One of the best ways to learn is by doing, especially something as sensory as wine appreciation. The only way to learn what kind of wine you like is by tasting lots of varieties and styles. Over time you will begin to recognize familiar flavors and learn what you like and what you do not.
Before long you will want to know why wine tastes the way it does, how it is made and where it comes from. You will want to visit the vineyards, learn about the soils and climate of a region … and talk to the winemakers.
At least that how it’s gone for us.
We recently had the opportunity to spend a day and a half visiting wineries along Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes wine region of New York State.
The 2015 Wine Bloggers’ Conference (#WBC15) is what brought us to the Finger Lakes wine region. Every year the conference, which is organized by Zephyr Adventures, is held in a different wine region and provides attendees the opportunity to dive into the details of the region.
Our experience began with the Pre-Conference Excursion on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. The excursion was limited to only 50 bloggers, so early registration was a must. The Seneca Lake Wine Trail, and its over 30 winery, distillery, meadery and hard cider producer-members sponsored the excursion.
In exchange for a very nominal registration fee and the cost of our lodging, we had the opportunity to visit a number of wineries, to walk the vineyards, talk to the winemakers and enjoy outstanding food and wine pairings. Additionally, we agreed to write about our experience.
Here are a few of the highlights of our tour along the Seneca Lake Wine Trail.
One of the benefits of traveling by bus, aside from the obvious advantage of leaving the driving to someone else – who isn’t drinking, is the ability to listen to a winemaker talk about his wines as he pours them for you. It wasn’t long after we had settled into our comfy seats that Paul Thomas, executive director of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, introduced himself and welcomed us. Shortly after that the wine talk began and the wine started flowing.
I have to give it to Mark Karasz of Rock Stream Vineyard and David DeMarco of Seneca Shore Wine Cellars. They told us their stories, talked about their wines and walked up and down the aisle of a moving bus while pouring their wine. Of particular interest was Mark’s Dry Cayuga White wine. This American hybrid variety, was developed at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y.
The winemakers were ably assisted by Beth Peluse of Zephyr Adventures. Almost all of the wine ended up in our glasses!
The tone for our visit to Villa Bellangelo was set by winery owner Christopher Missick who greeted us at the door with a big smile and a glass of Villa Bellangelo Rosé — not a bad combination. Soon we all had a glass of that delicious rosé in hand as Christopher told us about Villa Bellangelo.
Located around the tasting room was an assortment of small bites, a variety of goat cheeses (locally produced of course), Bellangelo olive oil and an abundance of Villa Bellangelo wines. Highlights of the tasting included a broad selection Riesling produced from a variety of vineyard sites in a dry to semi-dry style demonstrating just how deliciously adaptable Riesling can be.
Villa Bellangelo’s red wines were on show as well, the 2013 Bellangelo Cabernet Franc was particularly memorable for me. Also represented was a vertical tasting of King Garden Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. King Garden Vineyards is located across Seneca Lake in Lodi, N.Y. King Garden Vineyards is situated in Seneca Lake’s “banana belt”, the warmest growing region on the lake. With very low alcohol levels (12.5% ABV) some of the older vintages in particular were just spectacular, demonstrating how successful Finger Lakes Cabernet Sauvignon can be when planted in the proper location.
We left Villa Bellangelo with a copy of Christopher Missick’s book, A Sense of Place Discovering the Finger Lakes & Bellangelo Winery. The book covers the geologic history that makes wine grape growing in the Finger Lakes region possible and then goes on to detail the history of winemaking around Seneca Lake and in the region. An interesting read. Thank you, Christopher.
The #FLXWineWomen rocked the afternoon and evening at Ventosa Vineyards.
With a glass of cider in hand, we listened to these fearless ladies tell us their stories. Each has followed her own path to a similar destination.
Martha Macinski — attorney turned owner/winemaker of Standing Stone Vineyards has found something she’s truly passionate about and loves doing.
Jenna Lavita — winemaker at Ventosa Vineyards decided against law school, instead she’s conquering her fears and making outstanding wine.
Erica Paolicelli — partner in Three Brothers Wineries & Estates set out to become a dietitian, but ended up in marketing which is what brought her to Three Brothers.
Liz Leidenfrost — by her own description “the diva”, she’s the energetic, extroverted third-generation owner/winemaker of Leidenfrost Vineyards. Did she mention something about performing burlesque?
