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New York State of Mind

Wine editor Lettie Teague traveled to New York's Finger Lakes hoping to find good Riesling and discovered great Gewürztraminer. Why doesn't anyone else care?

Although I've lived in New York for nearly two decades, it's taken me almost that long to visit some of its most famous landmarks, like Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty (where I was the only one with a camera-free neck). Likewise, though I've logged lots of trips to wineries in Europe and on the West Coast, it wasn't until a few months ago that I finally made it up to the Finger Lakes--a wine region only five hours' drive from my house.

I'd like to think this isn't so much a personal failing as it is a collective cultural flaw. After all, Americans are taught to believe that somewhere far away is more interesting than anywhere nearby. If you doubt this is true, try holding an audience with a tale of your two weeks in Albany while someone else is talking up theirs in Tahiti.

Reasonably priced Riesling inspired me to make the drive north; it's the one Finger Lakes wine that has gotten some attention from the rest of the world. I'd liked the wines I'd had from a few producers (Herman Weimer, Fox Run, Dr. Frank) and was hoping to fall in love more completely. But like a character in a Jane Austen novel, I ended up falling in love with another: Gewürztraminer.

Riesling and Gewürztraminer both come from Germany, though the most impressive Gewürztraminer, a white grape with a red skin, is grown in the French region of Alsace. Both grapes have been planted in the Finger Lakes for years, though not for nearly as long as such hybrids as Vidal and Elvira. These grapes with lounge-singer names are the source of much cheap, sweet Finger Lakes wine--and a reputation that the region's serious winemakers are still trying to live down.

They've made great progress in the past decade or so, with acres of Riesling and Gewürztraminer joined by new plantings of other grapes such as Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet and, most recently, Pinot Noir. But such developments haven't exactly turned the Finger Lakes into Napa, as New York State winemaking is still more about agriculture than lifestyle. Soybean fields and grain silos outnumber tasting rooms; towns along winery trails look more like they belong in Nebraska than they do California (though I doubt anywhere in Nebraska has as many taxidermists as Watkins Glen, where I found four in under two miles).

Even the region's most sophisticated resort, Geneva on the Lake, where I stayed, isn't exactly glitzy. Located at the northern end of Seneca Lake, it's an old-fashioned, genteel sort of place; in fact, it was easy to imagine the Capuchin monks who once owned it living there still, though they might be a bit flustered by the room-size red whirlpool that's been installed where their altar once stood).

I had chosen to stay on Seneca Lake not only for such amenities but because most of the best producers are there. While five lakes (naturally) account for the Fingers, only two--Seneca and Keuka--truly matter when it comes to serious wine. Opinion is divided as to which is better, though each side employs the same qualifying criteria. Apparently, the volume of water in the lakes has an impact on the vineyard climate. Willy Frank, on Keuka Lake, says Seneca Lake is "too deep," while Seneca grower Scott Osborn retorts: "Keuka Lake isn't deep enough."

I'd arranged to visit several top Riesling producers, stopping first at Standing Stone Vineyards, on Seneca's eastern shore. Though its bar-cum-tasting-room was simple by Napa standards, its rafters were festooned with what looked like horse-show ribbons. But when I congratulated the woman behind the counter on her equestrian prowess, she tartly informed me they were prizes for wine. Owner Marti Macinski soon appeared, and we began tasting an excellent dry Riesling, a soft Cabernet blend and a rather awkward Pinot Noir--all of which were overshadowed by the 2000 Gewürztraminer with its intense, spicy aroma, a rich, full body and a wonderfully dry finish. As I gushed my admiration, Macinski noted that the wine was completely sold out. In fact, she added, it had sold faster than her Chardonnay. "Then you must make more!" I said, growing excited. In fact, why not plow up everything else and plant Gewürztraminer? When Macinski politely demurred, I realized I might have gone too far.

Determined to be a bit more restrained in my enthusiasm, I drove down the road to Red Newt Cellars. It should have been easy to do--after all, Red Newt's owner-winemaker David Whiting had recently won the Governor's Cup (a sort of Best in Show for New York State wines) for Riesling, not Gewürztraminer. Before starting his own operation five years ago, when he was 35, Whiting worked for several other Finger Lakes wineries (including Standing Stone). In fact, Whiting opened his winery on the same day his wife Debra opened her bistro next door, where she specializes in Napa-esque fare at Nebraska prices.

I respectfully tasted Whiting's award-winning Riesling and found it well made with a marked mineral finish; I also tasted his Cabernet Franc and his Pinot Noir. And then we got to his 2000 Gewürztraminer. Full-bodied and spicy with terrific, mouthwatering acidity and a long finish, it was like a great Alsace Gewürz without being too sweet (as many Alsace wines today are). The wine, all 200 cases, Whiting said, was completely sold out.

"Why not make more?" I replied, trying not to whine. Whiting, a mild-mannered fellow, looked at me uneasily. After all, he'd won a big prize for his Riesling. But diplomatically he offered this explanation: "Gewürztraminer is an interesting grape, but it needs a good site. It's hard to grow, and it's hard to work with."

Yet, I wanted to protest, he and Macinski were both growing Pinot Noir--possibly the world's most difficult and temperamental grape! Not to mention Merlot, a grape most people consider completely unsuitable for the cold-climate Finger Lakes. I left after lunch, apparently having failed yet again to effect a conversion.

My next appointment was with Herman Wiemer, a Riesling maker who's almost as famous as his mentor, the late Dr. Konstantin Frank, the man credited with creating New York State Riesling. Again we tasted Riesling, followed by a lovely Gewürztraminer. Dry, rich, impeccably balanced, the Gewürz was, according to Wiemer, "very easy to sell--it flies out the door." But it seemed disrespectful to urge Gewürztraminer on a Riesling evangelist, so I took my leave, though not before Wiemer expressed regret that I hadn't seen his new vineyard--of Pinot Noir.

What was this about? I'd met three producers who made great Gewürztraminer, a wine that is incredibly hard to grow, that virtually no one (outside of Alsace) makes properly. And it sold out right away. And none of them seemed to care. They seemed more interested in Pinot Noir.

I had dinner that night with Scott Osborn, owner of Fox Run Vineyards, and his friends the Martinis from Anthony Road Wine Company.  Osborn had arranged a tasting of Rieslings as well as some reds from both wineries. But first he suggested we start with a glass of Gewürztraminer. His 1999 was another delicious, dry, food-friendly wine that was overlooked as the winemakers' talk turned to, among other things, Pinot Noir.

My final appointment was with Willy Frank, Dr. Frank's son. Set between cow pastures, Dr. Konstantin Frank's Vinifera Wine Cellars was headquartered in a small ranch house. Willy Frank and his winemaker, Morten Hallgren, opened a few sparkling wines for me before we moved on to Riesling. The 1991 was remarkably lively, with great purity of flavor. Next we tasted Pinot Noir. I asked about Gewürztraminer, but Frank kept changing the subject, or more precisely, reading me his press clips. My time was up before we'd gotten to Gewürz--though Frank gave me a bottle to take home.

When I opened the wine a week later and tasted yet another well-made, well-proportioned example, it occurred to me that Finger Lakes winemakers took Gewürztraminer for granted the way I did New York. I only hoped it wouldn't take them two decades to figure out that what they had in Gewürztraminer was greatness enough. 

Published August 2002
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