Category Archives: New York

Finger Lakes Vineyard Going Organic at Bloomer Creek

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Photo Credit: Dede Hatch

If you missed my column Unscrewed, here’s a second look at my interview with Finger Lakes winemaker Kim Engle of Bloomer Creek.

Kim Engle pauses mid-sentence as his eyes drift to the window. Looking uneasy, he peers through the foggy pane at his vineyards: “Sorry, the rain made me lose concentration; it makes me nervous.” For four summer days, the rain had been driving down in unseasonably high quantities; that morning, the sound of water pounding the roof was like marbles unleashed from the sky. For a vineyard owner, the weather was frightening — particularly when trying to farm organically.

I was visiting the Finger Lakes to understand firsthand this fast-growing region of New York. Much had been written about Finger Lakes Rieslings. Occasionally, critics bestowed upon the region honorific titles like “world-class” or references to “Riesling on par with the Mosel,” yet the wines weren’t commonplace in shops or on wine lists.

Asking colleagues in the wine industry for producers I should visit, the name Kim Engle, followed by the phrase “I love Bloomer Creek wines,” popped up repeatedly. Bloomer Creek wasn’t well-known, wasn’t publicly lauded like Weimer or Dr. Konstantin Frank, household Finger Lakes winery names. “Find Kim Engle. His Pinot Noir Freaked. Me. Out.” another wine writer gushed. I felt privy to a secret — like a hot stock tip written on a folded napkin.

Christy Frank, owner of Frankly Wines in Tribeca, stocks a few Finger Lakes producers, including Bloomer Creek. “I love their wines. I like that they are working relatively naturally in difficult conditions, with small quantities, and are taking risks to make wines that taste of terroir.”

I found Engle at his winery on the east side of Seneca Lake. Standing inside the rustic re-creation of a French country carriage house he and his wife, Deborah Bermingham, finished building in 2007, we chatted through the outlandish storm. Engle seems humbled by it all — an artisan and farmer in awe of the earth.

Engle got his start in wine through farming; he started working local jobs during a leave of absence from Cornell at age 19. He milked cows, worked on an organic grain farm, and grew his own vegetables. “I got a job for what is now Hosmer Winery over on Cayuga,” he says. “At that point, it was just a vineyard, and I fell in love with it.”

Engle met his now wife, then a fellow Cornell student, through a friend. Although an accomplished artist, Bermingham decided to make wine together with Engle from the beginning. Different vineyard practices have come and gone since getting their winery license in 1999. “For 10 years, I was NOFA-NY certified organic, but I stopped certification for a variety of reasons,” he says. “With grapes, at the time, there was virtually no market.”

Giving up the certification meant Engle could combat vineyard disease pressure like downy mildew, a nasty microbe that thrives in the humid, wet weather prevalent in the FLX, with synthetic spray. But Engle has already converted one acre of his currently planted fourteen (they’ve recently bought another twelve acres) back to organic, and says he’s headed in that direction, and ultimately fully biodynamic, for the rest of their vines. “I tried using sprays but the problem with this kind of chemical—Pristine is one brand name—is that grapes develop resistance very quickly. The result is that everybody then adds more chemicals to the mix because Pristine may not control it [downy mildew] anymore. But nobody knows for sure, so why we are still using it?”

To ease the transition back to organic farming, Engle converted a number of his rows to a labor-intensive trellis system that separates the vines and allows for greater air circulation. This helps grapes dry faster in wet conditions.

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Unlike his viticultural program, which has meandered back to the organic philosophy, Engle’s winemaking had a definite turning point. In 2008, a customer brought him a few bottles of natural wine from the Loire Valley. He had an epiphany, astounded at how fresh and alive the wines tasted; this led to a complete overhaul of their winemaking approach. “[Loire winemakers] took a minimalist approach to winemaking, and with a lot less rushing of the process overall,” he says. By 2010, Engle stopped using cultured yeasts; white wines saw some skin contact; he experimented with adding stems; and finished wines saw very little filtering or fining.

What was he doing before that? “There was a time, going back 20 years, when I worked at another winery, and we were all happy just winning medals and ‘making’ wine — highly processed, technical, safe wines.”

When I asked if people still produce wine that way, Engle shifted his weight, and gave a little cough. We’d obviously entered touchy territory: “I can’t say what my colleagues do. But, take a look at the Scott Labs catalogue—there are two pages devoted to tannin products.”

Engle picked up a bottle of his Tanzen Dame Dry Riesling, poured a splash, then continued: “Rather than take risks, it’s easier to start with a flavorless, boring base wine then add in the parts—the tannin, the acid. There was a winemaker who had been up here a long time who said at a conference one day ‘everyone says good wine is made in the vineyard, but I just want to be clear, I make the wine in the cellar.’ If that doesn’t tell you something… “

In addition to Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and now a little Grüner Veltliner, Engle and Bermingham produce a lot of Riesling, both dry and off-dry. “I am a Riesling lover, and it does well here,” he says. “Fortunately, the outside world is finally responding to it.”

