rickwine, The Blog

A journey to the Finger Lakes: Part I

Sunset in a glass

Beginning Note: It started as a series of tweets on Twitter with a hashtag I was curious about. #tastecamp kept showing up in tweets mainly originating from bloggers based in the eastern U.S. states. There was going to be a gathering of bloggers who wanted to learn more about the fascinating wine region of the Finger Lakes. I confess to not having a burning desire to travel southeast through upper-State New York just to taste what I had remembered as being below average, overly sweet white wines. But the tweets kept coming and they were enticing enough to pique my interest. When Remy Charest, a well-respected blogger from Quebec City, announced he would be attending it wasn’t long before I expressed an interest in seeing what all the buzz was about.

Lenn Thompson.
Lenn Thompson, aka @lenndevours, poses with a bottle of Vineland Estates St. Urban Vineyard Riesling.

Lucky for me Lenn Thompson, editor-in-chief of the New York Cork Report, and one of the main organizers of #tastecamp, surprised me with an invite. I jumped right in, cleared off three days and made the three-hour trek to the Finger Lakes. It should be noted that #tastecamp is at the expense of the individual with some meals sponsored by the wineries or Finger Lakes Wine Country.

It was a big leap for me. I have been a writer most of my adult life but had yet to write one word on my new blog. To call myself a blogger would just not be true. It’s a far different world than writing for newspapers or magazines. Bloggers are amazingly resourceful and diversified with iPhones, cameras, video cameras and constant tweeting to big world beyond the vineyards. They are knowledgeable, thoughtful and brutally honest with their assessments. Trying to keep up to the immediacy of the medium is like chasing rainbows, it’s impossible. So I soaked it in, enjoyed three days of tasting, eating and occasionally tweeting and am just now sitting down to make some sense of an adventure so unlike the structured, detailed and catered fam trips (totally paid for by the wine region but with no expectation for coverage at all) that have taken me to major wine regions around the world. What follows are my blog notes from the Finger Lakes #tastecamp

Day One Journal Entry: Heron Hill, Ravines, Red Newt

Heron Hill.
The first winery visited in the Finger Lakes was Heron Hill.

It is not an unpleasant drive from St. Catharines to the Finger Lakes. There are enough interesting turns and twists through rural New York state to keep it interesting. I had no idea what to expect and didn’t actually see a vineyard until reaching the first destination of Heron Hills Winery, nestled into a hill overlooking scenic Keuka Lake.

The first person I met was the owner of Heron Hill, John Ingle, who explained, while looking out onto beautiful Keuka Lake from the winery’s back deck, his philosophy of farming sustainably with respect for the wine by making it natural, fresh and healthy. We then talked about the differences between Niagara and New York in terms of regulations and I got the impression that Ontario (if you can believe it) is a friendlier place to make and sell wine.

Heron Hill had set up a great beginner course in Finger Lakes wines, specifically from the Keuka Lake area of the region. After meeting Lenn for the first time and about 36 other attendees for the three-day event we were invited to taste through a number of winery’s bounty before a needed lunch. I had no idea what to expect so started with what I knew: Finger Lakes is synonymous for its rieslings and the Dr. Konstantin Frank winery is one of the best known wineries in the region. I dove into the first (of many) rieslings.

Dr. Frank
Pouring Dr. Frank's wines at Tastecamp tasting at Heron Hill winery.

Dr. Konstantin Frank Semi-Dry Riesling 2009 — I love the fact a majority of Finger Lakes wineries have made the effort to tell consumers on the label if their rieslings are dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet or sweet (there’s a growing number who use the International Riesling scale on the back labels). It’s a lesson that can be learned in Niagara. The nose on this riesling is all about kiwi, lime and grapefruit with a lovely floral note. The palate shows firm structure, a pinch of residual sugar, minerals and peach-citrus fruit. Very pleasing.

Dr. Konstantin Frank Bunch Select Late Harvest Riesling 2008 — A break-through wine for the Finger Lakes with a 92 score from Wine Spectator. This is fabulous with peach, apricot, wild honey notes that show some nutty/almond notes on the long finish. A tad expensive at $70 for a half bottle.

