Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard: European Wine Nobility in the Finger Lakes
Courtesy of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard
There is a historic photograph in the wine shop at the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard on Seneca Lake that shows Konstantin Frank, Walter Taylor, and Hermann Wiemer seated together at dinner. Here are the three most important men in the history of Finger Lakes wine: Frank, the Russian scientific viticulturist; Taylor, the flamboyant American artist and eccentric; and Wiemer, the scion of an old German winemaking family. Although perhaps not quite as well known as Konstantin Frank, his senior fellow European émigré to the Finger Lakes, Hermann Wiemer is increasingly recognized as a viticulture visionary. Over the past several years, the wines of the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard have gained recognition and accolades throughout the wine world.
Wiemer’s successful import of the German riesling grape to the hillsides of the Finger Lakes has resulted in exquisitely balanced wines tastefully packaged and marketed. Even the bottles, corks, and capsules (the cover over the cork) are imported from Europe.
“But Buffalo has always been a little difficult market for us,” says Hermann Wiemer. “New York City has been doing very well. I also had a lot of support with the New York Times. Frank Prial, who I met many years ago at Bully Hill, started the wine column at the Times. I had a little MG and had just bought this soybean farm so I gave him a tour. He was one of the first ones writing about wine, especially New York wines. Nobody took them seriously.”
Like Dr. Frank, Wiemer believed that the European vinifera varietals could flourish in the Western New York climate. This vision—to renounce the North American grape, vitis labrusca, and plant vitis vinifera to produce European quality wines—marked the beginning of Western New York’s recognition as one of the world’s important wine-producing regions.
“Dr. Frank was a hardworking guy, but he was very mysterious and secretive,” recalls Wiemer. “He had strange ideas about the soil and the depth of planting. He was a man who thought he was the only one who could do it. I respected him but he came from a different part of the world. Willy [Konstantin Frank’s son] actually put Frank on the map. Willy put it all together.”
After buying a former soybean farm near the small town of Dundee in 1973, Wiemer began planting vinifera vineyards. Six years later he released his first wines—a riesling and a chardonnay—which won gold medals in New York competitions. By the early 1990s, Wiemer vintages were turning up on wine lists at fancy Manhattan spots like the former celebrated French restaurant Lutece, the seafood haven Oceana, and the Carlyle Restaurant, as well as first-class cabins on American Airlines. In 2003, Wiemer’s 2002 Reserve Riesling beat out 527 other wines to earn the distinction of New York’s best wine of 2003. That year, New York Times wine writer Frank J. Prial declared, “Perhaps the best American rieslings come from the Finger Lakes region in New York, especially from the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard on Seneca Lake.” And in August 2012, Eric Asimov of the Times pronounced Wiemer’s Dry Riesling one of America’s twelve best wine bargains deeming it “… superb, with deep, three-dimensional flavors, tangy and lightly fruity.”
Hermann J. Wiemer (pronounced veemer) was born into a family of winemakers in the heart of one of Germany’s great riesling-producing areas—the Mosel Valley. His mother’s family made wine for 300 years and Hermann’s father, Josef, ran Germany’s largest nursery and led the effort to replant the vineyards of the Mosel that had been devastated during World War II. Weimer grew up learning the wine business through hand grafting vinifera on American rootstock in the nursery and later attended Germany’s leading winemaking and viticultural institutions. On his first stay in the Finger Lakes, he worked for two years making sacramental wine at a winery on one of the smaller Finger Lakes. After returning briefly to Germany, he was offered the position of winemaker at Bully Hill by owner Walter S. Taylor. Taylor, the renegade artist and contrarian, had founded his own winemaking operation in 1970 before his family’s Taylor Wine Company merged with Coca-Cola. “When I came in ’68, Taylor was run by corporate people and lawyers, not wine people,” says Hermann Wiemer. “Taylor Wine Company was adding water to the wine. They didn’t know you could make wine without water.”
Walter Taylor was not interested in planting vinifera, but he was astute enough to hire Wiemer to make his wine while he waged his public battles with the Taylor Wine Company. But the conflicting philosophies of these two strong-minded wine men eventually resulted in the departure of Wiemer from Bully Hill and the world of hybrid grapes to concentrate on his real life’s work—the cultivation of the noble riesling grape and the production of fine European-style wines in the Finger Lakes.
“When I started my vineyard, I did everything myself,” says Wiemer. “I had no money and no investors. I couldn’t even finance a tractor through Farm Credit. I had a part-time bookkeeper, a wonderful lady who was fired from Bully Hill. We were both fired by Walter. I said, ‘Walter, I’m going to grow vinifera.’ When I started achieving success, he went nuts. He was a very competitive individual and a marketing guy who convinced the ladies to drink his wine. He put my name on the back of his label and I told him, ‘I don’t want my name on the label.’ He said, ‘Are you disloyal to the company?’ I said, ‘No, I just don’t want to be identified with this wine.’”
A Wiemer riesling. Photos courtesy of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard.
Three vineyards, three climates.
Today, the Wiemer estate comprises three vineyards with slightly different soil types (a varying mix of shale and clay), microclimates, slopes, and age of vines. They include thirty-year-old plantings of riesling and chardonnay and a small forty-five-year-old planting of gewurztraminer. At Wiemer, riesling wine production ranges from dry to semisweet to a late harvest, or Spätlese. While the winery makes only a limited quantity of cabernet franc icewine, it does produce a select late-harvest riesling, which it sells in the distinctive 375ml bottles like icewine. In Germany, it would be a trockenbeerenauslese, with a sweetness that is thick and rich and creamy, a sensation that lingers long on the palate. This wine is created through the “noble rot,” the so-called benevolent form of the mold botrytis cinerea that attacks and dehydrates the grapes in November and concentrates the sugar level. This isn’t just a dessert wine—it’s a dessert in itself.
