New York is the second-largest wine producing state. It is home to the oldest continuously operating winery in the U.S., and has a long and turbulent history that has taken a dramatic turn for the better in the last decade. If the brie and chablis crowd in the Hamptons ever discover what is happening in their own back yard, the new breed of New York wines could become as chic as Dove Bars.
The improvements in New York wines were especially evident at the New York Wine Classic, a statewide judging sponsored by the New York Wine Grape Foundation under the direction of International Wine Review magazine, and with cooperation from the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets. It was held in late July at the Vista International Hotel in the World Trade Center in New York City.
History Wine making began in New York on Long Island, and some of the earliest vineyards in the U.S. were in a rural area now called Brooklyn. Vineyards spread to the Hudson Valley just north of Manhattan, into central New York's Finger Lakes, and along the shore of Lake Erie south of Buffalo.
For many decades New York was best known for making sweet concord wine, just a shot of alcohol away from being Welch's Grape Juice. Until 1952 the most promising development in the region was the arrival of the Champagne-born and bred Charles Fournier at Gold Seal Vineyards at repeal of Prohibition in 1935. In 1950 Fournier entered his blanc de blanc sparkling wine in the Sacramento State Fair and won first prize. The next year the fair limited entries to California wines only.
Then, in 1952, a Russian grape grower named Konstantin Frank landed in New York. After collecting enough money at his job in an automat he bought himself a ticket to Cornell University's state agricultural experiment station in Geneva, N.Y. There he announced that he was a viticultural expert and that he could grow vinifera grapes in New York state.
Vinifera grapes are the best wine grapes, and they are planted extensively in Europe and California. They include cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling -- practically all the favorites. At the time New York had no commercial vinifera vineyards because Geneva had pronounced that they could not be commercially viable in the difficult climate and soil. As a result, Fournier was forced to make his award-winning wines from strongly flavored native grapes, like delaware, concord, catawba and niagara. And the established powers at Geneva responded to Frank's claim by handing him a hoe and pointing him to the blueberry patch.
One day, while pushing a broom through the hallways of the research labs, the dimunitive, craggy Frank bumped into the tall, slender, suave, Frenchman, Fournier. Frank, according to Fournier, poked him in the chest and asked, "You, Fournier, you winemaker at Gold Seal Winery? Why you no grow vinifera grapes?"
Fournier began to reply that he grew no vinifera because "Zee wintairs are too cold, and ... " when Frank interrupted and scoffed, "I come from Ukraine where winter's so cold, ven you make spit it freezes before it hits ground! I can grow vinifera in New York!" Fournier, whose sensitive French palate had never quite gotten used to the native varieties, was intrigued, and hired Frank.
The first challenge was to find a hardy rootstock that was resistent to lice and other problems in the soil. The two hopped into Fournier's red sports car, and headed for Canada where they collected wild grapevines from the woods and roadsides. They brought them back to Hammondsport, on the shores of Keuka Lake, a Y-shaped body of water in a chain of deep, loch-like glacial formations called the Finger Lakes in central New York.
There they planted the Canadian vines, catalogued them, propagated them, and began experiments in grafting vinifera to them.
Then, in the winter of 1957, while Fournier was in California visiting Almaden Vineyards (at the time Gold Seal's parent company), he got a frantic call from his wife, Mildred. "Charles, it is awful!" She cried. "You must come home immediately. It is so cold that pipes are bursting at the winery, and the roads are so icy no one can even get to the winery."
"Zat is wonderful," replied Fournier. "Wonderful?" echoed Mildred incredulously. "Yes, eet ees wonderful. Now we shall see eef Frank was right!"
Well, Frank was right, his grafted vines withstood one of the coldest winters on record, and in 1957 produced excellent, European-style wines. A new era in American winemaking was born.