Next we were treated to a walking tour of Ventosa’s vineyards, and another spectacular view of Seneca Lake. Martha Macinski guided our group through a row of ripening Pinot Noir where we learned not only how to randomly sample grapes for testing, but just how much Martha loves what she’s doing.
With tables beautifully set on the balcony overlooking the vineyards and lake beyond, we sat down for a delicious four-course meal prepared by chef Heather Tompkins featuring local Finger Lakes farms and products. As you might expect each course was paired with wine. It was a delightfully delicious meal. Heather is executive chef and co-owner of Opus Espresso and Wine Bar as well as Char Burrito Bar in Geneva, New York.
More wine followed as we had a chance to taste a variety of wine from each of the wineries represented by this intrepid group of women. Among the wines we tasted was the 2011 Ventosa Vineyards Lemberger, which was recently awarded the 2015 Governor’s Cup. It was a lovely evening.
We spent the night in Geneva, New York located right on the shore of Seneca Lake. We enjoyed an early morning walk along the lakeshore before climbing back on board our bus and heading out for the first winery of the day.
Anthony Road Wine Company
John Martini welcomed us to his winery, which he and his wife Ann established in 1973. Anthony Road Wine Company a family-run winery, that is dry farmed using a sustainable approach. Because of disease pressures, organic farming is not practical according to John.
Over the years he has learned which wine grape varieties thrive and which do not. Last year their Merlot produced a total of 750 pounds of fruit. Both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon have been removed, as have most of the hybrid varieties. As John put it, “We follow what Mother Nature tells us.”
After touring one of Anthony Road’s experimental vineyards managed by a local Community College, we were treated to a glass of 2014 Anthony Road Rosé of Cabernet Franc and a tour of the winery facility. Workers were busy bottling and boxing wine as we walked through the winery.
Wines to look for from Anthony Road Wine Company include their Skin Fermented Riesling and Chardonnay. In addition to Riesling made several ways (from dry to dessert) Anthony Road is making a dry, skin fermented Riesling that is very interesting. It shows incredible depth of flavor and complexity.
According to John, the artistic new labels on the Anthony Road wines have been well received by customers of the winery, even if he was not a fan of the new design initially. John’s daughters Sarah and Liz just smiled as he made the observation. Both daughters work at the winery and so does their brother, Peter. Truly a family-run winery.
Fox Run Vineyards
At Fox Run Vineyards it’s all vinifera, all the time. The native American varieties (labrusca) do not produce the flavor profile the owners want in their wines.
As we were welcomed by co-owner Scott Osborn, we enjoyed a glass of 2014 Fox Run Vineyards Traminette. Technically an American hybrid, this Traminette was vaguely reminiscent of its parent Gewürztraminer, but different. Nice glass of wine.
As we sipped our wine, sales manager Dan Mitchell took us on a walking tour of the vineyards on the way to the Fox Run Vineyards production facility where we met winemaker Peter Bell.
Among the fun facts Dan and Peter shared with us:
- from 1865 until the 1980s the property was home to a dairy. The first vines, Chardonnay, were planted in the mid-1980s
- turkeys and deer love grapes, except Lemberger — the deer don’t like Lemberger
- until 1981 the nearby Benton was dry
- winters are harsh. In spite of techniques like “hilling up” (covering grapevine trunks with soil) and the use of propane propellers to protect the vines, vine loss in some years can be significant
An extraordinary food and wine experience followed in the original barrel room, a renovated portion of the original dairy barn. The pairing, orchestrated by Fox Run Vineyards chef Brud Holland, included local cheeses, jams, honey, salami and house-made smoked sausage.
Each of the five pairings demonstrated just how versatile and food-friendly the wines of Fox Run Vineyards are. For me the outstanding wines of the group include the 2013 Fox Run Vineyards Silvan Riesling (it’s barrel fermented) and the 2012 Fox Run Vineyards Lemberger.
Because no meal is complete without dessert, and because the folks at Fox Run Vineyards are so darn generous, the final pairing was a shortbread cookie with a glass of Fox Run Vineyards Hedonia.
Hedonia is Fox Run Vineyards’ Traminette fermented to 9% residual sugar and then fortified, bringing the ABV to 20%. The flavors are sweet, tropical and floral with the clean taste of alcohol supporting the flavors. The pairing with the buttery shortbread cookie was spot on. I loved the buttery flavors of the cookie and the fact that the wine was sweeter than the cookie. Marvelous exclamation point at the end of a delightful meal.
