By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor
Photos by Morgan Dawson Photography
It took no more than seven minutes for me to see one of the defining stories emerging from TasteCamp East 2010. There in the Heron Hill Winery tasting room, with several dozen writers from around the country, a gap came into view. It was so wide, so severe, that it could not be ignored.
And if the Finger Lakes is going to continue its climb to wine world prominence, the gap will have to close.
Specifically, I'm talking about the gap in quality from the top producers to the bottom tier. I am not sure there is a wine region in the world with a gap so obvious. I don't know if there is, of course, but I have not experienced anything close to what we see in the Finger Lakes. Even Long Island doesn't suffer from nearly this massive a disparity.
In some sense, it feels hectoring or even wrong to write such a post. After all, I don't work in the wine industry. Who am I to offer advice or ideas on how wineries can improve their business? But then, I knew in those opening TasteCamp minutes that everyone was seeing the same gap.
Standing at the bar at Heron Hill, enduring the worst flight of wines I've ever had (I'll choose not to mention the producer), I walked away, only to have another writer whisper, "You can't leave me here." When we stopped over to taste the wines of Keuka Spring Vineyards and McGregor Vineyard, for example, confidence was restored. But how can the difference be so vast?
Still, you might wonder: So what? There are disappointments, but there are also producers like Ravines Wine Cellars and Hermann J. Wiemer and Heart & Hands Wine Company and Anthony Road Wine Company and Fox Run Vineyards and Red Newt Cellars and more. When the top producers are revealing the potential of this region, that's the story, right?
Not necessarily. First of all, the top producers are, on average, slightly more expensive and smaller in total production. The result is a wine-buying public that has to work harder to find the world-class bottlings, and when they instead find the dreck, they might not give the Finger Lakes another chance.
So what to do? Here are some ideas intended only to begin a conversation.
Drink wines from around the world
I'm constantly surprised to hear industry professionals declare that they "mostly drink Finger Lakes wines." When I ask what their benchmark for riesling is, often I'm told, "There are some good ones locally, but I don't really taste European riesling. I'm too busy for that."
I'm not sure how any wine professional can seek to make world-class wine without knowing what the rest of the world is doing. I would hope that the curiosity is inherent, burning constantly, leading winemakers to explore the endless possibilities. But too often there is a regional palate, a big ole house palate if you prefer, and that's dangerous.
"We're not looking to mimic a wine from another region," explained Ravines' Morten Hallgren to the TasteCamp crowd. "But we have to have reference points. We can't isolate ourselves."
Several TasteCamp writers said something to me about the lack of worldly curiosity in the winemakers they interviewed at the various grand tastings. That is a troubling sign for the region, but it's easy to change.
Tell your story — and the story starts with making wine in a cool climate
If you want to make cabernet sauvignon or sauvignon blanc, you'd better have a good explanation for thoughtful customers. At one of the grand tastings, a winemaker poured a cabernet sauvignon, explaining, "Our cab is a big, full-bodied red with nice structure." The writer standing next to me later said, "Why are they borrowing the language of Napa?"
I didn't have a good answer.
In general, the region would do well to continue to narrow the focus to grapes that perform well in cool climates. The TasteCamp crowd left the weekend convinced that riesling is a powerhouse performer here, but pinot, gewurztraminer, cab franc, and even interesting grapes like blaufrankisch have tremendous upside.
That doesn't mean everyone should rip up their cabernet sauvignon and merlot. But growing those varieties begs for a careful approach and a well-honed explanation, consistent with the benefits of food-friendly wine and cool-climate performance. How often do you show up in a tasting room in the Finger Lakes, discover that the staff is pouring cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay… and have them explain that a cool-climate approach delivers a different version of these familiar wines? I'd say almost never. Instead, it's typically something like, "Our chardonnay is big and luscious and buttery," or "Our cabernet sauvignon is rich and demands a slab of beef."
(Of course, if the people making those pronouncements aren't drinking cab or chardonnay from around the world, perhaps they think this is an effective way to present these wines.)
Every group tasting is not a wine festival
Lenn and I were dismayed to see some of the choices made by Finger Lakes producers when it came to what to pour at the grand tastings. Some of the lists looked like the exact same list that winery would take to a drunk-fest in the middle of summer, designed to move hard-to-sell product rather than present the region's best face.
The challenge rests in the fact that so many wineries can hardly afford a marketing director, let alone a staff that can help with such decisions. But every winery can help its own cause by showing each tasting group a thoughtful selection of wines and an interesting story about why they were chosen. Each tasting is an opportunity.
At TasteCamp, some producers brought detailed technical notes along with individualized packages for each attendee. That's not the cheapest route, but it's one way to leave an impression.
Sweet doesn't mean not serious
As strong as Finger Lakes rieslings are in general, I'd have liked to see more of the semi-dry variety (or even sweeter) at TasteCamp. One winery owner told us that they assume writers want dry wines only. I'm not sure where that myth developed, but it should be detonated. Local riesling shows world-class potential all the way up the sweetnes scale, and that should not be ignored.
One of the reasons that Lenn and I felt TasteCamp was such a success was the opportunity to show everything about the region. We selected some of the strongest producers for individual visits, but we wanted to make sure the writers saw both sides of a gap that remains too wide.
That kind of examination should only help the region's winemaking improve.