I recently paid a visit to Heart & Hands Wine Company
, a new winery on the northeastern shore of Cayuga Lake, to scoop a story for Life in the Finger Lakes magazine about the choice of winemaker Tom Higgins to specialize his operation. Heart and Hands makes several different kinds of wine from only two grapes: Riesling and Pinot Noir. In fact, 90% of the operation is dedicated to Pinot, with just 10% focusing on Riesling. Higgins’s choice to specialize so intently is unique to the Finger Lakes and might be a bit of a shock to some consumers, although most wine enthusiasts will sense the Old World emulation that Higgins is attempting to display. Even many California regions like Napa have numerous wineries that specialize in only a few grapes that are fed into a limited range of products.
Higgins' educational stints in Bordeaux and California speak to his craftsmanship and expression. By far the most unique operation Higgins encountered that informed his stance on specialization is Calera, a Central Coast California winery located near Mt. Harlan that primarily makes Pinot Noir. The founder of Calera, Josh Jensen, picked his vineyard sites based on an occurrence of limestone, which is a rarity in California. Jensen views limestone as a basis for good Pinot, much like the growers in Burgundy. Higgins brought this informed perspective back to the Finger Lakes with him, searching for limestone much like Jensen did in California.
Although he is still sourcing grapes from select growing sites, Higgins just cleared his own vineyard at a site he selected primarily for the vein of limestone that juts through the property. You can learn more about the six carefully selected acres in my colleague Evan Dawson's video interview with Higgins in a separate post.
Limestone aside, I was even more impressed with the unique flair that he and his wife Susan — who runs the business side of the operation — have added to the tasting experience. For $10 visitors can take the cellar tour, but it's more than a tour. Guests enter the special-built cellar and taste Pinot Noir directly from the barrels. Higgins explains the site sources for each barrel and also compares difference batches that either had minimal stem contact or quite a bit. The result is bit of a blending game where tasters can mix, in their own glass, Pinot from different sites and varying tannic structure. There is no doubt that this exercise teaches the palate and informs the palate holder about the winemaking process.
The standard tasting room experience is also a highlight. On any given weekend Tom and Susan pour the wines, educating customers about the contents of their glasses, and they offer food pairings to demonstrate the flavors in the wines. I was surprised to learn that Higgins also adds a virtual library of information on the back label of each wine he produces. A bottle of Riesling, for instance, will have vintage notes, percentage composition of the wine by growing site, and all the other vital statistics include harvest and bottling dates, residual sugar—the works. I have simply never seen this level of detail on a label before, and I must say it adds a wonderful dimension of integrity that I wish that the wider industry would consider.
For an even better cool factor, Heart & Hands employs glass Vino-Seal stoppers on some of their Pinot Noir bottles. I’d heard of glass enclosures but I had never encountered one. I am almost positive no one else in the Finger Lakes is experimenting with these “cutting edge” stoppers. Likes his informative labels, Higgins is embracing a very forward-looking feel to his operation.
The Riesling, Late Harvest Riesling, two versions of Pinot Noir (normal and reserve) and the Brut Rose that Heart & Hands carry are all good wines worthy of consideration. The Brut Rose especially impressed with strong honey and strawberry notes with a bit of cherry and nice acidity. Beyond the quality of the wines, the hospitality and informative tasting environment at Heart & Hands makes this winery a must-visit for enthusiasts looking for something a little bit different.