“In this climate, the riesling grape has an inherent acidity,” says Oskar Bynke, Wiemer business and estate manager. “It creates a very nice balance. Because they have so much acidity it freshens up the sweetness. When you make a sweet wine out of other grapes, it often becomes flabby.” In fact, the results of the cold winter climate have created a niche for the winery that has now become increasingly desirable in the wine world. “Now the wine people who are in a cool climate brag about it,” adds Bynke. “They all talk about mountain fruit because if you are in the mountains that means it’s cooler. But unlike California, there are many more variables because of the colder climate.”
The Wiemer estate is situated just one mile inland from the western shore of Seneca Lake, the largest-volume Finger Lake with a depth of some 700 feet. During World War II, the Navy used the lake for submarine testing; today it provides a moderating airflow that protects the vineyards from the northern winter cold. “But if you get more than a mile or two away from the lake you can’t really grow high quality vinifera,” says Bynke. “It gets too cold for them in the winter. Some years they’re OK, but it’s not consistent.” However, the vitis labrusca and hybrids like seyval blanc can indeed be grown away from the lake since they’re much hardier to the cold. In addition to table wine, these grapes are used to make juice and sacramental wine.
Wiemer prides itself on its sustainable grape growing and organic wine production practices, which Oskar Bynke insists provide greater economy and efficiency to the entire winemaking operation. This means no chemicals or herbicides, special plowing equipment, strictly organic fertilizer, and ryegrass, clover, and mustard for cover crops. In the event of infestation, the vineyard sprays Bordeaux mix, a combination of copper sulfate, lime, and water that serves as a fungicide for downy and powdery mildew. No spraying, however, is conducted within eight weeks of harvest. Since the winery uses no chemicals, it is unnecessary to inoculate the wine with an active yeast culture. Instead, a long fermentation is made possible by the natural indigenous yeast of the grapes grown from healthy vines with lower, balanced yields. The winery also uses no clarifying agents such as egg whites, which Bynke points out with his dry agronomist’s humor, could qualify their wine for vegan status.
“I was the first one that used the organic sprays, the copper sulfate,” says Wiemer. “And I stayed away from the herbicides and most of the time away from insecticides. I learned how to work with the organic sprays. And you can control it here. It’s not like Europe. You don’t have to use insecticides. In Europe in the Mosel region there are helicopters spraying. You don’t see any birds. If the vineyard looks absolutely clean, then you know that there are herbicides built up.”
Above, clockwise from top: winemaker Fred Merwarth, inside the winery, drying racks and entrance sign. Photos courtesy of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard.
Supplying healthy grapevines to American winemakers is another element of Wiemer’s business.
Given Wiemer’s extensive background in grafting and nursery work, it’s not surprising to learn that, in addition to its winemaking, the estate also maintains an flourishing nursery business that grafts up to 500,000 vines for commercial growers and individuals each year. These include growers and wineries throughout the nation, including the Finger Lakes, California, Long Island, the Hudson Valley, Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and many other winemaking regions. Wiemer also sells grafted grapevines at its gift shop to budding winemakers keen on starting or augmenting their own backyard vineyards and offers custom grafting services for spring planting.
After a brief career as a venture capitalist, in 2001, the competitive runner and serious wine student Fred Merwarth pursued his true love and joined Hermann Wiemer as apprentice winemaker. The recent Cornell graduate eventually enlisted his former classmate Oskar Bynke (who was working elsewhere in the wine industry) and together they set out to assist Wiemer in continuing to create outstanding wines in the twenty-first century. In 2003, Merwarth took over as winemaker and in 2007 Hermann Wiemer formally retired and transferred ownership of the estate to Fred Merwarth, his wife, Maressa Merwarth, and Oskar Bynke, while retaining interest as a minority partner.
“My partner has her own company and with the nursery business getting so big I wanted to spend time traveling and doing things,” explains Wiemer. “I was approached by a Canadian company who wanted to buy the company, and one California company and a New York City company. So there were a lot of people interested. But Fred and Oskar wanted to buy the company and I think it was a good move. Do I want to do it until I’m eighty? What do I gain? I think it’s important to put it in the right hands. But when your name is on the bottle you want to be sure.”
Over the past decade, the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard has continued to build on its reputation as one of the premier riesling producers in America. Cabernet franc and pinot noir plantings at its northern vineyards (ten miles from the winery) are also creating exceptional red wines with a growing following, especially in New York City where sommeliers in French restaurants can’t get enough Wiemer cabernet franc. Wiemer also makes a merlot and some excellent sparkling wines composed of pinot noir and chardonnay. The winery produces around 14,000 cases annually from its three vineyards, which comprise roughly seventy-six acres. Both Wiemer and Bynke stress the importance of the designation “Estate Bottled & Grown,” i.e., no one else’s grapes are used to produce their wine.
“From a European perspective, the Finger Lakes is not a bad place to be right now,” says Wiemer. “You have winemakers who are coming into the area trying to do good stuff. The moral of the story is that good wines can be produced if you want to. I’ve been to South America, to California. There are some wonderful wines coming out of Spain. As long as the wine is good, it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from. I have customers like Gregory Hines who came up from New York. I met him backstage at Sophisticated Ladies and we tasted some wine. I met Eli Wallach the same way. It’s wonderful how you meet people here. And that’s why the wine business is so important in the Finger Lakes. There are lots of ways to make money, but I think you concentrate on a quality product that’s long lasting.”
Phil Nyhuis writes frequently for Spree on jazz and other topics.