislation was passed in New York, and the mercury began to rise.
New York State's Farm Winery Act— a bill long drafted but never enacted— finally became law in 1976 and made small-scale boutique wineries more economically viable. And then the increasingly warm climate in the ensuing decades made it easier to ripen premium European wine grapes... so long as their vines were grafted onto native root-stocks that were resistant to phylloxera.
Fast forward to the present. The wines of the Finger Lakes have demonstrated rapidly and steadily improving in quality in recent vintages.
Thanks to the pioneering efforts of Ukrainian-born Dr. Frank and then a German winemaker named Hermann J. Wiemer, Riesling has become the region's signature quality grape. And the best of the region's Chardonnays now compare quite favorably with both their French and Californian cousins. (See The Royal Sisterhood for some insights into Riesling and Chardonnay.) An especially wonderful surprise for us and many others has been the consistently delicious Gewürztraminers from multiple producers along multiple lakes. (HERE is our pithy take on this quirky but lovable variety.) Indeed, the Finger Lakes might well become the primary source of the world's best versions of Gewürztraminer, or at least the equal of France's Alsace region.
The reds, sorry to say, haven't quite kept pace with the whites. Cabernet Franc is widely planted, mostly for its ability to survive winter's occasional deep freeze. However, even with the warmer weather brought about by climate change it rarely attains full and proper ripeness, often leaving it with harsh and bitter green edges. Some suggest that the Austrian red wine grape Blaufränkisch— a clunky moniker that tumbles off one's tongue no more gracefully than "Gewürztraminer"— might be perfectly suited to the Finger Lakes climate. However, I suspect that even if New York Blaufränkisch were to attain utter perfection under the upstate sun and earn widespread critical praise, it seems unlikely that the wine-buying public would take widespread notice.
Pinot Noir, however– that infuriating Holy Grail of winemakers worldwide– is another story.
While it remains somewhat challenging to properly and consistently ripen red Vitis vinifera in the Finger Lakes region every vintage, it is always difficult to consistently produce excellent Pinot Noir anywhere. However, the Heart & Hands Winery– The Impossibly Perfect Winery discussed in detail in a recent post– has made mastery of Pinot Noir their personal purpose in life... and they have largely succeeded. Andrea and I were recently astonished by their "Hobbit Hollow Vineyard" bottling, a very light-colored Pinot Noir that nonetheless bursts with impeccably balanced red fruit flavors, a profile reminiscent of some rather fancy counterparts among the French red burgundies. When I was a brash young sommelier I used to regularly recommend wines like this with roasted pheasant and other game birds. Sometime this autumn I'll likely serve it with a heritage pork roast.
And finally, A number of serious producers– too many to list here– are continuing the Finger Lakes tradition of producing Champagne-style sparklers, albeit hand-crafted in small quantities from premium grapes rather than mass-produced from hybrids. The quality is superb. I've long been proclaiming that New York agriculture is superior to California's in just three categories– apples, Riesling, and maple syrup, a trio of crops that need colder temperatures to attain the acme of excellence. Based on what Andrea and I have found so far, it might not be long before the Empire State adds estate-grown bubbly to that list and regains its supremacy as America's top producer thereof. As we tasted some of the latest iterations, it was impossible to ignore how far the region has advanced from the bottlings of yesteryear... and yet, for that very reason, I think its important to remember whence we as a wine region arose.
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THE "BIG FOUR" TODAY
And what about those aforementioned "Big Four" original Finger Lakes Wineries? Their histories are somewhat tangled due to mergers, acquisitions, the growing dominance of California, and especially the ascent of two more major Finger Lakes enterprises– Bully Hill (more on that later) and the Canandaigua Wine Company, which developed a huge market share with Wild Irish Rose Wine and eventually morphed into Constellation Brands (NYSE: STZ.) Today Constellation is one of the most powerful wine conglomerates in the world and a component of the S & P 500.
