By Tom Mansell, Science Editor

Photos courtesy of Brian Reider

Last year, I went to my first Finger Lakes Wine Festival with high expectations. It was going to be an opportunity for me to taste wines from Finger Lakes wineries I'd never or rarely visited. I'd also be able to taste wines from Niagara and the Hudson Valley, too.

That Saturday, the festival was a teeming mass of people. Hot, sweaty and cramped under the tents in 90+ degree heat and tasting wines sitting in ice-cold water baths was not at all what I had in mind. 

Sunday was perfectly pleasant, though, with far fewer attendees. The most enjoyable part of the festival however occurred after hours, when winemakers and owners gathered in the "Riesling Room" in an informal setting to taste reserve bottles, swap stories and generally relax after a long, hot day of pouring wines. 

This, I thought, was the wine experience I was looking for: a chance to really taste top wines and talk to winemakers. Into the evening after these tasting sessions, industry folks brainstormed about how to make the festival more inviting for the wine-savvy crowd.

On by blog Ithacork, I summed the 2009 weekend up in three parts. My conclusions and plan for returning in 2010: on Saturday, make an effort to get to seminars and other special events that were being offered and taste down on the front lines on Sunday when it would be less crowded.

This year, I pretty much stuck to my plan, though Saturday was much better than expected: I was privy to the Riedel VIP Experience.

Those who ponied up $175 (or somehow weaseled their way on to the media list…) were offered the following:

  • Total access to all Festival events (including the Brewer's garden)
  • Access to a 90-minute tasting session with Georg Riedel, featuring Finger Lakes wines in Riedel glassware
  • Riedel Vinum XL tasting set (retails for $123 on the Riedel website
  • Reserve bottle of Finger Lakes wine
  • Exclusive “after-hours” access to festival wineries on Saturday
  • VIP tasting with 15 participating wineries and the winemakers and vintners on Saturday
  • Other goodies like an exclusive wine claim process/redemption, reserved parking, and a ride in the pace car

So from noon until 5 p.m. on Saturday, one could stay in the air-conditioned media center, away from the crowds, and taste special selections of Finger Lakes wines, many of which were poured by winemakers/owners. Bingo.

Riedel Tasting: Spotlight on Finger Lakes Wines

Tom The first element of the VIP experience was a "personal sensory evaluation" with Georg Riedel. I'm not going to mention all of the pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo that underpins the claims Riedel makes about how glassware affects wine aroma and taste. That's for another post and possibly another forum altogether. 

Suffice it to say that Riedel holds a tightly-controlled and carefully orchestrated tasting, which involves pouring wines from glass to glass in a choreographed ballet of smelling, tasting, nodding in agreement and gasping in amazement.

My never-ending skepticism aside, there's no denying that Riedel makes world-class glassware and it was great to see Finger Lakes wines filling that glassware. It was also great to see Finger Lakes wines showcased in such a way to a VIP audience, which included international journalists from the prestigious Circle of Wine Writers.

The wines (and the glasses that held them, all from the Riedel Vinum XL line):

  • Dr. Konstantin Frank 2008 Dry Riesling (Riesling Grand Cru)
  • Atwater Estate 2007 Chardonnay (Montrachet)
  • Heart and Hands Wine Company 2007 Barrel Reserve Pinot Noir (Pinot Noir)
  • Lakewood Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc (Cabernet Sauvignon)

Interestingly, two of the wineries selected also feature Riedel glassware in their tasting rooms. The wines for this tasting were selected by Jill Day, regional manager for Riedel USA and between 9 and 12 wines were submitted for consideration for
each of the four grape varieties.

All the wines showed well in the glassware (as expected). Midway through the tasting, there came effusive praise from Riedel for the Heart and Hands 2007 Barrel Reserve Pinot. When he smelled and tasted it, he was quite obviously temporarily knocked off his game. It was clear that he was truly surprised by the quality of this Finger Lakes pinot as his polished delivery was stopped in its tracks while he complimented winemaker Tom Higgins on a job well done.

