By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor
Chris Stamp wants to show me something, but he wants to keep it a secret, and he knows I'm a writer. I'm here to chat, to taste his 2010 wines, to understand how a guy like him can carry so much energy, all the time. But he wants to show Evan Dawson, private citizen, not Evan Dawson, writer.
I am not conditioned to go off the record easily. I favor transparency and openness and sunlight. But Stamp won't budge — not yet, anyway, as he explains it. So I relent.
"Okay, we're off the record," I tell him.
Unburdened, the Lakewood Vineyards winemaker hops up and leads me to his newest project. And that, unfortunately, is about all I can say about it right now. I don't write about this incident to tease NYCR readers. I write about it to help explain several important aspects of Chris Stamp's personality.
At 50 years old, and having made wine in the Finger Lakes for 28 years, Stamp is still trying new things. He is serious about his work but his experiments carry a sense of adventure and even mischief. And he still has the energy and enthusiasm to make tremendous wines.
Chris has noticed a difference in the way winemakers talk over the years. Not just winemakers. Tasting room managers, winery owners and even customers. And he uses a phrase I've come to use myself on occasion.
"I think it's a coming of age for us," he says.
Then he explains. "Twenty years ago, we talked a lot about how Finger Lakes rieslings were 'Germanic', but somewhere in the interim we realized that despite their similarities, our rieslings had a distinctly different personality. Somewhere in that period we had an epiphany. We really didn't have to reference Germany, we could be ourselves and not suffer from the inferiority complex we carried with us for so long. Our rieslings were great in their own way and we didn't have feel apologetic."
This is where Stamp makes a point that might seem obvious, but for his long-time customers (and for real down-in-the-dirt wine geeks), it means something more.
"Riesling can be grown in many places, but you can only grow Finger Lakes riesling in the Finger Lakes," he says. "Lucky for us, that's where we are. Now, I don't think we've completely defined Finger Lakes riesling yet, but we are making progress."
That leads inevitably to this question: What does it mean to say "Finger Lakes riesling"? Chris Stamp is wisely hesitant to define it. But he takes a stab: "The mineral, citrus, and acidic edge common to many German rieslings combined with the more opulent fruit basket characters of Washington state rieslings. But I really hate to draw on other regions to define us because we're unique. There is something special."
Stamp's rieslings are racy and pure, classic Finger Lakes expressions. He was one of the first in a growing group of winemakers who are stopping fermentation to preserve residual sugar, instead of fermenting dry and then back-sweetening. The result is a set of rieslings that is consistently lower in alcohol than many from the region. The Lakewood 2010 rieslings all check in around 11% ABV.
The 2010 Dry Riesling is thought-provoking; it's a crisp, energetic wine from a long, warm year, and Stamp did not add acid. He stopped the fermentation at just under 1% residual sugar, but curiously there's a part of him that would like to take the wine drier. "I find that if I make it any drier, it's just too challenging for people," Stamp tells me. "I prefer it very dry myself, but I think I'm the exception."
Like so many of his colleagues, Chris Stamp can hardly say enough about the 2010 vintage. "It's especially a relief after 2009," he says. "I found it an incredible pleasure to work. We had to do so little."
Then we taste a wine that offers a perfect example of that: the 2010 Vignoles. Stamp says it came in at 25.2 brix and produced a wine with tremendous richness and texture. "I didn't even want to throw the pomace out, it looked so nice!" he says.
Visitors to the Lakewood tasting room might be surprised at how long the wine list is. Lakewood now operates 85 acres of vines and Chris Stamp has expanded the portfolio. He's a capable producer of fortified red wines, and his pair of sparkling wines are impressive. The Brut sparkling wine is a great value, and the Candeo could easily pass for Prosecco in a blind tasting.
Lakewood is a family operation, founded in 1988 and run by the many members of the Stamp clan. Chris likes to joke that he might as well try new things because he'll never retire and never leave. His business card includes the jocular title of "Prisoner."
We conclude our visit with a discussion about whether the Finger Lakes needs to produce bigger, fruitier and richer wines to compete with other American wine regions. Stamp thinks the answer is no, but he's not afraid to take a warm vintage and make a bolder style of wine. But he fears it's easier to marginalize Finger Lakes wines when comparing them to wines from other regions.
"The very nature of wine judging — tasting numerous wines side by side to compare them — favors big wines and puts more subtle and elegant wines at a disadvantage," he says. "Until judges train themselves to slow down and look at brains instead of brawn, the love affair will continue. This will be hard to change when a judge is asked to evaluate 100 wines in a day. In the end it will be people who pair wine with food who snap us out of this cycle. Huge wines have their place, but that's usually not with food. Which in my mind makes them not that much different than Labrusca wines in this respect."
Then, in classic Chris Stamp fashion, he adds a playful addendum: "I'll probably catch a lot of flack for that one."
Maybe. But ultimately he's earned the respect of his colleagues by making high-quality wines, embracing new ideas, and occasionally speaking hard truths. It's no wonder so many long-time Finger Lakes wine lovers speak of the Stamp family with such affection.
But what will they say when he finally reveals his secret project? He and I laugh as we think about it. We're both curious to find out.