So here we go... If you're like me, you might need a whiteboard and eraser to keep score.
The Pleasant Valley Wine Company (est. 1860) built its business and reputation with GREAT WESTERN "Champagne" fashioned from American hybrid varieties. The business changed hands several times and is presently owned by the Doyle family and not part of any larger conglomerate. They currently offer GREAT WESTERN and also GOLD SEAL "Champagne" (acquired from Urbana) as well as numerous other volume-oriented wines and wine-derived products... including some bottlings under the Widmer label, which they bought from Constellation in 2013. (WOW! Gold Seal "Champagne" appears to have vanished from Pleasant Valley's brand portfolio EVEN AS I AM WRITING THIS! It was there a minute ago... please excuse me while I update my whiteboard.)
The Urbana Wine Company (est. 1865) trademarked the GOLD SEAL name for its bubbly in 1887 and officially changed their company name to Gold Seal Vineyards in 1957. After a series of corporate hand-offs (including acquisition by Taylor) it landed in the Constellation's expanding portfolio. Constellation kept the name GOLD SEAL, shifted its production to Pleasant Valley's facilities, and then sold off the historic Urbana property in Hammondsport (and the GOLD SEAL brand) to the Doyle family.
And then there's the Taylor Wine Company, founded in 1880. Back in rural upstate New York and well beyond, many of my generation watched our moms and dads pour themselves glassfuls of Taylor's "LAKE COUNTRY RED" (or WHITE) from jug-handled bottles. In those years just before the advent of the Great American Wine Boom, busy parents just wanted a fruity, semi-dry sipper at day's end, and Taylor was happy to provide it. And so the company got really big really fast. What could possibly go wrong?
(Spoiler Alert: Just about everything.)
Happy times of old: Hand-harvesting a Taylor vineyard in the crisp autumn air.
In 1962, Taylor bought the Pleasant Valley Wine Company and, more significantly, went public, pocketing some cash but also exposing themselves to acquisition. Sure enough, 15 years later they were coaxed into merging with Coca-Cola, which at that time was eager to get into the wine business. What ensued was explosive growth followed by a dizzying blur of marketing and production decisions that could only arise in comically dysfunctional boardrooms and that essentially guaranteed their collapse; I can explain this tortured tale of Taylor's demise no more succinctly than this summary. Suffice to say that what little remains of the Taylor brand now exists as almost an afterthought in Constellation's vast portfolio.
And yet, almost as if someone had bulldozed an old vineyard only to learn years later that a single shoot had not just survived but thrived beyond imagination, a particularly stubborn scion of the Taylor clan had remained in Hammondsport and built from scratch a now-gigantic wine brand... even while legally barred from putting his own name on his bottles.
A fantastic aerial shot of Bully Hill Vineyards overlooking the southern end of Keuka Lake.
Always the family rebel, Walter S. Taylor (1931-2001) was a harsh critic of the Finger Lake region's mass viticulture in that era... even, at times, that of his own family's winery. He was fired from the Taylor Wine Company in 1970 after publicly suggesting, with characteristic snark, that Keuka's water level mysteriously dropped a few inches every bottling season... having been used, he implied, to dilute the tank wines surreptitiously imported by rail car from California. He didn't stay unemployed for long, immediately establishing Bully Hill Vineyards with an emphasis on locally-raised hybrid grapes, environmentally-conscious viticultural practices, and honest if primitive labeling. And for good measure he stuck a thumb in his neighbors' eyes by prominently parking a railroad tank car on his property.
The story of Walter S. Taylor's colorful life deserves more space than I can provide, so I'll defer to this great column by an old friend, the late, great NY wine writer Morton Hochstein. I'll only add that, given enough time and success, what was once a David can eventually come to resemble the very Goliath he had so righteously challenged. Upon its founding, Bully Hill Vineyards was widely considered an industry underdog and outsider, the lovable "little guy" tilting at gigantic corporate windmills. How things have changed... today Bully Hill sponsors NASCAR entries and events; they are the "official wine" of numerous sports teams ranging from the Buffalo Bills to the Boston Red Sox; and they bottle in excess of 200,000 cases of wine per year... none of which ever appears on the radar of professional wine critics.
