"I need to hear everyone singing," Peter Weiss said. "Because if I don't I'm going to think you're eating the grapes."
I was on the west side of Keuka Lake hand-harvesting riesling at Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery. Peter Weiss, who is from Germany's famous Mosel region, is the winemaker responsible for riesling there.
My plane had only landed at Greater Rochester International Airport some two hours earlier, but we were already wrist deep in wine grapes. 'We' included me and a cluster of other wine enthusiasts from New York City that were invited to Harvest House—an annual, week-long, hands-on learning experience at some of the Finger Lakes' premiere wineries; an event made possible by the New York Wine & Grape Foundation and the Genesee Valley Regional Market Authority.
For one week during this year's harvest, the newbies were paired off and taken to a winery to work each day day. At night, the group—including a rotation of winemakers—sat around a table to feast on other agricultural bounties of the region prepared by local chef Brud Holland. Tom and Marti Macinski of Standing Stone were guests at dinner one night. Marti had this to say about farming the iconic Finger Lakes grape: "Riesling is like a teenager," she said. "It plays the violin as a kid, but you don't know if it's going to grow up to play really well."
Standing on a five acre block of riesling at Dr. Frank vineyards, Fred Frank put it simply: "The cool climate here in the Finger Lakes is ideal for the northern European wine grapes," he said. "Particularly riesling, so that remains our number one variety." Later in the afternoon, surrounded by yellowing leaves at Melvin Goldman's Keuka Lake Vineyards, Goldman recalled the start of his career. "I bought this property in '93," he said. "It was part of Taylor Wine Company and the president of Taylor owned it. It's only 14 acres of grapes. It's not enough to run the farm, so we took out most of the existing Catawba. We left some, but I knew immediately when tasting around Hermann Wiemer and Frank's in the old days, in the 90s, it was clear that riesling was the best grape."
At Dr. Frank, we were after riesling grapes that had succumbed to botrytis, a mold that draws water from the affected grapes and leaves behind sweet, concentrated berries. The intent was to harvest enough of these to produce a dessert wine. But long before botrytis settled in at Dr. Frank, and thousands of years before the vines were planted, glaciers from Canada's Hudson Bay cut their way through Central New York and gave the area eleven lakes of varying depths. Because of their long, narrow run and north-to-south orientation, the bodies of water earned the name Finger Lakes.
Konstantin Frank, Fred's grandfather, moved to the region from Ukraine in 1951. He brought with him a PhD in viticulture and optimism for the Finger Lake's cool climate. Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga Lakes are the heart of Finger Lakes wine production, and because of their depth they don't freeze during the harsh winters. Instead, they create pockets of warm air that provide a year-round moderating affect on the vineyards. In the coldest months, this helps keep vines from freezing.
Finger Lakes wine production dates back to the mid-19th century, when most of what grew was Catawba, Niagara, and Labrusca—durable, native grapes that could withstand the region's unpredictable climate. That same inventory of grapes was grown through most of the 20th century. In the 60s and 70s, Taylor Wine Company sourced these grapes from the farmers for mass production. But Coca-Cola bought Taylor in the 70s and relocated from the southern tip of Keuka Lake in Hammondsport to California, and it left farmers with an abundance of crops that no one was buying. The Finger Lakes needed an outlet.
In 1976, the New York Farm Winery Act was signed into law, allowing farmers to establish wineries and sell their goods directly to the public. It was a breath of fresh air for local farmers and marks the birth of the Finger Lakes wine industry as it's known today.
I had no intention of hitting snooze when my alarm went off at 7 a.m.—I was ready to get dirt under my nails at Anthony Road. John Martini founded the winery in 1990 with his wife Ann and, today, their son Peter is the vineyard manager. Having met Fred and Meaghan Frank (3rd and 4th generation winemakers, respectively) the day before, I was starting to see a trend.
Harvest was in full swing and the seven-ton press was in heavy rotation by the time I arrived. Parts of the press had been soaking from the night before and had to be taken out and cleaned. "Seventy percent of what we do is clean," Johannes Reinhardt told me, "only thirty percent is making wine." Johannes, who joined Anthony Road in 2000 after leaving his family's winemaking estate in Germany five years prior, is one half of the winemaking team at Anthony Road. The silver 1959 Airstream ("Baby Blue") parked along a row of trees near the cellar belongs to the other half: Peter Becraft. He and Johannes share the winemaking responsibilities and delegate production once grapes come in.