Snacks VIP Tasting: Great food and great wines in a relaxed atmosphere

After the Riedel tasting and a short breakdown period, the VIP wine tasting began. Leather couches and cocktail tables, light piano jazz and outstanding hors d'oeuvres prepared by local chef Deb Whiting (Red Newt Bistro) set the mood. Fifteen of the top Finger Lakes producers (selected by Finger Lakes Wine Country) were there to pour some nice wines for the VIPs for three hours.

"The winery response was amazing and there was a waiting list in
addition to the 15 represented," says Finger Lakes Wine Country president, Morgen McLaughlin. "To have [Hermann J.] Wiemer, Shaw and Lamoreaux
Landing pour at the event (when they weren't part of the rest of the
Festival) speaks to the support from the wine industry and the top
wineries in the region for a VIP Experience." 

If you make a list of who you think are the elite producers in the Finger Lakes, many on that list were in attendance at the VIP tasting. I'll leave a complete list of attendees in the comments section.

Standout wines for me in the VIP tasting (some of which were new releases or very recently bottled):  Lamoreaux Landing 2009 Dry Riesling (fruit leaping out of the glass), Shaw 2009 LiBella Pinot Grigio (bold tropical fruit), Heron Hill 2007 Blaufränkisch (strawberry showing through still generous oak), Red Newt 2007 Viridescens (dark fruit kept in check by firm acid and tannin structure), Hermann J. Wiemer 2008 Gewürztraminer (effortlessly balanced fleshy fruit, floral notes, and acidity).

The evolving VIP experience

It was clear that the organizers of the event used consumer and
industry feedback to tailor a VIP experience.  Kudos are due to FLWC and Watkins Glen International, the engines of these improvements. Not insignificant in this change is the new president of WGI, Michael Printup. A slick businessman and admitted wine enthusiast, Printup has big ideas for integrating "the Glen" with wine country, including the recent planting of some St. Croix grapevines on the track.

Special events were not limited to those able to drop 175 bucks though. 

Like every year, the NYWGF and the NY Wine & Culinary Center sponsored free seminars on Finger Lakes wines and culinary seminars featuring wine pairings. Down on the track, the "Riesling Room" from 2009, which offered samples of a spectrum of high-quality Rieslings, expanded to become the "Vintner's Room" in 2010, offering 20-minute seminars on different types of wine from winemakers and owners, with special tastings offset from the main tasting tents.

The most disappointing aspect of the VIP tasting was the
attendance. While the room was packed for the Riedel tasting, not
everybody stayed for what was arguably the real meat of the VIP experience. Even the Vintner's Room, filled to capacity on Saturday, was packing up early on Sunday. 

And speaking of packing up early, almost no wineries stayed open past 5 p.m. for "exclusive after-hours access." Whether this was a miscommunication between security and vendors or an understandable case of "let's get the hell out of here," the Festival was a ghost town at 5:15.

The Festival has (obviously) developed a bad rap among wine cognoscenti over the years. The organizers need to overcome that stigma in order to convince people that a VIP experience is something worth attending.  

Is a huge name like Riedel required to make that happen? $175 is pretty steep, and many wine lovers (if they're anything like me) already have a plethora of wine glasses to begin with. Perhaps a slightly cheaper experience, without the added cost of expensive glassware and airfare for Austrian hucksters, could attract more wine enthusiasts while keeping out the riff-raff.

One thing is clear here, though. The Festival itself is not a static entity that "is what it is" and has no intention of courting wine-savvy consumers and trade folk. This year, the organizers made a valid first attempt at an experience that caters to more discriminating tastes. While it may not have been very well attended, it was a legitimate step in the right direction. Labeling the Festival as nothing but a "drunkfest" is simply no longer valid.

Though truthfully,
I did feel a bit bourgeois up there in the media center, far from the
madding crowd below.  I guess that's what being a VIP is all about.

(Full disclosure: I attended the VIP experience with media credentials. I did keep the Riedel glassware and I intend to evaluate, experiment and debunk the heck out of it. I did not accept the complimentary "reserve" bottle of Finger Lakes wine.)