finesse in the finger lakes Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Finesse in the Finger Lakes

An Interview with Finger Lakes Region Wine Writer & Publicist, remedy Melissa Dobson

With over 9,000 acres of vineyards and more than 100 wineries, the Finger Lakes in upstate New York is one of America’s greatest emerging wine regions.  Home to the largest concentration of wineries east of California, it has lately garnered a great deal of attention for some of the best domestically produced Rieslings.  It was with this reputation in mind that I reached out to Melissa Dobson, a wine industry publicist I first met while she was visiting from her native New York state, during the Wine Bloggers Conference held in Sonoma, California earlier in the fall.  Seeing a ripe opportunity to learn more about this burgeoning wine region, I spoke with the writer and publisher of wine blog Family, Love, Wine to get her perspective on the present state of the Finger Lakes wine industry, as well as a hint of its direction in the future.

NM: What first got you interested in wines of the Finger Lakes region?

MD: I'm originally from Buffalo and moved to Manhattan, where I lived for three years and started a new PR career there.  I was working for Deutsch, Inc. in their PR Department, promoting a lot of different beverage clients, one of which was Samuel Adams beer.  Jim Koch, the founder of Sam Adams, strongly believed in looking to the wine industry to help elevate the image of the craft beer industry.  So, a lot of my projects on the PR side were to start reading food & wine magazines — Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, and all of those types of publications — which I'd never really picked up prior to that.  I found that I absolutely loved reading about wine.  And even though I'd been a wine drinker for several years, I never really appreciated the industry itself.  So that really started this whole process and my interest, and having me pay more attention to the industry — the winemakers, the regions, and all of those facets of it.  My husband then received a job offer here, upstate, and so we moved here two years ago.  Once we moved, I started free-lancing from home in PR.  But then I really started to think about the fact that I was right in the heart of the wine industry here, and wanted to see if there would be a need for someone like myself to help the wine producers to tell the story of the region.  If there was a need, I could put both of my passions together — PR and wine — and make it work somehow.

NM: What have you learned from your experience living and working in the Finger Lakes wine region, and in your interactions with its professionals, and can you compare that to what you might know of other wine regions here in the States?

MD: Sometimes it's not always apparent that the Finger Lakes region is the 2nd largest wine producing region after California, and that it has a long history [as such].  The things that stand out most about this region are that many of the wineries are very small, family-owned farms, that don't have a lot of outside investor interest.  From what I understand of Napa and the little I've seen of Sonoma, the wineries are very elaborate and grandiose.  It's almost the exact opposite here.  When you visit a winery here, you feel like you're walking into someone's living room; it's very intimate.  The people who work in the tasting rooms, the winery owners, the winemakers — they're very welcoming and excited about your interest and they want to tell you their story.

In the Finger Lakes region alone, there are over 100 wineries.  And we're in that transition phase where awareness is starting to build and grow.  There's actually a regional branding initiative that has been developed by the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association.  Just now in the last few years, [the producers] have come together and try to promote the industry as a whole, and — from everything I've seen, from everyone I've spoken to — they really seem to like to collaborate with each other.  Of course, there's a sense of competition, but they [still] like to share resources and help each other out.  I think it's a really great collective effort and I've been impressed with that.

[The focus of the conversation soon turned to the nature of the region itself, beginning with the climate.  Having researched more on the region, I found that the key to its climate lies in the narrow, deep lakes so named because they look like the fingers of a hand.  Another important feature of the region is the collection of sloping shale beds above the lakes, originally deposited by the movement of Ice Age glaciers.  The combination of deep lakes and steep slopes provides for optimal drainage of air and water, resulting in fewer extremes of temperature in either winter or summer.  Since the lakes retain their summer warmth in winter, any cold air sliding down the steep slopes is warmed by the lake and then rises, allowing more cold air to drain from the hillside.  Conversely, in the spring, the cold water of the lakes delays budding until the danger of frost has passed.  These dynamics make the region much more temperate than the surrounding area, and therefore suitable for the growing of wine grapes.]

NM: What are some broad strokes in the overall picture of the Finger Lakes as a wine region?  Tell me about the climate, the wine styles, and the varietals.  And what do you see still in development now that will really come about in the future of the region?

MD: It's definitely a cold climate.  And the winemakers are looking to use that cold climate to their benefit.  Originally, they were planting native American grapes — Concord, Catawba, Seyval Blanc, Baco Noir — but now there are more plantings of European (vinifera) grapes, in particular white grapes like Riesling, Chardonnay, and even Gewurtztraminer.  Riesling is the one grape that is equated with the Finger Lakes region the most, because it does do very well here.

[It bears mention that a Finger Lakes regional wine — Fox Run Vineyards 2007 Gewurtztraminer — was among the Wine & Spirits Magazine's Top 100, and was featured at the eponymous tasting event that I recently attended and reviewed.  This was significant if only because the wine was poured alongside a number of pre-eminent producers of wines in the same style hailing from Germany and Alsace.  The same magazine scored in the 90s a number of 2007 vintage Rieslings from other producers in the region, including Dr. Konstatin Frank, Hermann J. Wierner, Sheldrake Point, Rooster Hill, and Hosmer.  Recently, Wine Spectator rated over 40 Finger Lakes Rieslings from the 2006 vintage with the top scores ranging from 89 - 85. Wine Enthusiast gave similar recognition to Finger Lakes Chardonnays from the 2005 and 2006 vintages in the April 2008 issue.]