As parts were scrubbed and butter knives used to pick out stems and seeds and skins from all the nooks and crannies of machine parts, what sounded like shotgun blasts kept disrupting the tranquility of the early autumn morning. "Those are air canons," Peter said, "to scare the birds."
It was the first pest problem that I'd heard about in the Finger Lakes. I'd later hear horror stories about deer, turkey, foxes, woodchucks, mildew, rain, frost, and a type of ladybug that came over on a furniture shipment from China that, when pressed into fresh juice, can leave the final product smelling like peanut butter.
As Peter gave us a tour of the cellar, 2,000-gallon steel tanks full of juice (some fermenting, some not) glistened on every wall. I kept thinking "Why now? What would happen if those three tons of riesling grapes came in two days from now instead of yesterday? Do three days really make a difference?" I asked Peter how he decides when to harvest.
"The decisions to pick will always be based on, 'Are the grapes ready?'" he began. But there was more. "'Is there anything that's making us need to pick them now or can they hold off?' 'Is Bob, who has the machine harvester, available?' If we're hand harvesting with Mario and his crew, we have to work with that schedule too." He rattled this off all so quickly it was hard to keep up. "So you've got weather, ripeness, and availability."
Weather? Evan Dawson, managing editor of the New York Cork Report and author of Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes, asked Morten Hallgren of Ravines Wine Cellars what separates the Finger Lakes from other wine regions. "This," [Hallgren] said, pointing to the sky. "Not because the weather is bad, but because the weather is never the same. There will never be a model from which to work. If you try to grow grapes and make wine the same way every year, you're going to get buried. Making wine here requires an extremely open mind and a willingness to adapt."
Melvin Goldman of Keuka Lake Winery told me, "Because of the climate, an enormous amount of winter work [is required]. What we're going to be doing after the leaves drop is taking the soil and hilling up (covering the root of the vine with dirt). They don't do this in France, or Germany, or California, but we have to do it here because the temperatures can get cold enough in the winter to kill the vines." And because Keuka Lake isn't as deep as Seneca, "Our average yield is probably half of most of the vineyards that you're going to visit on Seneca Lake," Mel said. "In some respects their soils are much more fertile, so they can carry a slightly heavier load, because it's slightly warmer. But in other respects they make different styles of wine."
White grapes are harvested first thing in the morning, which to folks in the Finger Lakes wine trade means anywhere from midnight to 8 a.m. A lot of these harvests happen as early as three and four in the morning, so the grapes are brought in cold. And it can't be raining—the vines pull water in, and the grapes become swollen and diluted.
The most telling sign of ripeness is brix, which detect the sugar content of aqueous solutions. Brix are read from grape samples taken from the field, beginning as early as mid-August and continuing until the day the grapes are harvested. The samples are collected at random—winemakers will choose a vineyard block, picking a random row of vines to walk down, reaching into clusters and pulling berries without looking. This is done until there are enough berries to squeeze a measurable amount of juice from. The juice is dripped onto a refractometer, held up to light, and a shadow line will cut through a scale built into the lens that reads sugar content.
In the Finger Lakes, grapes from vineyard blocks on the west sides of the lakes usually have higher brix because they're exposed to the hot, early morning sun. At Mel Goldman's Turkey Run block of riesling on the east side of Keuka Lake, the grapes were at 18.5 brix a week into October. The same riesling clone at his Goldman block on the west side of the lake was at 20 brix.
And then there's the question of availability. If it's Monday afternoon, and the weather says rain Tuesday, Bob's booked at another vineyard Wednesday, the brix on your riesling is 21.5 and you have a window to harvest on Thursday, and Bob's available, you schedule Bob and his harvester for first thing Thursday morning. Machine harvesting for the first time early one morning at Lakewood, I was told a machine is equivalent to 100 hand pickers. When you're dealing with the region's prized crop—riesling—or a block of vines from which you plan to make three or four thousand cases of wine (which requires seven to ten thousand gallons of juice), you are probably going to choose to harvest by machine. Hand harvesting not only takes longer, it leaves the window through which unwanted variables might come through wide open. Risk isn't a word used lightly in the Finger Lakes.
The Finger Lakes wine industry has grown exponentially since the Farm Winery Act. When the act was signed into law in 1976, the number of commercial privately owned vineyards could be counted on one hand. Today, the region boasts over 130 wineries.
