Alive And Kicking: Has NY Wine Come Of Age?

Vinted on September 22, 2010 binned in best of, commentary, wine review

Ten years ago, on a trip with friends to New York’s Finger Lakes wine country, I bought a few bottles of bubbly.

I was not a pseudo-wine-pro back then; I was an avid consumer (that term still applies!), and the majority of my vacation travel was centered around wine exploration.  I had a budding interest, passionate zeal, and I knew what I liked though I would have had a lot more trouble telling you why, or explaining how, a wine I liked got to that point.

It was one of those gorgeous sunny Autumn days that was quickly turning into a chilly Autumn evening (no sun = no heat) and most of the Finger Lakes tasting rooms were closed or moments-away-from closing; we happened upon what was then a joint-producer tasting room featuring only local sparkling wines.

I knew what I liked, and I really liked the 2000 Chateau Frank Brut that evening.  So, my girlfriend and I bought some.

Ten years later, at the surprise 50th birthday party of one of dear friends (who helped us greatly in getting through the tough times leading up to the recent loss of our Weimaraner, Samson, and to whom we gave a bottle of 2007 Quinta do Vesuvio so you know we love her), I had occasion to open the 2000 Chateau Frank Brut – Dr. Frank is one of the birthday girl’s favorite wine producers (alongside the most recent offering of Chateau Frank’s non-vintage Riesling sparkler, Célèbre Cremant).

And it rocked.

The fruit had started to subside a bit, but what remained was bready, lively, and wonderful; still fresh, still food-friendly, still (in the words of Simple Minds) Alive & Kicking.

An apt comparison, it turns out, for the state of NY wine in general…

The topic of NY’s coming-of-age wine party has been on my mind, on-and-off, since my trip earlier this year to the Finger Lakes, during which the thing that impressed me most was the much-improved state of the region’s red wines.  Combine that with the best sparklers and still whites from the region, and the excellent state of affairs in Long Island’s wine offerings, and you have a region that wine lovers ought to be excited about.

NY is not without its wine issues – prices can be too high; reds can be too thin; quality can be too all-over-the-place (a situation that plagues the wine production across much of the East Coast, by the way). But when it’s right, it’s so very, very right.

It seems to me that wine geeks and pros like to talk about Right Coast wines  (particularly Virginia) as being exciting, enticing, and possibly The Next Big Thing; meanwhile, NY is actually delivering in ways that areas like VA and PA are only beginning to touch.

We’re even seeing (gasp!) above-89 point scores for NY wines from the mainstream wine mags.


I’m not here to diss VA wines – some of them are excellent and Cabernet Franc from VA is going to be epic someday – I’m just pointing out that NY wines are already there.

Am I the first to point this out?  Of course not.  There are great pieces being written about NY wines every day over at New York Cork Report (I especially enjoyed the take on the age-worthiness of FL sparklers that NYCR writer Evan Dawson posed earlier this year), and harvest reports in publications like Sommelier Journal are devoting increasing amounts of print real estate to covering the region’s wine production.

I’m just adding my virtual fist-pump to the vinous products of NY.  I view myself as a bit cosmopolitan when it comes to wine, in that I’m not afraid to champion something I like no matter where it’s from, and I have the benefit of tasting wines from all over the world.  So from the standpoint of comparative analysis, when it comes to the Finger Lakes in particular I can tell you that I haven’t been this excited about a wine region’s potential and its future in a long time.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the respect being directed towards NY wines is overdue, and if you’re missing out on trying the wines of NY because of point scores, lack of traditional media coverage, or any other reason… well, you’re just missing out.


(image: joe’s crappy cell phone cam)





  • Evan Dawson

    Joe – Glad that wine was rocking for you. When wine is right, it's not just hedonistically awesome; it takes us back to that place or moment in some other time. This one seems to have done that for you and your used-to-be-girlfriend.

    A major reason that quality continues its slow, if steady, climb in NY is that writers like yourself give it thoughtful reviews, and you're not afraid to say, "Why are you making Merlot, Finger Lakes? Do you hate yourself?" (Okay, that's strong. But only a little.)

    • 1WineDude

      HA! :)

      The quality variation is inevitable because the "modern-modern" era of wine production (post-Mondavi) is relatively new for the Right Coast. We're still trying and seeing what sticks out here. The downside of the experimentation is t hat some of it can go horribly, horribly wrong, and the results can be border-line undrinkable (I still have nightmares about a VA Riesling I had several months ago in a tasting room there…).

      • Evan Dawson

        What are your thoughts about wineries that claim their customers expect them to have a wide range of recognizable varieties? They'll make a Cab Sauv, and Chardonnay, and Merlot, and just about everything people often see in the bulk section of the liquor store. I don't buy it; I see some of the best producers cutting down on what they make. But I'm also not in charge of the books for those wineries, and it would be presumptuous of me to take an absolutist stance when I don't have to pay the bills.

        • 1WineDude

          GREAT question Evan and I actually do have an answer that I almost universally give to winemakers when that question comes up. It's based on a conversation I had with Eric Miller at Chaddsford Winery a few years ago, when we were barrel-sampling and generally just shooting the shit about the wine industry, etc.

