Finger Lakes Wine Festival Wrapup: the VIP experience

On both days of the festival, when the day was almost over, I found some respite from the madding crowd. A saving grace for me was the occurrence of impromptu “tweetups” organized by Morgen McLaughlin (aka @FLWineLady) in the Riesling Room. I use the quotation marks around “tweetup” because while some of the involved parties were active on Twitter, many had barely heard of it. The attendants were mostly winemakers, bringing their wares to taste among other winemakers, discussing Brix, clones, and other winemaking processes. This was the stuff I was most interested in, and I got to meet a lot of cool winemakers, including Jeff Houck of Lucas Vineyards, Jonathan Oakes (winemaker at Leonard Oakes and rising star in the Niagara wine region), Tim Benedict of Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, Aaron Roisen of Hosmer, and assistant winemaker Justin Boyet of Atwater Estate Vineyards. I even ran into New York Cork Report Niagara Escarpment Editor (and aspiring winemaker himself) Bryan Calandrelli.

The winemakers poured some very good wines and talked about different issues, like skin contact, different sites in the Finger Lakes, and the right Brix to pick Cayuga White at before it starts to develop the labrusca “foxy” character. Not much critique of the wines, but lots of casual discussion among peers. I was definitely in my element, asking questions when I didn’t feel too intimidated. This was what I was looking for, some serious wine talk.

seriouscat copy

Wine. Serious Business, right?

I don’t want yesterday’s post to be interpreted as negative altogether. I had a great time at the Festival, on both days, and while I didn’t taste every wine in the tasting guide (not even close), I think I got up to about 100. Considering the throngs of people, that’s not too bad. Sunday was a lot calmer than Saturday, and I did actually get a chance to talk with the pourers (and in some cases, winemakers) that were working. There were far fewer shenanigans on Sunday. It was actually quite pleasant.

In fact, I should give a shoutout to a winery that I hadn’t had anything from before that impressed me with just about every wine they poured, Keuka Spring Vineyards. I bought a half case from them, my only wine purchase of the festival. Big ups to the Crooked Lake Red, a red blend with a lot of character, featuring the Rougeon grape.

The Festival tries to appeal to all kinds of wine consumers, but it’s really just a big party. Some people like frat parties, some like cocktail parties, and some like tea parties. This year, Saturday was the frat party while Sunday was more like a cocktail party. There’s no reason for wine cognoscenti to thumb their noses as the proletariat guzzle their sacred drink. On the other hand, there has got to be a better way to get consumers interested in wine than relying on novelty and appealing only to the lowest common denominator. Underselling the high-quality wines while playing up the sweet and simple ones may be a good way to get consumers to drink wine, but what then? Maybe I was a bit off when I considered the “dichotomy” of our wine culture. Rather than a discrete separation there must be a continuum of wine consumers with varying amounts of knowledge and experience. Where do these new wine consumers turn when they want something beyond the simple? What happens in between wine naïf and wine connoisseur? These are probably the types that would attend talks and tasting sessions about enjoying wine (e.g., the Riesling Room). These are the ones that likely make up the bulk of the continuum, like a bell curve. Perhaps these are the ones that the wine festival should target. I like what Hazlitt did with the winemaker’s corner, and I like the idea of the Riesling Room. I would love to see more ideas like this.

There is a lot in play here, and the sample is likely skewed. After all, in terms of the Festival we are talking about a sample population willing to pay up front for all they can drink on a hot summer day. I’m out of my league here. I have said many times that I understand molecules, but that I don’t understand people. The system we live in is much too complex to be understood fundamentally, especially from someone like me who naïvely expects predictable and rational behavior. This could also be the reason I am so drawn to infomercials and Evangelical Christian radio programs.

Where was I? Oh yes, the Festival. I would go again next summer. If I go on Saturday, though, I’m not going to be driving myself and I’m not going to be spitting. Hell, maybe I’ll even go to the toga party. How does that Red Cat song go again?

If you’d like a completely different, more descriptive, and Thompsonian (Hunter S., not Lenn) take on the Festival, check out the reaction of my friend Brian, my compatriot and cameraman for the festival. Ithacork takes no responsibility for his views, motorcycle analogies, or spelling.