The independent Frank, however, was unable to get along in the corporate structure of Gold Seal, and was eventually fired. Fournier helped Frank buy a vineyard on the west shore of Keuka Lake and establish his own winery, called Vinifera Wine Cellars. His efforts were heralded by consumers and trade, and Frank rapidly became a legend, despite his frequent outlandish and irresponsible pronouncements about the rest of the world of wine. With the exception of Gold Seal, Geneva and the 30 or so other commercial wineries in New York ignored him.
Meanwhile, in the Hudson Valley, about 30 miles north of Manhattan, Everett Crosby launched High Tor Winery, which specialized in wines made from hybrids developed in France, and introduced to the U.S. by Philip Wagner of Boordy Vineyards in Maryland.
In 1957, Mark Miller, a commercial artist who listed among his accounts many major ad agencies and magazines, and his wife, Dene, planted vineyards near High Tor, also focusing on the hybrids.
Walter S. Taylor of The Taylor Wine Co., saw the new hybrids as especially promising, but his outspoken criticism of the corporation headed by his father got him sacked. In the late 1960s he moved back onto his family's original family estate, renamed it Bully Hill Vineyards, and with the help of his German winemaker, Hermann J. Wiemer, chose to fly with the hybrids, which he called the jet engines of contemporary winemaking, rather than the viniferas, which he called the propellor planes of winemaking.
In the early 1970s Bully Hill made some of the best wines in the state, and won national notoriety for his marketing antics. It was with his marketing techniques that Taylor was most successful in attracting attention to New York and himself. He was frequently seen hitchiking in coveralls, with a floppy hat, a guitar and a bag full of grapevines which he gave to motorists along with a sales pitch.
Then, in 1976, the Coca-Cola Corporation bought the Taylor winery, by then one of the largest in the nation. Taylor complained loudly about his former employer's wine, and gradually redesigned his Bully Hill labels so the Taylor name got larger and larger. He also printed on the label that Bully Hill was the home of the original Taylor family estate.
Coke, however, is well known for protecting its trademarks, and sued Walter for infringement. Coca-Cola won, and Taylor was told by the courts to make his name smaller on the label. Instead he bought magic markers and began obliterating every incidence of the name Taylor on the labels, letterhead, winery, and even his paintings. He has since taken to calling himself Walter S. Blank, the man with no name, or sanctifying himself as St. Walter de Bully. Unfortunately, his wines are quite mundane, especially since the departure of Wiemer in 1979 to start his own vinifera-only winery on Seneca Lake.
In 1976 New York passed the Farm Winery Act, legislation that made it easier for grape growers to obtain winery licenses, gave them tax breaks, and other special privileges. The result was a winery boom. In the same year three important new wineries were built: Heron Hill, Glenora and Wagner, all with strong commitments to vinifera. In 1976 there were 39 wineries in the state. Today there are 83.
In 1978 the State Department of Agriculture & Markets staged the first statewide wine judging at the New York State Fair. Glenora and Heron Hill dominated the awards and, finally, 26 years after Frank's arrival on the scene, New York wineries had proven that they could make world-class white wines.
New York Today A lot has happened in the past decade. Many new, small wineries have led the industry in identifying the best hybrids and microclimates. Baco Noir, once the most popular red hybrid, has practically disappeared. DeChaunac, its successor, is decreasing in acreage. In general, prices for red grapes are depressed, while prices on white varieties, especially chardonnay, riesling, gewu rztraminer, seyval blanc, vidal blanc, ravat (also called vignoles), and cayuga white are firm.
The most important development, perhaps one of the nation's most important developments, has been the rediscovery of Long Island as a viticultural district. Long Island has mild winters, sandy soil and plenty of sunshine. The first winery on the island was begun in 1973 by Alex and Louisa Hargrave. The Hargrave Winery has been followed by several others. If New York has hopes of making world-class reds, they will no doubt come from Long Island. The merlots look especially promising already.
This year The New York Wine Classic attracted a record 252 wines, and there were more chardonnays than any other category. In fact, classic European vinifera grapes now outnumbered all others combined, and 75 percent of the entries were white wines.