          Eric was kind of bumming about having to make a sweet wine to help pay the bills. The thing is, the sweet wine was answering a need that people had – it wasn't poorly made, it wasn't shit, it just wasn't a serious fine wine and he has a passion for serious fine wine.

          And my response was, stop bumming out, you're making people happy because they find that wine to be good. It funds your other passions which a good (though smaller) amount of people also really enjoy.

          So I'd ask those wineries to ask themselves if they are making *decent wine for the price* and are actually fulfilling *a customer need*. Chances, I think, are very high that the Classic variety wines might actually suck and customers wouldn't actually want them if they could instead have a "sales funnel" of a GOOD introductory wine (likely sweet or with some RS) and then could be introduced to the more "serious" and expensive wines that the winery is passionate about.

          I see no personal or moral conflicts in doing that – I see a sound business strategy and one that is defensible to critics. If a winery makes a shitty wine just because the variety has some "brand" recognition for customers, chances are MUCH higher I think that they will LOSE customers and will piss-off critics, because a wine that lacks quality lacks soul and people will pick up on that eventually.

          How many of the people buying those terrible Rieslings or Cabs are going to be repeat customers? Seems like a business model that will only work if people stay in the dark about wine quality and are never encouraged to trade-up the quality ladder at their own pace – that is gonna fail for small outfits especially because they are then relying on volume over customer-retention, and they can never compete on volume.


          • Evan Dawson

            This might be the best answer I've ever heard on this subject.

            • 1WineDude

              I think we may officially have a bro-mance going on right now…

  • RichardA

    I am with you Joe on this issue. After the experience of the last two Taste Camps, in Long Island and the Finger Lakes, I found plenty of excellent NY wines, from the sublime 2007 Shinn Vineyards Cabernet Franc to the compelling Hearts & Hands Pinot Noirs. All wine lovers should be checking out the wines coming from New York. Now, if they only had better distribution around the country then it would be much easier for other wine lovers to taste them.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Richard – good point about the distro. on those wines.

  • Michael Wangbickler

    The wine may be good, but the labels still suck. Yeesh. That's a terrible color for a wine label. Makes it look cheap.

    • 1WineDude

      :-) Yeah, the labels could use a bit of work.

  • 1WineDude

    Thanks, Jolan. I see no issues in offering that kind of "sales funnel" for the consumer – in a lot of cases, it's actually what we want.

  • WinoTripper

    My recent trip to Finger Lakes made me realize at least two things:
    1. The wineries have way too many kinds of wine. We tasted over 17 wines at one joint and the quality was all over the place. A few really nice wines, and the rest highly questionable – which is kind of like the Finger Lakes as a whole. There are probably only two or three grapes that'll make good wine there and they should stick to it. Cab Franc and Riesling is a good start. They should work it more like the regional styles in France, and not like the California model. (On a side note: Long Island wines seem to be more consistantly good than wines from the FL).

    2. It's one of the more beautiful wine countries I've ever seen. Laid back tasting rooms in wonderful landscapes.

    Thanks, Joe. I agree with you take on the whole thing. Making lots of wine badly will just hurt the area's national reputation.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, WT!

  • Jennifer in Atlanta

    First off, this is a great blog!! I found this on Atlantawineguys blog roll and love it!!

    I have family in New York City that have commented in the past about NY wine and after trying it I found it tasted similiar to our wine in Georgia(Cheateu Elan, Blackstock,Crane Creek). Very thin and lacking bite. For some reason I am just not a fan of east coast wines. I prefer West Coast and European Wines. I guess I just have not sampled a "great" east coast wine yet.

    • Evan Dawson

      Jennifer –

      Two points. First, no doubt NY wines would be generally deemed "thin" compared to what I imagine you're used to from the west coast. But "lacking bite" is not at all something that should fit in this discussion. In fact, some view the natural acidity in NY wines as a tinderbox that takes some getting used to! I find it utterly compelling.

      Second, and this is important: If you drink NY wine, you need to consider it as a wine of place that is not at all like a west coast wine (or some European wines). And it is not at all meant to be similar. If you search for that NY red that reminds you of a Napa Cab, you will probably search forever, because that wine can rarely be made here, and (thankfully!) no one is trying to pull that off!

      I think of it this way: Every grape variety is Clark Kent. However, there are phone booths in places around the world that will transform Clark Kent into Superman. Riesling has phone booths in Germany, Alsace, and some would argue the Finger Lakes (I would). We're finding out that there might be a Merlot phone booth on Long Island. But the good news is that even though Clark Kent might have multiple phone booths, he changes into a different color suit each time.

      That was either a pretty cool metaphor or utterly nonsensical.

      • 1WineDude

        Dude – love that explanation! And it's actually a proper metaphor and not a simile! . ;-)

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Jennifer!

      I can assure you that while there are (too many) thin and lacking East Coast wines, the best examples in NY are getting closer to European in style. If you're looking to try some examples, is a great place to start for suggestions. Cheers!

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