One of my biggest gripes at the Festival was the fact that almost every white wine I tasted was ICE COLD, probably because it had been sitting in an ice bucket or cooler all day. Whites coming out of the fridge are likely going to be around 39-40 degrees F (4C), but when wines sit in an ice-water mixture they get even colder. I’m not one of those who goes around saying that your all your whites should be served at exactly 45 degrees Fahrenheit, but 33 is cold, especially for those of us with more sensitive teeth (read: winos with hardly any enamel left…). If you serve ice-cold wine, you’re not only doing the taster a disservice by giving him a brain freeze, you are muting the aromas of the wine.

All right now, fellas.  What's cooler than being cool?  NOT serving your wine ICE COLD.

All right now, fellas. What's cooler than being cool? NOT serving your wine ICE COLD.

In a paper in the Journal of Sensory Studies, the temperature effect was studied extensively. In the cases of red and white wine, aroma intensity was found to be significantly lower at lower temperatures. This makes sense, since aroma compounds are generally less volatile at lower temperatures (in general, this effect is also non-linear). As for acidity and sweetness, contrary to what you might have heard, temperature in this study had no statistically significant effect on acidity or sweetness in white wines. (Ross and Weller, “Effect of serving temperature on the sensory attributes of red and white wines”, Journal of Sensory Studies, 2008).

Published in: on 30 September 2009 at 2:54 am  Comments (3)  
Tags: ,

Finger Lakes Wine Festival Wrapup: Part 2

I’d like to add some comments to the video I posted on Friday. Ahem…

The Finger Lakes Wine Festival sounds like a great idea. For me, it sounded like a great way for me to taste all kinds of wines from Finger Lakes producers that I don’t often get a chance to taste. In case you don’t know, I do the bulk of my buying and tasting of local wines in the tasting room, where I can talk to employees and taste all the wines I want. Some of these wineries are an hour, hour-and-a-half away, so I am admittedly weak on, say, Keuka Lake. So on paper, this festival which brings in hundreds of wines from across the Finger Lakes (and some other regions like the Niagara Escarpment) looks like a great idea.

Apparently they will give these things to just about anybody!

Apparently they will give these things to just about anybody!

I should have realized when the shirtless guy screamed “Let’s get hammered!” on the way in. I should have realized when the first person dropped a glass and hundreds of people let out waves of “OHHHH”s for about a minute. I should have realized when I saw a woman hold out her glass for a pour (still attached to her neck by a lanyard) and simply say “Sweet.” I should have realized that this was that kind of party.

And hey, I’m not above “that kind of party”. There is very little that I am above, especially when it comes to alcohol. But, since I was (somewhat) on the clock, I was spitting, and there is just something about being the only sober person in a sea of very drunk, rambunctious people.

I found some comfort in the Riesling Room, set up by Finger Lakes Wine Country. It was a quiet, roomy place to do some serious tasting of some great Rieslings and even listen to some talks about growing and tasting Riesling, with a $3 entry fee on top of the admission price. I’m certain that the $3 contributed to the muted atmosphere. Even in the Riesling room, though, it was still “that kind of party”, featuring a short survey of about 5 Finger Lakes Rieslings of varying levels of sweetness that resulted in stickers saying “I like it sweet”, “I like it dry”, and “I go both ways.”*

What?  It means I like my Riesling both dry AND sweet. Oh.  Well, I can see why you would think that, but my taste in wine actually has nothing to do with my sexual preference.

What? It means I like my Riesling both dry AND sweet. Oh. Well, I can see why you would think that, but my taste in wine actually has nothing to do with my sexual preference.

Most wineries were pouring from the bottom of the list. Usually, in tasting rooms, the wines are presented from dry to sweet, and things like Catawba, Niagara, etc., are the sweet stuff. In retrospect, why would a winery bring its really good stuff if everyone there is just going to slug it down, not appreciating the hard work that went in to growing, harvesting, vinifying, blending, cellaring, and bottling the wine?

