Finger Lakes Wine Tour – Day Three
This was my one solid day to power through the Keuka Lake Wine Trail. I didn’t want to mess around so we started out early. Our first stop was at the place Suzanne was looking forward to the entire trip, Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellar. Any serious excursion to the region should include a trip to this vineyard. Very few people alive would dispute that Dr. Konstantin Frank was the father of vinifera wine in the Finger Lakes. A Ukranian immigrant fleeing World War II for a better life, Dr. Frank would end up in the Finger Lakes of New York and convince the region’s grape growers that fine wine vinifera grapes could withstand the harsh winters. His story is quite interesting and his beliefs were not quickly adopted by everyone. He was a man of conviction and confidence. He was successful.
We didn’t spend as much time here as I would have thought but that was probably because it is the one winery with which we were both most familiar. We bought Semi-Dry Riesling, Dry Riesling, Old Vines Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir Dry Rosé, Chateau Frank Celebré Sparkling Rosé, Chateau Frank 2008 Blanc de Noirs, Rkatsateli. Until recently this had been the only Russian wine grape I had tasted.
Next we were on our way to Heron Hill Winery. Nicolette was our pourer.
We enjoyed the 2012 Dry Riesling and the 2012 Semi Dry Riesling as well as the 2012 Pinot Noir. Here we decided to pace ourselves and linger at their lovely café for a light lunch.
I didn’t want to leave the Hammondsport area without first checking out another of the, let’s say, founding wineries of the region, Bully Hill. This is a colorful place to visit on so many levels as well as a raucous history for such a laid back part of the world.
Bully Hill Winery is the second winery operated by founder Walter S. Taylor. Walter’s grandfather founded Taylor Wine Company, which was at one time so large in New York that it purchased the Pleasant Valley Wine Company, producers of Great Western Champagne, the champagne adults drank while I was growing up. In New York I don’t even recall seeing “other” champagnes on the market. Pleasant Valley Wine Company’s famous pedigree is that it is known as “Bonded Winery No 1” in state and federal districts, as these things were being kept an eye on prior to Prohibition. So the tumultuous history of Walter S. Taylor and Pleasant Valley Wine Company begins after his grandfather brings him into the company as an Executive Vice President. There are many sides of this story and I will not pretend to be able to represent them here. According to Bully Hill’s website Walter had issues and discontent with the quality of the wines being made bearing his family name. Pleasant Valley history records it a different way. Locals all have their own opinions. It could be like the Finger Lakes version of the Hatfields and McCoys, without the shooting. Nevertheless, Walter goes on to found Bully Hill in 1972 on the same property that his grandfather founded the original Taylor Wine Company.
Just a little more to add to the tangled web of a story – Gold Seal, owned by Urbana Wine Company survived Prohibition as Bonded Winery No 2. Like Pleasant Valley they made sacramental wine and managed to sell medicinal wine for a market of alcohol by prescription that became a popular workaround the law during Prohibition. This is what a medical prescription for wine looked like.
During this post-Prohibition time period Gold Seal hired a successive number of champagne makers from the best houses in Champagne. Their main focus was making quality American Champagne. This was long before the now accepted convention of not using the word “Champagne” to describe the beverage if it was not actually produced in the Champagne region of France. Pleasant Valley eventually got a sort of special dispensation, as the first American winegrowers to produce sparkling wines from vinifera grapes. It is generally accepted for them to call their wines champagne. Eventually Charles Fournier, winemaker at Maison Veuve Clicquot, a man passionate about the future of vinifera grapes in the Finger Lakes meets up with a man as passionate as he is about vinifera, Dr. Konstantin Frank, and the rest is history. Pleasant Valley and Urbana (Gold Seal) eventually get picked up by investors, Coca Cola being one of the early experimenters with an alcohol division to augment their soft drinks market. It didn’t work out. Dr. Frank goes on to start his own venture.
