By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Region Editor

This past Friday, I hosted the second Barrel Tasting Friday event at Freedom Run Winery in Cambria, NY with cellarmaster Kurt Guba. The focus was pinot noir and the turnout was amazing. More than 50 guests reserved seats and showed up in the dead of winter from as far away as Rochester to taste the barrels they’ve seen in the tasting room during previous visits.

I have to admit I pitched the idea to the owners after having taken part in similar, though less formal, events last spring. At TasteCamp on Long Island, we experienced some red carpet treatment, which included a barrel room tasting at Paumonok and tank and barrel samples with Eric Fry of Lenz Winery. The intimate setting and the interaction with the winemakers left me with an undeniable connection to the wines.

Fry made a great impression with his casual and completely unpretentious presentation, which seemed spontaneous though was anything but. His approach was to show wines in progress and follow them with older vintages to illustrate where they should be heading. It was a great way to give context to young wines that hardly resembled what will go into the bottle, and I used it as inspiration when helping to plan Freedom Run’s event.

The first Barrel Tasting Friday was last month and focused on Bordeaux varieties. About 30 people made reservations and took part in what was an exciting night comparing the 2009 and 2008 vintages, all of which are still in barrels. There were comparisons of new oak verses used oak, French oak verses Hungarian oak as well as comparisons of cabernet franc that had juice bled off before fermentation to concentrate flavors to non-bleed cabernet franc.

Lenn_Barrel01 Not only was I amazed at the turnout, but I was surprised by the questions asked, the studious note-taking and overwhelmingly positive response to nearly finished wines as well as the rough and raw 09s. Before the night was over people were already asking me when the next one would be and that’s how last Friday’s pinot noir tasting came to be.

The idea for this barrel tasting was to focus on showing off the differences of one estate vineyard block to another. Kurt and I didn’t stop there: we also wanted to highlight the differences yeast strains can have on wine, showing one vineyard fermented with two different yeasts, RC 212 and 2056.

The tasting also included un-oaked pinot, used oak and new oak barrels. Since the 2008 pinot noir was already bottled and for sale, we also decided that the 25-case experiments of upper and lower vineyard lots needed unveiling as well. Freedom Run also erred on the side of caution last year and kept a barrel that had a hint of brett (the barnyard kind) out of its main cuvee by bottling it separately, so that was poured as well.

The last wine of the night was the 2007 estate pinot that shows more like a Russian River than a Burgundian pinot. Tasted back to back with the 2008, it’s just an unmistakable lesson in vintage variation which still seems to take the general public by surprise.

Once again the reception was encouraging. Kurt Guba, Cellarmaster and soon to be certified sommelier, made an impressive presentation as he usually does and I got to do my best Gary Vaynerchuk impression by using cute words like sniffy sniff and referencing pop culture candy for aroma descriptions. Overall I think we were a good one-two punch of wine knowledge.

While it’s easy to fixate on the wines or how they were presented, the real story here is that all these people threw down a decent chunk of cash in the middle of winter after their day jobs to taste unfinished wine and learn more about what’s happening in their region. They all came to taste dry reds from an area that doesn’t have a history for the style. 

Knowing how young the trail is here and how its reputation is still being misunderstood in the local media (for making only sweet wines), events like this are a good indication that things are moving in a different direction.