All is not rosy in New York, however. The climate is difficult in all regions. Winter is a special adversary, wet weather at harvest is a frequent obstacle and false springs frequently fool vines into budding too early, only to see late frosts nip the crop in the bud. In addition, most New York wineries are operated by undercapitalized entrepreneurs or bottom line-oriented corporations. California, on the other hand, has a score of wineries that have unlimited capital and are determined to make the best wines humanly possible. On the educational front, California has several universities training the world's most technically competent craftspeople while New York's school at Cornell is more research-oriented. In addition, the New York government is ambivalent in its support of the grape and wine industry, the trade association is underfinanced and several wineries are feuding with each other over personalities and philosophies. This kind of discord makes for great diversity in wine, but prevents the wineries from cooperating in marketing efforts.
The Winners Despite the fact that New York is now making world-class dry wines, and Long Island is making merlots with awesome potential, the four top awards at this year's New York Wine Classic went to sweet white wines, but not the traditional jelly-jar ones. There were four platinum medals, the top award. The Governor's Cup, for best of show, went to Great Western 1985 Vidal Ice Wine from the Finger Lakes, which was sweet. This rich golden nectar was made by the German method of picking and crushing frozen grapes. Most of the frozen water remains crystalline, while the thick, viscous, sugary syrup of the grapes runs off. The sweetness is all from natural grape fructose rather than from the addition of cane sugar. The grapes for this wine were picked on Dec. 18 at 42 percent sugar, double that of most grapes. Although the grape used is vidal blanc, a little-known hybrid, the resulting wine is every bit as good as any of the great German eisweins that I have tasted, wines that sell in the $100-per-bottle range. It is rich, succulent, with undertones of dried peaches and apricots, yet crisp and tart enough to keep it from being cloying. Unfortunately only 75 cases were made, and less than one case was sent to the Washington area.
There were three other platinum medals awarded. They went to Bridgehampton 1986 Riesling from the South Fork of Long Island; Pindar 1986 Gewu rztraminer, Late Harvest, from the North Fork of Long Island; and Hermann J. Wiemer 1986 Johannisberg Riesling, Individual Bunch Select Late Harvest from Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes.
In addition to the four platinums there were 26 gold medals, 33 silver medals, and 18 bronze medals, for a total of 81 medals, a stingy 32 percent of the entries.
Unfortunately, because of the lasting memories of the bad old days, when all New York wines tasted like liquid jelly, not many stores outside the state's wine-producing regions carry them. A few, however, have filtered into the Washington area market. These limited quantities found in the better wine stores include Heron Hill, Wiemer, Wagner and Glenora.
Hermann J. Wiemer 1986 Johannisberg Riesling, Finger Lakes, Green Label (2.5% residual sweetness): This is a lovely, Germanic style of riesling, similar to a German spatlese, slightly sweet, fragrant, delicate and reminiscent of strawberries, kiwi or fruit salad.
Serving: It is the perfect summer drink, cool and refreshing, and does not require food to be enjoyable. Drink it by the tumbler at poolside, after cutting the lawn, or with fresh fruit salad. Also a fine aperitif.
Price: Suggested retail of about $8 per bottle. Actual price may vary significantly. Wholesale supplier is Todd Ruby, (202) 387-9149. Wholesale suppliers cannot sell direct to consumers, but your wine merchant can buy from wholesalers.
Also: If you can find a bottle, try the Hermann J. Wiemer 1986 Johannisberg Riesling, Individual Bunch Select Late Harvest, Seneca Lake, Finger Lakes. It is a remarkable, thick, nectarlike sweet wine, naturally sweet, similar to a German trockenbeerenauslese, full of peaches and apricots, and the perfect accompaniment for blue cheese. Expect to pay about $18 per half bottle.
For a list of the winners of the 1987 New York Wine Classic, send $1 for postage and handling to New York Wine Classic, Elm & Liberty Streets, Penn Yan, N.Y. 14527.
1987, by Craig Goldwyn International Wine Review magazine