Updated: Aug 11
In my ongoing pursuit of perfection, I was recently blown away by an unlikely little winery barely
an hour from our home.
And what, exactly, is perfection? We mused about that a few weeks ago in this essay. The definition
of perfection remains nebulous; in this instance, must a perfect winery make perfect wine?
If not, what about this winery makes it perfect?
Perhaps you and your betrothed are scouting romantic wedding venues? Sorry... the only marriage in this vineyard is that of the two owners… who, by the way, perform most of the physical labor themselves. Do you occasionally go winery-hopping the Finger Lakes in one of those tour buses, trying to taste as many wines as possible in one day? Tell your driver to keep driving past this one... its minuscule tasting room seems like an afterthought, its parking lot cannot accommodate anything bigger than a pick-up, and tastings are by appointment only. And finally, do you fancy cleverly-marketed wines with catchy names like "Summer Splash" or "Autumn Blush?" Gag me with a tastevin; this winery confines its efforts to making seriously great wine for serious wine lovers. If swill-friendly pop wine is your thing (not that there's anything wrong with that; I really miss the original Mateus) there are plenty of other wineries nearby that will happily take your money and satisfy your cravings.
The story of the Heart & Hands Wine Company would make a lousy Hollywood script… too corny, too unlikely. That's because the wine business is notoriously seductive, and for every rags-to-riches viticultural saga there are countless accounts of starry-eyed individuals or couples hurtling headlong to their anguished demise and/or financial ruin in pursuit of an irresistible yet all-but-unattainable fantasy. And yet this little winery has pulled off the seemingly impossible.
Such a well-concealed jewel... from the road, the Heart & Hands Wine Company looks
more like a seasonal, leave-your-money-in-the-jar zucchini stand than the
finest winery in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
When they started their project sixteen years ago, Tom and Susan Higgins– the winery's hard-working, hands-on founders– seem to have understood well enough what they didn’t know… and so they approached their project with their most optimistic pipe dreams counterbalanced with an uncommon degree of intelligence, common sense, and– perhaps most importantly of all– HUMILITY. They patiently sought out the perfect, limestone-rich site at an affordable price, and Susan kept commuting weekly to her lucrative day job in Manhattan for several years. They also managed to stay laser-focused on their primary goal– making truly excellent wine in a region far more challenging than California and yet, when Bacchus smiles from on high, capable of equal excellence. And staying focused meant refusing to become yet other Finger Lakes winery that sought positive cash flow by encouraging "agritainment" tourism while hedging their bets on the fickle climate with inferior yet more forgiving hybrid grape varieties.
All of which left Tom and Susan Higgins with nothing but an estate winery in its purest form... and a small but fanatical fan base of wine geeks like me. But before we get to the tasting notes, some big-picture context is in order.
If this doesn't look like a fun region, you're dead inside. See the lady in the white bathing suit beside Cayuga Lake? The Heart & Hands Winery sits close to her right elbow.
On a map, the eleven Finger Lakes look (to me, anyway) like stockings of various sizes hanging from a clothesline stretched from Syracuse to Rochester. We may thank the retreating ice-age glaciers for their formation, and the lakes themselves for the thermal inertia that moderates the microclimate, forestalling premature springtime bud-break and then prolonging warm ripening weather well into autumn.
Speaking of autumn in the Finger Lakes...
A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF FINGER LAKES WINE
Beginning in the 1800's, the Finger Lakes Region gained fame for its Champagne-style sparkling wine and non-sparkling (and often sweet) jug wine mass-produced from grape varieties hybridized from the hardy native species. That began to change in 1961, when a Ukrainian grape expert (Dr. Konstantin Frank) established Vinifera Wine Cellars and set about proving that at least some of the premium European varieties that had so easily transplanted to California could also survive New York winters and yield top-quality wine. Dr. Frank's bold venture ran counter to the region's prevailing orthodoxy, and his less-than-universal success emboldened the cynics and naysayers. The region's wine industry remained largely based on high-volume cheap stuff as California proved a far superior source of fine wine... and in the early 1970's, things seemed destined to stay that way.
But then along came climate change and The New York Farm Winery Act of 1976.
Leaving aside for now what, exactly, is causing warmer temperatures, grapes don't lie and neither do wine labels. Holding constant the geographical source, the higher alcohol content of today's fine wines compared to those of yesteryear can only be the result of higher sugar levels at harvest, which in turn directly result from greater heat accumulation. For the Finger Lakes region, this meant that the premium European grapevines could suddenly yield a fully ripe crop and also survive the increasingly milder winters for future vintages. Meanwhile, in a region dominated by a small handful of giant wineries, the new legislation fostered the establishment and economic viability of small and quality-oriented "boutique" wineries by permitting them to sell directly to the public. Since the passage of The Act, the number of NY wineries has increased 19 to 776.
