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NY Wine Earns Its Bad Rap

June 13, 2010

It is very difficult to talk about something in aggregate.  There are exceptions to everything.  There are always going to be outliers.  And often when you try to focus on the big picture, the interesting things that are happening fade into the background.

If you looked at California’s wine industry in the aggregate, you could probably say the state makes terrible wine.  Largely, this is because almost all of the grapes that are grown in the Central Valley get churned into cheap jug wine, which remains the most popular wine in the country by volume sales.

But California has pockets of serious and committed winemakers who have been making world-class wine for decades.  And that is what most people focus on, as they should.

New York has a few of these pockets too.  But as far as I can tell, there are fewer of them.  And even within these emerging New York wine regions, there are winemakers who continue to make wine that reinforces the world’s poor opinion of New York’s viniculture.

Granted, there may be some preconceptions that are at play.  Historically “wine” has been made out of anything that can be fermented.  But today wine made out of anything but grapes is not taken very seriously.  In New York there is a surprising amount of wine made from a variety of fruits.

I salute the bravery of New York’s fruit-wine makers, and I am curious to try their wares.  But to be honest, they are not terribly high up on the list of things I need to taste.  I confess that this is in part due to my personal prejudices.  Perhaps they are wonderful beverages, and I am missing out.  But their not insignificant presence in the production of New York wines contributes to the state not being taken seriously on the world wine stage.

Perhaps a corollary of the first problem is that wine should not need any added flavoring, beyond any that should come from being aged in oak barrels.  I think I did a double-take the first time I saw a green apple Riesling.

Second, as a Californian at heart, I like the notion that good wine comes from good grapes.  Out West a winemaker is likely to be called a winegrower.  The idea is to grow good grapes, let them do their thing, and don’t screw it up.

To do that, you have to select what grows well for the specific conditions of your climate.

Which is why I am so amazed to see so many New York wineries growing grapes that produce good fruit when grown in Mediterranean climate zones.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay may be the world’s best-selling wines, but growing them in New York makes little sense to me.  It may make business sense, since these are the varietals that most consumers seek out, and the ones that they associate with high quality.

But New York will not succeed if it tries to be like California or Bordeaux.  It has the potential to grow great grapes and make great wine, if winemakers and consumers are willing to make and drink what grows best in the region.

Third is the debate about sweet wines versus dry wines.

Most wine snobs will say they prefer dry wine and look down their noses at something sweet.  They are ninnies.  Some of the best wines in the world are sweet.  Ask any wine brat who says they don’t like sweet wines if they would decline a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem.  Additionally, some of the most prized German Rieslings are sweet.  However, they are balanced with acidity, and that is the key for producing a top-flight sweet wine.

But people like sweet.  Just ask Dyson Demara or the good folks at Pepsi.

Still on the whole, despite the notable exceptions, sweet wines are taken less seriously than their drier cousins.  And New York produces a lot of sweet wine.  Many of these do not have the acidic backbone to keep them in balance.  I have no idea why this is the case.  But it may be driven by what sells.  Anyone?

There are wineries that are doing good things in New York.  They are making Riesling.  They are making it lip-smackingly tart.  Passionate winemakers are making interesting wine from grapes that grow well in the area but may be unfamiliar to most, like Baco noir.

I have no idea why there are so many people producing wine in New York that is good but not great.  The potential exists for greatness.  But boosterism of the current state of affairs isn’t going to bring worldwide acclaim to our wines.  I believe a handful of good producers need to be put on a pedestal and serve as a beacon to other local winemakers.

To that end, I look forward to highlighting New York wineries in the weeks and months ahead that I think are doing it right.