NM: Riesling, I understand, is becoming the region's claim to fame.  The regional terroir is, in many ways, perfect for that grape.  But what about red varietals?

MD: There are some nice examples of Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, but there's been a bit more of a struggle for the [varietal] reds to gain attention, and it seems that the white wines are being better received overall than the reds.  And it's not that they're not quality-driven, but rather that the American palate tends to prefer a different style of red wine [than that which is produced in the Finger Lakes].

NM: That definitely makes sense, given that the American palate — if we could generalize for a moment — tends to prefer red wines made in a very fruit-forward style that requires a high level of ripening.  In a cooler climate, the grapes struggle to ripen and ultimately don't get to the levels we see in west coastal regions.  I'm guessing that Finger Lakes red wines are made in a leaner style typical of cooler regions of the Old World (like with Cabernet Franc in the Loire or Pinot Noir in parts of Germany), which tends not to appeal to many American wine drinkers.  On the other hand, I get a strong sense that the Finger Lakes region's proximity to east coast urban centers (like Boston and New York) is to its advantage, because wine drinkers in those particular markets do tend to have a bit more of a European palate than those on the west coast.  I think its safe to say, for example, that New Yorkers are drinking wines much more so from Europe than California, and are therefore more accustomed to the restrained style of some Old World regions.  I'm thinking that would benefit the sales of Finger Lakes wines because the large urban markets closest to it already embrace a wine style that isn't aggressively fruit-driven, as we see with a great deal of California wines.

Finger Lakes in the Spring[Needless to say, the Finger Lakes region is growing in leaps and bounds.  But there's an interesting wrinkle in the picture: the continuing popularity and prevalence of non-European (vinifera) grape varietals.  Although these are not the wines that are garnering attention from the mainstream wine press, given that they rarely lend themselves to the production of what is commonly considered fine wine, they nevertheless comprise a considerable amount of the total wine produced in the region.  The conversation quickly segued into a discussion of the role of American/native grape varietals in the Finger Lakes wine industry.]

NM: What changes do you see for the Finger Lakes region as a whole in the coming years?

MD: I think some of that will depend on whether or not there's going to be enough outside investment.  I think it's a matter of reaching out to wine markets elsewhere in the country and educating consumers in those markets by actually getting the wines in front of them.  One benefit is, with the growing trend [in the U.S.] of food and wine pairing, that Rieslings tend to be very food friendly and that could play well for the region overall.  Among the producers themselves, there's a move towards greater consistency in style and quality.  But with over 100 wineries, there will probably be a bit of a separation between those who are still planting the native grapes and playing on the sweeter palate, as opposed to those who are planting vinifera grapes and going with a drier style.

NM: Oh, now that's interesting!  So, you feel there's going to be an increasing separation between these factions — the native North American varietal producers on the one hand, and the European vinifera varietal producers on the other — whom each appeal to a different palate, a different consumer.

MD: Yes.  I've heard that quite a bit from people in the industry I've been speaking to.  With some producers, even within their own line of wines, they are struggling with whether and how much to continue producing wines from native grapes.  And then there are other producers who are looking to expand their vinifera wine production while not alienating their original customer base who came to know Finger Lakes wines through those native grapes made into the sweeter style.  Wines in that style are known as "gateway wines" because they tend to appeal to people who haven't drunk wine before, as something to start off with before gradually moving into more drier styles [made with vinifera varietals].

[Winemaking grapes in the Finger Lakes region are divided into three general categories: European (vitis vinifera) varietals, native American varietals and their hybrids (vitis labrusca), and French hybrids, which are a crossbreeding of the two.  Normally associated with jellies and fruit juices, the black-skinned Concord is the most widely planted of American varietals.  Vinified by itself, it has what's known in the industry as a very strong foxy flavor — making it more likely to be blended with other varietals.  Left with a good deal of residual sugar, it's often made into sweet dessert wine.  Other native varietals are the red-skinned Catawba and Delaware, which tend to be made into sparkling wines, and Niagara, a white-skinned grape that also has a strong foxy quality appealing to some.  French hybrids were created (primarily during the period from 1880-1950) to be cold-weather hardy and disease and pest resistant.  The most significant of these is the white Seyval Blanc, which has two different styles: vinified in stainless steel for a clean and fruity style, or barrel fermented for greater depth and complexity.  Two other white French hybrids, Vidal Blanc and Vignoles, tend to made into late-harvest, dessert wines (the latter often being beneficially affected by noble rot).  Common red hybrids are Baco Noir, Chambourcin, and Maréchal Foch, all of which can be made in a very light Beaujolais-Nouveau style using carbonic maceration.]