"When my father took over the winery in the mid 80s," Fred Frank started, "he said, 'You couldn't give away a bottle of Finger Lakes Riesling in Manhattan.' And today, many of the wines are on allocation." Dan Mitchell, Hammondsport native and regional sales manager for Fox Run, shares in the enthusiasm. "Our number one selling wine in the highly-competitive NYC market is a dry vinifera red, Lemberger. Had you suggested to anyone in the Finger Lakes wine industry five years ago if a winery's number one seller in that market could be anything but riesling, it would have been laughed at."
Cornell, located at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake in Ithaca, has been a major contributor to the region's development. Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape foundation, doesn't overlook this. "On a human level," he says, "the ever-increasing quality of the wines is attributable to two major factors: Cornell, and cooperation. Cornell is widely recognized as one of the world's top research universities for viticulture and enology, and works very closely with the industry. The other factor," he continued, "cooperation among winemakers who willingly share their secrets so quality can improve everywhere, is not duplicated in any other wine region I've ever visited."
"For now we're just riding the wave," Dave Whiting of Red Newt Cellars said when I asked the direction he thinks Finger Lakes wines will go, "and the beach is up there somewhere." We were in his hybrid driving south, heading from his winery for the west side of Seneca Lake. "But one of the things I think needs to happen," he continued, "is for the economics to work a little bit better. Ten years ago, when I released our first reserve label riesling and priced it at $20, people said, 'You can't charge that much for riesling.' I said, 'If I have a viable business model, you have to have part of your production in that price point, otherwise it's just not sustainable. The difference between a price point like that and one that's $12 or $13 makes the difference between barely surviving economically and having money that you can reinvest into your vineyards, your winery, and your business to really make better wine. So as the reputation for the region grows it means we can be less price sensitive."
I asked what he thought about the Finger Lakes' identity as a wine region. "Being able to create recognition with a wine that we do exceptionally well," he said, referring to the region as a whole. "The one way you look at it is, there are some wineries that focus on red wines in the region. Which is great. They're making really great wines. And sometimes folks will say, 'we shouldn't just be marketing riesling, because I'm doing this, whatever it might be, really well.' But then we can establish the reputation and recognition of the region on riesling, it creates people who recognize the region and are more likely to explore other things that we do."
Each night I spent in the Finger Lakes, I tasted more: Cabernet Franc, Lemberger, Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Vidal, and others. "You're sitting around a table with other wineries," John Martini said one night as dinner finished and our journey through Finger Lakes varietals continued, "but we're working together. We're all going to be recognized by the best quality wine and if one of us doesn't produce that it drags down everyone else."
The ambitious inventory of grapes isn't what I found most stunning about the Finger Lakes. The sense of camaraderie amongst winemakers is humbling, but that's not it either. It wasn't the gorgeous multicolored fall landscape or the calm with which winemakers adapt to the ever-unpredictable climate. It's not their passion, or the sons and daughters learning winemaking in schools across the globe anxious to come home and get to work in the Finger Lakes. What I found in the Finger Lakes is a wine region equally as rich in personalities as it is with grape varieties and an uncanny way that the winemaker's traits seem to make their way into each bottle.
Like Johannes and Peter, Anthony Road's wines are clean, focused, and elegant. Mel Goldman's humble, vibrant, and racy character are mimicked in the high acid whites and whimsical reds of his Keuka Lake Winery. Tom and Marti Macinski of Standing Stone are jovial, bright, and fun to be around. So are their wines. Chris Stamp of Lakewood Winery moved around his cellar with deftness and athleticism. He seemed almost possessed by the harvest, scientific in his approach, and incredibly focused. I tasted his wines. Ditto.
John Wagner, a soft-spoken and stoic life-long farmer, is the vineyard manager at his family-run winery of the same name. Sitting shotgun quietly in John's pickup, I recalled an image from earlier in the day; a farmer sitting high on his harvester overlooking the acreage of beautifully tended vines. With one and half ton bins built onto the side of his machine, John gently steered it so that it lined up with the tractor at the end of each row. As the bins tipped up toward the sky to empty, clouds parted and an unseasonably warm October sun threw its rays onto a pair of diesel machines. John brought the empty bins down and the clouds came back over the sun. He lined his harvester up in front of the next row and gave it gas.
About the Author: Craig Cavallo has been learning about wine working in New York City restaurants for the better part of a decade. He helped open Eataly's wine shop and studied wine in Piedmont with members of Slow Food. His favorite wine region is the one near his entree.