And while my support isn’t going to bring worldwide acclaim either, at least it’s a start.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Tonia permalink
    June 13, 2010 1:21 pm

    The Delmar Luncheonette serves only NYS wines now. Funny, last night the waitress was telling us how some of the patrons were complaining about it, but then they realized there were some good ones out there, as you suggest. I love Amici Cab Franc and Rosé. I don’t know if they are considered “good” to the wine connoiseur, but I love their unique flavors. We met the owner there as well some months back, great guy…. free wine. :-)

  2. Erin Lenseth permalink
    June 13, 2010 1:57 pm

    I’m still very much learning about wines in general, but I credit two wines for getting me past my early college years, when I tried Franzia and asked myself “Why the hell would anyone want to drink wine if it tastes like THIS?”

    One was an Elder Berry wine I had back around ’03 or so, which purportedly (according to the wine store owner who brought it to a family gathering, attempting to impress his new girlfriend’s parents) cost $150 a bottle. It was smooth and sweet and the bouquet was something I never have, and have not since, experienced.

    The other was Bully Hill: Love My Goat wine. Yes, a $7 bottle of wine. It is to this day my guilty pleasure.

    From there, I started drinking a wide variety of wines- I always try to pick up something new- but, in general, I have found failing most of the NYS wines I try. I have leaned towards CA wines for the most part, although also some French wines; my most recent endeavor, a $16 bottle of wine made in Amenia, NY, lacked both a strong, distinct flavor and a nice bouquet, something I strive for with wines.

    As far as the acidity of New York State wines, it just seems to me that many probably do not have their vineyards someplace ideal for growing. This paper the concept:
    http://keckgeology.org/files/pdf/symvol/18th/fingerlakes/linhoff.pdf

    Kudos to your for exploring NYS wines though. I hope to see what you will recommend!

  3. June 13, 2010 2:55 pm

    Aren’t winemakers and winegrowers distinctly different from one another? I mean, don’t winemakers blend juice and winegrowers grow grapes? That aside, there are some lovely NYS wines we’ve experienced – Glenora makes a nice sparkling wine and they also do well with their rieslings, Hermann Wiemer produces some delicious gerwurztraminers and rieslings (we served his gerwurz as our white wine when we were married) and Dr. Frank has always produced reliably good, local wines in many varietals. I suggest you and the Missus pack up and head West. Just to visit the Finger Lake wineries, of course.

    • Tonia permalink
      June 13, 2010 5:12 pm

      I like the Wiemer wines, their Cab Franc is really good as well.

  4. June 13, 2010 4:49 pm

    I completely agree with a lot of the things that you said. New York state is good at growing (mostly) white grapes. Red grapes don’t like this climate so much — yet, as you said, there are still a lot of reds coming out. We are a growing wine region, and we really do need direction. I believe that there is a New York winegrowers association — but I don’t know how effective they are.

    Also, I fear that a lot of fruit wines are not only not taken seriously — but are not very good. I have had very few fruit wines that ended up being excellent. This is unfortunate because if done right a fruit wine could be a unique regional delight.

    With that in mind, New York is a growing mecca for all things alcohol. We have a great micro-brew culture, a growing wine industry and of course the growing micro distillery movement (15 and counting).

  5. Roger permalink
    June 13, 2010 9:41 pm

    I don’t know how may NY-grown wines you’ve actually tasted, but there are plenty of places (mostly on Long Island) where red grapes rule — especially merlot and cabernet sauvignon. When you (and folks in the comments) talk about white wines, I can only assume that you’re speaking of the Finger Lakes, where white grapes most certainly do dominate and with good reason.

    I’m not an expert on growing grapes or making wine, but it sounds a bit like you already have a pro-California, anti-New York bias. Or if not a bias a leaning at least.

    Not too long ago, a friend of mine turned me on to what seems to be a very well-done blog that focuses on New York wines (lenndevours.com) which seems to be balanced and unbiased in its commentary, which can be rare in blogs. Maybe the people behind that site can be of assistance in your journey.

  6. StanfordSteph permalink
    June 13, 2010 11:27 pm

    How are you going to pick which wines you try? Are you going to go to the wineries, or buy from local stores? Some of the smaller producers don’t sell at liquor stores.