The dichotomy of Finger Lakes wine culture (and perhaps wine culture in general?) had hit me square in the face. Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards is a great example of this dichotomy in action. They make Red Cat, the biggest selling wine in New York State. They move 100,000 cases a year of the stuff, which is marketed as “hot tub wine”. There is a Red Cat mascot (of whom I unfortunately didn’t get a picture) parading around the festival like Donald Duck in Frontierland.

However, Hazlitt also makes some very good {vinifera} wines. In their enormous tent (as seen on the video), they had set up a “Winemaker’s Corner” where I found winemaker Tim Benedict, bedecked in Hawaiian shirt and wide-brimmed beach hat, pouring the vinifera wines. While the line for Red Cat and others was packed, the winemaker’s corner seemed rather lonely. I found violets in the Cabernet Franc, a good balance of fruit and flowers in the dry (0.4% RS) Gewürztraminer, and light petrol over a nice Semi-Dry Riesling.

Thinking of this, is it any wonder that when I enter a tasting room I am often asked if I like “Dry or Sweet” wines? Is this the tasting room staff’s way of determining if I am either (a) a wine snob or (b) part of the unwashed masses demanding that my wine taste like grapes? For the record, my response is always “I want to taste everything.” In fact, I even had a dry Niagara at the Festival (it… reminded me why people make Niagara sweet).

Some writers argue that New York state should focus on vinifera wines if we are to be a major player on the world stage. I agree in that I like many vinifera wines better than hybrids, but one reality of the Finger Lakes is that growing vinifera grapes is time-consuming and expensive because of the care they require in a cool, moist climate like this. Furthermore, the benefits of selling the cheap stuff are likely not limited to the financial. How many wine lovers are brought into the wine world drinking Blue Nun or Manischewitz or white Zinfandel? True, many will continue to pound the plonk for the rest of their lives, but some will rise above it, expanding their palates to more interesting, more complex wines. If even a few see cheap, sweet wine as a gateway between soda and Sauvignon, then so be it.

So, is it just a sad truth of Finger Lakes wine that you’ve got to sell the simple, sweet stuff so you can make the complex, delicious stuff? Events like this seem to reinforce the fact that the average wine consumer in the Finger Lakes is the woman reaching out and saying “Gimme something sweet.” For the sake of this region, I hope not. Should events like the Wine Festival should attempt to educate consumers about the high-quality wines that the Finger Lakes produces? Or should they exist to sell product? What do you think?

Tomorrow: The VIP experience at the Festival, plus some Wine Festival Science!

*Sexual innuendo abounds in the wines presented at the Festival. Here’s a sampling of some of the wines and slogans offered:

  • “I got Nautie” (sticker)
  • “Spit or Swallow” (sticker)
  • “I go both ways” (sticker)
  • Naughty Virgin
  • Hot Sin
  • Forbidden Nights
  • Pecker Head Red
  • 69 Ways to Have Fun
  • Well Hung
  • Lonely Seaman
  • Seneca Steamer (OK that’s not outright innuendo, but you may have heard a similar term somewhere on urban dictionary)
Published in: on 29 September 2009 at 1:15 am  Comments (9)  
Tags: ,

Ithacork goes to the Finger Lakes Wine Festival

Back in July, I attended two days of the Finger Lakes Wine Festival on the track at Watkins Glen International Speedway. I thought it would be a great opportunity to taste a bunch of wines that I haven’t had the opportunity to try, either because they are far away or I hadn’t heard of the winery. Well, I did try a lot of wine, but I also experienced a good bit of people watching. Here’s a video wrapup, filmed and edited by my cameraman and long-time friend Brian.

Just to preface: I do like some of the wines made with hybrid and even native grapes. I am definitely not anti-hybrid. What I’m not really a fan of is hybrid and native wines with way too much sugar in them, which is EXACTLY what most wineries at the festival were pouring the most of. If you can sit through the 5 minutes, enjoy.

More comments and some notes on particular wines in a later post.

Published in: on 25 September 2009 at 5:44 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , ,

Unfiltered critique

Damiani Wine Cellars Pinot Noir Reserve 2007

Enjoying some Damiani at my desk after going over the final draft of a paper I recently submitted.  Can you see any typos?

Enjoying some Damiani at my desk after going over the final draft of a paper I recently submitted. Can you see any typos?

