~Almost two-dozen years ago, when we were each a lot younger, I read an interview with Robert Parker in a wine magazine. The interviewer said he would throw out names of wine regions and he asked Mr. Parker to respond with the first thing that comes to his mind.
~At the time, I had just started my small Finger Lakes winery, so I was quite interested in Mr. Parker’s answer when the interviewer said “Finger Lakes, New York” to him.
~His response was along the lines that the region’s wines would remain local and insular.
~I didn’t like his answer and I wrote a note to the magazine, but after all these years I have to admit that Mr. Parker seems to have been correct.
~No matter how much the Finger Lakes region has progressed in the quality of its wines, there hasn’t been enough promotion money to buy promotion talent and there hasn’t been enough interest in the region from critics and writers to give it the boost it needs, which creates a “Catch 22” that leaves the region needing promotion to garner interest and needing interested influentials to help promote it.
~Beyond the lack of promotion savvy, one thing that holds the region back is an old and meaningless image that will not go away. I am talking about so-called “foxy” wines.
~I was reminded of this die-hard image by an acquaintance in Denmark, Henrik, who happens to own a winery in Italy’s Piemonte region, and whom I will visit in the autumn of 2007.
~Henrik said that he had been told that Finger Lakes wines taste like fox piss.
~Having never tasted fox piss I couldn’t say one way or the other, but what Henrik points out is an image that goes back to who-knows-where, when someone labeled all North American wines as “foxy.”
~Now, there is a grape in the United States called the fox grape. It is a wild grape variety that produces tiny red/purple grapes. It is in the Vitis labrusca species. The problem is, commercial wines produced in New York have hardly ever been produced from this grape.
~Even though Vitis labrusca is a local wild species, when the Finger Lakes region started producing commercial wine in 1858 the basis for the wines were from hybrid grapes called Catawba and Isabella; each grape has Vitis labrusca in its bloodline, but each also has the European species, Vitis vinifera in its bloodline, the result of field hybridizing that took place when Europeans planted their grapes in America. Even the so-called foxy Concord grape is a hybrid and not a true Vitis labrusca.
~Granted, Catawba, Isabella, and Concord produce quite “grapey” wine tastes and the Finger Lakes region’s biggest commercial wine successes were with those three grapes, but that is an old story that died with the Taylor Wine Company.
The Taylor Wine Company started in 1880. It lasted nearly 100 years as a Finger Lakes powerhouse until, in 1976, Coca Cola bought the company. In fact, Taylor was the most famous and largest winery in the Northeastern United States.
After a series of poor decisions, Coke sold the company to Seagrams, and that was the beginning of the end for the Taylor Wine Company. Today, it is a pared down brand under the global giant, Constellation Brands.
Taylor built its reputation on Catawba and Isabella grapes. In the 1950s, it pioneered French-American hybrid grapes in the region. By the 1980s, it had added Vitis vinifera wines to its product line, but not enough to make a dent in the company’s “foxy” image, and that image lingers.
~You can still find some Finger Lakes wines that are produced from Catawba and other labrusca hybrids, but the region has produced wines from European Vitis vinifera varieties since 1960. Since the 1980s, production of Vitis vinifera wines has steadily outpaced the other wines.
~The most successful of all the European grape varieties in the Finger Lakes happens to be Riesling. In my view, the region produces the most exciting Rieslings in North America. But the region also produces lean Chardonnay, fine Gewurztraminer, Lemberger, Cabernet Franc, and every few years wonderful Pinot Noir, plus some of the most exciting sparkling wines in the United States.
One more thing about those “foxy” grape varieties: In the 19th century, experiments with grape vines brought a root louse from North America to Europe. The little bug almost wiped out the European wine industry by eating the roots in the vineyards. Scientists ultimately discovered the cure, which was to propagate Vitis vinifera vines on the rootstocks of Native American vines, which are resistant to the root louse.
That rootstock system still exists today in Europe, but oddly, none of the European wines are called “foxy.”
May, 2007. All Rights Reserved.