On With The Vinifera Revolution
New York and Ontario Steadily March
Toward World-Class Wines

By Bernie Ledermann

Willy (son of Konstantin) and his son, Fred Frank, of Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars.
Lying abed in a B & B on the Branchport arm of Keuka Lake, the sounds of an early summer gradually impinge on my sleep-deadened head. Rising to my elbow for a window view, a smear of rosy dawn and a derelict cloud puff are visible above Keuka Bluff; in the foreground, a feisty robin busily works the worm world on the lake-facing back lawn. What a joy to be back for our annual outing in the Finger Lakes—grape-laden spiritual haven in central New York.

My tourist’s mind races ahead to the day’s plans which will focus on area wineries and reunions with several friends of long standing. Just a short distance north on Italy Hill Road, Sharon and Art Hunt will be out early inspecting Riesling vines at their ever-improving Hunt Country Cellars. One problem with the Hunt’s vinifera wines: there never seem to be enough—always sold out by the time we arrive. (Viniferah [Vin-NIF’-er-ah] literally means “wine bearer.” It is the only grape vine of European or East Asian origins [out of a possible 32 species] that yields uniformly high quality wine. Varieties of vinifera now flourish in nearly every suitable temperate zone on the globe.)

Across route 54A we’ll make a steep hill climb toward Pulteney before a gentle southerly drive across a high vine-carpeted plateau brings us to the haunts of Willy Frank. Ever affable, the straw-hatted Willy is the second generation Frank to preside over vinifera growing, and under his direction the winery continues to enjoy a leadership position within New York. If we’re on best behavior, Willy may grab some flutes and pour his divine ‘95 Chateau Frank Methode Champenoise Brut Champagne. Surely he will give his colorful take on Dr. Frank’s current vintage releases plus other insights on Finger Lakes fine wine production, an industry father Konstantin practically led up Olympus single-handedly.

Dr. Konstantin Frank
Even yesterday’s flight out of Philly to Western New York was a spiritual experience which left us with impressions so deep they’ll last to the grave. Thirty minutes before landing in Rochester, our thoughtful pilot advised, “Look off to the left side [for] a fine view of four Finger Lakes.” (Although not named, the lakes in their deep north-south valleys were deduced because of our past fly-overs.) Lake Cayuga and the City of Ithaca were directly below, followed by Seneca, the ‘Y’ of Keuka, then Canandaigua. “Fine view” didn’t capture it. No wonder the Iroquois claimed this area was favored; they believed the Creator left a hand imprint upon the land, from which formed the Finger Lakes.

Now, as adrenalin takes me toward wakefulness, a lake breeze riffles the curtain, flicks across my face and with it, the spirit of Konstantin Frank seems to be stirring. This is the imaginative, Russian-born vine- and grape-grower who emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-30s after having successfully taken many noble wine-producing vines of European origins through the Ukraine’s nastiest winters. To the doubters in central New York who believed Konstantin might be clanging his hoe into a hard row if he attempted the same feat here, he always replied, “It gets even colder in Russia.”

One who had confidence in the Russian’s theories and practices was Charles Fournier, at the time wine master at Gold Seal Vineyards, and the person who, in the ‘50s, presented Frank with the chance to cultivate and produce unheard-of vines and wines.

Those of us who had the uncommon experience of meeting and talking with Dr. Frank in his later years always took away exciting new and salient information about our common love. To listen to that strong accented voice with its dramatic inflections and billowy R’s was joy itself; add all the vini- and viti-cultural lessons and we had insights that weren’t even available to Bacchus.

Over every prediction of failure Dr. Frank prevailed. His credo was simple: he believed America was “behind the moon” in wine-growing advances, and that Americans—especially New Yorkers—were entitled to better than the foxy, sweet “table wines” to which they were then held captive. (“Why eat woodchuck when you can have a good steak?”, he liked to say—along with even homelier adages.) To achieve his aim of top quality he resolutely acted upon a few key beliefs. Above all, of the 1,000 vinifera varieties available, only ten were termed “excellent.” His personal favorite, white Riesling, he called “the king of white wine.” Other vinifera whites in favor were Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. For stellar reds, Frank lauded Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir above all. Also essential to great wines, according to Frank, was root stock; in his Finger Lakes vineyards, root stocks had to survive -27 degree (F.) readings—and they did.

Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellar’s building, designed by architect Bruce Corson and recognized by the American Institute of Architects as one of the most notable buildings built in New York State during the 20th century.
Photo: Jon Reis.
On the topic of French-American hybrid vines, Dr. Frank was almost fanatically negative. For him, crossing different species of grapes meant unsatisfactory quality in the resulting wines. He termed the vines’ low resistance to fungus and the root louse phylloxera “catastrophic,” and found absolutely no place for hybrids on his ‘Chart of Excellence’. Today, contrary to Dr. Frank’s opinions, 40% of New York wineries have liberal hybrid plantings, and as we’ll note shortly, are offering wine drinkers some unusual, sometimes brilliant understudies to vinifera.