    I recommend Keuka Spring Vineyards. http://www.keukaspringwinery.com/

  7. June 14, 2010 12:14 am

    NYS Rieslings and a few Gewurtzatramainers really are world-class wines. Straight-up, most NYS wines do not compete favorably with California and Pacific Northwest wines EXCEPT Rieslings and maybe Gewurtz. Although, cheaper I haven’t met a Cali, WA, or OR riesling that compares to even the most middle-of-the-road NYS Riesling.

    That being said, NYS red wines cannot quite compete with the west coast wines. The most promising noble red grape in NYS is Cabernet Franc. Several wineries here do a fantastic job (Ravines on Keuka, Lucas Vineyards Reserve), but there isn’t a good reference point because Cab Franc isn’t a common varietal elsewhere. As you mentioned, Baco Noir is a remarkable grape, but people (and I’ve been selling wine in a retail establishment for a bit now) do not seem to keen on French-American hybrids, simply because they’re not “trendy” or commonplace.

    What excites me about NYS wines is the different philosophies and varied approaches different small-scale winemakers bring to the table. Many aren’t afraid to experiment (something I do not see in CA wines). Luckily, big business and wholesale demands haven’t crushed the spirit of these winemakers. Instead, small wineries can forge relationships with small, locally owned NYS wine and spirit stores to market their wares, instead of forcing them to cater to the production demands of giant multistate grocery chains.

    AC

  8. wendalicious permalink
    June 14, 2010 2:22 pm

    I think you’ll do yourself a huge disservice if you dismiss NYS wines out of hand. Yes, yes, there are plenty of wineries who use table grapes and other types of fruit to produce sweet, foxy wines. And there are plenty of people who enjoy that, so more power to those wineries. This is likely the answer to why NYS wines have a reputation for being sweet – because the majority *are*, and people continue to buy them. I have no problem with that – my philosophy on wine is simply this: If you like it, then it is good. Period.

    But, if you want to try some outstanding wines – ones that can and do compete on a global level, and meet your personal criteria for “good wine” – there are a few that you need to try.

    One of my favorite wineries is Standing Stone Vineyards in Hector. I’ve visited the winery, met the winemakers, and toured their operation. Tom and Marti Macinski have dedicated themselves to creating fine wine – and not just fine NY wine – FINE WINE. I think they’re doing a great job. My personal favorites from SS are the Cabernet Franc (which AC mentioned above) and the Gewurztraminer. Both solid. Their dry Riesling is excellent as well. I don’t think there’s a bad product in their entire lineup.

    Another one to try is Dr. Konstantin Frank. He’s particularly noted for his Johannesburg Riesling, and it’s outstanding. I have never had a bad bottle of Dr. Frank. He’s also got a different label called “Salmon Run”, which has some offbeat selections I bet you’d enjoy – Meritage, Coho Red, and the difficult to find Rkatsiteli.

    And, if you’re feeling particularly snobbish, try anything from Hermann J. Weimer – this is the man who brought the Riesling grape to America and made it thrive in NY. Good stuff, but expensive.

    And, here are a couple to avoid, if you are only looking for high quality stuff: Fulkerson, Brotherhood (America’s oldest winery, but they still need more time to figure it out), Hazlitt. They use a lot of table grapes, and the result is not always great. In my opinion.

    I haven’t been to Long Island wineries, and only a smattering of Hudson Valley wineries. I’m mostly versed in Finger Lakes.

    Let me just say this – I love wine, but I hate wine snobbery. If you like Bully Hill’s Love My Goat, then drink it! I personally enjoy Bully Hill’s wines – they’re awesome for just kicking back on the deck and hanging out with friends. I was at a tasting at Bully Hill once, and the pourer mentioned how the particular bottle she was pouring “goes well with Skittles”. I love the unpretentious style of Bully Hill, and think their wines are pretty good for what they are.

