Friday, September 11, 2015

10 observations about the Finger Lakes

A typical Finger Lakes winery. Good news: Wines are quite good. Bad news: They also sell, and burn, patchouli incense. We had to take wines outside to smell them.
1. The red wines are better than expected
The two most-planted red vinifera grapes are Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. In warm vintages, both make pretty good wines: very Old World style and suitable for fans of varietal typicity and elegance.

2. The Rieslings are, as a group, more disappointing than they should be
Riesling is crucial to the Finger Lakes because there are more than 800 acres of it; the second-most planted vinifera grape is Chardonnay, with only about 350 acres. And the very best wines are Riesling. Unfortunately, many producers seem to do everything they can to hide their Riesling's acidity, but freshness should be a Finger Lakes Riesling's birthright. 

3. The region is a long way behind California in wine tourism
Some wineries will tell you that's not a bug, it's a feature: they're charming, they're in barns, they don't have that California slickness. Sorry folks, you're drawing from the exact same customer pool as Sonoma County and you really could up your game. I'm not even talking about Napa Valley. Put together a trade delegation to, say, Paso Robles. Visit wineries at random and see how nice their tasting rooms are and how welcoming and informed their tasting room staffs are. In the Finger Lakes, I went to a place that offered pours in tiny plastic thimbles -- picture the cup that comes atop a bottle of cough syrup, only smaller -- from bottles that had been open at room temperature for who knows how many days. And this place, inside a major tourist attraction, is called the Finger Lakes Wine Center. If it was Napa Valley, the vintners would sue them to stop using the name.

The Finger Lakes does not lack natural beauty, which is why it gets plenty of tourists in summer

4. Other than pride, the region doesn't seem to see much incentive to improve
Enough people drive through the Finger Lakes region and uncritically buy whatever is on offer, such that many pretty mediocre wineries can sell all the wines they make, especially if those wines are sweet and cheap.

5. Uncritical tasting room tourists won't spend $30 a bottle
Great wines require great viticulture, generally with low yields, and thoughtful winemaking. The more money a winery makes for its wine, the more it can invest in these things. If you start making $30 wines, and selling them, it becomes easier to make more $30 wines, and even $50 wines. And then the winery makes more money. Why am I explaining this to you? Because it doesn't seem self-evident all over the Finger Lakes.

6. The best Finger Lakes wines are world-class, but there aren't many bottles to go around. However, there are plenty to go around if they're just sold locally, which depresses the price
Some wineries are considering allocation. I can't speak for every market, but there would be demand for top Finger Lakes wines in Northern California, if the best wineries took steps to get their wines here. Spreading the top wines around would enhance their reputation and increase scarcity and therefore value. But right now, I can't really torture you with recommendations of my favorite Finger Lakes wines because there isn't any easy way to buy them. Check out the Finger Lakes wines available on Wine-Searcher. (Of that group, I'd say try the Ravines Dry Riesling.)

Concord grape pie: a super-sweet Finger Lakes treat
7. Hybrids have been a curse, but there might be a blessing lurking in there
Vinifera still makes up only 23% of the 9500 acres of grapes in the Finger Lakes. There's a lot of crappy sweet wine made from hybrids. But one of my favorite lower-priced Finger Lakes wines was a white hybrid-vinifera blend meant for immediate consumption. Tasting it, I wondered how good a hybrid could get with all the advantages given to, say, the best Carignane: really old vines, really low yields, gentle treatment, etc. Eric Asimov recently wrote a whole article in the New York Times praising a Vermont winery doing about 250 cases a year of hybrids, which probably ensured its wine will sell out for a decade. You'll never convince people who think, say, screwcaps are bad that a hybrid wine is worthwhile. But wine geeks would be curious if a hybrid were taken seriously. I'm curious. Eric Asimov's curious. Who's with me?

8. Yes, I'm making all these sweeping statements based on 5 days in the Finger Lakes for the Wine Bloggers Conference
Because this is what wine bloggers do. Damn bloggers! But how long do you think most magazine and newspaper writers spend in the regions they write about? How many dinners do restaurant critics eat before writing a story? Writers make sweeping assumptions based on our experiences. It's what we do. (If you want to read more experienced writers on the Finger Lakes, click here.)

9. Non-bloggers make much broader generalizations much faster than bloggers
Ever heard somebody say, "I don't like Sangiovese. I've had it and didn't like it." They might mean one bottle. Go look at Yelp. Ordinary people make up their mind quickly based on the most minor factors, and generalize from that. It's the basis of racism, sexism, every -ism you want. It must be human nature.

10. I make point 9 because, dear Finger Lakes wineries, go look at point 3 again

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Rebecca Gomez Farrell said...

To Point #2--This is why I avoided Rieslings for most of the WBC. And I ended up with a more positive view of the region than I think I would have if I tried all those Rieslings. The ones I did were on the lower sugar, drier, more acidic side of things, and they were great.

To Point #7--I'm absolutely with you. Let me have great wine; I don't care if it's a hybrid or vinifera. Does it taste good? That's all I want to know, ultimately.

To Point #9--What a valid point to make! At best, us bloggers help consumers come to a conclusion, but they are going to make that conclusion themselves and fast once they taste a wine. First impressions last in all things. It takes considerable effort to reverse them.

In general, I would love to see the Finger Lakes increase their distribution outside of NY, but the particular locale did make me wonder how much they *could* increase distribution. I will support increased quality with small distribution regardless.

Great post!

Unknown said...

I am amazed that someone purporting to understand this region would: a) visit the Finger Lakes Wine Center, and; b) use the experience to make any generalizations about the region. The Finger Lakes Wine Center is simply a tasting room at Sonnenberg gardens. They do what they do and do not represent the Finger Lakes wine industry. Ditto the people who pour thimblefuls of wine at the New York State Fair.

And while I might take issue with your assessment about the general level of Finger Lakes Riesling, you could make the same point about California Chardonnay. There is the good, and there is the dreck. The latter far overwhelms the former.

Regarding more distribution outside of New York, gosh, why didn't we think of that?

Erika Szymanski said...

And yet, Harvey, his assessment is good. Complete? Comprehensive? The result of years of study? No. But an excellent, spot-on snapshot view of a new experience from deep experience in the field at large. This is, by the way, coming from someone who lived in the region for a dozen or so years.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed my time there. The red wine that I thought was generally better than the rest was Lemberger. Most of the Pinot was under ripe.