Quintessential Keuka
If there is an ideal Finger Lake it has to be Keuka. Combining accessible natural features, dramatic views, and well-known wineries, Keuka, the “crooked Y,” makes a lovely jumping-off point for a summer of wine explorations—a pleasure we pursue every July. After you’ve enjoyed the generous pours in the tasting rooms of Hunt Country and Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, continue south on the high ridge road out of Pulteney and visit the “All New!”, all exciting Heron Hill Winery. There you’ll find a new winemaker (although Dana Keeler is a Finger Lakes veteran), a new tasting room, and a smashing new luncheon restaurant/deli off the tasting area. The Heron’s Chardonnays are more Chablis style than ever, and their dry Riesling shows an unmistakeable Alsace bent. Before the giddy descent into Hammondsport, make a last west-side stop at the Bully Hill Winery. Under Walter Taylor’s command (although Walter now plays a somewhat background role after his tragically crippling auto accident of several years ago), Bully Hill opposed the vinifera tide, choosing to cast its lot—successfully—with hybrids (although lately some Riesling and Chardonnay bottlings have slipped onto shelves). You’ll find the tasting room and the small Taylor art museum charming.

After Hammondsport, drive northeastward to Penn Yan on Rte. 54, stopping en route at dramatically sited McGregor Vineyards. Solid French-style winemaking in whites and reds plus some savory sparkling wines will be found here.

Seneca: Mecca in the Middle
A six-mile hop out of Penn Yan puts you on NY Rte 14 at the centrally-located ‘Big Lake’, Seneca. Turn north to find Fox Run Vineyards, the first stop on a wine trail of 80 miles if your aim is to circle Seneca from west-side to top right, east. Along both shores of this 36-mile long Finger Lakes behemoth is the district’s biggest concentration of premium vinifera producers. At Fox Run, owner Scott Osborn intends to produce “the best wines in the East” and with winemaker, Australian-trained Peter Bell, to perform his magic in the cellar, “the best” objective is well within reach. No wine shows Bell’s precision and control better than his immaculate Pinot Noirs, easily the best domestic of its type to have passed these lips. If Californians could make a finer Pinot, they’d charge quadruple the price.

The vineyards of Dr. Konstantin Frank
Vinifera Wine Cellars, Ltd.
Back to NY-14, turn right, direction Watkins Glen. Stop at Anthony Road, where Anne and John Martiny will welcome you in their fabulous new tasting/visitors’ center. Their successes with both vinifera and hybrids is noteworthy; particularly, the late harvest Vignoles (also known as Ravat 51, a hybrid!) releases—nectarish dessert wines that remind one of pineapple syrup.

A short way farther south visit the Prejean winery on the right. Libby Prejean is one of the most respected owners in the NY State wine industry and she gets highest marks for building a strong sense of community among the Seneca “west-siders”. Her young winemaker, Jim Zimar, (in Polish, his name means “man who loves winter” — fitting for the Finker Lakes, eh) doesn’t know how to make a defective wine; in fact, his record of consistency is remarkable: in the first five month’s of 2000, Jim’s wines have brought home 20 medals (four gold) from five tough national/international competitions — including one for the second release of their Cabernet Sauvignon. Don’t leave the winery in grief if the Cabernet’s sold out.

Four miles farther south, pull in at Hermann Wiemer’s celebrated winery. Hermann makes his Rieslings with the confidence of Leonard Bernstein conducting “Candide.” Certainly Wiemer’s Mosel area birth and his grooming at Geisenheim’s important viticultural school are evident in every savory sip of his wines.

Good vinifera, hybrids and tasty New York sparklers are all part of Glenora’s complete resort-style winery, perfect for weary wine trail travelers. A great idea is the Inn at Glenora, the views from which are worth at least a day’s stay.

Around Seneca’s east side, as you head toward Waterloo on Routes 414 and 96-A, there are five “must-experience” vinifera producers. Halt at Dick Reno’s Chateau Lafayette Reneau for some of the best domestic Riesling around. If Dick’s in residence, have him show you his unique “silo cellar”.

Next, visit one of the hottest winemakers anywhere, Rob Thomas at tiny Shalestone. Rob specializes in red varietals and red blends only (and you thought New York couldn’t produce good red) and his efforts will amaze. His work drinks like Bordeaux without the absurd pricing. Too bad there are so few bottles for the world. Next stop, Marti and Tom Macinski’s Standing Stone, also a small operation, with whites and reds to make you swoon. A barrel sample of their ‘97 Merlot tasted some time ago, convinced me it’s the best of its kind in the U.S.—period. May you capture some. Say “au revoir” to Seneca East with tasting pauses at Wagner, where you can also have a tasty lunch with your lake view at their bright, clean café, and Lamoreaux Landing (most beautifully designed winery building in New York!).

By Cayuga’s Waters
Along this Baikal-of-New-York, vinifera plantings mount every year. You’ll also find good hybrid wines, particularly Seyval Blancs and DeChaunacs, alongside good quality Chardonnays, Rieslings and Pinot Noirs. Swedish Hill (their rare Port-style wine without brandy fortification is worth taking home), Goose Watch, Hosmer, Knapp, Lucas, and the new Long Point winery in Aurora all have loyal followings with wines to please every taste and budget. Look for some excellent Cabernet Francs now coming “on line” at some Cayuga locations.

