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We’ll Drink to That: Tasting greatness with Jonathan Oakes

photo by Nathan Peracciny, courtesy of Feed Your Soul Productions

The most exciting person to taste wine with is a top-notch winemaker. Like a master chef, an excellent winemaker has a wonderful sense of smell and taste; after all, making something delicious requires knowing what “delicious” really means. Tasting with a truly talented winemaker will transform each bottle into a story and do what art and music history classes have tried for centuries: help you appreciate what you’re experiencing.

There’s a major difference between great chefs and great winemakers, however. Great chefs are artists, adding magic to raw materials to manufacture culinary masterpieces. Great winemakers are inherently farmers with far humbler ambitions; their job is to take what nature gives them and present those fruits­—fermented and bottled—with as little intervention as possible.

We’ve had great chefs hereabouts for a long time, but great winemakers are like angels’ visits: few and far between. There’s Daniel Lenko and Creekside’s Rob Power in Ontario, and Mark Wagner of Lamoreaux Landing on Seneca Lake, but closer to home, Niagara USA’s talent is just beginning to bloom. Kurt Guba and Bryan Calandrelli are doing exciting things at Freedom Run, as are Duncan and Robin Ross at Arrowhead. But to experience the skills of an already astonishing farmer/winemaker, you have to head east on Route 104 to Medina.

There, you will find the greatest discovery I’ve made all year, the Leonard Oakes Estate Winery, the offshoot of a century-old apple-growing family in Orleans County. There, fourth generation fruit farmer Jonathan Oakes has, in a very short time, become an immensely talented first-generation wine grower, with the ability, raw talent, and dirt, to produce wines that stand with the best of New York State. You’ll no doubt be hearing more from them given the drive with which Jonathan’s aunt, Wendy Oakes Wilson, runs the operations.

Despite the youth of the operation—the first vines were planted in 2003—Oakes’s wines are gaining widespread recognition, with their fantastic 2008 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine winning gold medals at the 2011 New York Wine and Food Classic. (They’ve also earned golds for their unbelievably delicious Steampunk hard cider, a product that will be covered in more detail by Spree this coming March.) As others recognize his talents, Jonathan has hired on as the winemaker at Schulze in Newfane and a consultant to a winery opening soon in Sanborn.

There’s a long list of highly recommended wines from the Leonard Oakes winery. Any of these would be aces for holiday giving.

• 2010 Reserve Riesling ($17): Limey, peachy, one of the most delicious whites I’ve ever had from North America. Back up the truck.
• 2010 Reserve Chardonnay ($17): A fabulous wine, partially from Finger Lakes fruit.
• Fuji Apple ($13): Yes, I know this is an apple wine, and yes, I know there’s no vintage, but this is simply scrumptious. Sweet, but framed by crisp acidity.
• 2010 Cabernet Franc ($17): Oui, they can do red, too. This beauty’s a dead ringer for a delicious Bourgeuil from France, crammed with cranberry and vanilla aromas and flavors.
• Vinho Tesouro ($15): A great deal. One of the best domestic examples of port-style wine ever, rich, layered, delectable, chock full of cherries and brown sugar.
• 2008 Vidal Ice Wine ($50): Almost painfully delicious and impossible to spit, the most complex example I have ever tasted. The best wine gift you could give at its price point.

You can find Oakes’s wines at retailers and restaurants throughout the state (see www.oakeswinery.com), but I say, get thee to Medina. The winery’s open year round, and if you’re lucky, Oakes himself will take you into his nearby vineyards and show you how a talented farmer learns to be a great winemaker.   




Mark Criden is the former chair of the Buffalo Branch of the International Wine & Food Society.

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