In A New York State of Mind

Despite spending the past 25 years in California and Connecticut, I’m a New Yorker through and through. And, as such, I tend to root for the home town team, wherever it might be found. In recent years I’ve tried my best to defend wines from New York’s major regions – Finger Lakes, Long Island, Hudson River Valley – and done what I could to prop up the fledgling efforts in Chautauqua County and along Lake Erie. While I am, by nature, an optimist, I know enough about wine and my home state to keep my cheery outlook in check. In short, when it comes to New York State wines, I often need to manage expectations. Especially my own.

Manage expectations. That was my goal, my mantra, when I stepped inside the Chautauqua County Fairgrounds in Dunkirk, NY, last week for “America’s Grape Country Wine Festival.” Still in its infancy after five years, the AGCWF is a gathering of wineries from the Finger Lakes and the Chautauqua-Lake Erie Wine Trail regions. Twenty-two producers, along with a numerous food and craft vendors, crowded into the fairgrounds’ exhibition center, Floral Hall, for tastings, demonstrations, and seminars.  I was focused only on the tastings, and as many dry wines as I could find.

Due to the large crowds, which overwhelmed more than a few tasting booths, I was able to sample wines from only half of the visiting producers. Even though I was hoping for the best from area winemakers, I came away disappointed. The two points that caused the most frustration were, one, the mediocre to poor quality of many of the wines, and, two, the confusion many wineries seem to have as to what sort of winery they want to be.

The wines sampled came from vinifera, labrusca, and French hybrid varities, and covered a wide range of grapes, including chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, Cayuga white, gewürztraminer, pinot gris, seyval blanc, catawba, pinot noir, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, chancellor, and chambourcin. I also dipped into a few sweet wines containing concord and niagara. Many wineries’ rosters were dominated by wines made from fruit other than grapes. In the interests of time and convenience, I adapted my tasting scale to the program’s proposed six-point scale. No, there were no six point wines to exult in.

The winery with the best overall showing was Miles Wine Cellars out of the town of Himrod, on the shores of Seneca Lake. Two four-point wines and two five-point wines outshone most other wineries’ wares. “Ghost,” which was a blend of Cayuga white and something else (went to the website for help but no avail), was crisp, fruity and refreshing; perfectly balanced. “Long Weekend,” another Cayuga white with 3% residual sugar, was similarly well-made. Their merlot and “Call Me a Cab” (franc) were among the better reds on the floor. Other notable pours included five-point chardonnays from Finger Lakes producers Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards and Heron Hill. A riesling from Thousand Islands Winery in Alexandria Bay was a bit on the light side but otherwise spot on, one of the best made wines I came across. Merritt Winery’s “Bella Rosa,” a sweet concord concoction, was a pleasant surprise. Clean, balanced, and its sugars restrained, I can now understand why so many friends from Fredonia, near Merritt’s home in Forestville, defend it as they do. Not my cup of tea, but a well-made wine.

The aforementioned wines, however, were the high point of the afternoon. A few low points included a sauv blanc that took the descriptor “cat pee” to a staggering, almost injurious level. And then an overwhelmingly bretty chancellor that the pourer tried to pass off as “spicy and interesting.” Not quite the words I’d use. Too many wines were overoaked and overly lean. A number seemed to lack any real fruit development at all. I had a chardonnay that tasted like no wine I’ve ever encountered. Still can’t figure out what was done to produce that. And so the day went. Perhaps with a more manageable crowd and more access to additional wineries, I might have found a few gems to turn my frown upside down.

Ah, the crowds. Yes, the place was packed, and that’s a problem for the event’s organizers. But it’s a good problem to have, I think. They have a tiger by the tail and they need to act fast to tame it so as not to lose the impressive momentum they’ve built in five short years. The toughest part of this challenge is space: where to find it and how to use it. Is the current arrangement, a seemingly random array of vendors, optimal? Should the disparate groups be separated? If so, how far apart? More space would mean more wineries; more wineries would attract more visitors. Any increase in commercial activity for this part of the state has to be seen as a positive. Perhaps there are other sites in Northern Chautaqua County with better layouts and more square footage. I leave it to those in charge to investigate, but it seems to this visitor that the current Floral Hall set-up has run its course. Time to move, and fast.

Next: What do these wineries want to be when they grow up, and how they might start heading in that direction.

6 thoughts on “In A New York State of Mind

  1. Anonymous

    Tom, Thanks for the report from New York, that had to be a fun time. I was hoping to hear more positive things about the wines coming out of that region, I know they can make good wines. Your reply to Den made me laugh, (“don’t these people taste their own wines?”), that’s really funny, apparently not. I had a similar experience when I was last in New Hampshire and I bought several NH wines hoping to find a winner from my home state, no such luck, and yes mostly fruit wines, bummer. In the past I have had several delicious Pinot Noirs from The Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery from Hammondsport, NY. I prefer the wines from Long Island over upstate, lots of yummy Bordeaux type wines being made there, Merlot and Cabernet Franc in particular, go figure. Oh well, that is your Grape Belt, land of Concord grapes.

    1. Tom Riley

      As you point out, there are delicious wines being made in NYS. I have to wonder why folks aren’t flocking to places like Frank’s in search of their wisdom and experience. But that’s my next piece — what do these wineries want to be and why? Lots of confusion. Many seem to still be caught in Walter Taylor’s Bully Hill wake and can’t or won’t swim away from it. Fear? Insecurity? Lack of vision? I don’t know. But I do know that NY can make great wines. No reason for so much poorly crafted wines.




    A very interesting article. I think you were as fair as you could be considering the wines you were sampling. I’ve tried quite a few varieties from the Finger Lakes and Chautauqua County over the years and although some were pleasant most were not something I would buy regularly. Many of them taste like they were made with a kit in someone’s garage.

    Nonetheless, WNY wines are the creme de la creme compared to Florida’s finest. I recently had a chance to sample some white wine from northern Florida’s largest winery and it was awful. It made me yearn for some 30 day old yuncah from South Osettia aged in tin. The primary grape used here is a native Muscadine variety because it resists mold and grows well in high heat and humidity – but that apparently has something to do with its taste. Could that be?


    1. Tom Riley

      Thanks for reading and sending along a nice comment. Yes, the “kit in the garage” syndrome plagues too many of these producers. Not sure why. As I wandered around the tasting I kept asking myself, “don’t these people taste their own wines?” Somehow they are blinded to what good wine tastes like. And, yet, some folks do get it right. The FLX region has more and more good producers, and they are leading the charge to change both image and quality there. Sadly, many WNY wineries are going in ten directions at once, which I’ll talk about in my next piece later today.

      Not familiar with muscadine, but will do some learning and see if I can shed any light on the execrable stuff you sampled.

      Hope all is well,

  3. Tom Riley

    The FLX didn’t send most of its hot producers, unfortunately. Do you get the NY Cork Report from Lenn Thompson? He’s steered me to some very good wines. Ravines single vineyard dry rieslings are terribly good. More to come… TRR
    ps. Thanks for reading and for all the support. You’re a gem!

  4. Wine Everyday

    Yet another over populated wine event… too many people crammed together.. not a great wine experience….make it worse with some disappointing wines.. well, thanks for pointing out the good ones to seek out, I do love some of the Finger Lake wines, Dry Rieslings, Lembergers & Cab Franc’s …

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