The outside world includes Thomas Pastuszak, wine director of the NoMad Hotel, who was impressed enough to give Bloomer Creek Riesling a spot on the prestigious wine list. Scott Pactor of Appellation Wine and Spirits in Chelsea declared their Rieslings “some of the best in New York if not the entire U.S.”

My visit with Engle confirmed the sentiments of industry insiders. His wines taste and feel a bit different in the mouth: less precise and neat, rather, unfurling in waves of flavor like a blooming tea flower. Amazingly, the wines only trade around $20 a bottle; for wine lovers, that’s a lot of potential upside for such a minor investment.

 Planning to visit the region? Get itinerary advice and wine tips from my Wine Lover’s Guide to the Finger Lakes.

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Wine Lover’s Guide to the Finger Lakes, New York

In early July, I did something crazy: I lined-up for Manhattan’s Holland Tunnel on a summer Friday afternoon. Why? To traverse a 250-mile swath of highway across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and back across New York, in order to visit America’s preeminent East Coast wine region—the Finger Lakes. A rural land of surprisingly fine wines, its Rieslings much vaunted by critics, the region offers abundant scenery of rolling hills, shimmering lakes, and neat rows of vineyards stretching from shore to sky.

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It’s easy to plan a trip to Finger Lakes Wine Country—the region’s tourism website offers ample information. Plus, the wine trail is superbly marked, as it follows the shorelines of the three main lakes: Cayuga, Seneca, and Keuka. But this isn’t the Sonoma of the East. The overwhelming number of wineries, underwhelming number of sophisticated dining and lodging options, and lengthy driving distances between wineries make a well-organized, efficient itinerary a necessity.

So, with expectations in check, here’s a guide to seeing and tasting the best of the region over four nights and five days. Keep in mind: this winery itinerary is for marathon tasters. Feel free to stop for photos, food, or to just breathe, and drop a winery when you need to.

DAY 1

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Pump caffeine through your system for an early start on the drive there. Arrive early afternoon at the most beautiful and expensive of your lodging, the Aurora Inn, on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake. Take time to enjoy this special property and local activities. Stroll through the quaint town, visit Mackenzie Childs, and take a kayak out on the lake. Sip on a sundowner before dinner in the fantastic Aurora Inn dining room.

DAY 2

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Breakfast at the inn, pack-up, and head 8 minutes north on Highway 90 to visit Heart and Hands Winery, a “winery to watch” run by a husband-and-wife team focusing on estate Pinot Noir and Riesling (once the vines mature on their limestone-rich soil). For now, they buy their grapes. Next, you’ve got a 50-minute drive along highway 89 to Sheldrake Point Winery. Enjoy racy Rieslings, aromatic Gewürztraminer, and luscious dessert wine. For lunch, backtrack 7 minutes north up 89 to catch a wood-fired pizza (skip the wines) at The Copper Oven. Back on the road, you’ve less than a 30-minute drive from Cayuga down highway 414 to the east side of Seneca. First stop is Bloomer Creek—do not skip this visit. Winemaker Kim Engle makes small-batches of honest, terroir-driven wines with unique character. Practically next door, Atwater Vineyard offers a nice view overlooking the lake on its deck, from which you’ll try well-priced wines, including an interesting Riewürz and Blaüfrankisch. Head three minutes back north up 414 to Red Newt for an early dinner and to sample their wines while dining on local, seasonal cuisine. Overnight down in Watkins at the south end of Seneca Lake in the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel.

DAY 3

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Breakfast at the hotel, pack-up, and head out on a 20-minute drive north along 414 to Lamoreaux Landing Winery. Enjoy expansive lake views, vineyard-designated Rieslings, and a méthode champenoise sparkler. Nearby, visit Hector Wine Company—winemaker Justin Boyette does wonders with grapes. They also produce a higher-end label called Forge, known for its controversial (due to some oak contact) but lovely, textural Riesling. Time for lunch just five minutes away at Dano’s, a modern, Viennese-inspired restaurant with outdoor tables. Post-meal, start your 30-minute drive to the western shore of Seneca Lake. First stop along highway 14 is Hermann J. Weimer, a justifiably famous producer of premium Riesling. Overnight at Glenora Inn, and seek finer dining back 30 minutes away on the east side of the lake at Suzanne Fine Regional Cuisine or locally belovedStonecat Cafe. If you’re desperately tired, eat at the hotel’sVeraisons.

