"As an industry, we're in love with certainty. But if you're going to make exciting wine, you're going to be on the edge of having flaws."
Those are some of the first words offered by the winemaker of Bloomer Creek Vineyard. It's an ethos shared by many winemakers who produce the world's best wines. The concept of "best" wine or "better" wine is fleeting, a bit silly, and easily misguided. We tend to eschew the word "best" on the New York Cork Report.
But spend a few hours with Kim Engle and Debra Bermingham, the husband-and-wife team that owns the tiny Bloomer Creek winery, and you'll find that convention has politely been asked to leave the room.
So in that spirit I'll make a rather unconventional statement: Bloomer Creek's 2009 Rieslings are the best rieslings you're not drinking.
That is, unless you are drinking them, or have tasted them, but you probably haven't yet. The wines are new and there are so few of them that even avid New York wine drinkers rarely get a chance to try them.
Of course, the notion of "best" is utterly subjective. But even if you don't love the Bloomer Creek 2009 Rieslings, you will be helpless to describe them as anything less than fascinating. There is a reason for that, and it begins with Kim Engle, who seems to speak in humble aphorism.
"Safety and excitement rarely coexist," he tells me in the Bloomer Creek tasting room. Daylight has made its escape, and Kim and Debra have chosen to use only the lights of flickering candles for illumination. They are friendly and gracious, but with differing personalities. Debra is a sparkplug, gregarious and eager to answer any question or elaborate on her husband's points. Kim, the winemaker, is more reserved, intense and intelligent without showing an ounce of hubris. That's because he tempers his strongest opinions with disclaimers that show a sense of perspective and respect for his colleagues.
We are focusing this tasting on the white wines of Bloomer Creek. The vineyards sit atop a hill about a mile from Cayuga Lake. That distance means the vines have less protection than many regional sites. Kim shrugs it off by explaining that winter kill reduces yields, which is a practice that more growers ought to embrace anyway. "We still need lower yields in the Finger Lakes," he says, "but it's not easy just to decide to lower the yield. We'd need to sell the wines for more money, and obviously that's not easy to do."
But Kim doesn't really mean "we." He means "they," as in, most of his colleagues. Bloomer Creek made only about 1,000 cases of wine last year and has never made more than 2,000. And here again Kim softens his comments about his colleagues, saying, "It's just easier for us to make these kinds of decisions. We're not a large operation. We can afford to make mistakes. It will never cost us 10,000 cases of wine. So I'm just speaking from our perspective."
What you'll find in tasting through a range of vintages at Bloomer Creek is that a lot has changed, culminating in a giant leap forward in the 2009 Rieslings. Engle grew raspberries in the 1990s before learning in the vineyards and consulting at several Finger Lakes wineries. He and Debra launched the Stonecat Cafe in 1998, a popular restaurant on the southeast side of Seneca Lake. They built the tasting room for Bloomer Creek on the same property, but eventually sold the restaurant to focus entirely on the wines. Now the tasting room sits next door to the south of Stonecat.
Taking wine to the edge
A few years ago, Kim and Debra decided they would use wild yeast in making their wines. They stopped filtering most of the wines (though Kim still filters white wines with any significant residual sugar).
And, following the lead of Hermann J. Wiemer, they abandoned the quick, heat-controlled fermentations used by just about everyone in the world of wine today. That means the cold fermentation can happen painfully slowly; the 2009 Rieslings didn't finish fermentation until April of 2010, when many other local producers had already bottled their wines.
Kim returns to a familiar theme: embracing uncertainty.
"We're almost addicted to predictability in the wine industry," he says. "It's easy to understand why. We want to know how long the wine will ferment, and what it's supposed to be when it's done. But I like the uncertainty that comes with cold fermentation. We're looking for the best expression of the wine that particular year, and we're looking for balance. But we don't go in with a preconceived notion of what that means or how to get it."