    If you need a drinking buddy, you know how to get in touch with me.

  9. imajovigirl permalink
    June 14, 2010 3:17 pm

    If you are looking for a dry red NYS wine, look no further than The Saratoga Winery in Saratoga. I am NOT a fan of NYS wines for the same reason as so many, way too sweet. The Saratoga folks got it right. The Merlot is an excellent dry smoky wine. The Whitney’s White is also the best white wine I’ve every tasted…and I don’t drink white.

  10. wendalicious permalink
    June 14, 2010 11:16 pm

    @imajovigirl: why don’t you drink white?

  11. imajovigirl permalink
    June 15, 2010 10:29 am

    @wendalicious: I prefer the taste of red wine over white. I started drinking wine because I kept seeing all the health benefits of red wine. It took me a while to acquire a taste for it. So glad I stuck with it because now I love it. White wines just don’t have the “punch” the red ones do. The Saratoga’s Whitney’s White is excellent though. I have been through a few bottles on a hot night and enjoy it. If given the choice I would choose a Merlot or Shiraz though.

  12. June 15, 2010 2:49 pm

    Sorry, Daniel, you lost me at the sweeping, and wildly inaccurate, phrase “the world’s poor opinion of New York’s viniculture.”

    I applaud anyone who offers an opinion on anything, knowing full well it will not be unanimously accepted. However, I do prefer opinions grounded in reality. You misfired on this one.

  13. Elyse permalink
    June 15, 2010 5:35 pm

    Daniel- I completely agree with you. I am a big (wine) jerk. You still like me, right?

  14. June 17, 2010 1:39 pm

    Wine people generally refer to themselves as “wine snobs.” The same folks who are into beer generally refer to themselves as “beer nerds.”

    I’m a big proponent of “if it tastes good it is good” and that’s about as far as my wine snobbery goes. Personally, I don’t like anything I’ve tasted from Bully Hill. I prefer reds, and usually dry ones. Most of the NY wine I’ve tried has been … bone crushingly sweet.

    But then, there’s the beer nerd thing. And the hophead thing. So … to my palate sweetness needs to be balanced with bitterness, and that’s probably the last damn taste you want in a wine.

    Anyway. At least there are some damn fine breweries in this state. And one of them is just around the corner.

    • imajovigirl permalink
      June 17, 2010 2:39 pm

      @Shawn-I agree with you on all points, including Bully Hill. Try The Saratoga Winery’s Merlot if you like dry red wine. I believe you will like it and be amazed it’s a NYS wine. I’m far from a wine snob. Just because a bottle costs 20 bucks doesn’t mean it’s better than a bottle that costs 5 bucks…and don’t get me going on the box wine thing. Black Box rocks!!

  15. pjt permalink
    June 21, 2010 7:28 am

    I recomend the 08 Semi-Dry Riesling by Red Tail Ridge a Finger Lakes Winery. Beautiful balance between the acidy and fruit. And it really is semi-dry, whereas I’ve found that many NYS wines tend to be sweeter than what they’re categorized as being. Red Tail Ridge also produces a dry version, which I haven’t tried yet.

  16. Wade permalink
    July 15, 2010 10:09 pm

    I agree, NY wines are largely unpalatable, sure, there are some good ones, but the vast majority leave you with a headache. I assume that the overwhelming majority of wines sold in this state do not originate here, but I haven’t found any stats to back that up.

    The Times Union, however, does not agree, they are outraged that the NY Jets have chosen a CA winery to manufacture Jets-brand wine.

    http://blog.timesunion.com/tablehopping/16551/ny-jets-embrace-new-york-and-take-its-money-snub-its-wine/

    and

    http://www.newyorkjets.com/news/article-1/Jets-Uncork-Limited-Release-Commemorative-Wine/2a60becf-0586-4555-a677-6106fe0142a1

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