Appellation: Finger Lakes
Grape: Pinot Noir
ABV: 13%
Price Point: $32
Closure: Natural cork

Technical Notes: from the website, “Our favorite 4 barrels of 2007 Pinot, this unfiltered, unfined wine is sourced all from the Davis vineyard, Dijon clone 115.” Emphasis mine.

Hedonic Notes:

It’s got an intense nose, oak up front, coffee/cocoa, bit of a floral component, a bit {hot}. After a little while of adapting to the aroma, there is some very interesting sort of blueberry fruit, but it flits away quickly. On the palate comes some strawberry/cherry, with tartness reminiscent of cranberry. There is a woodiness that makes me think they may have overdone it with the oak. Acid is the support structure and it is here in spades, but it lacks the body and overall {mouthfeel} to take this wine from good to great for me. Any {astringency} present seems to be oak-driven. Cherry vanilla on the interesting but short finish, and what’s this? Not to go all Gary V. on you, but do you remember Bottle Caps candy? They were like giant Smarties that came in soda flavors. Here I get some of those Cola-flavored bottle caps.


Overall, the wine is pretty good and I can see the potential for it to have been great. It just disappoints in the mid-palate, where I crave some body that I’m afraid can’t be delivered by oak alone.

Rating: corkcorkcorknocorknocork 3 out of 5 corks

A common story among winemakers is that when Robert Parker shows up to tour your winery, you hide the filter. The biggest name in wine has come out strongly against filtered wines, arguing that filtering “strips the character” from wine. It’s a controversial topic in wine (an example of a long debate about filtering and NY wine can be found here). So where is the science behind this debate? After all, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts (a quote often attributed to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynahan).

Filtering is often done to make wine more microbiologically stable. By running wine through a sterile 0.45 micron filter, large things like yeast and bacteria are kept out of the wine finished product. This not only protects against re-fermentation, but also against spoilage, particularly by {Brettanomyces}. Filtration can also speed up the time from fermentation to bottling, by collecting sediment like yeast hulls, skin bits, etc., that would settle out by gravity over longer periods of time. I have been told (though I can’t find a source at the moment) that consumers, especially in whites, prefer clear wines (although they exist, you don’t see too many unfiltered Chardonnays on the market).

But is other, good stuff being stripped out by the filter? It turns out there is very little scientific study about the sensory differences between filtered and unfiltered wines. From a theoretical standpoint, aroma and flavor compounds are far too small to be trapped, even by a sterile 0.45-micron filter. (For comparison with the other day’s post about reverse osmosis, those filters are on the order of 0.005 microns, about 100x smaller pores). So theoretically all the flavor and aroma compounds should flow right through the filter. It’s possible that the idea that color and flavor are stripped out of wine by filtration has to do with the fact that filter pads generally turn purple after filtering red wine. Sure, some of the color can get stuck to the filter pad at first, but the pads quickly become saturated, and the amount left on the filter is insignificant compared to the amount in the wine. Still, some winemakers swear that the wine is “stripped” by filtration. I might buy the argument that micron- and larger-sized particles left over from fermentation might change the mouthfeel of a wine, but I don’t believe, for example, that fruit aroma could disappear. Unfortunately, until we have some sensory data, it’s difficult to gauge the sensory impact of filtration.

Like most things in life, though, there’s no place for absolutes here. Not all unfiltered wines are {Brett} bombs, and not all filtered wines are bereft of flavor and aroma.

Published in: on 24 September 2009 at 4:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

“If you’re scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you”

This doesn’t have much to do with wine, but it may give you some understanding of me personally. An interesting thing that Tyson alludes to is that scientific literacy is not limited to those privileged enough to have a scientific education. It’s not about facts, it’s about your worldview. This is not just how I see wine, it’s how I see the entire world.

Even in the wine world, there is a lot of mysticism, sometimes to the point of quasi-religious fervor. The way I see it (and the way I try to get people to see it), there are logical explanations for many of the phenomena that happen from bloom to bottling to drinking. Does it make those phenomena less wonderful? Of course not. In fact, understanding them, to me, is wondrous and wonderful in itself.

Published in: on 23 September 2009 at 3:39 am  Comments (1)