And here's where the flaws come in. Kim and Debra don't hide the fact that they've learned a lot over the past five years, and some of that learning comes from losing batches of wine. Their methods make their wines more vulnerable to volatile acidity. Kim finds that the reds are more likely to show it, and it's been rare in the Bloomer Creek rieslings. But each lost batch is a learning opportunity, and Engle rarely encounters problems with his methods these days.
Before we taste the wines — and there now more than a dozen bottles on the tasting room counter — Kim warns me that I shouldn't expect too much similarity from vintage to vintage. "We have to make sure we don't try to make the same wine every year," he says. I ask if he's ever put his wine through the process of de-acidication in leaner years (a process adopted by many colleagues who are seeking softer, rounder wines). "I've reduced acidity only once. It was 2006. Turns out I could taste the acid reduction. It just seemed artificial, and that's not something I want. So that was the last time we did it."
By the time we finally taste, I am not at all sure what to expect.
Tasting the most distinctive wines in the region
The 2009 Auten Vineyard First Harvest is a marvel, a riesling that evokes the Lopez de Heredia white wines that have earned a devoted following around the world. No two tasters will list the same aromatics. Chamomile, white flowers, lime? Sure. Brioche, caramel apple, peaches, crushed rock? That works, too.
But this wine is even more enthralling in the mouth. Its stony core, a hallmark of the vintage, is glazed with layers of flavors that seem to change by the moment. The residual sugar totals nearly 30 grams, but it easily comes off as half that number. Almost ostentatious, it's simply riveting.
Its cousin, the 2009 Morehouse Road Vineyard Riesling, is equally distinctive but with its own personality. If the Auten is a lindy hop, the Morehouse is a handshake that evolves into a graceful waltz. Starting slow, the wine builds and unveils its complexity with more subtlety. Like the Auten, there is no doubt that this is a Finger Lakes riesling, but there also is little precedent for a wine of this profile.
"It could be a long time before we get a year like 2009," Kim says. "You couldn't help but make good riesling. I hear some winemakers panic about the acidity, but that's the backbone of great wine. It's a gift."
The third 2009 riesling bottling is the Auten Vineyard Second Harvest, which was picked nearly a month later than the First Harvest. The picking date is essentially the only difference, as Engle stopped fermentation at roughly the same level of residual sugar. The result is a wine that is a touch fatter, and I found it almost over the top, losing a bit of regional character. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to taste two wines from the same site, picked a month apart, to highlight the differences. It's the kind of experimentation that will allow Kim and Debra to continue to grow.
Bloomer Creek's 2009 Gewurztraminer is, for comparison's sake, a more conventional gewurztraminer, and it's a tremendous one. Balanced and precise, it was a finalist in our New York Cork Report Wines of the Year tasting.
We tasted through some of the older Bloomer Creek wines and I found a wide range, which is exactly what Kim and Debra explained I would see. "You can see that we're pretty adventurous," Debra says, smiling through the candle light. "It's nice to be ourselves in our wine."
Even the labels show that individualism. Bloomer Creek's aromatic white wines are now released under the Tanzen Dame label (that's German for "lady dances"), and it features art from the couple's friend. Debra is an artist with a gallery and connections in New York City, and they wanted to feature that artistic edge on their bottles.
What's next for Bloomer Creek?
Kim and Debra would like to double their ten acres by adding vines to the property facing Seneca Lake that sprawls out below their tasting room. "He's a passionate grower," Debra says of her husband, who shrugs and adds, "There's still a lot to learn and see. Those ten acres would teach us a lot about the land's impact on our wines."
I think of Kim Engle as a kind of optimistic skeptic. He believes in the concept of terroir, or sense of place, and he clearly believes the Finger Lakes can offer a special place to make wine. But there's also an edge to that optimism that says, "Prove it." It's a balance that informs his experimentation and open-minded style of winemaking.
There's no way to predict whether the 2010 Bloomer Creek Rieslings will be as gripping as the 2009 versions. After all, they'll be fermenting for the next several weeks or months still. But here's one thing we can all expect from Bloomer Creek: We can expect Kim and Debra to challenge our expectations and offer intelectually stimulating wines. It is hard to ask for more than that.