Some Worthwhile Detours
Headed for the eastern side of the state? Save some time for vinous meandering in the lower Hudson Valley. On Hudson west-side, about 18 miles north of Newburgh off I-87 near New Paltz, stop at Rivendell, whose red varietals are among the most distinguished in the region. Crossing to the east side, drive 12 miles northeast of Poughkeepsie to John Dyson’s all-vinifera Millbrook winery, which is now 20 years old. John can be shamelessly catchpenny about his wines, but the excellence of his satinyChardonnay shows through in every tasting.

Amazing but true—wines of Long Island origin were first released commercially a scant 24 years ago. (That’s quite a contrast to the Finger Lakes where grapes were first pressed near Keuka Lake in 1829.) It was a Western New Yorker, Alex Hargrave, who saw the Island’s potential as vine land, and accordingly set out his vinifera at Cutchogue on the North Fork in 1972. With the state’s sunniest autumns and its earth composed of coarse, sandy tillage and dry top soils, the Island was a latent wine wonder waiting to happen. It’s not always simple to find Long Island’s finest on Buffalo area shelves, though lately some elegant, well-priced whites from Palmer and Pindar have appeared around town, along with impressive reds from Paumanok. Several Long Island wineries are worth the lengthy trip to the North Fork. In addition to the aforementioned, there are Bedell, Bidwell (whose reserve Merlot shows depth and finesse without funky herbal qualities), the pioneering Hargrave, Lenz, and Pellegrini. Hargrave knew: potato fields can be turned into successful vineyards.

Right at Home
Within 90 minutes of Buffalo, from roughly Fredonia west to the PA border, lies the Chatauqua-Erie Belt, one of the state’s grapeiest areas. While some of the Belt has felt the impact of vinifera, much of the planting is in native American varieties with the grapes destined for juice bottlers; however, there are some award-winning Chardonnays and Rieslings to be found at Woodbury Vineyards. Near Westfield, don’t miss the popular hybrid-based wines of Johnson Estate. You’ll make yourself a hero if you improvise a leisurely picnic-kind-of-drive along Rte. U.S. 20 some Sunday this fall.

Dr. Konstantin Frank (left) tastes early vinifera wines with fellow wine master Charles Fournier.
O! Canada
Over on the Niagara Peninsula along both lake shores, vinifera has appeared almost steath-like in an area that long relied on hybrid plantings. When the glacial slab of 12,000 years ago bull-dozed this region, much of Ontario’s best soil was pushed into the U.S. (some to the Finger Lakes’ advantage!), leaving Canadian land more emaciated but probably more suitable for the cultivation of vinifera—knowing as we do now that the poorer the soil the better wine from “stressed” vines is likely to be.

As the 20th Century closes, vinifera production beyond the City of Niagara Falls, Ont. is clipping along nicely. Practically in your lap is an established, well-defined, well-promoted “wine trail” along which you can try impressive bottlings from over 25 producers. Especially rewarding are the releases of Inniskillin and Cave Spring Cellars. Located near Jordan, northeast of Vineland off Hwy-81, CSC was voted Canada’s 1999 “Winery of the Year” and creates a world class ice wine (and not the forced cryoextracted stuff)—rare, in demand, and very pricey. More in the fiscal biosphere are the CSC’s reds and whites, all brought to life by winemaker Angelo Pavan—all among Canada’s very best. Jordan and vicinity also teem with Bed and Breakfast stops and some very good restaurants, including Cave Spring’s own haut ton “On The Twenty”. Plan a Peninsula getaway by using Web access at http://winetasters.on.ca/winelnks.htm and click on the outstanding ‘WineRoute’ map. You’ll love Ontario’s diverse and friendly wineries.

New York’s wine story never fails to fascinate. At this moment in our vinifera history we enjoy a unique position on the map, we regularly harvest healthy grapes, and we are blessed by high tech winemakers eager to make their mark while pleasing us. Our varietal wines are dead-on correct and always fairly priced. In our survey of NY and Canadian wineries, no single bottle costs more than $45 Canadian. “Average cost” for northeastern vinifera is more in the comfortable $11.99 to $17.49 mid-range. Around here, you just won’t find many producers with that West Coast “Let’s-see-what-the-market-bears” hauteur. Slap me if I sound like Bill Gates, but for us consumers the best is yet to come in New York and Ontario wines.

This article has been 33 years in the making. That’s the length of Bernie Ledermann’s love affair with New York’s extensive wine country, especially the Finger Lakes district. Bernie remembers when Konstantin Frank was “where true wine was”. At their first meeting in the early 70’s, Ledermann was able to jot down a “few comments” from the redoubtable pioneer — some included here.

Keuka Lake Wine Trail
2375 Route 14-A
Penn Yan, NY 14527
or www.keukawinetrail.com

Seneca Lake Winery Association
Keuka Business Park, Suite 100
Penn Yan, NY 14527


Back to the Table of Contents

Back to Top