Chatting with Jeremy Raaymaker, of Canadian import agency South by Southwest Wines, about the Finger Lakes wine region in New York proved nothing short of eye opening.
Although aware of the region and familiar with a couple of producers, I must admit that Google maps had to remind me exactly where this region is. If you trace an imaginary triangle between Syracuse, Rochester and down to Corning, you’ll see that the Finger Lakes all lie within. I was also unaware that there are 11 (not 10!) lakes that make up the Finger Lakes, including the very important Seneca Lake which is the largest and deepest of the lakes (thanks Wikipedia!) and more importantly home to the most wine producers in the region.
They Make Wine in New York?
It may surprise you to know that New York State is the third largest wine producer in the USA. “Yeah, and if Washington has a soft year, New York pulls into second place,” says Raaymaker. We hear so much about the West Coast with California, Washington and Oregon, I assumed those would be the top three, especially with Oregon’s popularity in our market. Nope! In fact, Oregon finishes last in the top five, with a slightly smaller piece of the pie than Pennsylvania. It’s frustrating for people like Raaymaker who are so passionate about the region and the quality of the wines produced there when people still ask, “they make wine in New York?” One of the biggest obstacles in the western Canadian market for him and the team at SBSW is changing people’s perception of wine made in New York. “Everyone thinks of New York City first. The wine isn’t grown on rooftops in Manhattan. These are serious wines coming from real vineyards.”
Delicious Grapes of the Finger Lakes
The grape varieties grown in the Finger Lakes AVA (American Viticultural Area) are plenty. As is common in New World wine regions, there isn’t necessarily a common identity like there is in say Burgundy or Rioja. Raaymaker tells me there is a little bit of everything planted there, “some Concord, some hybrids, some vinifera. There’s Traminette, Cayuga, Lemberger, Gewurztraminer, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Gris, Rkatsiteli and of course, Riesling is king there.” (For further information on America’s Unique Grape Varieties click here). What they do have in common is the style. Cool climate, winter-hearty grapes that produce wines with outstanding aromatics and an exceptionally finessed palate. There are exceptions, of course. According to Raaymaker, “there’s even one winery that produces a Syrah that has the weight of southern California.” Not all of these varieties are common, so if you’ve never heard of some of these grapes, don’t worry! Do take a chance on them as you see more and more wines coming into the market from the Finger Lakes.
Cooperation & Collaboration in the Finger Lakes Wine Region
The camaraderie of the region is second to none. Esprit de corps is not just something the winemakers of Finger Lakes talk about. They live by the philosophy that if it benefits one winery, the region as a whole prospers, and they will do whatever it takes to help each other succeed. There are about 25 winemakers up and down Seneca Lake who regularly get together for potluck suppers and open forum discussions to determine what they can do to improve the quality and exposure of the region. “These guys are all friends,” Raaymaker says. He speaks very highly of Peter Bell, a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, who has been the winemaker at Fox Run Vineyards for 22 years. As one of the most experienced and certainly most respected winemakers in the region he has mentored about 20 different winemakers in the region who have made their own mark on the New York wine industry. Kelby Russel is one such winemaker. He started as a cellar hand then became the assistant winemaker with Peter Bell at Fox Run. He is now head winemaker at Red Newt and enjoys collaborating with his old partner as well as Peter Becraft from Anthony Road on a special project called Tierce. This project proves the vision of the Finger Lakes AVA; that it’s better to work together than to work alone. Each winemaker chooses a unique vineyard in Seneca Lake, picks the best Riesling from those vines and creates a wine that he believes is the best expression of that subregion. Then the blending begins. After a rigorous series of tastings and trials, the result is a Riesling that showcases the terroir as well as the power of cooperation. Production is very small at only about 200 cases a year, so if you find a bottle, don’t think twice about taking it home.
Promoting the Wines of Finger Lakes
In the Fall of 2017, at the Rocky Mountain Wine and Food Festival in Calgary, Alberta, I had a chance to see the Finger Lakes AVA very well represented by a six-table booth; quite a nice chunk of festival real estate for a little-known region. Raaymaker tells me there were a lot of moving parts to make this come together. The largest contributor was the New York Wine & Grape Foundation that offers support for promoting the export of wines from all over the state, including Hudson Valley AVA, Finger Lakes AVA and Long Island AVA. Finger Lakes Wine Country supplied a variety of marketing materials and Stu Gallagher, a New York native, displayed his breathtaking photographs of the region. Gallagher showcased not just the wineries represented but a snapshot of New York State that most of us never think about; rolling hills, big skies, farmland and sunsets over vineyards. Being able to taste the wines while looking at photos of the landscape can put the travel bug in any wine lover. In fact, Raaymaker is confident that “once you try the wines, you’ll want to visit.” Not only because the views are spectacular, but because “the people that live there are just nice. Genuine, good people. Our kind of people.”
A Delicious Taste of Fox Run Vineyards
Jeremy opens up a bottle of the Fox Run 2016 Semi-Dry Riesling for me to taste. His personal favourite? The Kaiser Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay from Fox Run. Named after John Kaiser, the man who first planted vines in the region and is still taking care of those vines after all these years. “If we called right now, he’d be in that vineyard,” Raaymaker tells me.
A New York Breath of Fresh Air
Why do you want these wines? We read hundreds of wine reviews and get plenty of information on why this grape or that region or this wine is so special. Jeremy gets right to the point, “the value to quality ratio is unmatched in our market.” It’s true, but that’s not the only advantage. “There’s a bit of cachet rolling into your dinner party with a wine from New York. It’s unique.” Even after years of importing several Finger Lakes AVA labels into Alberta, people are still largely unfamiliar with these wines so proudly set your bottle down on the table next to the sea of Argentinian Malbec. At a time when arguably too many consumers are searching for jammy monsters, the wines of Finger Lakes offer subtle complexity. It’s a breath of fresh air for your palate. More importantly, the wines are delicious! Ultimately, these winemakers are looking for delicious.