By Julia Burke, Beer Editor

Yesterday I bottled a Niagara Escarpment 2010 cabernet sauvignon made with New York oak — specifically, oak from the Cayuga Lake area of the Finger Lakes. I’m psyched about the incorporation of one more local ingredient into my wine, and since my source is supplying Finger Lakes oak to both commercial wineries and home winemakers with great success, I thought I’d report on my own experience.

Shortly after the 2010 harvest I made a trip to Sheldrake Point Vineyards, where I had a wonderful tasting and conversation with winemaker Dave Breeden. When I asked about the oak treatment on his reds, Breeden mentioned Peter DeVivi, a Waterloo-based miller with a custom flooring company who has been making oak staves, called “Wine Stix,” (pictured above) with local oak to combine the extractive benefits of short-grain tools like cubes and chips with the subtle effects of long-grain barrel wood over time. Offered in four toast levels and cut in a spiral pattern, Wine Stix are incredibly cheap: one stick treats 30 gallons of wine and can be used for two vintages.

Oak1 DeVivi (pictured right) is an awesome guy to hang out with: ingenuous, forward-thinking, and creative, and a home winemaker himself with a passion for local ingredients and sustainable methods.

He showed me all around his mill and explained that the the cost benefit and waste minimization that Wine Stix offer is undeniable. I strongly encourage New York home winemakers to seek him out, as he’s incredibly helpful with questions and his products are value-based, easy to use, and, as I’ve discovered, great quality.

My cabernet sauvignon was already a bit of a mad scientist operation: picked a month early, crushed by a three-person foot stomp, fermented in a beer cooler, and inundated with stems until about a week into fermentation when I got fed up with tearing my hands apart punching it down and fished the stems out one by one while listening to Lady Gaga. It’s the perfect canvas for experimentation, and with its big structure and firm concentration I suspected it could stand up to American oak. I used a medium-plus-toast stave, which I had to cut to 5″ since my wine was in a 3-gallon carboy. (Cutting isn’t necessary; DeVivi can customize sizes and toasts to suit clients’ needs.)

As a New York Cork Report writer I am by definition allergic to noticeable oak in finished wine, so I left the stave in the carboy for only a month instead of the recommended three. After several months of malolactic and aging in the carboy, I bottled last night.

The wine has aggressive fruit and tannin, but the oak presence is simply lovely: barely there, but lending just a hint of rustic, woodsy character that isn’t powdery or dusty but rather smooth and extremely delicate. I am looking forward to watching this wine develop over the next several months in bottle, and I will definitely be using the Wine Stix again this vintage. I would like to try them on merlot this year and keep the stick in a bit longer; Escarpment Merlot shows lovely structure and a finessed, velvety body and I think the flavors of the New York oak will match nicely.

To check out Peter DeVivi’s Wine Stix for yourself, call 315-246-8266.