Some other wines that caught me eye were:

Keuka Spring Vineyards Gewurztraminer 2008 — This is a varietal that can do well in the Finger Lakes but it is a challenge to get everything in balance. It really works best with a touch of residual sugar, in other words, picked later in the season. Classic Alsace style gewurz with rose petal, musk, lychee and grapefruit on the nose. Good floral, musk, spice notes follow on the palate.

Heron Hill Winery Ingle Vineyard Riesling 2002 — Finger Lakes riesling really shines when it gets some bottle age like this from 2002. Loaded with petrol, minerals and citrus on the nose and it all follows with lime, lemon, and wet stone on the palate. Such a beauty.

Riesling at Red Newt.
Sunset at Red Newt through a crisp glass of riesling.

Heron Hill Late Harvest Ingle Vineyard Reserve Riesling 2006 — Sweet and ripe white peach, apricot, quince and honey nose that all melds on the palate in a tropical compote with added almonds and balanced acidity.

McGregor Vineyard Black Russian Red (Saperavi & Sereksiya Charni) 2007 — The craziest, wildest wine of the weekend and, as it turns out, the one red wine that fetches more money than anything else at charity auctions. The Saperavi grape is grown in Georgia while the Sereksiya Charni is grown mostly in Hungary and Romania so, let’s just say, this is one heck of a blend. It’s also a long-aged wine that’s not uncommon to see it coming into balance 50 years down the road. This offering is thick with a nose of blackberries, plums, roasted coffee bean, bramble, smoke and tar. It’s rich and tannic on the palate with firm structure, very dry but a solid acidic spine. Buy it and leave it in the cellar for a decade or more.

Casa Larga Vineyards Vidal Ice Wine 2006 — Like Niagara, Finger Lakes wineries have planted a fair amount of vidal to be used in their icewine programs (though I tasted a few dry vidals that I wasn’t crazy about). This is a nicely balanced icewine (most wineries use VQA standards for picking and making icewine) with tropical fruits, peach and apricot aromas for go with creamy peach and honey notes on the palate.


Our next stop along our vinous journey took us to Ravines Wine Cellars, owned and operated by Lisa (the foodie) and  Morten (the wine guru) Hallgren, a boutique winery with a view of Keuka Lake whose owners specialize in making “dry, European styled wines.”

Morten was raised in the Provence region in the South of France where his family owned and operated Domaine de Castel Roubine, a 270-acre estate with 170 acres under vine.

Morten worked as chief winemaker for Dr. Konstantin before he and his wife purchased a 17-acre parcel of land in 2000 on a glacier-carved hillside on the Eastern slopes of Keuka Lake. It’s a piece of land laden in mineral-rich, well-drained soils and situated between two deep ravines, which drain cold air from the land during the winter.

The sign that greeted us at Ravines for Tastecamp.

The modest but charming tasting room, with views to the lake, opened in the spring of 2003 and has been decorated by Lisa in a Provencal style, including a sculpted head of Bacchus, the Roman god of Wine, from the Castel Roubine tasting room. Since opening, the winery has been well decorated with medals and praise from the wine press.

Morten is steadfast in his beliefs and it shows in the laser sharp style of dry rieslings he crafts. “Fine wine is about delicate balance and nuances,” he tells us as we sip through the vast majority of his portfolio.

His wine program, which is contained to just 10 or 11 different wines per vintage, is built on an extraordinary riesling portfolio. “We have everything here to make world class rieslings,” he says. The Ravines style is built around tight, mouth-watering, bone-dry rieslings that are balanced between fresh fruit and acid. They are made for the long haul in the cellar even though they are released to the public with some bottle age.

Morten admits that Ravines doesn’t “try to be everything to everyone” which, to be honest, is a refreshing change from so many of the Finger Lakes wineries that tend to do just that and end up with a whole mess of wine that perhaps is fine for the masses but misses the mark for serious wine lovers. Ravines wines are more likely to appeal to people with wider wine experience and those who seek out the finer wines in life. Here are some highlights from the Ravines tasting.