Which leaves Widmer Wine Cellars, 30 miles northwest of Hammondsport in the village of Naples. Several years before that 1972 Lake Trout Derby, my family went for a Saturday drive that included a tour of Widmer. As young as I was, I clearly recall the intriguing smells and especially the peculiar sight on the roof— barrels of sherry-style fortified wine, stored there so the seasonal ebb and flow of the wine through the wood grain could impart desirable flavors.
The roof of Widmer Wine Cellars back in the day, overlooking Canandaigua Lake.
Founded in 1888 by Swiss immigrant John Jacob Widmer, the winery that I toured as a youngster had become, like the other Big 3, a winemaking juggernaut in the pre-Wine Boom era. Whereas Taylor had their LAKE COUNTRY series of jug wines, Widmer was mass-producing its unabashedly sweet LAKE NIAGARA WHITE from the native Niagara variety... as well as a considerable amount of sherry-style fortified wine in those rooftop barrels. They were eventually acquired by Constellation (of course) who then sold the Widmer brand to Pleasant Valley and the historic winery to Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, who now use the facility to mass-produce their shamelessly commercial yet wildly popular Red Cat wine.
Wine snobs diss it, but the public loves it. I see Red Cat as a perfect Thanksgiving wine–
something really easy to drink that won't be overpowered by cranberry sauce.
And so it seems that with Red Cat the Finger Lakes tradition of producing uncomplicated and easy-to-swill wines for the masses continues... Bravo, I say! If it makes millions of consumers happy, keeps local folks employed, and strengthens the overall wine industry in our region, it can only help foster and nourish the efforts of the newest wave of intrepid winemakers who are strenuously pushing outward the frontiers of quality.
Meanwhile, my diligent search for the finest wineries and the very best wines of the Finger Lakes region continues, and I'll be regularly posting my findings.
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"Champagne" gets quotation marks because true Champagne only comes from a legally-delimited region of France and must be produced by a similarly regulated method. Most of the wine world (including California) honors the French and EU laws regarding nomenclature; however, the New York State wine industry considers itself "grandfathered."
The "1852" in Hazlitt 1852 Cellars refers to the date of their initial land purchase. The winery itself was established in Hector, NY on Seneca's eastern shore in 1985.
Hammondsport, an especially lovely village at the south end of Keuka Lake, was THRICE the birthplace of the Finger Lakes wine region– first when Rev. Bostwick showed that the region was conducive to viticulture; again when 3 of the original Big 4 proved that it could be done on a massive and commercially rewarding scale; and finally when Dr. Konstantin Frank demonstrated (pre-climate change!) how premium European varieties could be successfully grown and ripened here.
The village of Naples is every bit as lovely as Hammondsport, as is the village of Aurora way over on the eastern shore of Cayuga. One could spend a delightful weekend or more touring these Finger Lakes towns and their nearby wineries.
Although there were several vineyards lining Seneca's shores in 1972, the first Seneca winery (Glenora Wine Cellars) wasn't established until 1978. Today the Seneca Lake Wine Trail is home to most– but definitely not ALL– of the overall region's top quality producers.
The notion of "regional affinity" remained with me throughout my career in the wine business. Such matches readily suggest themselves– like gutsy southern Italian reds with tomato sauce, Alsace Pinot Gris with Choucroute Garnie à l'Alsacienne, and your finest Sancerre with Crottin de Chavignol goat cheese.
Whether because of the changing climate or changing consumer tastes, Bully Hill has added wines produced from European grape varieties to their list of offerings.
And last but not least, heartfelt thanks to my sister-in-law Yvonne for finding the photo of my dear departed brother at the fishing derby. This essay would be incomplete without it.