In what was a true test of my ability to pay attention (and enjoy more wine) we were next treated to a tasting which Fox Run Vineyards calls Geology Series: An expression of place, method and time.
This final part of our winery experience was when we got the dirt on the dirt as I like to think of it. Ancient seabeds, advancing glaciers, retreating glaciers followed by lake formation and eventually retreat, all conspired to create complex and variable soil within the Finger Lakes wine region.
The ancient shoreline of Lake Dana, which preceded Seneca Lake, runs along the western boundary of Fox Run Vineyards. Sandy loam deposits over shale and stone mean very good drainage.
Also left behind at Fox Run Vineyards is an ancient geological formation known as a hanging delta (sediment and gravel left on a hillside as a lake retreats), which lies closer to the present shoreline of Seneca Lake. Vineyards in both areas are identified on the map at the left.
The wine produced in the Geology Series takes advantage of these two sites and, in addition, it compares two methods of fermentation.
Riesling harvested from the two vineyard sites, Hanging Delta Vineyard and Lake Dana Vineyard. Riesling from both vineyards is hand harvested and whole cluster pressed. The Riesling 12 juice is then inoculated with commercial yeast and fermentation proceeds in the usual manner.
The Riesling 11 juice is inoculated from a fermentation that is already in process. As winemaker Peter Bell explained, his version of the classic pied de cuve method uses, “a very low inoculum of fermenting juice” to start the fermentation. The result is a slower, longer fermentation that allows, in his words, “certain textural and aroma things that develop which help the wine become unique.” Peter’s method uses commercial yeast, rather than yeast native to the vineyard, because native yeast fermentation can, as he puts it, result in “defects that interfere with the pure expression of Riesling fruit.”
To my palate, the Riesling 11 wines had more individual and complex flavors including minerality, dried hay and hints of spice. The two Riesling 12 wines showed delicate fruit flavors and minerality with more perceivable sweetness.
An interesting experiment, and one that would be fun to share with your friends. These wines are available from Fox Run Vineyards, and if you are fortunate enough to live in a state that allows shipping direct to consumer, you too could enjoy a taste of the Geology Series.
Along with the beautifully green vineyards, wooded hillsides, farms and dairies, beautiful Seneca Lake constantly competed for my attention. The Seneca Lake Wine Trail has to be one of the most beautiful wine trails I’ve visited. At times I felt as if I was on sensory overload — but in a good way!
Regardless of the vineyard site, a view of Seneca Lake was always right there. It is this large, deep body of water and the sloping aspect of the farmland that makes wine grape growing possible in this very cool climate.
Agriculture in the Finger Lakes region takes place mostly around the lakes of the region. The lakes moderate the temperature, protecting crops in the springtime and extending the growing season in the fall. The sloping aspect of the land allows cold air to sink toward the lakes, further protecting crops.
As you can see, it was quite an experience. We came away with a great appreciation for the hard work and dedication of the families operating these wineries. We witnessed the camaraderie that exists among owners and winemakers, and discovered first hand that they are making some very fine wine!
Because the Finger Lakes wine region is a cool climate wine region, it is naturally compared to other cool climate regions such as Germany and Austria. Many of the same grape varieties thrive in both regions. But the wines of the Finger Lakes region are their own. Don’t taste them looking for the same aromas and flavor profiles you find from other regions. Riesling is wonderfully variable in the region. Other white varieties that you may not be familiar with are also delicious, look for them.
You will find red wines from varieties you are familiar with, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, but look for those that you might not recognize. We tasted several versions of Lemberger that were delicious. Wine discoveries in the Finger Lakes and along the Seneca Lake Wine Trail are countless. It’s the perfect region for an adventurous wine drinker.
Thank you to the members of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail for this interesting and entertaining introduction to your wine region. The tote, wine glass, t-shirt and information on the area are much appreciated. Thanks to Paul Thomas for thinking of everything. Your detailed email prior to the excursion meant we were all well prepared for our outing.
There are lots of wineries to visit and many events planned year round on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. If you find yourself in the area during 2016, be sure to take advantage of them.
One more thank you goes to Beth, for gently nudging us forward when I, for one, was inclined to linger just one more minute to take another picture of the lake, or a grapevine or just stand taking it all in. It was a pleasure traveling you.
Below is our slideshow of the entire #WBC15 Pre-Conference Excursion along the Seneca Lake Wine Trail.