NM: Would you say, then that the sweeter style of wines in this region tend to be made more often with the native varietals?

MD: Yes, that's my understanding.  While discussing this with one of my clients, Morgen McLaughlin, president of the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association, she told me she believed that the reason many wineries still produce sweet wines is because they sell better in tasting rooms, whereas the drier, vinifera-based wines do well with journalists, restaurants, retailers, and with certain consumers.  The wineries in the Finger Lakes rely heavily on tasting room sales (over 80% of sales for many wineries) and at the end of the day the wineries need to stay in business.  She said that even those producers who focus on dry-style vinifera wines have at least one "cash cow" wine — maybe not always a native or hybrid blend, but something with residual sugar.  Most people talk dry but drink sweet.

NM: So, it sounds like it boils down to a marketing decision for some of these producers whether to continue producing wines from native grapes as a way of reaching out to a segment of the market that might not otherwise have yet warmed up to wines made with vinifera varietals.  In short, the sweeter wines provide producers with a way to expand their consumer appeal and ultimately attract new consumer interest in wines they make in the drier style.

MD: Right, exactly.  I think, too, that some consumers may just stay with the sweeter wines; it might simply be their palate, and they're happy with that.  I'm hearing that that consumer base is still a pretty large segment of the total market for Finger Lakes wines.  But what you what just said definitely applies, too.  There's a lot of thought and discussion around the issue, especially among producers who make both styles of wine.

NM: From your understanding, who and where are the consumers of Finger Lakes wines?

MD: Right now, a lot of the wine remains within the state.  Of course, we do have a lot of travelers from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Jersey who come through and visit the wineries.  But the wines themselves really aren't sold much out of New York state.  I think that's definitely an opportunity for the future, to expand the market out further and go direct-to-consumer.

NM: Now, how would you describe the prevalence of the wine industry in the local culture of the Finger Lakes region?  In some of the long-established wine regions — for example, Napa and Sonoma, as you've recently witnessed — the wine industry is very prominent; it's tightly integrated into the local culture.  What is it like where you live?

MD: It's not there.  I noticed that in Sonoma — even with something as simple as the names of streets or commercial establishments [that often incorporate wine terms] — there's a great deal of integration with the wine industry; it's all very obvious.  [In the Finger Lakes region], they're still working on increasing awareness of the local wine industry.  There's probably a desire to have all that happen.  With the regional branding and all that, it's in process, but it isn't there yet.  I think there could be a little more support from the locals.  It seems that the Finger Lakes region has more support from outside of the immediate area, more downstate.  From the time I've spent in tasting rooms, I've heard a lot of discussion that we really don't see too many locals visiting the wineries or attending the wine events.

[To be fair, though, it could be said that that's part of the natural evolution for any growing wine region.  Taking Napa as an example, it's only been in the last couple of decades that the now world-renowned region has seen a considerable increase in the wine-related consciousness and appreciation among its residents concurrent with a boom in commercial infrastructure both supporting and benefiting from the wine industry.  Years of quality wine were being produced there before there was any significant appreciation of it among the locals.  So, it's understandable that the local infrastructure and awareness among residents of the Finger Lakes region is somewhat lagging behind what we might expect from the increasing quality of the wines being produced there.]

NM: On the subject of consumer awareness, local or otherwise, what would you recommend to someone who's unfamiliar with wines from this region — a consumer who's perfectly content with buying and drinking wines from more established regions, who might otherwise have no incentive to try Finger Lakes wines?

MD: I would say that the Finger Lakes region offers a lot to someone who really enjoys a dry, crisp, acidic white wine.  If you're looking for something that's food friendly, something to compliment your meals, there are several producers whose wines you'd really enjoy trying.

NM: I like that!  Because it really is about selling points — the things that make a region's wines stand out and more likely to pique someone's curiosity to try.

MD: I know there's discussion, too, about whether [the collective of producers] should lead with just one varietal.  If we lead with only Riesling, is that going to pigeon-hole us as a region?  I feel that because there's increased demand for Riesling, and even though on a grand scale it may be only a small piece of the pie, that it's still something that can increase awareness of the region and its wines.  If you can capture attention [among consumers] for doing one varietal [wine] well, perhaps that can lend to the overall umbrella of quality for the entire region.

NM: In closing, from your perspective as a wine writer and publicist, are there any final points you'd like to drive home about about the Finger Lakes region and its wines?

MD: We're a region to watch.  There's probably going to be some interesting developments in the next couple of years.  I think that the trend and the interest in the Locavore movement is going to play a part in driving awareness to Manhattan and downstate, which has been a challenge up until this point.  Also, this would be a great destination for those from outside of the region who are looking for an authentic, family-oriented, warm, inviting wine region to visit that's on a smaller scale — and with gorgeous lake views from many of the decks of the wineries here!

Clearly, and true to her role as its publicist, Melissa Dobson does a great job of promoting the Finger Lakes wine producing region.  For more of her perspectives, visit her wine blog, Family, Love, Wine.  For comprehensive information on the region, its producers, and their wines, visit the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance online.