You’ll notice from wine association marketing, tourist information, etc. that Bully Hill doesn’t necessarily play well with their neighbors. I don’t mean that as they don’t have friends in the region. They just prefer to go their own way. You see this right away when you visit the tasting room. They make fun, easy to drink wines that don’t take themselves too seriously. They see wine as something to enjoy and enhance life, not something to puzzle and struggle for words to define. I visited specifically because I feel their sense of place in the region. They were there doing it before most others. They are still there doing it while many others have come and gone. We bought a 1.5 liter Growers Chardonnay, Verdelet Dry, and their Meat Market Dry Table wine.
Verdelet is a French Hybrid grape, one of many grown in the region developed by the famous French hybridist Albert Seibel. New grapes were being developed to withstand severe fluctuations in weather, and the new grape epidemic sweeping the world around the turn of the century, Phylloxera. Walter S. Taylor, like many of his peers adopted these grape varieties because they were more reliable than vinifera. There is still a strong culture of support for the local hybrids. Bully Hill makes Verdelet as a single varietal. It is a pleasant wine with medium acidity, some stone fruit, but lacks the depth and complexity of the more famous vinifera Riesling.
Keeping to our pace, next stop was Ravines Wine Cellars. Suzanne opted for their decadent Hedonist Chocolate & Wine Pairing, pairing wines with chocolate and truffles, specially created for Ravines by Hedonist Artisan Chocolates of Rochester, NY. At Ravines we bought the 2012 Chardonnay because Suzanne likes her Chard oaky and this one hit the mark.
Surprisingly we maintained a pretty good pace with our schedule and did not feel rushed anywhere we went. We had an evening event to attend so we had just one more winery for the day. So we swung back down from Keuka Lake and back up the west side of Seneca. Yes, five wineries in one day is a lot, but as I said earlier, this was my one day to hit this wine trail. I wanted to make the most of it. We visited Anthony Road Winery. They are the only winery I’ve seen in the region that pays tribute to the glacial history that made the region a special place to grow grapes. Their Devonian White and Devonian Red is a homage to the geological period of the Paleozoic Era that left behind so many defining characteristics of the region . This is a time in evolutionary history when the glaciers have retreated, temperatures are warming and forests, creatures, and wildlife are springing up. We bought the 2012 Semi Dry Riesling.
From there we were ready to relax for the rest of the evening. Our next stop was the FLX Wienery. This is perhaps the funkiest little eatery in the region. Christopher Bates, award-winning Master Sommelier, chef, and winemaker opened what looks like a very unassuming hot dog stand in Dundee on Rte 14. His menu is a mix of interesting hot dog combinations, accompaniments made from the freshest locally sourced ingredients, shakes, and deserts. Many people don’t know that hot dogs and Riesling pair well together (just as sausage does). Chris’ hot dogs are on steroids with choices like the State Fair with peppers and onions, American cheese, smoked ketchup, and mushrooms. His bread and butter pickles and pickled corn relish are insanely addictive. His shakes include mouth-watering combos like salted caramel and pretzel, or bacon and brown sugar. His sweets menu includes deep fried Almond Joy, and roasted homemade honey (yeah, I don’t know how he does that either). His wine list is not particularly Finger Lakes oriented but he does bottle his own wine, Elements, which he serves on tap, showing his love of the Finger Lakes. He had worked in Europe for many years until he and his wife Isabel came back to his hometown region.
On the night we visited he was hosting his first pig roast at the Wienery. We arrived in time to see him take the pig from the pit and begin to carve. There were picnic tables and yard games like ladder ball and corn hole. Mostly locals trickled in and Laury Poland arrived and introduced us to several winemakers who had stopped by. It was like being at a family picnic. This was where we met the tall, handsome, dimpled Chris Missick (whom we meet up with again later in the week) of Villa Bellangelo . He stopped at our table to chat and pour some of his own wine that he brought in a pouch. We felt like we were locals. It was a great evening. The food and wine just kept coming. I can’t say enough good things about the people and their infectious positive energy and enthusiasm. It’s such a feel good place. Being from New York (city) Nathan’s is top dog in the hot dog world. The Flx Wienery is in its own category of goodness. We returned to our hotel exhausted but with what Suzanne calls “happy belly” and slept well that night.