DAY 4

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Breakfast at the hotel, pack-up, and head north along highway 14 for about 15 minutes to Anthony Road for their exceptional Art Series Riesling. A very short drive from there is Red Tail Ridge, run by husband and wife team Mike Schnelle and Nancy Irelan. Ask for the Teroldego and Blaufrankisch. Next door, Fox Run Vineyards offers a fantastic line-up, including the Lake Dana Geology Series Rieslings, which can be enjoyed over a lunch of charcuterie and cheese from their café. Before departing, track down the electric Tierce Riesling (a collaboration between Red Newt, Anthony Road, and Fox Run, and sold at all three). If you aren’t wined-out, continue north for another seven minutes to Billsboro winery, owned by winemaker Vinny Aliperti (also of Atwater). If you can only handle one more winery, however, make itRavines, which is twice as far north, for their superb dry Riesling and Cerise red-blend. You’re now at the north end of the Seneca Lake, so stay at Geneva on the Lake or Bragdon House B&B, and dine in Geneva town at the Red Dove Tavern.

DAY 5

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Breakfast at the hotel, pack-up, and head over to Lake Keuka, the prettiest of the lakes, for a tasting at Dr. Konstantin Frank. This fourth-generation family winery laid the foundation for the Finger Lakes wine industry. On your way back to Hammondsport, pop in to Keuka Lake Vineyards for a comparison tasting of small batch, single-site Rieslings. Catch a quick lunch in town at the Village Tavern. If you’ve got one more winery in your system, visit McGregor on the opposite shore of Keuka Lake. It’s almost 30 minutes away along gently curving back roads and over rolling country, but you’ll be rewarded for the effort.

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Get Your Tickets to NY Drinks NY

And Support the Wineries in our Backyard

NY Drinks NY: March 2013
Monday March 18, 2013
Grand Tasting
Featuring more than 40 New York wineries from the Finger LakesLong Island,Hudson River RegionNiagara EscarpmentLake Erie and Thousand Islands.
An all-New York selection of cheeses, charcuterie and hors d’oeuvres will be provided by the New York Wine & Culinary Center.
Monday, March 18
12 – 4 pm Trade
6 – 8 pm Consumer
Astor Center
399 Lafayette Street (at E 4th Street)
Public admission:
$35 tickets ($25 before January 15) are limited
and can be purchased below or here.
Trade and Media RSVP »

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New York Wines hit Chinese Shores

Shanghai’s Pudong on a rainy day, viewed from the Park Hyatt

I can’t stop reading and thinking about China and wine.  Perhaps topical stories are catching my eye, since I am tuned into the subject due to my visit to China in June; nonetheless, I have discovered another new development.  It seems the looming tidal wave of Chinese wine consumption has finally reached local NY shores—or rather, we have gone to theirs, hoping to catch a ride in on the money wave: New York State Wine Outlet opens in Shanghai!  Unfortunately, my visit was a month before the opening of this exciting experiment, or else I would have liked to see how the Chinese represent NY wines to the local populace.  Currently, Chinese wine consumption is estimated at 1 measly bottle a head per year (I know some people who can put one back in a night—not good either though).  This figure may sound small, but there are 1.3 billion humans over there, and consumption and income are ballooning.

Lord Stow’s Egg Custard operation in Macau

It seems, rightfully so, that New York wants a slice of the egg custard (particularly if it is from Lord Stow’s in Macau. Me too!)  Empire State Cellars (the only all NY wine store), owned  by Peconic Bay Winery in the North Fork, was commissioned with creating an assortment of 30 wines representative of different regions and styles from NY State.  Wineries that comprised the initial shipment included: Anthony Road Wine CompanyBedell CellarsChanning Daughters WineryHudson-Chatham Winery, Jamesport VineyardsMedolla VineyardsPaumanok VineyardsPeconic Bay WineryShaw Vineyard and Shinn Estate Vineyards.

The Outlet itself is meant as a resource for trading, selling and showcasing NY wines plus the venue will host trade shows, promotional events and matchmaking (no, not like Elimidate) for distributors and buyers.  Why is this exciting beyond merely the opportunity for New York to stake a claim in unchartered China?  It was only a decade ago that NY State wines lacked the quality-price ratio (QPR) to compete nationally, let alone globally. I am sure many will pick a bone with that statement, but I stand by it having spent more than a decade tasting and mostly spitting the wines.   However, in the last 5-6 years the vino has improved tremendously across the board; call it better weather (global warming) or better technique, or both.  Either way, the price points look much more reasonable when the juice in the glass has balance, complexity and is delicious to drink.

So, what does the New York State Wine and Spints (yes, not Spirits) website look like? Kind of hilarious.  Having just come back from China, I am familiar with the theme of poor Chinese –English translation and spelling, coupled with jumbled site design.  They definitely have some work to do on the NYSWO website.  For instance, some of the NY wineries have their names misspelled: sparking ponte vineyards should be Sparkling Pointe and lieb family cellards is, well, obvious.  Also, content was lacking and functionality was off.  I was the 76th visitor; my husband, 15 minutes later, was the 72nd. Maybe they are counting down from a million and #1 will win a prize!  I applaud the efforts here, but wonder why winemakers stateside aren’t insisting on a few fixes, given there is a large population of English speaking expats in Shanghai.  Maybe the Chinese version of the site looks better-unfortunately, I can’t read it!

Lion guarding the gates at the Forbidden City, Beijing

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