And of these, one and only one seems destined to join the very small circle of truly world-class American wineries.
THE WINES OF HEART & HANDS
I learned long ago to take wine ratings and scores with a handful or more of salt because evaluating wines is by definition subjective, and I also have enough second-hand knowledge of the occasional quid pro quo between the wine industry and wine journalists to forever stoke my skepticism. That being said, those who make their livings assigning numbers to wines must maintain at least some measure of credibility in order to survive.
During his long tenure at THE WINE SPECTATOR, a critic my age named James Suckling established himself as a knowledgeable, consistent, and fair-minded judge of wines from all over the world. Now that he operates as a solo act, his reputation is even more crucial to the continuation of his career. And so I immediately sat up and took notice when he started awarding scores heretofore unheard of in the eastern United States to Heart & Hands wines... 95 and 96 points for a pair of 2020 Pinot Noirs, and 93 points for their 2019 Chardonnay.
I immediately got online and ordered a mixed half-case, and then I added a hundred miles to my weekly 400-mile trip home from Boston in order to swing by and personally pick it up... and get a first-hand look at the place.
The additional mileage was worth the beautiful countryside through which one drives while approaching Cayuga Lake from the east. The appointment-only tasting room is closed on Mondays, but Susan said I could stop by anyway. She graciously gave me a half-hour of her time to talk me through a tasting of several wines. After doing so, I doubled my order on the spot.
The Chardonnay ($29) was one of the finest American versions I've ever tasted, all the more unusual for its oddly and refreshingly low (11.4%) alcohol content. It was the qualitative equal of a village-level Meursault, a white Burgundy of high repute that routinely retails for $50 or more. The Heart & Hands Pinot Noirs, priced in excess of $60, certainly merited Suckling's high praise but seemed shyer, decidedly more "Old World" in style (higher acidity, less full-frontal fruit) than their lush Californian counterparts at similar prices. Nothing a little bottle-age wouldn't soften up, I knew. I wound up buying four of each, tasting one of each with Andrea and stashing the other three for future evaluation and enjoyment.
It might have been my sleep deprivation and the long drive, but I felt an unfamiliar, otherworldly feeling in that tiny Heart & Hands tasting room, as if I was experiencing the impossible in a dream. Visiting this humble-looking winery in person and tasting their fantastic wines with the co-owner was a little like encountering every man's Holy Grail– the fairest of fair young maidens who somehow grew up in a world devoid of males and mirrors and therefore with no freaking idea how utterly, irresistibly gorgeous she was. "Do you realize what you've created here?" I finally blurted to Susan, trying hard to not sound like a crazy person and, I suspect, not completely succeeding. "I've personally seen whole families completely destroyed trying to do what you've done!" She appreciated the praise, but she didn't seem especially interested in exploring that conversational path. Maybe she'd heard it all before... or maybe she and her husband have paid a much higher price in time, labor, money, stress, and hard choices than is readily apparent in their winery or their wines or their faces.
On the way out I implored Susan to please keep doing whatever they're doing... and I lamented that, if they do, their wines would soon become all but unattainable to people like me. And then I drove away, but not before joining their wine club to ensure that, for a modest price, I would have first crack at future releases.
A week later a freakish mid-May frost struck the Finger Lakes Region and inflicted substantial and widespread damage on the 2023 vintage. (That aforementioned thermal inertia of the huge lakes is a huge help, but it doesn't guarantee success.) Tom Higgins was on the news explaining that no, they wouldn't be outsourcing any fruit from New York regions less severely affected... they would take what nature has given them, the blessings and well as the hardships, and make the best wine possible from it...
Just as one might expect an impossibly perfect little winery to do.
* * * * * * *
To order wine and/or arrange a visit, contact the the winery at heartandhandswine.com. You can also call them at (315)889-8500. There's a really good chance that Susan herself will answer.
I mentioned climate change in this essay, but not to provoke or host any heated debate on the topic. There are plenty of other sites for that... we don't discuss politics at the table.
The history of the Finger Lakes wine region is rich and fascinating. If you are interested, there is a veritable mountain of good reading on the topic. Google away.
And finally, I just received notice from Heart & Hands that my first mixed case from my club membership is now available. I'm planning another 100-mile detour to pick it up.