Ravines Dry Riesling 2006 — A fragrant and floral nose of green apple, citrus, mineral-stone and grapefruit. It’s perfectly dry and austere with a firm acidic spine but balanced off by ripe and zesty citrus-lime fruits.

Morten Hallgen pours a little Argetsinger riesling from the back of his pickup for our breakfast in the vineyard. Mmmm.

Ravines Dry Riesling Argetsinger Vineyard 2008 — Definitely one the finest rieslings enjoyed on the trip came from this single vineyard belonging to the quirky and likeable Sam Argetsinger. This is one of the oldest riesling vineyards in the Finger Lakes and shows a pronounced mineral-slate, floral, citrus nose. It’s very focused and firm on the palate with racy acidity and tart-juicy fruits. This is built for food and shouldn’t be touched for a couple of years at least, but, wow, what a beauty.

Ravines Pinot Noir 2007 — Morten is fond of saying that he came to the Finger Lakes for the riesling but was surprised by the pinot. And he’s right. There is a great deal of potential for pinot noir in the Finger Lakes and winemakers are just starting to realize that. I love the earthy cherry fruit, sweet mocha spice, saddle leather and vanilla on the nose. It’s juicy on the palate with fresh red berries, vibrancy, spice and subtle oak/cedar notes on the finish. It’s done in an elegant and classy style.


Our day (and night) didn’t end at Ravines, even though our teeth were aching from the high acids and our stomachs were crying out for something good to eat.

Newt wines
Some of the wines enjoyed at the Red Newt winery.

The next stop was Red Newt Cellars, located in Hector, N.Y., on the south east shore of Seneca Lake. It’s a gorgeous setting for a winery with a spectacular view of the lake and stunning sunsets.

The grapes for Red Newt wines are all sourced from trusted growers located within an 8-km radius of Hector, near the southern end of Seneca Lake. Our tasting at Red Newt included some friends of the winery including Anthony Road Wine Company and Fox Run Vineyards, both of which brought some wines along to try.

Most impressive about this tasting were the back vintages of the rieslings, which gave us an opportunity to see just how gracefully Finger Lakes rieslings evolve over time. The 2004s were stunning with lovely petrol and creme brulee notes to go with matured citrus fruits and tamed acidity.

Here are some standouts from the tasting:

Red Newt Reserve Riesling 2008 — A nose of peach and citrus with a hint of minerality. It’s ripe but made in a bone dry style that feels balanced and harmonious in the mouth even at this early stage.

Fox Run Dry Riesling 2006 — A very different wine than the above Red Newt. A lemon sweet nose with more opulent notes, minerals and just a hint at something red fruit-ish. In the mouth it shows grapefruit, lemon-lime and tropical fruits. It’s dry but the ripe fruits give an impression of off-dry.

Newt dinner
A classic Finger Lakes pairing of duck confit, sauteed mushrooms, arugula and fig jam with Tierce Red 07.

Anthony Road Dry Riesling 2006 — A pronounced mineral note on the nose with citrus zest that follows. Nicely balanced wine that’s starting show that desired petrol nuance.

Tierce Dry Riesling 2008 — This is a rather unique wine that combines fruit and winemaking techinques from all three of the above wineries. Hints at mandarin orange on the nose with ripe citrus notes. It’s round and ripe on the palate with lovely minerals and acididty.

Tierce Red 2007 — This is the first, and so far, only, Tierce Red made by the “Tierce Brothers,” Peter Bell of Fox Run Vineyards, Dave Whiting of Red Newt Cellars and Johannes Reinhardt of Anthony Road Wine Company, who together created Tierce as an expression of the synergy of three distinctive winegrowing subregions of Seneca Lake. It’s a blend of lemberger, syrah, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon and certainly has an expressive and sexy nose of smoky-spicy blackberries, currants and plums. It reveals peppery spice, ripe tannins, a touch of tobacco leaf and bell pepper to go with an array of dark fruits. Funky red built for grilled red meats.


And then it was back to the hotel in Watkins Glen for a well-deserved night of rest. Day 2 of Tastecamp posted next!